An ancient tradition with spiritual roots

Chinese herbalism has a history that can be traced back thousands of years. The most famous of Chinese herb books, The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic (or Huong Di NeiJing), may have been written in about 100 bce, but its origins are even older: the emperor for whom it was named ruled from 2,698 to 2,596 bce.

Since then, Chinese scholars have continued to document this complex and sophisticated method of healing, and traditional Chinese medicine continues to thrive today in mainland China, in other Chinese communities throughout Asia, and increasingly in the Western world.

The philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has its basis in the spiritual practice of Taoism (sometimes spelt Daoism), which teaches that human

1. Boxthorn (Lycium borbarum) 2. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) 3. Chinese haw (Crataeguspinnatifida) 4. Ginseng [Panax ginseng) 5. Schisandra (Schisondra chinensis) 6. Dan shen [Salvia miltiorrhiza) 7. Bitter orange (Citrus aurantium)

8. Dong quai [Angelica polymorphavar. sinensis)

9. Qing hao [Artemesia annua) 10. Chinese date (Ziziphus jujuba)

beings should strive to live in accordance with the rules of nature and emphasise the importance of balance and harmony. In keeping with the Tao teachings, the goal of all healing in TCM is to restore internal harmony.

This philosophy of returning the body

"He/who takes medioine/ Gsad neglects to diet wastes the/ ?J?iM> o^/ his doctors."

Chinese proverb to a state of balance in order to bring about healing is not unique to TCM - in fact, it is also central to the philosophies of Western herbalism and Ayurveda. But the methods used to achieve this aim in TCM are unique, and the concepts and practices involved can be quite difficult for Westerners to grasp, especially as they encompass not only herbal medicine, but also acupuncture, massage, diet therapy and healing exercises, such as qi gong.

The life force

The Chinese use the word qi (sometimes westernized as chi or ki) to refer to the life force that inhabits not only the human body, but also all aspects of the environment and everything in it. Qi is a moving energy, sometimes defined as 'breath' or 'air,' which also has many characteristics of fluids.

In the human body, qi is believed to flow along channels called meridians. These are not physical anatomical structures like the blood vessels, but nevertheless TCM practitioners can identify their locations with pinpoint accuracy so they can insert acupuncture needles in any one of over 500 individual points, affecting the flow of qi through the body.

Yin and yang

Another important concept in TCM is that of yin and yang, two opposite but complementary qualities that can be attributed to all things. The familiar circular symbol made up of black and white tear-drop shapes, each containing a small piece of the opposing color, is called the taijitu. It represents the dichotomy of yin and yang by illustrating that any two opposites are dependent on each other, and cannot exist in isolation -each requires the other in order to make up the whole.

Yin is represented by the black segments of the taijitu. It is characterised as feminine, passive, dark, cooling and associated with night. Yang is depicted in white in the taijitu, and has active, masculine qualities associated with heat, lightness and daytime.

A state of harmony exists in the body when yin and yang are balanced, but a relative excess of one quality (and the consequent deficiency of the other) causes an imbalance that can lead to illness and disease. Herbs and foods are classified according to how yin or yang they are, and the effects they have on

\yurvedic medicine

1. Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

2. G/mnemasy/vestre 3. Nigella (Nigella sativo)

4. Winter cherry (Withonio somnifera)

5. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) 6. Brahmi

(Bocopa monnieri) 7. Gotu kola (Centella asiatieo) 8. Tamarind (Tamorindus indica)

the body, and these qualities are an important consideration in helping to restore harmony and health.

The five elements Like several other ancient systems of medicine, TCM is based on a theory of elements or humors. Each of TCM's five elements or 'phases' - in reference to their cyclical nature - has different qualities, governs different bodily functions and can be influenced by different medicines and foods, with the taste of each medicine giving insight into which element or elements it affects. In addition, each of the elements - fire, earth, metal, water and wood - interacts with and influences the others in many ways.

Visiting a TCM practitioner

A TCM practitioner uses tongue, facial and pulse diagnosis, as well as your description of your symptoms, to determine whether there is an imbalance in the five elements, in the yin and yang of the body, or the flow of qi. The terms used can be quite bewildering to a Westerner, who might be puzzled to hear their practitioner make a diagnosis of spleen qi deficiency when they came for a consultation about their persistent headaches!

Depending on your individual needs, your practitioner is likely to prescribe herbs for you, and sometimes also a course of acupuncture. Chinese herbal formulas often contain numerous herbs, which are boiled together for up to an hour to make a traditional decoction that concentrates the herbs' flavors and medicinal actions. The full course of your treatment may be dispensed to you in a series of paper packets, each containing your daily dose.

Ayurveda, a traditional healing system from India, is an ancienl holistic health practice with many similarities to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). As with TCM. the aim of Ayurvedic medicine is to bring the body into balance. This is achieved through dietary change, the prescription of herbal medicines and also through meditation and yoga. "Ayurveda" is a Sanskrii word thai literally means "the science of living." reflecting the principle that an individual's health is their own responsibility and that the physician can only guide their patients.

Again, like TCM. Ayurveda is based on a humoral philosophy, but ihere are three elements, called doshas. ralher than five. You have all three of them in different proportions, and your constitution partly determines the ratio of each, but they are also affected by diet, climate and other lifestyle factors. Your doshas dictate your personality, the nature of the illnesses you experience and the types of food, herbal medicine and exercise that are best suited to you.

As with TCM. each of the doshas can be influenced by the tastes of the food and medicines you consume.

1. Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

2. G/mnemasy/vestre 3. Nigella (Nigella sativo)

4. Winter cherry (Withonio somnifera)

5. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) 6. Brahmi

(Bocopa monnieri) 7. Gotu kola (Centella asiatieo) 8. Tamarind (Tamorindus indica)

m \ata governs movement of the body and mind, and the functioning of the circulation, nerves, muscles and bones. It is associated with dryness, cold and wind. When vata is low. it can be stimulated by bitter, astringent and pungent tastes, while sour, sweet and salty tastes help bring it into balance.

■ Pitla governs the power of irans-formation. such as the conversion of food into energy, and has moist, hoi qualities. Associated with focus and concentration, it is stimulated by sally, sour, pungent tastes; sweet, bitter, astringent tastes reduce excess pitla

Kapha is binding, provides structure to the body and governs lubrication — for example, keeping the joints from getting stiff. Its qualities are earthy, watery and cold. Kapha is slimulatcd by sweet, sally and sour tastes, and suppressed by pungent, bitter and astringent flavors.

Science of herbal medicine

Herbal medicine is both an art and a science, combining centuries of tradition with modern research methods and analytical techniques. Where herbalists were once self taught or learned their craft by apprenticing themselves to a more experienced practitioner, many are now university trained, and their study includes elements of a wide range of scientific disciplines.

Continue reading here: The study of chemicals in plants

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