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Monday, 18 August 2014

What is the difference between traditional Chinese herbs and western herbs?

Tiejun Tang, Jasmin Mulvey
Herbs have been widely used to treat disease all over the world. In China, the use of herbal medicine (HM) became an important part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In Europe and America HM gradually developed into Western Herbal Medicine (WHM). There are some commonalities and some differences between TCM and WHM. We compared the history, basic theory, function and clinic application of commonly used crossover herbs in TCM and WHM. Through this comparison we hope to build a bridge between Chinese and western herbalists, to exchange ideas and clinical applications of some crossover herbs.
History comparison
Human use of natural plants to treat illness can be traced back for thousands of years. Since the origin of humanity, our ancestors started to use herbs to relieve certain symptoms. The first classic about TCM theory is Yellow Emperor's Canon of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Huangdi Neijing). It was written during the Warring States Period (475 BC – 221 BC). Nearly at the same time, in ancient Greece Hippokrates (460 BC-370 BC) published the humoral theory which became the basis of WHM.
The first classic book about TCM herbs is Shennong's Herbal. It was written at early stage of Eastern Han Dynasty (AD25-220), 365 herbs were recorded in this book. The first classic of western herbs is De Materia Medica which was written between 50 --70 AD by Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek origin Roman physician. About 600 plants were recorded. Both TCM and WHM have a long history, their basic philosophy was established at nearly the same time – about 2400 years ago.  
Basic theory comparison:                   
Eastern and western cultural differences determined that from their inception TCM and WHM were based on different theories. TCM is based on the theory of Yin/Yang, five elements, Qi/blood, Zang Fu and meridians, and all the herbs are classified in Four Natures (Cold, heat, warm and cool) and Five Flavours (sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty). The hot and warming herbs belong to yang, suitable to treat cold syndromes; the cold and cooling herbs belong to yin, suitable to treat heat syndromes. The five flavours are matched to the five elements and five zang organs (liver, heart, spleen, lung and kidney). Each herb has a selective function to some part of the body. It may have strong effect on one or some meridians, but has little effect on other meridians. This is called ‘channel tropism’. For example, many herbs are described as ‘heat clearing’, but because channel tropisms vary, Huanlian (Rhizoma Coptidis) is used to clear heart and stomach fire; Longdancao (Radix Gentianae ) is used to clear liver and gallbladder fire; and Huangqin (Radix Scutellariae) is used to clear lung heat.
In TCM the 5 elements are linked with internal organs, people’s emotions, seasons, weather and environment.
WHM is originally based on the theory of humoral medicine, four elements, Physio-medicalism and the interaction and function of the entire body as a whole terrain. A Holistic patient oriented approach.

The following results can be obtained from the above compare:

1)  The origin and history of TCM and WHM is similar. They both have a very long history.
2) Although they are based on different theories, TCM and WHM both believe the universe is composed of some basic elements. Compare TCM’s five elements and WHM’s four elements: we find three elements are exactly the same. 
3) TCM and WHM both believe these basic elements are connected to internal organs, and related to people’s moods or emotions, the seasons, weather and environment.
4) TCM and WHM both incorporate holistic concepts; they agree that the entire body functions as an organic whole.
5)  TCM and WHM have many similar or exactly the same indications for some herbs. For example: Angelica (Danggui) was used as a blood nutrition agent and a menstrual regulator and female tonic; Ephedra Ephedra sinica (Mahuang) was used to treat asthma.  
6)  For some other herbs TCM and WHM have some different indications. For example: In TCM Mint (Bohe) is used to expel early stage measles, but in WHM it was used as a spasmolytic in some conditions; Ginger (Sheng Jiang) is used to treat nausea & vomiting in both TCM & WHM, but it is also used as an anti-platelet and antipyretic in WHM. In TCM’s opinion it is a pungent & warm herb, only suitable for wind-cold syndrome, not suitable for wind-heat syndrome.
7)  To explain the functions of herbs, TCM uses more traditional theory and terminology like yin/yang; cold/heat; deficiency/excess; qi and meridians; WHM uses more modern medicine terminology like anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-microbial, anti-Ulcer, etc.

Modern medicine mainly uses chemical synthetic drugs to treat disease. A lot of side effects have been found for most pharmaceutical drugs. Many drugs works well to treat one disease but their side effects may cause new diseases. In some conditions drug addiction and drug resistance are difficult to avoid. Humans need an alternative approach to maintain their health and life. Herbal medicine is a wise choice.
Herbal medicine comes from natural plants; flowers, seeds, leaves, branches, roots and barks.  Compared to chemical synthetic drugs they are much safer and cause fewer side effects. Some herbs can reduce the side effects of chemical drugs when they are combined together. The effect of herbs has been proved by countless cases through thousands of years’ practice. In the east and west of the world, our ancestors leave us a great treasure – herbal medicine.   It is our inheritance and our responsibility to develop this treasure and hand it down to next generation.

TCM and WHM are two main branches of natural herbal therapy. From basic theory to clinical indications they have many similar opinions. For a long time, the practitioners of these two traditions lacked communication, they practiced separately, and did not know much about each other. We hope this crossover study between two different subjects will bring about some new ideas in both TCM and WHM.