Herbal medicine is another main branch of the Oriental Medicine tree. In China itself, herbal medicine is much more widely practiced than acupuncture. People routinely head to the herbalist at first signs of any impending disharmony. Like every Oriental Medicine modality, it uses the same basic theories, principles, and diagnostics, and can serve as a very useful ‘complementary medicine’ to anything else you might be doing for your health.
In Oriental Medicine, herbs are almost always prescribed in formulas consisting of anywhere from 2 to 20 different herbs. Many formulas have been passed down for hundreds of years and are simply modified for each individual situation. Some formulas are entirely new and are created for the presenting situation, whatever that may be. Regardless, in all formulas much attention is placed on the interaction of the herbs and how they affect the health of the patient when used in combination, and prepared in particular ways. For example, if your formula includes gardenia hips, it might be raw gardenia to clear heat, or it might be charred gardenia to stop bleeding. Other herbs might be honey-fried, or stir fried, or baked, or processed with ginger, or in other ways prepared in order to emphasize a particular healing quality or support some aspect of the entire formula.
The materia medica of Oriental Medicine is long and includes thousands of substances. Three or four hundred are in common use, and most practitioners will regularly use between one and two hundred of these. Most substances in the materia medica originally came from China “a country large enough to include many types of growing environments and many thousands of potential medicines”. However, many additional substances have made their way into China via trade routes and have been completely absorbed into the materia medica.
Part of the art of producing good medicine comes from picking and drying or otherwise processing the materials at the right time and in the right way. Western practitioners have access to distributors of bulk herbs and prepared medicines that test materials for correct species, presence of heavy metals, pesticides, and other adulterants. As the rest of the world becomes more and more interested in Chinese medicinals, manufacturing plants in China are also adhering to GMP (Good Manufacturing Procedures) practices originally designed in Australia and adopted by most countries. GMP factories and their products are inspected regularly for adherence to standards. And in the last decade or so, some prepared medicinals companies and bulk distributors have begun using herbs grown organically, and some prepared medicines are now being produced in the US.