The Properties of Chinese Herbs

Chinese herbs are related to the five elements model through the five tastes. They also have a yin or yang profile, work on particular meridians and move in a particular direction inside the body. These characteristics determine the effect they will have upon the body.

The Four Energies of Chinese Herbs

The four energetic qualities of herbs, and their corresponding actions, relate to their perceived temperatures:
  • Cool or cold herbs relieve conditions where there is Heat in the body,
  • Warm or hot herbs relieve Cold symptoms.
  • Some herbs are neither hot nor cold, and in essence they describe a fifth energy, that of neutral herbs.

For example:

    Sheng Di Huang (fresh rehmannia root) is cool/cold and relieves Heat.
  • Rou Gui (cinnamon bark) is warm/hot and relieves Cold symptoms.
  • Huang Qin is a cold herb and is used to treat a range of disorders involving heat or characterized by fever, thirst, rapid pulse rate, and a red tongue with a yellow coating.
  • Shao Yang and Fu Ling (poria) is a neutral herb

The Five Tastes of Chinese Herbs

The five taste qualities of herbs relate to their action on the Qi of the body. These tastes describe the therapeutic effect of herbs:

  • Pungent / acrid herbs disperse and promote the movement of Qi in the body and invigorate the Blood;
  • Sweet herbs tonify and strengthen the Qi and nourish the Blood;
  • Sour / astringent herbs absorb body substances and control the functions of the Zangfu;
  • Bitter herbs reduce excess Qi and dry excess moisture;
  • Salty herbs soften lumps.
  • Some herbs, described as "bland herbs" are relatively neutral in terms of taste.

For example:

  • Hong Hua (safflower) - pungent/acrid - invigorates the Blood.
  • Ren Shen (ginseng root) - sweet tonifies the Qi.
  • Wu Wei Zi (schisandra fruit) sour - relieves spontaneous sweating.
  • Huo Po (magnolia bark) - bitter - dries and transforms dampness.
  • Mang Xiao (Glauber's salt) - salty clears constipation.
  • The classification of the herbal qualities into energies and tastes shows what each herb can do. However, these qualities are not absolute; they all exist on a continuum. It is thus possible to differentiate herbs in terms of their position on these energetic continua. A herb may be slightly warm, warm, very warm, hot, and so on, together with the other qualities of energy and taste.

    The "Movement" of Chinese Herbs

    Since herbs are said to move through the energetic system of the body, specific herbs can be used to target specific parts of the body, or to facilitate the movement of other active herbal ingredients. The four basic "movements" are as follows:

    • Herbs that ascend and float tend to move upward and outward, influencing the top part of the body and the extremities.
    • Herbs that descend and sink, on the other hand, move both downward and inward, influencing the lower part of the body and the interior.

    For example:

    • Jie Geng (the platycodi root or "balloon flower") - ascending - opens and dispels Lung Qi.
    • Da Huang (rhubarb) descending - relieves constipation.

    In reality these functional tendencies involve the complex interaction of the basic energies and tastes. In addition, the manner in which herbs are processed also influences their function. For example, frying a herb encourages ascending action, while preparing a herb with salt promotes a descending action.

    Chinese Herbs 'Entering' The Channels

    In Chinese herbal medicine, individual chinese herbs are thought to "enter" specific channels or meridians and are therefore targeted toward the Zangfu system associated with that channel. It is probably more accurate to state that specific herbs energetically influence particular Zangfu systems in the body. For example, when it is said that the herb Da Zao (Chinese date) enters the Spleen and Stomach channels, it is suggested that the function of the herb relates to the function of these organs in terms of the theory of the Zangfu. Da Zao is therefore used by herbalists to tonify the Spleen and augment the Qi.

    The practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine has to consider how the energetic qualities of a herb, in terms of the Four Energies and the Five Tastes, interact to describe its function and action. At the same time, the practitioner must be aware of which Zangfu system is being influenced. A Chinese herbal formula is a complex cocktail of energetic qualities, functions, directions, and foci, and it takes skill to pitch ingredients and dosage at the correct level in order to address the symptoms of a patient's disharmony.

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