The Pharmacopea of Traditional Chinese Medicine : 中药学

Medicinal Formulas:
are complex, well designed, infusions which can contain any number of plant parts, animal parts, sea creatures, shells, minerals, or fruit parts. A majority of the most common herbal formulas contain mainly plant parts including roots, leaves, flowers and stems. The formulas are designed based upon the presentation and diagnosis of the patient, as well the patient’s environment and predisposition.

The formulas’ functions and the individual herbs’ functions are categorized by flavors and temperature. The physiological response to an herb, root, mineral, flower, etc, depends on these two very important pillars of chinese medicinal formulas; flavor and temperature.The flavors, according to the Huangdi Neijing a.k.a. Su Wen Ling Shu or simply the Neijing, are acrid, sweet, bitter, sour and salty. The temperatures, according to the same classic source, are hot, cold, warm, cool and neutral. Most if not all of these concepts of flavors and temperatures will seem quite mysterious to a person who has not studied Traditional Chinese Medicine, however these are merely words to describe physiological responses to these medicinal elements. The ancients’ interpretation of what harms the body or what imbalances the body might experience, as a way to describe responses, found the medicinal elements, and onced placed in such an order, boiled and prepared in a certain manner (ancient chemists) and consumed by the patient, created a harmonization within the body. Let’s take a very small but useful example, that being ones physical, expressive and physiological responses to eating something spicy a.ka. acrid. The patient might start by feeling warm in the head, throat or stomach region, he might fan his mouth, or reach for a glass of cold water, she might start sweating above her forehead, and sometimes when consumed in abundance, I have seen some people have a sudden case of diarrhea. Some or all of these responses might sound similar to you if you have ever eaten spicy food. Acrid as a flavor for chinese medicinal elements is said to be able to move and disperse. And from the physiological responses of spicy food being consumed, one can easily make the leap to understanding the combination of flavors and temperatures to catalyze a physiological response which helps to harmonize a disharmony. Sweet flavor has the ability to build, slow and harmonize. Bitter flavor has the ability to drain, dry and make firm. Sour flavor has the ability to gather and astringe. Salty flavor has the ability to remove excess moisture or phlegm and soften hardness. These are translations from the Neijing, and although this use of the english language is not common, the underlying root meaning of the chinese characters have been studied and utilized in the treatments of whole cultures for thousands of years. This is to say that although the nomenclature of Chinese Medicine may seem completely foreign and bizarre (which it is for many), the value and effectiveness is nonetheless well researched and demonstrated.

Medicinal formulas as a form of treatment have various modes of delivery, the most common in China being an infusion boiled for 30 minutes to an hour and consumed as a drink 1-3 times a day on average. However, as most people in the occidental west are not very accustom to drinking such unappetizing infusions nor to the time-consuming preparation process, the mode of delivery tends to be in pill form. In many doctors’ opinions, both in China and in the west, the pills are noticeably less effective, less potent and not as versatile as the drinkable medicinal infusions. My thoughts on this are if the patient is completely adverse to preparing and drinking the medicinal infusion, taking the formula in pill form is better than nothing, however I too prefer the drinkable infusions. Granules are a mode that tends to be popular amongst some patients that don’t mind the taste of the medicinal infusions but do not have time to prepare it, which are dehydrated granules of the liquid infusion that can be dissolved in water. Other modes not often encountered in the occidental west are injections, patches, ‘congees’ or slowly cooked watery rice soups, or external washes. Each mode has it’s own specific benefit compared to the others, for example washes are infusions only for external use versus injections are for rapid treatment in extreme cases.

One last note, and a very important one indeed, the number of hours a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner must study and research herbal formulas is very well compensated in comparison to the number of hours a medical student must study pharmacology, the skill of prescribing such drugs and drug to drug interactions. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners must learn both the pharmacopeia of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the pharmacopeia of Allopathic Medicine. Of course students studying Traditional Chinese Medicine must study the pharmacopeia of TCM far more extensively than that of allopathic medicine. However in the curriculum of TCM, students must definitely learn and understand pharmacology on a level of chemistry, pathology and especially drug to herb interactions. Clearly, to consider oneself a practitioner of medicine, you must be able to collaborate with all other physicians helping the patient achieve balance and good health, and therefore understand the other possible methods exercised to help the patient, including pharmaceutical drugs.

Of course not every practitioner of TCM uses every tool available in their tool box, some practitioners may not feel comfortable prescribing herbs just as some MD’s may not feel comfortable using all of the tools at their disposal.

Medicinal infusions, when prescribed correctly and each infusion prescribed is personalized for each patient, are incredibly effective at treating disharmonies and imbalances at both the branch and root level (梗本 Geng Ben).