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What Is Herbal Medicine?

Herbal medicines are naturally occurring, plant-derived substances that are used to treat illnesses within local or regional healing practices. These products are complex mixtures of organic chemicals that may come from any raw or processed part of a plant.

Herbal medicine has its roots in every culture around the world. There are many different systems of traditional medicine, and the philosophy and practices of each are influenced by social conditions, environment and geographic location, but these systems all agree on a holistic approach to life. Well-known systems of herbal medicine like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine believe in the central idea that there should be an emphasis on health rather than on disease. By using healing herbs, people can thrive and focus on their overall conditions, rather than on a particular ailment that typically arises from a lack of equilibrium of the mind, body and environment.

Botanical medicine has been practiced for thousands of years.  During the last century the more profitable pharmaceutical and disease centered practices have taken over in the US and much of western world . Fortunately we are seeing a resurgence of a more holistic approach to health starting to take hold in the US. The World Health Organization recently estimated that 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care. People in the United States have recently become more interested in herbal medicine due of the rising cost of prescription medication and this has fueled the returning interest in natural or organic remedies.

Whole herbs contain many ingredients that are used to treat diseases and relieve symptoms. Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine, uses the plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark or flowers for medicinal purposes. The biological properties of these plants have beneficial effects. Other factors are responsible for their benefits as well, such as the type of environment in which the plant grew, the way in which it was harvested and how it was processed. The plant is either sold raw or as extracts, where it’s macerated with water, alcohol or other solvents to extract some of the chemicals. The resulting products contain dozens of chemicals, including fatty acids, sterols, alkaloids, flavonoids, glycosides, saponins and others.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Benefits, Herbs & Therapies

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an ancient form of healthcare that dates back over 2,500 years and includes natural treatments such as acupuncture, herbal remedies, dietary advice, stress/emotional support, exercise including tai chi and qi gong and treatments such as cupping and moxibustion. TCM along with Ayurveda two of the oldest and most renowned forms of ancient medicine in the world and are returning quickly in popularity. TCM practitioners look to treat the root cause of disease and take a holistic approach to helping people experience complete healing without the use of conventional drugs.

Over the past several decades, Eastern alternative (also called complementary or integrated) medicine practices have continued to be adopted by conventional medical establishments in the U.S. and other Western nations. The Department of Complementary-Alternative Medicine at Medical University of South Carolina reports that according to a study of 3,200 physicians conducted by Health Products Research, more than 50 percent of physicians in the U.S. planned to begin or increase use of alternative medicines, including those rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), within the following year. (1)

More and more medical schools are now recognizing the importance of training students and staff in “mind-body” practices that emphasize disease prevention and holistic treatments. Although some physicians and patients tend to be skeptical about the effectiveness of many TCM practices, research continues to show that complementary modalities can make a big difference in many patients’ quality of life.

Several of the advantages that Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Eastern practices have to offer include a high level of patient compliance (often due to patients noticing improvements in their symptoms quickly), reduced stress levels, natural pain management, improved sleep, stronger immunity and decreased need for medications.

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a type of holistic, natural health care system that dates back at least 2,000 years to the year 200 B.C. TCM is “holistic” and “natural” because it stimulates the body’s own healing mechanisms and takes into account all aspects of a patient’s life, rather than just several obvious signs or symptoms. TCM practitioners view the body as a complex network of interconnected parts (part of a larger concept known as Qi), rather than separate systems or organs.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments aim to correct imbalances in the body and primarily work in three major ways:

  • Addressing a patient’s external factors and environment
  • Helping patients relate to their internal emotions in a healthier way, including managing stress
  • Improving someone’s lifestyle factors, including diet and exercise routine

Organs that are especially focused on during TCM treatments include the kidneys, heart, spleen, liver, lung, gallbladder, small intestine and large intestine. Depending on the specific type, the benefits of TCM therapies range considerably. Some of the health problems most commonly treated with Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies include:

  • Chronic pain
  • Arthritis
  • Fatigue
  • Infertility
  • Liver disease
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • High blood pressure
  • PMS or menopause symptoms
  • Cancer recovery or chemotherapy

Different Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies include:

  • Acupuncture: Helps lower pain, improve hormonal balance and combat stress
  • Cupping therapy: Used for pain management, improving immunity and helping with digestion
  • Herbal medicine: Used to control inflammation, fight free radical damage and boost liver function
  • Nutrition: For preventing deficiencies, boosting energy and improving detoxification
  • Exercise: Including Qi gong or tai chi for flexibility, strength and concentration
  • Massage: Soft tissue manipulation for improving blood flow, one of which is called tui na
  • Moxibustion: Burning an herb near the skin

 

Tenets and Beliefs of TCM

TCM was mostly practiced in Asia and not commonly known of or studied in the U.S. until around the 1970s. Since Eastern practices, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi and acupuncture, started to gain notoriety in the media during this time period, hundreds of studies have investigated the health effects of such modalities.

