Herbs for Health
The importance of herbs has been acknowledged by people of all nations, but the Chinese, through the infinite wisdom of the "Sons of Reflected Light", were given a wonderful start at understanding the value and properties of them. At around 3,000 bc, Shen Nung, later known as Huang Ti (the Yellow Emperor), drew up a list of hundreds of herbs and specified their useful and harmful properties After his death he was given the title of "The Divine Husbandman" (he is also credited with the invention of the plough and construction of the first wheeled cart, with devising various systems of irrigation, and with extending the arts of husbandry) and was chosen to be one of the gods of the apothecaries of China. He is probably best known for his classic of Chinese internal medicine, the Nei Ching, which to this day is widely consulted by physicians.
Since the reign of the Yellow Emperor the tremendous work of listing all the herbs and their properties has continued, and today Chinese traditional medicine recognises over 30,000 herbs and has at its disposal even more recipes for the use of them. The herbs are of course, subject to the Yin and Yang influences, as is everything else in the universe, and they can be used internally or externally or both at once. Their efficacy has been proved over thousands of years, but depends on the proper use of them (i.e. when and how they are taken or administered).
When being used internally, they can, for instance, be taken hot or cold, in the form of pills, powders, drinks or soups, depending on need. For certain complaints they may need to be administered before a meal; for others after; sometimes in the very early morning, on an empty stomach; and sometimes in the late evening after the last meal has been digested. According to the illness, a slow, gentle influence, working over a long period, may be required, or the need may be for a quick expansion, with rapid results.
Similar considerations apply to external use. Should the preparation be applied hot or cold, over a long period or a short period? How much of the body should it cover? Does it need to penetrate the body only a little way, or must it have a very deep effect?
Whilst the internal is Yin and the external is Yang, everything, as we have seen earlier, has something of both, and a balance needs to be maintained. That is why people living in the colder climates (Yin) should eat more Yang foods, whilst those living in the tropics (Yang) should concentrate on more Yin foods (always remembering that the food in question should be naturally and locally grown, and that nothing should be consumed in excess).
The ancient herbal textbooks classify the whole range of herbs into five categories:
- those that are nutritious and can be mixed with the food of a Ch'ang Ming diet;
- those herbs that can be used in medicines and are non-poisonous;
- poisonous herbs that may be used in very small quantities;
- herbs which can be used only for a short period of time; and
- herbs that can be safely used over long periods.
Most of the herbs that grow in the West are also known and found in China, but the size and climatic variety of China is such that many herbs that are found there do not occur in the West. In this chapter we shall concentrate on herbs that can be grown or are readily purchasable in the West, and shall pay particular regard to their health-giving properties. Shortage of space means that only a selection of herbs can be covered.
Cǎoyào Yao 草药 — Chinese Herbal Therapy
Throughout history, man has appreciated the importance of the vegetable kingdom in his life. It has provided him with food, clothing and numerous other products. In addition it has played an important part in the international economy. Thousands of years ago, medicinal herbs were being transported across China and India, and onwards to the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries. The Chinese fostered a very lucrative export business, in both herbs and other merchandise, through the many traders who dared to risk their lives on the long trek over desert plains, high mountains, dense jungle and along very poor tracks. The Chinese, then, have long been associated with herbal medicine and its spread throughout the world.
Through the infinite wisdom and teachings of the 'Sons of Reflected Light', the Chinese were given a really wonderful start and a unique foundation to their knowledge by being taught how to explore the great depths of herbal therapy, making possible the development of its vast potential in preventative and curative medicine. It was Shen Nung, however, later more popularly known as Huang Ti (The Yellow Emperor), the second emperor of China, who is said to have been the first to tabulate the useful and harmful properties of hundreds of herbs.
Shen Nung lived in about 3000 BC, and is said to have been influenced by the element of Fire (Huo). He has always been credited with the invention of the plough, the construction of the first wheeled cart, formulating various systems of irrigation, and furthering the understanding of husbandry, in addition to his highly valuable work with herbs.
After his death, Shen Nung was chosen to be one of the gods of the apothecaries of China, and was given the title of 'The Divine Husbandman'. His classic of internal medicine, the Nei Ching, is well known all over the world, and is still used by traditional doctors and modern physicians as a book of reference, although it has since been divided into two main sections, the Su Wen and the Ling Shu. The complete work covers twenty-four books and a total of eighty-one chapters.
Since the reign of the Yellow Emperor the tremendous work of listing over 30,000 herbs used in traditional medicine has steadily grown, but they are also listed under the properties of their roots and tubers, leaves and stalks, fruit and seeds, as well as the vast range of prescriptions that are available.
One of the most important works on this subject was written by Li Shizhen, with over 12,000 herbs and herbal prescriptions. It was first published in China in the sixteenth century. Not only was he a traditional doctor, but he was also a qualified herbalist and pharmacologist, and his writings, which were called the Compendium of Remedies (Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu), were the result of nearly thirty years of experience and practical work.
Even today in this modern world, the Western professions are quite surprised at the extraordinary number of herbal combinations that not only exist in writing in China, but are still used extensively by traditional doctors for the prevention and cure of so many illnesses. What many people do not fully appreciate is that all the herbs are also affected by the influence of Yin and Yang, for they can be used either internally or externally, and sometimes simultaneously. The results obtained over thousands of years have been well and truly proven, but naturally everything depends on their proper use, as well as a full understanding of their sphere of influence, their effects and whether they are of long or short duration, and also the length of time for which they can be administered.
For instance, when being used internally, they can be taken in the form of pills, powders, hot or cold drinks or soups, dependent on the particular illness being treated. For other complaints they may have to be administered before or after a meal, and sometimes in the very early morning before any food passes the lips, or it may be necessary to take them in the late evening after the last meal has been digested. Then it is necessary to consider whether an immediate effect is required, or whether it is necessary to have a slow progression over a much longer period.
The external working potential of all herbs has to be considered on the same basis. One must ask whether it is necessary to have a hot or cold application, or both, each following the other. If the latter, one must know what time-limits have to be adhered to, for long or short periods have to be considered, as each herb has its different characteristics. Some can penetrate quite deeply below the surface of the skin, while others only exert their influence to a point just below the surface. Then there is a further consideration to be made, namely, whether the application should cover as big an area as possible, or whether it will suffice to concentrate the herb's potential on a very small spot.
Whilst the internal is Yin and the external is Yang, everything listed above has its dual role to be considered, and because of this it will have a dual effect in its work, and in the results that are obtained in its application. That is why it is important that people living in the colder climates (Yin) should concentrate on eating more Yang foods, and those living in the tropical areas (Yang) should endeavour to consume more Yin foods.
The ancient and traditional herbal textbooks generally classify herbs into five categories, in conformity with the 'Five Elements' (Wu Hsing) as follows:
- Those that are nutritious and can be eaten daily with a normal Ch'ang Ming diet.
- Non-poisonous herbs that can be used in medicines.
- Poisonous herbs that must only be used in very small quantities.
- Those herbs that can only be used for a short period of time.
- Those herbs that can safely be used over long periods of time.
The majority of herbs that are grown in the West are also known and found in China. This is due to its great geographical diversity, which includes mountains in the north, tropical regions in the south, deserts in the west and a long coastline in the east. On the other hand, there are many herbs which are grown in China and yet which are unknown in the West.
- Black nightshade
- Bengal madder
- Burra gookero
- Caper spurge
- China Tea
- Chinese Dates
- Chinese Rose
- Chinese Yam
- Opium poppy
- Pearl Barley
- Pride of China
- Sesame seeds