Understanding Herbs

“How would the thing studied describe itself if it had the ability to speak?”
– Edmund Husserl –

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
– Henri Bergson –

What it Means to Know Individual Herbs in a Practical Way

Congratulations.  Now that you’ve gone through the first sections of this website, you have enough contextual background in the history of herbal medicine and the language of herbs to go to the next level of knowledge.  If you are like most of us, the next thing you want to know is what the “best” herbs are for treating your particular health condition.  I have to laugh at myself when I try to define the word “best” for use on this website, as the field of herbal medicine is so vast.  At our clinic, my wife Nai-shing and I keep over 1,000 herbs from all parts of the world in stock.  This stock includes herbs from the three systems of herbal medicine we have both studied, TAM (Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine) from India and Nepal, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) from China, and Western herbal medicine.  We also have herbs from South America, the Middle East and Africa.

Simply stated,there are no “best” herbs. I doubt if 1/10 of 1% of God’s herbal gifts have been found and harnessed. However, for the here and now, when you watch doctors from each of these systems at work, as I have, you notice very quickly that they choose certain “great” herbs most frequently, based on their high levels of safety and effectiveness.  Many of these herbs are already famous.  One cannot imagine TCM without ginseng root and astragalus root, TAM without ashwagandha root and guggul gum or Western herbalism without echinacea and dandelion root.  These are the herbs I will discuss.  I have chosen more than 90 herbs that Nai-shing and I consider to be among the most useful available to us in effectively treating the common diseases we see every day.  About a dozen or so less commonly used herbs have also been put in for illustrative purposes. Remember, different herbalists use different herbs like different artists use different colors. If you can learn 90 herbs, you can learn as many more as you want.

How do you know which herbs are really effective?

I draw my knowledge of herbal use from numerous sources:

• Traditional teachings (the wisdom handed down from the past)
• Scientific reports from around the world
• My personal experience
• Clinical experiences of my patients
• Reports from other professional herbalists and their patients
• Intuition

Of these, the traditional teachings of the past and the clinical results experienced by my patients have the greatest influence on my herbal choices.  However, scientific finding often bring fascinating new insights into sharp focus, and I rely on them as well.

What are the premier herbs used by Ayurvedic doctors?

In Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (TAM), the Sanskrit word rasayana is assigned to herbs that, although powerful in their results, can be used safely and indefinitely with complete confidence and without side effects.  Rasayana describes an herbal preparation that promotes a youthful state of physical and mental health and expands happiness.  Rasayana herbs have high levels of both safety and effectiveness.  They are given to small children in India as tonics by their parents, and are also taken by the middle-aged and elderly to increase longevity.

Several of these herbs have been administered to animals to determine toxicity, and in some cases no toxicity is seen even when the herb comprises very high percentages. I saw one test of a rasayan herb where it was used as 25% of the fortunate mammal’s diet.  Such herbs do indeed exist.  You may have heard of many of them already, as they are quite popular.  They are as safe to consume as ordinary vegetables such as carrots and beets.  I hope to expand your knowledge of some of these herbs, and introduce you to a few jewels you have not encountered yet.

Are these the herbs used most often by Ayurvedic doctors to treat diseases?

Yes and no.  Rasayana herbs can be found everywhere in India and Nepal, and can be and are used by people of all ages and states of health.  Ayurvedic doctors rely on them heavily in their tonic formulas for longevity and to treat chronic diseases.  However, these herbs only form a moderate part of the expert herb doctor’s repertoire.  A good doctor from any tradition must know how to use many, many other herbs.  For example, niche herbs are uncommon herbs that only do one thing well, but are essential for treating certain conditions.  I have included some of the more important ones, such as ephedra.  Some herbs, as simple as black pepper or ginger root, are indispensable for helping to make an herbal formula work properly.

What are the premier herbs used by Western and European herbalists?

Many of the premier herbs used by Western and European herbalists generally fall into a category known as adaptogens, herbs that bring balance back to the body no matter what the direction of imbalance.  Some adaptogens will bring your blood pressure down if it is high, or bring it up if it is low.

Others will regulate your thyroid whether its function is high or low (Rege et al.  1999).  Soy products are good examples of these substances because they can be used beneficially whether estrogen levels are high or low.  If the body’s estrogen levels are low, the mild concentration of plant estrogens in soy will stimulate cell receptor sites (the on/off switches for cellular function).  Conversely, if the body’s estrogen levels are high, the same mild plant estrogens will block the more powerful human estrogens from reaching the same sites.  Thus, soybeans are hormonal adaptogens. They also contain phytic acid, and so can act as chelating agents for free metals in the blood.

Of course there are many, many others.

What are the best Chinese herbs?

You must remember that even the best Chinese herbs, such as ginseng root and dang gui root, cannot be used without some basic diagnostic information.  Herbal choices must be made based upon individual needs.  Following the Taoist philosophy of Yin and Yang–the balance and union of opposites–health is a means by which we balance and harmonize the conflicts we hold within ourselves.

Chinese herbs

Over a thousand years ago, the ancient Shennong Bencao Jing (pharmacopoeia of herbs) included a category of herbs suggested for use every day to strengthen vitality, increase energy and lengthen lifespan.  Traditionally, such herbs are established tonics that are safe to use over a long period of time because they are balanced in terms of Yin and Yang.  Many of them improve digestive function.  Such herbs are commonly used for fu zheng (immune tonification) therapy, discussed in our section on the immune system.

