An Informational Medicine Analysis
of the Principles of Chinese Herbal Formulation
Part One
Introduction to Chinese Herbal Materia Medica

E. F. Block
August 2010


In the July 2010 issue entitled "The Hidden Treasure of Plants", the topic of a meridianal component to each medicinal herb was introduced. This issue will delve into this very important concept in detail with the view of expanding the understanding of both herbal formulation, with an attempt to show the similarities between Western and Eastern herbs, and the affect of herbal formulae on the human body-field (HBF).

Much information concerning herbs and herbal formulation from the viewpoint of Oriental medicine (Chinese herbal medicine) is available online using a variety of search engines. The same is true for Western herbal medicine. The concept of herbs having a meridianal component is mentioned but not, in the opinion of the author, adequately explained. The practice and utilization of Qi Gong in the R&D of the fundamental energetic relationships of the HBF to the development of Chinese medicine has been and continues to be a major contributor to understanding the growth of Oriental medicine for the last 5000 years or so. The same may be said for the Ayurvedic medicine of the Indian subcontinent and the practice of Yoga. Not so much in Europe but definitely in the USA, energetic medicine continues to be a taboo subject with the American Medical Association and the western pharmaceutical industry. It is Naturopathic medicine in the USA and Canada that continues and expands the European herbal tradition brought to North America beginning primarily in the 17th century.

So, this article is directed to the grass roots and seemingly underground members of the alternative medicine Western herbal practice of the Naturopathic and herbal Medicine genres. Hopefully this work will be a guide for the composition of Western medicinal herbs and their formulation for the benefit of those living in these troubled times. The work will also attempt to show the context of Informational Medicine (IM) to aid the understanding of the body of knowledge as a whole as it related to energetic medicine.

The Origins of the Basic Concepts of
Chinese Herbal Medicine

This topic is not really difficult to understand as much as seemingly strange to the Western mind since the role of the HBF in the affairs of human endeavor is now only coming into the awareness of the majority of present day Western peoples. Our ancestors did have an awareness of such matters but the combination of theocratic and political suppression has given us modern peoples a stilted and numbed sense of the reality of the energetic components provided by the Earth and the biosphere. Religious and scientific guiding of education in the West has limited the understanding of our God given World. Herbs are a specialized component of plants as foods. You eat foods to survive and you consume herbs to allay sickness. Foods are relatively mild in there affects upon the HBF but medicinal herbs have a much greater affect in altering the flow of energy within the body and influencing the HBF directly. With this said, let us continue.

In 1973, from the Ma Wang Dui Tomb # 3 in the Hunan province of China and dated at 168 BCE, material written on silk was discovered that appears to have been composed before the end of the 3rd century BCE dealing with exercise, diet, channel therapy and herbal medicine. The largest and most clear text was predominantly a pharmacological manuscript. Underlying the entire text was the view that disease is the manifestation of harmful energy sources (malevolent spirits) that needed to be repelled by both ritual and herbal prescriptions. Here we see the role of intent and the re-alignment of the disharmonious HBF as treatment in the more modern context of IM. The smells of the herbs were found to be important as well. Today we know that taste and smell (Aromatherapy) have a powerful affect on the psychological well being of people.

Then by the later Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), people believed in their ability to observe and understand the natural world and that health and disease were subject to the principles of natural order. Early concepts that now are what we now call physics, chemistry and biology were incorporated in the practice of medicine. The human microcosm was a reflection of the greater macrocosm. The Chinese "Classic of the Materia Medica" is the first book that focused upon the descriptions, properties and uses of individual herbs. Here the concept of "yang" and "yin" was incorporated. In the Qin Dynasty (221-205 BCE) there is mention in texts of the 5 tastes of herbs. Much research was done with herbs in an attempt to prolong life during and just after this time period. Thus preventative medicine as a concept was of early origin in China.