Traditional Chinese Medicine draws on the belief that Qi (which roughly translates to “vital energy” and is pronounced “chee”) is essential for overall health.

  • Qi is said to circulate throughout the body along pathways called meridians, and proper Qi is needed to keep all systems in balance.
  • Meridians are utilized in many TCM practices, including acupuncture and acupressure, which focus on treating specific meridian points throughout the body that can be located anywhere from the head to the soles of our feet.
  • Meridians are believed to be connected to specific organ systems, and therefore focusing on certain meridians helps resolve specific symptoms. According to TCM, restoring Qi can be beneficial for preventing diseases from developing and treating existing inflammation, injuries, pain or illnesses.

Another concept that’s vital to Traditional Chinese Medicine is yin and yang, defined as opposing but complementary energies. You might be familiar with the yin-yang symbol (a circle that’s half white and half black with smaller circles inside), which is used to represent the concept of all of earth’s opposing forces, including hot and cold, winter and summer, energy and rest. It is believed that, like Qi, yin and yang negatively affect your health when they’re out of balance and one is more dominant than the other, so a primary goal of TCM treatment is to restore their equalizing relationship.


Chinese Herbal Medicines

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Chinese herbal medicine is a major part of Traditional Chinese Medicine … it has been used for centuries in China, where herbs are considered fundamental therapy for many acute and chronic conditions.” (2) Chinese herbal therapy has its roots in a traditional medicinal text called “Materia Medica.” Thousands of different herbs, minerals, teas, tinctures and other extracts are listed in this text and utilized by trained herbalists depending on a patient’s specific symptoms.

Who can benefit most from Chinese herbal medicines? (2)

  • Chinese herbs focus on helping correct dysfunction of certain organs and unhealthy body patterns. The goal of herbal therapy is to bring the body back into a state of homeostasis (balance) and restore proper energy (also called Qi).
  • Patients with many different symptoms can be treated with herbs, including those with frequent colds or the flu, fatigue, chronic respiratory issues, infertility, allergies, chronic pain, anxiety or depression, trouble sleeping, menopausal symptoms and even people recovering from cancer or chemotherapy.
  • Some scenarios that make a patient a good candidate for herbal therapy include having more than one unexplained symptom, feeling fatigued on top of having other symptoms, not responding well to medications or experiencing side effects, feeling anxious or depressed, in addition to having other symptoms.

Common Chinese herbal medicines include astragalus root, reishi mushroom, goji berryginkgo biloba, ginseng and many others.

Here’s what you can expect during a Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal session: Following an exam with the herbalist, customized herbs (almost always more than one) are recommended. Sometimes herbs are used as a complement to another treatment, such as acupuncture. Chinese herbal therapy is usually not covered by insurance, but in some cases a referral from a physician can help lower the cost. Oftentimes an herbalist works closely with a physician to manage a patient’s treatment, especially if the herbal therapy can interact with the patient’s prescription medications.


Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine

1. Lowers Inflammation and Might Offer Increased Cancer Protection

The Journal of Traditional & Complementary Medicine reports that Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, including herbal treatments and the use of medicinal mushrooms, can have positive “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic and autophagic regulatory functions.” (3) This translates to lowered levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, thereby protecting cells, tissues and organs from long-term disease development. Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and tied to the majority of common health problems, including cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, cognitive impairment and diabetes.

TCM treatments, including acupuncture, acupressure and herbal treatments, can also help patients overcome a variety of harmful lifestyle habits related to inflammation, such as cigarette smoking, overeating, resisting chronic pain, chronic stress and alcohol-induced liver damage. Certain treatments are capable of lowering the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response, which helps patients manage the effects of chronic stress — which can include poor sleep and hormonal imbalances.

