Gifts of Longevity: A Primer on Chinese Herbal Medicine
Renowned throughout the world for its effectiveness — from secret Daoist elixirs of immortality to treating severe conditions such as cancers in modern hospitals — traditional herbal medicine is one of the greatest of all human treasures. Even today one quarter of the population of the planet relies on Chinese herbal medicine, and certainly an even higher number when combined with Ayurveda — the traditional medicine of India.
Advanced Medical & Tonic Herbalism… from Roots to Sky
Herbal medicines are no less than the sacred medicines of our Earth — and are one of my greatest passions. I have an especially deep interest in using tonic herbs for ageless longevity and vitality. I have been intensively trained in Chinese herbal formulas by teachers including the renowned Dr. Jake Paul Fratkin author of ‘Chinese Herbal Patent Medicines’ and an highly awarded acupuncturist and teacher. I have been using common Western herbs for well over a decade and have received extensive training by the incredible Diane Kent, former President of the Ontario Herbalists Association. I continue to combine the herbs of the Earth from all traditions alike; combining knowledge in Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, Western and Native American wisdom, taking traditional herbalism into the future.
What makes Eastern herbalism different?
I prefer not to see the herbs themselves as distinctly ‘Chinese’, but as herbs of our home planet, gifts belonging to us all — human and animal alike, and thus critical in their organic sustainability. The key to the mystique of Eastern herbalism lies in the preparation of ‘Formulas’. It is the methods that they are prepared and combined where the true magic of the Orient is found.
Chinese Medicine is firmly rooted in the philosophy of Yin, Yang and Qi (the motivating energy of functional vitality- or as I call it ‘Vital Inertia’). While the formulations can be exceedingly complex and advanced, in the end this philosophy is crystallized into each one. Herbs are assigned energetic properties based on natural phenomena such as cooling/warming, or moistening/drying etc (to name a very few) — aspects of Yin/Yang; as well as affinities, movements or directions — aspects of Qi. These natures are based on their observable
effect in the expressions of the body & mind as defined by traditional principles. Okay — so what does all that mean?
Very simply, if a person expresses a ‘Hot’ condition, we may want to cool them down using a number of ‘cooling’ herbs. At the same time, if the heat is not overly severe, we want to be cautious to not over-cool them so we may include one warming herb to protect the delicate balance (think of the little white circle in the black portion of the Yin/Yang symbol). If the person is Hot but also has symptoms of heat rising (as is its nature — giving rise to symptoms such as headaches) we may also include a herb which descends Qi. Pretty cool eh?
So while the common herbal approach today to treating issues is usually one herb at a time (ex. ginger for nausea — what I call a ‘remedy’ approach’) or combining them based purely on symptoms (one herb for your headache, one herb for your digestion, and two herbs for your skin condition, mixed into a tea), the traditional Eastern approach is to match the formula based on the interconnected patterns of symptoms in the unique person who has them. This is rather than viewing symptoms as isolated or unconnected; while at the same time addressing the underlying root cause of why that pattern arose to begin with.
In other words, from the traditional perspective there is a very clear link between the headache, the digestive concern, and the skin condition, and therefore in treating these symptoms we may include herbs that may have literally nothing to do with these conditions on their own, but instead treat the links and roots between them. A biomedical scientist or naturopath would look at certain herbs in the formulation and conclude that there is no logical reason for them to be included due to having no proven actions in the body in treating these specific symptoms. However these herbs form the glue which bind the formula together, creating a perfect synergistic match, like a key to a lock, the sum of the whole greater than its parts.
Further still, Chinese medicine remains a continuous living theoretical medical tradition, the oldest on Earth, with formulas passed down for generations, complete with commentaries and modifications. One can spend a lifetime studying these ancient theoretical combinations, literally thousands of years of proven effectiveness treating specific patterns — which we then adjust and adapt to meet your unique needs in an ever-evolving journey of improving health. It is as if there is an unbroken chain of some of the most legendary physicians humanity as ever known, sitting next to you, writing your prescription. Quite an honour!
I’ve heard that there are endangered, unethical or unsafe ingredients in Chinese formulas, is this true?
(Note: I will be expanding this discussion with more detailed references in the near future)
All foreign herbs that I prescribe meet & surpass the Australian “Good Manufacturing Practice” (GMP) standards, the highest in the world. Because of China’s reputation in the past — while there is still much work to be done — since the 90’s China herbal market ethics has improved dramatically, and reserves its highest quality herbs for the export market. (1)
On our end, in Canada, all natural health products are going through a regulation process to receive a “Natural Product Number” (NPN), which further standardizes incoming product quality. Due to “CITES” stringent international law, endangered or threatened wildlife are not allowed across our borders, and are thus not available in North America. Further still, poaching in China is now punishable by the death sentence. Serious stuff.
