Chinese herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is the use of plants, or plant extracts to treat illness and promote good health. With an approach on the self, it looks at your mental, emotional and physical well-being. It also aims to restore your body’s natural ability to protect and recover.

There are two types of herbal medicine used in the UK, western herbal medicine and Chinese herbal medicine. Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) is part of a complete holistic health care system called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM consists of various treatments.

This fact-sheet will explore the benefits of Chinese herbal medicine. We will explore how the therapy can help promote a healthy well-being and look at the different forms of herbal medicine. We will discover the medicinal properties and why the use of Chinese herbal medicine in cancer patients is growing more popular.

What is Chinese herbal medicine?

TCM and Chinese herbal medicine is based around the Yin and Yang concept (the aim of restoring the body’s natural balance). The tradition places emphasis on preventing disease or illness through living a healthy lifestyle.

The natural balance of the body is regarded as your qi (pronounced chee). Many practitioners believe that this is the body’s energy flow and is essential for maintaining good health. When your qi is unable to flow freely around the body, your energy meridians can become obstructed. This is often a result of stress, overwork, poor nutrition, environmental conditions or injury.

Due to the longstanding effectiveness and influence of Chinese herbal medicine in the East, it has recently experienced a rise in popularity in the West. CHM continues to form a major part of the Chinese healthcare system and is provided in state hospitals alongside western medicine.

How can CHM help?

According to the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Chinese herbal medicine can help treat various illnesses including:

  • Skin conditions including eczema, acne and psoriasis.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome, constipation and ulcerative colitis.
  • Endometriosis and infertility.
  • Chronic fatigue and tiredness.
  • Asthma, bronchitis and chronic coughing.
  • Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Urinary conditions.
  • Psychological conditions including depression and anxiety.

Whilst there are studies that suggest the traditional uses of herbal remedies have a reduced risk of side effects, it is always advised to seek advice from your GP or medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle.

The herbs are often prescribed in combination with pharmaceutical medicine. This aims to correct the body’s imbalances by promoting the self-healing process, rather than to treat symptoms. In addition to providing treatment to help ease symptoms Chinese herbal medicine is often used to improve well-being. Traditionally, Chinese herbs are used to strengthen and enhance normal functions of the body and improve an individual’s daily life.

Some of the conditions commonly treated with herbal remedies include:

  • insomnia
  • poor digestion
  • constipation
  • headaches
  • fluid retention
  • anxiety
  • allergies
  • symptoms of menopause.

The benefits of CHM

People have used complementary or alternative therapy (CAM) for hundreds of years. Chinese herbal medicine in particular is chosen to treat many different health concerns. It is popular for its ability to make people feel better, or simply feel more in control of their illness.

Herbal medicines have often been promoted as a way to help you feel more relaxed and be able to cope with issues such as anxiety and depression. They are also thought to help improve the symptoms of conditions such as:

  • hay fever
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • menstrual problems
  • skin conditions.

You can expect Chinese herbalists to use a mixture of plant parts. A practitioner may combine leaves, roots, stems, flowers or seeds, according to their effect on the body. You will usually find these mixed with herbs and prescribed in the form of:

  • tablets or capsules
  • raw herbs and dried plants for tea
  • cream or ointments.

Chinese herbal medicine and cancer

One of the most common CAM therapies used by people with cancer is herbal medicine. According to Cancer Research UK, some studies have shown that up to 60 per cent of people with cancer use herbal remedies alongside conventional treatments.

Cancer Research UK refers to one study that looks at the behaviour, beliefs, knowledge and needs of people in the UK who take herbal medicines. The study looked at all of the current research, devised a survey and then put it forward to patients. The results of the survey found that people with cancer had turned to herbal medicine in order to regain some control and responsibility for their body. The survey also found that herbal medicines were sometimes preferred due to the reduced risk of side effects.

Relieving cancer symptoms or treatment side effects

There is no substantial evidence that herbal medicine can cure or prevent cancer. But there has been evidence that some herbal remedies may help to relieve symptoms of cancer and help ease the side effects of treatment.

However, much of the evidence is of poor quality and many studies suggest more research is needed. For example, one study looked at Chinese herbal medicine prescribed to people with small cell lung cancer. Researchers found that taking herbal remedies alongside chemotherapy treatment may have the ability to improve quality of life, yet more research is required before making any claims.