Several herbal remedies that have been found to help lower oxidative stress include: (4)

  • Medicinal mushrooms, including reishi and cordyceps: promote stronger immunity, help fight fatigue, have anticancer properties, help balance hormones and control the body’s stress response
  • Monascus adlay and Monascus purpureus: used to lower lung inflammation and damage
  • Amla (Emblica officinalis Gaertn. of Euphorbiaceae family), aka gooseberries: lowers hepatotoxin-induced liver inflammation
  • Virgate wormwood decoction (Yīn Chén Hāo tāng): also used to lower liver damage
  • Green tea extract and its active components, catechins: help protect the brain, reduce fatigue and regulate appetite
  • Crataegi Fructus (Shān Zhā): helps treat symptoms of hyperactive bladder
  • Five Stranguries Powder (Wǔ Lén Sǎn): has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities

What is Ayurvedic Medicine?

Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that’s truly stood the test of time. First originating in the Vedic culture of India, it’s actually considered by many to be the oldest healing science there is. Ayurvedic medicine is based on the premise that there are three doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha and that disease and illness originate from an imbalance in the three energies.

The primary goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to help people live long, healthy and balanced lives without the need for prescription drugs, complicated surgeries or suffering through painful conditions. In fact, the very word Ayurveda itself means something in Sanskrit similar to “lifespan build on knowledge” or “science of life.”

Although people living in India have relied on traditional Ayurvedic practices to heal everything from infertility to digestive issues for centuries,  luckily in recent years — as complementary and alternative health practices have become more and more popular across the world — Ayurveda has been enjoying a major worldwide resurgence and is still practiced effectively today.

According to a 2015 report published by University of Maryland Medical Center, Ayurvedic medicine can help treat inflammatory, hormonal, digestive and autoimmune conditions, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation)
  • Herpes
  • High blood pressure or cholesterol
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Perimenopausal problems
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and cramps

Ayurvedic herbs, practices and recommendations, including yoga and/or meditation, have also been shown to be helpful as a home remedy for acne, relieving chronic constipation or IBS, fighting chronic fatigue syndrome, reducing pain and lowering obesity risk.


How Does Ayurvedic Medicine Work?

Ayurvedic practitioners use a well-balanced healthy diet, lifestyle changes, stress relief and various herbal remedies to heal all sorts of conditions by helping to bring the body back into balance. The overall belief is that disease and suffering results from an imbalance in the three doshas, which are ways of categorizing the body’s three basic energy types: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

According to Ayurvedic medicine, everyone is unique in terms of his or her individual balance between these three energy (or personality) types. Everyone has some vata, pitta and kapha to their personality, but usually one or two of the doshas are more dominant in a particular person — and this ultimately governs body type, appetite, energy levels, moods and tendencies. Each dosha has both physical and emotional characteristics, so Ayurvedic practitioners use the three doshas to describe common traits of someone’s body type and personality.

Unlike the one-size-fits-all approach to western medical treatment that fails to address the huge diversity among patients, Ayurveda takes into account individuality when prescribing holistic treatments.

As the Center for Rheumatic Diseases located in Prune, India, described it, “Every creation inclusive of a human being is a model of the universe. In this model, the basic matter and the dynamic forces (Dosha) of the nature determine health and disease, and the medicinal value of any substance (plant and mineral). The Ayurvedic practices (chiefly that of diet, lifestyle and the Panchkarama) aim to maintain the Dosha equilibrium…therapy is customized to the individual’s constitution (known as Prakruti).”


The 3 Doshas of Ayurvedic Medicine

  • Vata — Vata energy is often said to be like the wind. It’s primarily in charge of mobility, motion, circulation, breathing and other essential body functions. Vata types are known to be creative and energetic when they’re in balance but fearful, stressed and “scatter-brained” when they’re not. Physically, vata types are usually on the thin side, have smaller bones and tend not to put on weight easily. They also might be cold a lot of the time, have a delicate digestive system and have dry, sensitive skin.
  • Pitta — Pitta is the energy force that governs most metabolic activity, including digestion, absorption of nutrients, body temperature and energy expenditure. Pitta types tend to be smart, hard-working and driven (even competitive) when in balance but can be overly angry and aggressive when they’re not. They tend to have a medium build, be athletic and are versatile in terms of putting on weight or muscle.
  • Kapha — Kapha controls growth in the body and is considered the nourishing dosha. It supplies moisturize to the cells and organs and helps keep a strong immune system. Kaphas are known for being grounded, supportive, loving and forgiving when in balance — almost like a motherly type. However, they can also be lazy, insecure, envious and sad when they’re not in balance.

By helping to balance the three doshas — not letting one type become overly dominant and another to become ignored — handling stress, following a healthy diet, dealing with change and maintaining relationships are all expected to be easier.

