For many patients of Chinese herbal medicine, taste is the biggest clue they are receiving a different kind of medicine. Unlike flavorless pharmaceutical pills, Chinese herbal formulas taste like the plants they come from — sharp ginger root, sweet citrus peel, fragrant cardamom seeds and other deep, earthy flavors less familiar to the Western tongue.
Those tastes speak to the astonishing history of Chinese herbalism, a field that uses 1,800-year-old texts such as the Shang Han Lun that healers have learned from since the Han dynasty. Modern-day Chinese herbalists combine those time-tested formulas with modern evidence to provide a medicine effective for a broad range of conditions.
"It's a very personalized medicine," says Allen Sayigh, MAc, LAc, manager of the Chinese and Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Dispensary at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the teaching clinic of Bastyr University. "There are classical herbal formulas, but the art comes because each patient is different. So we adjust the formulas for them."
Sayigh leads the dispensary in filling orders from practitioners at Bastyr Center and elsewhere. He draws ingredients from row upon row of glass jars, blends personalized formulas, and presents them to customers with instructions on how to take them.
Most patients brew their blend as a tea — the most effective method. They can add honey if they like, or interpret the flavor as a sign of the potency, Sayigh says. The dispensary also provides powdered extracts and pills for patients who prefer them.
Bastyr's dispensary receives its herbs from China through an experienced importer, which brings several advantages. First, the importer verifies that ingredients are free from sulfides and pesticides. Second, many herbs undergo independent testing for heavy metals. Many herbs are also available in organic forms. The arrangement also ensures herbs that are foraged in the wild are collected using sustainable practices.
Like acupuncture, Chinese herbalism rests on the concept of qi ("chee"), the underlying life force that runs through the body. Chinese medicine understands the body as permeable to the surrounding climate, so it can become too hot, cold, damp or dry.
Herbal formulas can correct that imbalance. Practitioners often suggest them alongside acupuncture, but not always.
"Many people think of acupuncture when they think about Chinese medicine, but Chinese herbal medicine can be used independently from acupuncture,” says Sayigh, who is also a clinical supervisor at Bastyr Center.
Chinese herbs are useful for many conditions, including ones that Western medicine struggles to address. Chief among them are chronic conditions like digestive troubles, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, menstrual cramps, headaches, cardiovascular health, gynecological disorders and men’s health. They are also popular for colds and flus, respiratory ailments, fertility issues and psychological disorders.
Most importantly, Chinese herbal medicine can be used to correct imbalances before they become full-blown diseases, says Sayigh.
At Bastyr Center for Natural Health, experts in the acupuncture and Oriental medicine department prescribe Chinese herbs both as a complement to acupuncture treatments and as a primary form of therapy. Acupuncture patients also may request a coupon for a free Chinese herbal medicine appointment at the clinic.
Expect your first Chinese herbal medicine appointment to last one hour, with follow-up appointments lasting a half-hour. During the appointment, you will be asked many detailed questions about your symptoms and lifestyle patterns. Inspection of the tongue and palpation of the pulses at the wrist will also be included in the diagnostic work-up.
To make an appointment at Bastyr Center, call (206) 834-4100.
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