More and more, Americans are turning to natural solutions to improve their health.One of those solutions is in the form of herbal supplements, often found on the shelf at your local drug or grocery store. To a practitioner of Chinese medicine, the thought of buying your herbs while wheeling a grocery cart seems to contrary to the philosophy behind the use of medicinal herbs.

Here are a few things that you should know about how Chinese herbs work:

  1. Chinese herbal therapy is a mode of healing in Chinese medicine—with or without acupuncture. It can be an incredibly effective way to treat a great number of conditions. The principles of diagnosis and treatment between herbal therapy and acupuncture are the same, so in many cases a practitioner will prescribe an herbal formula to strengthen and prolong the effects of their acupuncture treatment.
  2. Chinese herbs are rarely taken individually. In almost every case, several herbs are combined into a formula. That’s because, by combining herbs, a practitioner can fine tune the formula to each patient’s specific needs. In addition when creating a formula, some herbs are strong and their effects need to be balanced by other ingredients, herbs may be added to strengthen the effect of the formula, or additional ingredients may be added to address specific symptoms that you’re having.

  3. Even though herbs are considered “natural”, their effects can be very strong. Many of the medications that are prescribed today were initially developed from herbs. For example, aspirin, anti-malarial drugs, and morphine were all developed from plant sources. Unfortunately, some people buy herbs with the idea that taking them is like popping a vitamin pill. In reality, the effect of herbs and herbal formulas can be very strong and should be taken with the guidance of someone who is trained in the properties and safety of herbs.
  4. Can you take herbs and prescription medications at the same time? Mixing Chinese herbs with prescription drugs is often not a problem, but needs to be done with caution, and in some cases, not at all. For example, if you are currently on the blood thinning drug Coumadin, taking herbs can diminish or negate the anti-clotting effects of the Coumadin. In addition, ginseng is known to raise blood pressure in people whose blood pressure is already elevated, and St. John’s Wort (while not a Chinese herb) interacts with a number of medications. In many cases mixing an herbal formula with a prescription drug isn’t a problem, however the risk of adverse effects climbs with the number of prescription drugs you’re taking.
  5. A few words about safety: It can be difficult to know with confidence that what’s on the label of any bottle of herbs is exactly what’s in the bottle. For that reason, where you get your herbs matters. There are a number of manufacturers of Chinese herbs that are very transparent with their manufacturing process; testing and assaying their herbs at several steps along the way. Look for that information on their website or catalogue. In addition, look for certification of current good manufacturing process indicated by a cGMP on the label. If your practitioner has an herbal inventory and is prescribing herbs for you, ask them which companies they use and how the herbs are processed.
  6. Interestingly, Chinese herbs aren’t always herbs. While the majority of substances found in the Chinese formulary are in fact herbs, there are also “herbs” that are minerals and some that are animal-based. For example, gypsum, calcium, iron, and ground seashells (also calcium) are considered to be herbs. And while some formulations still have animal-based ingredients, those numbers are rapidly declining as manufacturers have had to find substitutions for ingredients that come from endangered species.