Cancer Research UK states that more studies from large clinical trials are needed to discover which herbal medicines can help and are safe to use alongside conventional treatment. Researchers at the Cochrane Library are currently looking into herbal medicines. They will focus on the potential to treat symptoms of breast, lung, pancreatic and stomach cancer.

What to expect from a session

If you are looking to try this form of treatment, the first step is to consult your GP or medical professional to ensure you are not at risk.

If your GP is happy for you to pursue the treatment, a consultation with a herbal medicine practitioner may be required. A consultation can last between one and two hours. During this time the herbalist will discuss your illness or concern with you. They may ask for your medical history, any medication you are prescribed and any symptoms or worries you are experiencing.

As well as your health, they may ask for a physical examination. This may include:

  • taking your blood pressure
  • feeling your pulse
  • looking at your pupils
  • feeling your abdomen.

The herbalist will consider all the health factors you have discussed and any concerns you have. The practitioner will be able to diagnose the cause of your concerns through observational signs and symptoms given by the body. Next, they will form a suitable treatment plan involving herbal remedies to stimulate the body’s energy flow and restore harmony. It is common to return to your herbalist two to four weeks later for a routine check up.

Are Chinese herbal medicines safe?

As with most medicines, Chinese herbs are safe to use when prescribed by a trained practitioner. Whilst the herbal remedies are natural, there is always a possibility of an allergic reaction if incorrectly prescribed. This risk highlights the importance of using a professionally qualified herbalist and discussing your medical history.

Traditional Chinese medicine has been practised for thousands of years. Throughout this time a vast range of information has been gathered on the various herbs, medicines and their properties.

2000 saw the Register of Chinese herbal medicine (the UK regulator of CHM) partner with Bristol Chinese herb Garden. They now regularly work with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to continue growing their knowledge of herbal medicines and the potential health benefits they hold.

Substances used in Chinese herbal medicine

There are currently over 450 substances used within CHM. Many of these are of plant origin, though some are sourced from minerals or animals. While some of the names are lesser known, many can be found in an everyday household such as ginger, cinnamon and garlic. Others can be found through common plants, for example chrysanthemum, peony and nettle.

You may not be accustomed to the taste of the herbs prescribed to you. You may find them tasting quite bitter to start with, but this is something you will likely grow used to. The majority of prescribed herbal medicines taken are internal, though there are certain prescriptions available for external use to treat skin conditions.

Buying medicines online

The risks of obtaining substandard, unlicensed medicines are increased when buying medicines online. Many unlicensed herbal remedies are manufactured outside the UK and may not be within our regulations.

Purchased medicines or herbs online hold a risk of containing banned ingredients. They may claim to be legitimate, but if made in unlicensed factories with no quality control, they pose a dangerous risk of containing toxic substances. Products that should be avoided include herbal products that promote weight-loss and sexual health improvements.

Many slimming and impotence tablets sold online have been found to contain harmful, unknown ingredients. These include:

  • Sibutramine – a drug withdrawn from the UK market in 2010 due to links to increased risk of heart attack.
  • Phenolphthalein – unauthorised for sale in the UK. Previously used as a laxative but has been linked to causing cancer.
  • Tadalafil and sildenafil – both prescription only medicines. These should only be consumed when prescribed by your GP or medical professional.

The cost of herbal medicines

The cost of your treatment and the herbs prescribed will be entirely based on the preparation you receive and your individual practitioner. It is advised you enquire about charges during the appointment process so you know what to expect. In terms of herbal medicines, concentrated powders and teas purchased in health food outlets can range from £10 to £30 per month. Whilst prices do vary, dried raw herbs are often more expensive reaching up to £25 for a week’s supply or £50 to £100 for a month.

What training and qualifications do therapists need?

Due to there currently being no law in the UK that states individuals must be qualified in order to access herbal medicines, anyone is able to call themselves a Chinese herbal medicine practitioner. However, the Department of Health is considering introducing statutory regulation for herbalists over the next year. Whilst the date of the change is yet to be confirmed, this could impact the training and education of Chinese herbal medicine practitioners.

Despite this, we understand it is always reassuring to know that your practitioner is working to a level of good practice. Professional bodies are responsible for making sure their members are doing just that. Individuals can choose to register with these associations.

In order to become accredited, the individuals must meet certain requirements and regulations set by the organisations. To be accepted into the body, they will usually need to comply with a code of ethics and complaints procedure. The requirements will depend on the organisation. These generally involve a high level of training, education and a certain level of professional experience.

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