All About Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicines

China is one of the four ancient civilizations in the world. It has a vast territory, spanning tropical, subtropical, warm-temperate, mid-temperate, and cold-temperate temperature zones from south to north. It has various terrains, including mountains, plateaus, basins, plains, and hills.

Because of the diverse climate and terrain, this land has bred many kinds of natural medicines for the treatment and prevention of diseases. People call these natural medicines Chinese herbal medicines.

Based on the exploration, research, and summary of Chinese herbal medicine by countless scholars and doctors, Chinese herbal medicine is still widely recognized and applied for thousands of years.

With acupuncture going out of China, Chinese herbal medicine, massage, cupping, diet therapy, etc. have also been accepted by people all over the world. The number of newly opened Chinese medicine clinics is still increasing year by year. They have been spread all over Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and other countries.

What is Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine refers to substances used to prevent, treat, and diagnose diseases under the guidance of the theory of Chinese medicine, and have the functions of rehabilitation and health care.

They mainly come from natural medicine and its processed products. They include botanical medicine, animal medicine, mineral medicine, and some chemical and biological medicines.

Botanical medicines are medicines made from the roots, stems, leaves, fruits, and other parts of plants. Animal medicines are medicines made from animal skin, internal organs, bones, and other parts. Mineral medicines are medicines made from minerals.

Ethnic medicine also belongs to Chinese herbal medicine. It is a medicine used in ethnic minority areas in China, such as Tibetan medicine, Mongolian medicine, Uyghur medicine, Dai medicine, Miao medicine, Yi medicine, etc. They have relatively strong regional characteristics.

According to statistics, there are about 12,000 kinds of medicinal plants in China. Among them, there are about 5,000 kinds of plants that have been put into clinical use. Since most of the Chinese medicine is botanical medicine, Chinese medicine is also called Chinese herbal medicine.

There are about 500 kinds of Chinese herbal medicines commonly used in clinical practice. Most Chinese herbal medicines are used in combination, and few Chinese herbal medicines are used alone to treat diseases. Compared with Chinese herbal medicines, Chinese medicine prescriptions and Chinese patent medicines are used more frequently.

There are many famous medicines in Chinese herbal medicine, such as the top ten famous medicines: Xi Hong Hua (Stigma Croci), Ren Shen (Radix et Rhizoma Ginseng), Ling Zhi (Ganoderma), Dong Chong Xia Cao (Cordyceps), He Shou Wu (Fo-Ti), E Jiao (Colla Corii Asini), Hai Ma (Hippocampus), She Xiang (Moschus), Lu Rong (Cornu Cervi Pantotrichum), and Tian Ma (Rhizoma Gastrodiae).

The more commonly used botanicals include Fang Feng (Radix Saposhnikoviae), Gui Zhi (Ramulus Cinnamomi), Fu Ling (Poria), and Sang Ye (Mulberry Leaf). Relatively precious animal medicines include Niu Huang (Calculus Bovis), Xiong Dan (Bear Gall), and Lu Rong (Cornu Cervi Pantotrichum). The more common mineral medicines are Zhu Sha (Cinnabaris), Shi Gao (Gypsum), and Mang Xiao (Natrii Sulfas).

Origin of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Many factors affect the efficacy of Chinese herbal medicine, including the place of origin, harvest time, and storage method of Chinese herbal medicine.

The distribution and production of natural medicines are inseparable from certain natural conditions. The production of various Chinese herbal medicines has certain regional characteristics regardless of variety, yield, and quality.

Since ancient times, traditional Chinese medicine has attached great importance to Dao Di Yao Cai.

Dao Di Yao Cai are commonly known as Authentic medicinal materials, which is a special term for high-quality medicinal materials. It refers to Chinese herbal medicines with a long history, suitable producing areas, excellent varieties, great yields, sophisticated processing, outstanding curative effects, and regional characteristics.

Many herbal books have records on the origin of Chinese herbal medicines. For example, Dang Gui (Radix Angelicae Sinensis) is produced in Gansu Province, Gou Qi Zi (Fructus Lycii) is produced in Ningxia, Ren Shen (Radix et Rhizoma Ginseng) and Xi Xin (Asari Radix et Rhizoma) are produced in Northeast China, and San Qi (Notoginseng Radix et Rhizoma) and Fu Ling (Poria) are produced in Yunnan.

The output of authentic medicinal materials is limited. In fact, without affecting the therapeutic effect, you don’t need to care about the geographical restrictions of authentic medicinal materials.

Harvesting of Chinese Herbal Medicine

In different periods, the effective ingredients contained in botanicals are different. Botanicals should be harvested at an appropriate period.

Modern pharmaceutical research has confirmed that ginsenosides have the highest content in August, ephedrine has the highest content in autumn, and artemisinin has the highest content from July to August.

Generally, after the parts of medicinal plants used as medicine have matured, people begin to harvest them. During this period, the active ingredient content of botanicals was relatively highest.

Each medicinal plant has a certain harvesting period and method. Among them, some plants are whole herbs used as medicine, some are leaves used as medicine, and some are fruits used as medicine.