A very few specific herbs in formulas may be listed as “toxic” in an internet search. We use these herbs due to their strongest actions in our arsenal, so despite being ‘natural’ when treating more stubborn, entrenched or even serious conditions we may require more serious herbs. Rest assured, we are trained professionals, with quite literally thousands of years of experience & documentation using these substances, and closely monitor them for predictable well-known side effects (again, this is a thousand year old tradition) — all of which are minimized or completely absent when a formula is balanced properly, as is the traditional way.
To keep things in context — consider that we all simply assume that prescribed pharmaceutical drugs come with often extremely dangerous or toxic side effects — so while herbs are indeed powerful and should be respected, it is important to not have a double standard! That said, more often than not, these herbal ingredients are pre-processed to detoxify them based on traditional methods and often modern methods. If they were an actual danger, they would never be allowed on store shelves, never receiving an NPN number to begin with.
The key to understanding this issue is what is medicine for some may be toxic for others. Consider if a herb is so ‘Hot’ that it is considered toxically so. If someone is reveals extremely ‘Cold’ symptoms, this will benefit them without side effect, until the Cold symptoms are balanced and the herb then removed. However, if the person is already Hot and is given this herb, there may be side effects if not properly prescribed alongside balancing herbs — otherwise we are adding fuel to fire — thus creating toxicity.
As you can see, you can remain confident with taking herbal formulas — they are powerfully safe, effective and quite capable of being a primary treatment method even for advanced conditions. Yet please don’t let this discussion distort things, the vast majority of our thousands of herbs are truly safe, sacred and life-giving wonders of our planet, indeed worthy of respect.
How does Roots to Sky prescribe herbs?
Many people are intimidated by herbs, especially Chinese herbs… all the boiling and the smells you may have heard about are indeed true (but so, so worth it!), but did you know that today there are many other ways to make taking herbs easy and extremely effective?
I prescribe herbs in 4 levels — each depending on your financial position, or the severity of your condition. Generally, as potency increases, so does cost — that said, even the most basic remedies are highly effective! Many clients start with the stronger options first, and then drop into the more affordable options once progress stabilizes.
Level 1 — Common ‘Patent’ Herbal Formulas
- Dispensed in ready-made herbal ‘pearls’ or ‘tea-pills’ these are essentially herbal decoctions boiled down into a concentrate then rolled into pearls and available in bottles similar to common vitamins. Some may be in tablet or capsule forms.
- This is a common route for many clients with mild conditions or those seeking to supplement general vitality at an affordable cost. These are most commonly prepared in China and are conveniently ordered from here in Toronto at an affordable cost of roughly $6–10 per formula per week (often dispensed two formulas at a time depending on the condition).
Level 2 — Specialized ‘Patent’ Formulas
- These are prescribed when a condition falls outside of the ranges of the common formulas above and instead need to be ordered from online distributors to more closely match your condition — while still being ready-made and in the same pearl/capsule/tablet forms as Level 1. These are often prepared in North America.
- For more moderate or less common conditions, or for clients seeking a stronger potency, at around $10–15 per formula per week, plus shipping (often prescribed in pairs as well).
Level 3 — Customized Granule & Tincture Formulas
- In this form, your custom prescription matching your exact unique state of health is sent to an online dispenser. The dispensing company takes individual herbs, pre-concentrated into powders, and blends them together according to your prescription of 8–15+ herbs. Shipped in packets, you then simply stir the formula into boiled water and consume daily.
- Tinctures follow the same methods, but are in an alcohol based extraction.
- For moderate to serious conditions or for clients simply preferring tailored formulas. Roughly $5 per day (tinctures are less).
Level 4 — Raw Herb Formulas
- The traditional method of preparation, and while time consuming offers the strongest potency and most flexibility. Connect with the true dried herbs themselves. Individual cooking instructions are given, but expect roughly one hour of boiling time depending on the formula.
- Same as above, but most recommended for more severe conditions, or with a few simple herbs for general maintenance. Roughly $7–10 per day, can vary widely.
How long will I need to stay on herbs?
The beautiful thing about herbs is that they actually correct your concerns, so you will not need to stay on them permanently. A very general rule of thumb is you’ll need a month of herbs for each year you’ve had the concern. However, because they can be so beneficial, there is no harm in taking them as long as you’d like if you simply feel great with them — especially the amazing herbal tonics, which could in a way be similar to a super healthy food — why would you want to stop eating it? (Under guidance is always best — as even the best herbs can create imbalances over long periods of time if not used properly.)
The simple fact alone that our natural world bestows such powerful gifts of healing for all types of conditions, from physical to emotional, is truly one of the wonders of the world. The wisdom of how to combine these herbs is our common human heritage, worthy of our deep respect and protection.
(This Medium article last updated 05.08.19. Originally appears on RootsToSky.com/Herbs)
1 — Fratkin, Jake Paul — Chinese Herbal Patent Medicines, Appendices 2–6