Modern Herbs: Did we get it wrong?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about traditional approaches to disease, and it dawned on me; perhaps we got it all wrong with the modern approach to herbal theory.

In our effort to become more accepted by modern medicine, we are focusing more and more on chemicals in herbs, extracts, and specific percentages of “active chemicals” found in plants. While modern scientific research is important, that is not what we do as traditional herbalists. If we desire to get the results found in the classics, we need to understand the principles found in them and utilize them. Let’s look at this a bit further.

Herb capsule spilling out of a bottle on wood
What is the flavor and nature of that???

In Chinese medicine (pre-cultural revolution/modernization) the emphasis was on the qi of the substance – in this case, the flavor and nature of the herb (or mineral, insect, etc.). Likewise, in Ayurvedic medicine you have a similar concept as to the prana of the herb.

Things that affect the qi or prana of the herb are the geographical locations in which the herb is picked, the quality of the crop season (right amounts of sun, rain, etc.), and the timing of the harvest of the herb.

So, what is the qi or prana of an herb grown on a farm intended for rapid harvesting in a climate controlled building, and possibly grown with the assistance of chemicals?

What is the qi or prana of an herb harvested at the wrong time?

What about an herb that is further processed into a powder, with certain chemicals extracted, and then turned into a pill?

Is the flavor and nature still the same? Hell no.

Chinese herbalists learn that simply processing a herb with heat, vinegar, honey, or other substances changes the action of the herb, but we turn a blind eye to when the herb is turned into some sort of extract with a magical percentage of an active ingredient.

Now, I’m not saying to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I have certainly used extract-based formulas to good effect, but we need to pay more attention to what the classics have told us.

Why is it that in modern Chinese medicine we use formulas as an extract tablet or capsule when the traditional administration found in the classics says otherwise? Wouldn’t this change the flavor and nature?

Why, when using powdered extracts in custom formulations of Chinese herbal medicine, are many practitioners not paying attention to the extract ratio when creating a formulation? There is a big difference between 1 gram of powder of a herb that is 1:3, 1:5, or 1:10 ratio. In my clinical training I saw no regard to this fact. The entire balance of a formula would change by ignoring this. I do know many good herbalists who pay attention to this, but I would bet that the average practitioner barely thinks of it—plus, how do you memorize the extract ratio of an entire brand’s herbal catalog?

I hope that we all begin to think more about what the sages of the past are telling us, as well as our approaches to these ancient medicines—not from a western reductionist view, but as the scholar physicians we desire to be.