Two of the most important aspects of restoring balance in Ayurveda is tuning in to the natural rhythms of your body and also bringing your lifestyle into sync with nature and its cyclical patterns. This includes lining up your activity level, food choices, sleep and so on with the time of day, seasons and for women even their menstrual cycles. Ayurveda can help ease stress and restore a healthy circadian rhythm in this way, which benefits everything from your hormones to appetite.

In order to help rebalance your doshas and prescribe a certain diet, healing herbs and restful practices, an Ayurvedic practitioner will take your medical history, check your vital signs like your pulse and reflexes, examine your skin, look inside your mouth at your gums and tongue and speak to you about your sleep and relationships. All of these factors help the practitioner first determine your primary dosha, then figure out which aspects of the doshas might be out of balance — for example, if you’re overworking, under-sleeping or not consuming enough nutrients.

Ayurvedic Medicine Research and Studies

One of the core benefits of Ayurveda and what makes it stand apart from western medicine is that it takes into account bioindividuality and a patient’s entire body-mind-spirit connection. Rather than treating symptoms with drugs and ignoring the underlying problems, Ayurvedic medicine aims to look at the root of disease and how it’s related to a person’s thoughts, beliefs and lifestyle — in other words, a person’s “vital energy.”

What’s especially of interest to researchers studying traditional healing symptoms like Ayurveda is the power of the mind and its connection to the body. Since various studies have acknowledged that beliefs surely have the ability to change someone’s health, even after controlling for placebos, new health models are beginning to focus more on including the mind and its interaction with the body as a primary lever of curing diseases.

Better controlling stress seems to be one of the primary benefits of Ayurveda, according to a western medical viewpoint. We know that chronic stress can ruin your quality of life and that lower stress levels are correlated with better health, longevity, weight management and overall happiness. A healthier diet, natural herbs, better sleep and improved hormonal balance also all likely play a role in healing with Ayurvedic medicine.

7 Benefits of Ayurvedic Medicine

1. Helps Lower Stress and Anxiety

Because stress is related to nearly every aspect of overall health, an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner might call for a number of different techniques used to naturally treat anxiety and depression symptoms, lower cortisol and rebalance the body’s hormones or “energy.” This can include meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, herbal treatments, skin brushing, visualization or repeating inspirational mantras.

Studies have found that transcendental meditation, a component of one branch of Ayurveda called Maharishi, helps lower symptoms of anxiety with regular practice. Pranayama, a series of various targeted breathing exercises, also helps calm nerves and results in better energy, restful sleep and improved hormonal function. And while yoga isn’t always necessarily included in someone’s recovery plan, it, too, offers well-documented benefits for reducing stress and anxiety.

Over the past several decades, efforts have been underway to help find non-pharmacologic therapies to relieve stress and anxiety. Yoga has been shown to be a simple, low-cost and effective option for many people. One large-scale review conducted by St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Massachusetts found that after reviewing over 35 trials investigating the effects of yoga, results from 25 trials showed significant improvements in signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety. Fourteen of the 35 studies also reported biochemical and physiological improvements in various markers of stress and anxiety.

Other research shows that regular yoga practice can improve autonomic nervous functions by triggering neuro-hormonal mechanisms and suppressing sympathetic activity, or the body’s “fight or flight” response. Several reports even suggest that yoga is beneficial for physical health of cancer patients and can effectively fight free radical damage.

2. Lowers Blood Pressure and Cholesterol

Studies have shown that Ayurveda diets and relaxation techniques can lower inflammation and help reduce plaque buildup, even reversing the thickening of artery walls known as atherosclerosis in both healthy adults and those with a higher risk for heart disease. Atherosclerosis is a slow, complex disease in which cholesterol, fats and other substances build up in the inner lining of an artery. This buildup, known as plaque, can lead to heart attack and stroke. Thankfully, Ayurvedic techniques lower cholesterol naturally and naturally lower blood pressure.

3. Helps with Recovery from Injuries and Illnesses

Research supports the idea of the Ayurvedic concept of immune-modulation and healing. By targeting inflammation, which is the root of most diseases, Ayurvedic medicine can help lower pain and swelling, improve blood flow and fight inflammatory conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia just as well as medication.

A 2011 study published in The Journal of Clinical Rheumatology found that after comparing classic Ayurveda, prescription drug treatment with methotrexate (MTX) and a combination of the two in a double-blind randomized trial, all groups were comparable at healing symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in adults over a 36-week period. Adverse effects were also fewer in the Ayurveda-only group, which experienced significant improvements and no side effects or drug interactions.

