How Chinese herbs work

I had a fascinating conversation the other day with Stephen Morrissey, OMD, former Chair of Bastyr University's Oriental Medicine program. After 25 years of clinical experience, collaboration with western and Chinese doctors, and research, Morrissey has launched Plantiva, a new line of high-quality Chinese herbal formulations. Admittedly, I am a big fan of Chinese herbs, which I have taken to boost lagging energy and bolster immunity (what mom of small kids doesn't need help in these areas?).

Research supports the use of Chinese herbs for a number of health conditions including heart disease, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. But what research can't always tell us is how, exactly, or why Chinese herbs work. "They function synergistically to raise the body's threshold for action and encourage adaptability," Morrissey says. What is adaptability? Say you are allergic to tree pollen. Chinese herbs build reserves and strengthen organ systems so that it possible for the body to go longer, or to be exposed to a greater degree, without mounting a full-blown reaction. Rather than treating symptoms with a single active compound, as in the Western pharmaceutical model, Chinese herbs are taken in myriad combinations and are meant to be adjusted as the patient's symptoms decrease or change.

There are hundreds of herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine, and they are almost always combined to treat the underlying pattern associated with symptoms. "Chinese herbal formulas have evolved with diagnoses, and so it is easier to bridge the diagnosis-treatment gap," says Morrissey. Traditionally, Chinese herbs are classified into over twenty different categories. One of the most well-known categories is tonics: Tonic herbs such as giseng increase qi (energy), build blood, and balance deficiencies or excesses in the body. All categories of Chinese herbs work on continuums, such as warming/cooling, calming/stimulating, drying/moistening, etc.

Chinese herbs are often prescribed along with other traditional Chinese modalities, such as acupuncture and massage, to treat symptoms. And many Chinese herbal formulas are now widely available at natural product stores. The downside? "Often you can't be sure the quality of the herbs in the formula," says Morrissey. Herbs grown in China are distributed through a huge network of warehouses and processing plants overseen by Chinese authorities, he explains, and quality varies. What's more, he says, herbs may have high levels of pesticides or heavy metals depending upon where they are grown. To better control the quality and effectiveness of their herbs, Plantiva has sought out direct relationships with growers and processes the herbs themselves. If you can't be sure how a company sources its herbs, look for those that test for heavy metals and contaminants, and that offer a guarantee on active compounds.

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