You’ve said that some herbs are very safe for long-term use, but what about all the others?

Truthfully, few herbs can meet the highest standard of an adaptogen or a rasayana herb, scoring high on scales of both safety and effectiveness for general daily use.  On this website I will point out to you such herbs by calling them Gold Standard.

There are many other herbs that are of great importance but must be used with a certain level of knowledge and caution.  These herbs, which have excellent results with no side effects when used properly, still harbor a slight potential for misuse.  Some are very safe, but are not particularly powerful or broad in effect.  Some herbs are very useful and very safe, but should not be used all the time.  Throughout the website, I will classify such herbs as Silver standard.

There are other herbs that, although extremely beneficial and important in the treatment of certain conditions, have a limited range of action or must be used with caution.  Mild or moderate diuretics, for example, may be very useful for a few weeks or months, but I do not see the sense in taking them for long periods of time.  I will classify these herbs as Yellow standard.

The final group of herbs will be classified as Red standard.  These Red standard herbs have certain essential properties that make them beneficial to many patients in states of poor health, but they also pose clearly defined dangers which must be known.  Such herbs should be used only under the guidance of a trained professional.

There’s one more thing.  I’m not sure any particular herb should be used continuously without a break, unless dictated by medical necessity.  The constant intake of the same foods is, I believe, a major cause of food allergy and other problems such as nutrient overload or deficiency.  TAM doctors place strong emphasis on eating foods during the correct season, which causes a natural change in dietary items during the year.  By the same token, I think it makes more sense to rotate even the best tonic herbs.  Don’t get stuck in the philosophy of using one herb for everything or using one herb forever.

Layout for “Herbs from Around the World” Monographs

“Knowledge is one. Its division into subjects is a concession to human weakness.”
– Halford John Mackinder –

I have more than 900 books in my herbal library, and I’ve learned that any fact you find about an herb may be somehow useful.  However, the way a writer selects, filters and presents information sometimes reveals more about the writer than the herb.  As a clinician, there are certain books that I have always found myself going back to again and again.  It took me a while to figure out why they stood out from the rest.  The best books are not all the same, because describing herbs is an art, unique to each plant and its characteristics.

In many ways an herb is like a person.  Descriptions are useful, but you have to get more intimate to really know the deeper truth.  With people this means meeting them to see if your personalities are compatible, and with herbs it means taking them to see if they “work for you or your patients.” I am going to offer the herbs from a variety of angles here, while at the same time trying to present the essence of each herb’s usefulness in clinical situations.

Let’s take a look at the layout I have chosen for the herbal descriptions that follow.

COMMON NAME                Latin: Genus species

WHAT IT DOES: Here I will give the broad properties of the herb including it’s taste, it’s heating and cooling properties, and specifically what it does to the body.

RATING: Here you will find the “color” categories explained earlier.

SAFETY ISSUES: Any warnings about contraindications; possible adverse effects caused by misuse, overuse or use by persons with certain medical conditions, etc.

STARTING DOSAGE: Recommended starting adult dosage and preferred form.

DISCUSSION: (One or more paragraphs)

As discussed earlier, Latin names are the most exact identification method, pretty much assuring that we know which herb we are talking about.  For our purposes, however, I will provide the common name first, in CAPITALIZED BOLD LETTERS, This will be followed by the Latin name, and subsequently the name of herb as it is known in Chinese, Sanskrit or another foreign language, indicating that the herb is used by those cultures.  This is important to avoid misidentification.

In the section called “WHAT IT DOES,” I will explain my understanding of the essence of the herb’s action.  Here I rely on traditional energetic descriptions that, in my opinion, are essential to realistic understanding.  Years ago, I received quite a shock when reading an early British author’s writings about Ayurvedic herbs.  This chap decided to leave out all references to Vata, Pitta and Kapha, which he decided had nothing to do with the “scientific” actions of the herbs.  I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.  The energetic attributes of each herb are time-tested global descriptions that are among the most important tools we have in herbal medicine.  It is these descriptions, more than anything else, that allow herbalists to select appropriate treatments in clinical situations.

Each herb’s “RATING” provides a designated color value for each herb, determined according to values of safety and usefulness, as discussed earlier.  This results in a color value for each herb–gold (almost always safe for daily use), silver (generally safe, but some limitations) , yellow (more limited use, best under direction of a professional) or red (be careful, should be used under direction of a professional). This is simply an additional safety factor for people reading this website, helping them to know when to be careful.

Following the safety rating you will find “SAFETY ISSUES,” highlighting any warnings, contraindications or special precautions.  Contraindications are specific cautions that provide reasons why certain people, such as pregnant women or persons taking certain drugs, should not use the herb.  Note that it is possible to have a gold standard herb which, while safe for use by most people, may still be contraindicated for some, such as pregnant women or people taking certain drugs.

I have also provided a “STARTING DOSAGE” for each herb.  This offers the suggested starting dosage for an adult, as well as different available forms of preparation for the herb.  Some herbs can be used in several different forms, while some work only as tinctures or in dry form or after undergoing special preparation.

Remember that the dosages listed are the approximate starting dosage when using the herb by itself.  When the herbs is used as part of a combination, the dosage will always be reduced.  In formulas, a single herb typically represents from about 5 percent up to as much as 50 percent or more of a formula.

My final section in each herbal description is the “DISCUSSION,” consisting of one or more paragraphs intended to provide you with additional details, research findings, and any other information which can round our your understanding of the herb.

For more information on individual herbs beyond what is on this website, you can go here.