Ayurveda is also especially helpful in detoxing the body using various herbs, teas, healthy foods and plenty of rest. Certain practices also increase circulation and liver function — for example, Abhyanga is the practice of rubbing the skin with herbal or essential oils to increase blood flow and help draw toxins out of the body through the skin. Ayurveda practitioners might also prescribe various herbs that help lower cortisol such as holy basil or ashwagandha.

4. Promotes a Nutrient-Dense, Antioxidant-Rich Diet

Ayurvedic medicine promotes a mostly plant-based diet filled with a variety of real, whole foods. While each person’s diet depends on body type and needs, Ayurvedic diets for the three different dosha types all include various fresh herbs, spices, teas, vegetables, healthy fats, high-antioxidant foods and protein.

General dietary guidelines of Ayurveda emphasize consuming fresh, hot and easy to digest foods, while taking into account several variations that depend on someone’s ancestry, customs and traditions. For example, Ayurveda practitioners consider social, geographic and climatic variables all when prescribing a diet to balance the doshas.

In coastal areas, cooling and detoxifying fermented foods are common. For example, pickled, probiotic-rich foods are prescribed to help with digestion and temperature regulation. In other regions, and during colder parts of the year, healthy fats and hot foods are emphasized more to help warm the body and promote better circulation.

5. Can Help with Weight Loss or Maintenance

While fast weight loss isn’t necessarily the primary goal, Ayurvedic medicine can help someone shed excess weight naturally using a healthy diet, stress reduction and even essential oils for weight loss. A 2009 study conducted by the NutriHealth Systems Center in New Delhi, India, found that adjusting someone’s healthy diet to take into account individual food preferences and needs helped participants lose weight effectively. This is likely because Ayurveda promotes compliance and believes that a diet should be balanced, practical and easy to follow.

Among the 200 subjects, 27.5 percent were vatta with lean body types, 41.5 percent were pitta with medium body types and 31 percent were kapha-dominant with larger body types. At the beginning, kapha and pitta people weighed more than vatta people. After the three months of therapy, the pitta group lost the most weight. The decrease in all measurements was higher in pitta and kapha people than in vatta individuals, and the diets based on Ayurvedic constitution proved to be useful in promoting weight loss for those who needed it.

6. Lowers Inflammation

Ayurvedic medicine rests on the assumption that a combination of a poor diet, bad digestion, not enough rest or sleep and insufficient air (vaayu) inhaled cause oxidative stress and inflammation. This results in an imbalance in metabolism — or in other words — in the three doshas.

The focus of Ayurvedic healing looks at using various ways of reducing inflammation with hopes of regulating the heart and circulatory system, digestive tract and the means of elimination of wastes. People are prescribed a combination of herbal treatments, antioxidants to quench free radicals, exercise that is gentle but boosts metabolism and circulation and a combination of phytochemicals from natural herbs. By addressing many factors including stress, individual food intolerances, overstimulation and a lack of nutrients, many people experience lower levels of inflammation and increased energy and healing.

Researchers have found that one benefit of Ayurveda is the belief that one herb or one drug alone cannot cure the imbalance of doshas for everyone. Therefore in most of the cases, Ayurveda practitioners recommend a combination of herbs and plants or staple foods for different inflammatory treatments. A good example is the ancient recommendation for an herbal formulation of beneficial turmeric in combination with black pepper.

Studies have found this mixture together increases the bioavailibilty of beneficial compounds, reduces toxicity and speeds healing. It’s now known that the bioavailibity of curcumin (active ingredient of turmeric) is increased by piperine (an active compound in black pepper) by preventing the glucuronidation of the curcumin.

7. Helps with Hormonal Balance

People have turned to Ayurveda to balance hormones naturally, conceive and have a healthy, natural pregnancy or menstrual cycle for thousands of years. Studies have even shown that various therapeutic effects of Ayurveda have been effective in helping to treat subfertility due to PCOS, a common endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age, resulting from insulin resistance and hormonal imbalances.

A 2010 study done by the Institute of Indigenous Medicine at The University of Colombo in Sri Lanka found that using various essential oils to balance hormones, herbal treatments and lifestyle changes daily for a six-month period resulted in 85 percent of the female patients successfully overcoming Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and 75 percent of the patients being able to naturally conceive. Ayurveda treatment regimens have also helped women for centuries overcome absent periods (amenorrhea) or infrequent menstruation, irregular periods, infrequent or no ovulation, multiple immature follicles, increased levels of male hormones, thinning hair, excess facial and body hair growth and various symptoms of PMS, including acne and oily skin.