Most animal medicines are collected in summer and autumn. Lu Rong (Cornu Cervi Pantotrichum) is the only difference. They must be harvested when the young stag horns are not yet ossified before and after the Ching Ming Festival.

There is no time limit for mineral medicine, and people can mine them in any season. Although the methods of harvesting Chinese herbal medicine are different, there are certain rules in the methods of harvesting.

Processing of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Almost all Chinese herbal medicines should undergo certain processing to meet the needs of clinical medication.

Generally, the newly harvested botanicals need to go through multiple processes such as screening, removing sediment and impurities, washing with water, drying, and slicing before they can be made into medicines.
Among them, the different parts of some plants used as medicine should be harvested separately, such as ephedra and ephedra roots.

Some medicinal plants are poisonous, such as Gan Sui (Radix Kansui), Jing Da Ji (Radix Euphorbiae Pekinensis), Chuan Wu (Radix Aconiti), and Ban Xia (Pinellia Rhizome). Processing can reduce their toxicity. In addition, some animal medicines have a certain special smell, such as Wu Shao She (Zaocys Dhumnades), Wu Ling Zhi (Faeces Trogopterori), and Jiang Can (Bombyx Batryticatus). Processing can remove their odor.

The handling of mineral medicine is relatively simple. Among them, most of the mineral medicines can be put into use after the screening, removing impurities, and grinding.

Processing methods

Removing impurities

Removal of impurities is the first process in Chinese herbal medicines processing. People make the medicine clean and pure by screening, washing with water, and other methods.

For example, the branches and leaves of Xin Yi Hua (Flos Magnoliae) should be removed, the rough bark of Hou Po (Magnolia Bark) and Rou Gui (Cortex Cinnamomi) should be removed, the flesh of Shi Jue Ming (Concha Haliotidis) should be removed to retain the shell, and Bai Guo (Semen Ginkgo) should be removed.

Slicing

The slicing is for better drying, storage, and weighing of Chinese herbal medicines. Different Chinese herbal medicines have different cutting methods.

Some rhizome-type Chinese herbal medicines, such as Dan Shen (Red sage), Bai Zhi (Radix Angelicae Dahuricae), Qian Hu (Radix Peucedani), Niu Xi (Radix Achyranthis Bidentatae), Shang Lu (Poke Root) should first be cut into slices or pieces, and then dried. Among them, some Chinese herbal medicines should be cut into sections, such as Ma Huang (Ephedra), Zi Su Ye (Perilla Leaf), and Bai Mao Gen (Rhizoma Imperatae).

Grinding

The purpose of grinding is to make the medicine reach a certain degree of pulverization to meet the requirements of other processing and facilitate the extraction and utilization of active ingredients.

For example, Hu Po (Succinum) should be ground into a powder and swallowed. Ren Shen (Radix et Rhizoma Ginseng), San Qi (Notoginseng Radix et Rhizoma), and Huang Lian (Rhizoma Coptidis) can also be ground into powder.

Heating

Heating is also a commonly used process in Chinese herbal medicine processing. According to the heating temperature, time, and method, it can be divided into stir-frying, stir-frying with auxiliary materials, scalding, calcining, simmering, steaming, boiling, and stewing.

Stir-frying refers to putting medicines in the pot and heating it and turning it continuously until the medicines turn yellow, zooms, or turn black, and then take them out. Generally, this method can enhance the efficacy of medicine to stop bleeding and stop diarrhea.

Stir-frying with auxiliary materials refers to putting medicines and liquid auxiliary materials into a pot, heating, and stir-frying.
Generally, liquid auxiliary materials include honey, vinegar, wine, saline water, and ginger juice. Such methods can generally enhance the efficacy of medicines and reduce the side effects of medicines.

Scalding refers to the medicine being quickly put into boiling water and then taken out immediately. This method is often used for the peeling of seed medicines and the drying treatment of juicy medicines.

Calcining refers to the direct use of fierce fire to burn the medicine to make the active ingredients fully exert the medicinal effect. Generally, this method is suitable for processing hard mineral medicines and shellfish medicines.

Simmering refers to wrapping the medicine in a wet tissue or absorbent paper in an interlayer to heat it. This method can remove volatile substances and irritating components in the medicine, reduce the violent medicinal properties of the medicine, and reduce its side effects.

Steaming refers to steaming medicines through water, wine, and other ingredients. For example, Xuan Shen (Radix Scrophulariae) should be steamed. Shan Zhu Yu (Fructus Corni) and Da Huang (Radix et Rhizoma Rhei) should be steamed with wine. He Shou Wu (Fo-Ti) needs to be steamed and dried many times before it can be used.

Boiling refers to the method of boiling medicine together with water or other liquid auxiliary materials in a pot. This method can reduce the toxicity of medicines. For example, Yuan Hua (Genkwa Flos) should be boiled in vinegar.

Stewing refers to putting medicines and other liquid auxiliary materials into a vessel, and then putting them in a pot with water and simmering for a certain period. This method is used in the processing of Shu Di Huang (Processed Rehmannia Root) and Huang Jing (Rhizoma Polygonati).

In addition, the processing methods of Chinese herbal medicine include processing frost-like powder, fermentation, crystallization, and so on.