Chinese herbal medicine

Written by Emily Whitton

Emily Whitton

Therapy Directory Content Team

Last updated July 2022 | Next review due January 2024

Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) is the use of plants to restore the equilibrium of a person's energy forces. It's part of a complete holistic health care system called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which consists of various treatments.

There are two types of herbal medicine used in the UK - western herbal medicine and Chinese herbal medicine. Chinese herbal medicine works on the approach of the 'self'; it looks at your mental, emotional and physical well-being with the aim of restoring your body’s natural ability to protect and recover.

What is Chinese herbal medicine?

TCM and Chinese herbal medicine are 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 (invisible channels within the body) can become obstructed. This is often a result of stress, overwork, poor nutrition, environmental conditions or injury.

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

Therapists who offer Chinese herbal medicine

How can Chinese herbal medicine 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 (IBS), 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 treating 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 Chinese herbal medicine

People have used complementary or alternative therapy (CAM) for hundreds of years. Chinese herbal medicine 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:

  • hayfever
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • menstrual problems
  • skin conditions 

Chinese herbal medicine and cancer

One of the most common complementary therapies used by people with cancer is herbal medicine. According to Cancer Research UK, some studies have shown that up to 60% 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 bodies. 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.

Is Chinese herbal medicine 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 practiced 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.

How many Chinese herbs are there?

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 everyday households such as ginger, cinnamon, and garlic. Others can be found in common plants, for example, chrysanthemum, peony, and nettle.

You may not be accustomed to the taste of the herbs prescribed to you and 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 a 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. 

Chinese herbal medicine FAQs

1. How do you take Chinese herbal medicine?

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

2. How long does it take for Chinese herbs to work?

This all depends on the ailment you are seeking treatment for. Generally, you can expect to see results within two to three weeks of treatment. If, however, you are treating an acute problem such as a cold, you may see results within a few days. But, if you have a history of chronic health problems, treatment may be ongoing; your practitioner can advise you on time expectations.

3. When should you stop taking Chinese herbs?

Your practitioner will advise you on the duration of your treatment. It is generally advised to continue taking the herbs for the full length of the prescription, even if you are feeling better. If you notice you are feeling worse or are concerned you're having an allergic reaction, stop taking the herbs immediately and seek medical help.

4. Can Chinese herbs make you feel worse before better?

In some cases, you feel worse before you see improvements to your condition, for example, if the herbs are working on expelling pathogens from your body, this may present as looser than usual stools. If you are worried, you should also consult your practitioner and may be helpful to discuss what to expect before treatment.

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. 

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. There are, however, professional bodies that voluntarily regulate such therapies and it is always reassuring to know that your practitioner is working to a level of good practice. 

In order to become accredited, 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 but generally involve a high level of training, education and a certain level of professional experience.

When searching for a Chinese herbalist, it can offer peace of mind to opt for someone who is either a member of a professional body or has relevant qualifications and insurance. On Therapy Directory we ensure all our therapists provide relevant qualifications and insurance or are members of a recognised professional body.

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