Chinese herbal medicine

History of Chinese herbs

Herbs have been used to treat various health problems all over the world, including Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia, for tens of thousands of years. In the West, the word ‘medicine’ used to mean herbal medicine. It’s only in the last 125 years, since aspirin was extracted from the bark of the willow tree, that pharmaceutical drugs have become more and more popular and the use of plants has become less so. Pharmaceutical drugs are often the synthesised active ingredients of plants. A quarter of all pharmaceutical drugs originate from plants.

The active ingredient is then patented and its potency increased many times over to make it very effective and quick-working. However, as it’s just one part of the original plant, it’s no longer part of Nature and as we are still part of Nature, it causes us side effects. If the original herbs are used instead, the actions take longer to work but seldom have side effects. Herbal medicine is really the traditional medicine of the world and the use of pharmacological drugs is a newer alternative.

Is it safe to take herbs?

When herbs are prescribed by a qualified herbalist, they are largely safe – often safer than pharmaceutical drugs. However, Chinese herbs tend to get a lot of bad press. We often hear negative stories such as endangered species or steroids being found in Chinese herbs. As medicine in China was unified in the 1950s, both Western pharmaceuticals and Chinese herbs are used together, so a single pill will contain both types of medicine (pharmaceutical agents and herbs) to make it a lot more effective. Unfortunately, some of these pills were shipped to Western countries, where the medicine is not unified, causing problems and bad press.

The use of Chinese herbs in Western countries is now tightly controlled and all the herbs imported are monitored for quality. In rare news stories, we hear of people suffering from kidney failure or even death after taking herbs. These types of stories make headline news, while the 237 million medical mistakes made a year in the UK don’t. Around 62,000 people are admitted to hospital every year in the UK from adverse reactions to pharmaceutical drugs and medical errors are the third biggest killer of people in the USA. Side effects from herbs are not common. Deaths from taking herbs are very rare. However, the wrong herbs in the wrong hands (those that aren’t taught or licensed to prepare herbs) can potentially cause problems. Always see a properly qualified herbalist.

What will I feel after taking herbs?

When people visit my clinic for fertility treatment, they usually talk about other problems they might have, for example feeling cold or dizzy, or having poor sleep or a sluggish digestion. After discussing their case, they often realise that all their problems are connected and related to each other, and then it all makes sense. Once people start taking herbs, they often notice that their other symptoms, such as being cold, dizzy or tired, have gone, making them feel better. This is because Chinese medicine sees the person as a whole and not as different segments that different specialist doctors need to treat. This departmentalisation in Western medicine often means that one department is unaware of the other department and how related they are to each other, sadly to the detriment of the patient’s health.

How do you take herbs?

Traditionally herbs come in their raw form, for example bits of root, bark, seeds or flower heads that you would cook in water then drain and drink. This process takes hours, can stink your kitchen out and leaves sediment at the bottom of your cup, which can make you gag when you drink it. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier. The herbs come in powder form so you don’t need to spend hours cooking them. Instead you just add hot water and honey, wait for them to cool down and then drink. They often don’t taste nice, hence the honey. Some of my patients prefer to have them in tablet form, which have no bad taste at all. Herbs are generally taken twice a day, in the morning and evening, allowing the beneficial actions of the herbs to be spread out throughout the day.


There are two dosages in Chinese herbal medicine: the raw herbs/powders and small black pills. The small black pills are standard off-the-shelf formulas at a very weak dose. You can buy them online or in health food stores; however, they are illegal in Europe. I don’t recommend using them as they are too weak, take a long time to work and cannot be customised to a person’s individual needs. A lot of people are attracted to them because they are cheap. I don’t recommend self-diagnosing or self-treating using Chinese herbs. Prescribing an accurate and effective formula is an art form that takes many years of study and practise. If you want to take Chinese herbs, only buy them from a well-qualified herbalist after having a consultation.

How do Chinese herbs work?

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About Attilio

Doctor of Chinese medicine, acupuncture expert and author of My Fertility Guide and My Pregnancy Guide.