For centuries, people all over the world have been successfully using herbs as they realized that herbs provide a natural way of regaining and maintaining health. The Chinese have been at the front of the line using herbs long before the notion of producing chemically compounded pharmaceuticals had entered anyone’s mind.
In Chinese herbal medicine, it is most common to find several herbs used together in a formula. However, some herbs can be used alone and provide terrific results. Many herbs that are commonly used in Chinese medicine can also be found in our supermarkets and natural pharmacies. They can be administered at home to treat seasonal health conditions like the flu or help us stay healthy in the first place.
Today, I am providing you with 6 herbal remedies that you can find in health food stores, in online shops selling natural healthcare products, and at the office of your local Chinese medical practitioner. Stock these herbs at home and have them ready when needed. But be cautious: Even natural remedies might have unwanted side effects if not used properly.
Here are my tips on which herbs I recommend for your herbal cabinet at home and how to best use them:
1. Cinnamon/Gui Zhi
We think of cinnamon as a seasoning for baked goods, but it was mentioned in one of the earliest books (approximately 2,700 B.C.) about Chinese botanical medicine. Cinnamon is considered one of the most important circulatory herbs in Chinese medicine and is often recommended today.
Uses: Cinnamon is used to treat menstrual disorders such as abdominal masses, stopped or irregular menstruation, and abdominal cramps. It is also used to prevent and treat the common cold and upper-respiratory congestion. Gui Zhi (cinnamon) warms the body and invigorates the blood. Therefore, it is helpful with various circulatory disorders, including chest pains, palpitations, numbness and arthritis.
Cinnamon is easy to find at your local grocery store. Use it as a spice for cooking. Add cinnamon sticks to your favorite beverage. You can also boil cinnamon bark and make your own tea. The best way to make your own cinnamon tea (and many other herbal teas) is to put the herb in a pot, add enough water to cover it (more depending on how much you intend to drink), and bring it to a boil. Once it boils, turn the heat down to simmer and cover the pot for 15-30 minutes, strain, and if desired, add honey and/or lemon to taste.
Caution: Cinnamon should be used with caution by women who are pregnant or are experiencing heavy bleeding.
2. Ginger/Sheng Jiang
Ginger has been taken medicinally by numerous cultures for centuries. This amazing spice is anti-inflammatory, a digestive aid and has the ability to relieve many ailments.
Uses: Morning sickness, nausea, pain relief (ginger is a natural anti-inflammatory), heartburn, menstrual cramps, the common cold, cough and headaches. In my practice, I recommend that women who are trying to get pregnant drink ginger tea daily.
Ginger is wonderful for spicing up a meal or as a tea. You can find it raw or dried at most grocery stores where you will also be able to purchase many varieties of ginger tea but my favorite brand is Traditional Medicinals. If you would like to make your own tea, follow the instructions above for preparing cinnamon tea. Be sure to slice up the ginger root and, because ginger is so spicy, start with a small amount and adjust upwards, depending on your taste.
3. Goji berry/Gou Qi Zi
Goji berries are small fruits that grow on evergreen shrubs in the Himalayas. They are slightly chewy and have a mild flavor. Gojis have high fiber and the highest antioxidant powers of any berry or fruit.
Uses: In Chinese medicine, goji berries are used to nourish your yin, increase longevity, strengthen your immune system, improve your vision, protect your liver, boost sperm production and improve your circulation.
In recent years, the popularity of the goji berry (or Wolf berry) has soared, which makes them easier to find. Gou Qi Zi is widely available as dried berries or juice in natural-food stores. The berries are even available covered in chocolate! In traditional Chinese medicine, Gou Qi Zi is eaten raw or dried, brewed into a tea, or added to soup.
4. Astragalus/ Huang Qi
“Huang qi” means “yellow leader” because this long yellow tap root is one of the most important and widely used herbs in traditional Chinese medicine. Astragalus is deservedly popular because it stimulates the immune system.
Uses: This is a great herb for preventing colds, allergies and the flu. It also fights bacteria, viruses, and inflammation.
Astragalus works best as a long-term preventive measure. It is recommended to take it through the duration of the cold and flu season to enhance immunity and prevent illness. Astragalus can be found as a liquid extract or tea. You can also purchase the dried root in many Asian grocery stores. If you have it, you can boil it into a tea or add it to your chicken stock when making chicken soup.
Perhaps this is the most famous Chinese herb and with good reason! Ginseng is considered the king of herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, and practitioners have used it for thousands of years. There are different types of Ginseng and each one possesses different properties. They are all considered potent and because of this, when choosing ginseng for yourself, I suggest using caution.
Uses: Ginseng stimulates your immune system and fights fatigue. Research has shown that Ginseng helps the body adapt to stress – enhancing both physical and mental performance. Ginseng can also improve blood cholesterol, lower blood sugar levels, enhance stamina and act as an anti-inflammatory.
Ginseng can be found in Asian markets in raw form, dried in capsules, and in liquid extracts. When you take ginseng, be sure to use standardized products that contain at least 1.5% ginsenosides.
Cautions About Ginseng: Ginseng should be avoided by patients who are pregnant or have high blood pressure. In addition, ginseng may increase the effects of caffeine or other stimulants, which may cause sweating, insomnia, or an irregular heartbeat. It should not be used in conjunction with antipsychotic medications, steroids or hormones.
6. Hawthorn Berry/Shan Zha
These tart, bright red berries are very popular in Chinese culture. Throughout history, hawthorn has been used for its heart-healing qualities by the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and Native Americans.
Uses: In TCM, hawthorn is used to improve digestion, relieve food stagnation, abdominal distention and pain, as well as alleviating diarrhea. Hawthorn strengthens the heart and promotes the health of the circulatory system; it aids with fat metabolism, helps control high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In addition, hawthorn contains vitamin C and antioxidants.
Hawthorn is available as a dried fruit, in capsules, in liquid extracts, and as a tea.
With all Chinese herbs, it is ideal to consult with a Chinese medicine practitioner in order to find out what is best for you, so be careful when choosing herbs for yourself. Some herbs are known to react with certain medications or conditions. Therefore, if you experience any negative side effects, stop taking your herbs immediately and contact a qualified Chinese medicine practitioner or your primary care physician.
Tell me, which herbs or herbal teas (Chinese and others) have you tried in the past? Share your favorites with me and other readers in the comments below.
Jennifer Dubowsky, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist with a practice in downtown Chicago, Illinois, since 2002. Dubowsky earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from University of Illinois in Chicago and her Master of Science degree in Oriental Medicine from Southwest Acupuncture College in Boulder, Colorado. During her studies, she completed an internship at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital in Beijing, China. Dubowsky has researched and written articles on Chinese medicine and has given talks on the topic. She maintains a popular blog about health and Chinese medicine at Acupuncture Blog Chicago. Adventures in Chinese Medicine is her first book. You can find her on www.tcm007.com.