In sickness and health

Western pharmaceutical drugs capitalize on a single biologically active ingredient to produce a specific physiological effect. This accounts for their potency and also for their secondary or side effects. Although drugs may control symptoms, they often do not treat the pathological process (i.e., antibiotics may eliminate bacteria but do not improve a person’s resistance to being infected; diuretics rid the body of excess fluid yet do not improve kidney function; aspirin controls arthritic pain without altering the degenerative course of the disease). Sometimes further aggravations or adverse side effects result (i.e., yeast infections may follow a course of antibiotics; kidney damage may result from long-term use of diuretics; lengthy use of aspirin may cause the lining of the stomach to erode, triggering internal bleeding).

Herbs can be used for both prevention and cure – like vitamins or food supplements, they maintain our health; and used medicinally they redress acute and chronic ailments.

With herbs, active ingredients are enfolded within the whole plant; this tends to buffer their side effects. Also, herbs are often blended together to counteract undesired effects and enhance intended results. Chinese herbs address the underlying condition as defined by traditional diagnosis and when used properly rarely cause disagreeable consequences.

Here are some examples in which Chinese herbs either complement or provide an effective alternative to Western drugs:

  • For years Gus had been on Tagamet and antacids for a chronic gastric ulcer. His Western physician could not explain the source of the ulcer but could help him control his pain. Medication often allayed his acute discomfort but failed to improve his condition, provoking unwanted side effects such as headaches, aching joints, and tiredness. Weary of medicine-induced problems and in search of a more lasting remedy, he came to our Chinese Medicine Works acupuncture clinic (in San Francisco). Gus needed herbs that would clear the Heat and Dampness from his Stomach, relax his Liver, decongest stagnant Qi, and increase blood circulation and regeneration of tissue. After using Chinese herbs, his pain dissipated and his ulcer healed.
  • Zoe had life-long asthma, and since her Theophyllin and broncho-dilator weren’t always sufficient, she needed to rely on steroids, which caused her to retain pounds of excess fluid. She longed for an alternative. Chinese herbs helped her eliminate phlegm by strengthening the Qi of her Spleen and Lung, and they helped her dispel fluid and build up her resistance by supporting her Kidney. She was able to manage her asthma with lower doses of medication and without further need for steroids.




  • Carlos had allergies. He constantly took antihistamines that left him too sleepy to perform optimally at work and caused episodes of dizziness and high blood pressure. With herbs that cleared Wind, Heat, and Dampness from the head and sinuses while moisturizing and decongesting the Qi of the Lung, Stomach, and Intestines, he was able to control his symptoms.
  • Liz had insomnia, sometimes for weeks at a time, and was on the edge of becoming addicted to Ambien. Herbs that harmonized the Kidney and Heart and nourished the Blood enabled her to regain a natural sleep cycle and reduce her level of anxiety.

Within our own household, Chinese herbs have become as fundamental as the potatoes and rice in our pantry. Spreading across our kitchen counter, small dark bottles of concentrated herbal extracts multiply as prolifically as the shrubs in our garden. Oblivious of boundaries, our herbs nestle comfortably in our kitchen, medicine cabinet, and clinic pharmacy.
–Harriet & Efrem

Many herbs are nutritive and cannot be distinguished from food. Like food they can be eaten because they are good for you rather than because there is something wrong and you feel ill. Other herbs do not taste particularly pleasant and function in ways we do not associate with food, such as ridding the body of something unwanted, like Heat (anti-inflammatory) or Dampness (diuretic). Herbs tend to have greater concentrations of non-nutritive compounds than foods (i.e., glycosides, resins, alkaloids, polysaccharides, and terpenes), and this contributes to their effectiveness as medicine, that is, a substance capable of promoting a desirable biological process or altering a pathological one.