By 500 BCE, a book entitled "The Divine Husbandman's Classic of Materia Medica" describes the methods for preparation of herbal medicines, three basic categories of herbs (upper grade nourishing life, middle grade nourishing constitutional types and lower grade expelling disease), taste & temperature characteristics of herbs and their toxicity. Finally also the medicinal affects are described in terms of symptoms that they cause when ingested or applied externally. This is similar to the work of Samuel Hahnemann in describing his "proofs" with the concept of similars for the preparation of Homeopathic remedies.

During the 600's BCE, the concept of tastes and properties was expanded with the concept of Qi. The concept of energy content to counter a bodily symptom developed. The 5 temperatures are cold, cool, neutral, warm and hot. A "cool" herb cooled a "hot" or feverish person. A "hot " herb warmed a "cold" person and so forth.

The 5 tastes are: acrid, sweet, bitter, sour and salty. Also later developed the taste of astringent (to prevent leakage) and the taste (but really more of a temperature) of aromatic (to penetrate). Acrid and sweet tastes scatter energy and are "yang". Sour and bitter taste drain away and are "yin". Thus the taste determines the therapeutic function. The "Inner Classic" (about 1200 CE) mentions the prohibition of certain tastes for general disease symptoms: acridity travels in the qi and thus for diseases of qi, do not eat acrid foods/herbs; saltiness travels in the blood and thus do not eat salty foods with disease of the blood; bitterness travels in the bones and thus do not eat bitter foods with diseases of the bones; sweetness travels in the flesh and thus do not eat sweet foods for diseases of the flesh; sourness travels in the sinews and thus do not eat sour foods with diseases of the sinews.

The development of a linkage between taste and temperature for a therapeutic affect occurred over a long period of time. However, the most important linkage was that of particular herbs and particular organ imbalances that first appears in the 12th century.

For our purposes, the first mention of herbs entering specific meridians/channels (M/C) occurs in the 11th century in the text "Materia Medica Arranged According To Pattern". The herb is said to have a certain action because of the channel it enters. One must determine the correct qi, taste, yin & yang, thick & thin, pathologic factors and channel entered for the purpose of achieving a therapeutic affect according to the signs & symptoms and the constitution of the patient. This was the first attempt to describe the main therapeutic action of an herb in relation to the pathological changes in a particular channel(s) and organ(s). Of greater importance was the introduction of the concept that certain substances had the capacity to "guide" or "lead" other herbal constituents of a formula into a particular channel and to its related organ. This is a very crucial body of understanding that became expressed in detail in Chinese Herbal medicine.

The development of a combination of various schools of thought and theories of what we now call Chinese medicine then took place into these modern times. The techniques for combining herbs into a comprehensive formula was developed within this period based upon extensive empirical evidence and clinical practice. Techniques for cultivation, processing, preparation and discerning quality expanded into what is now known as modern day Chinese herbal medicine.

The Concept of Meridians/Channels of Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture

A very good review of this subject may be found here along with the two articles that follow this first of three.

The HBF is analogous to an onion in respect to layers extending from the inner core outward to the surface of the body and then beyond to about six feet. In the "Hidden Treasures" article it was stated that plants retain the magnetic moment of the mineral elements derived from the soil in which they reside, especially with that of the element silicon. Our ancestors grazed on the plants that were encountered in foraging for foodstuffs. The EMF that exists today was absent and allowed for easy detection of energetic patterns that resonate with the body, for food or as for medicine. All plant materials were smelled, tasted and experimented with for their effect upon the HBF and metabolism.

Yoga originated on the Indian sub-continent and traveled to Tibet. The relationship between Tibet and what is now known as China has always been a stormy one. However, the meditational practices of India and Tibet gained a following in China and became what is now known as the practice of Qi Gong. The understanding of the HBF and the knowledge of the early medical science merged into the basic underpinnings of Chinese medicine. Central to this medical conceptualization is that of the M/C system of energy flow in the body. The organ systems were also tied to the M/C system due to long observation and the results of clinical practice. Every herb in the Chinese medical pharmacopoeia is known to enter one or more M/C and the related organ system. This means that an herb resonates with (medicine) or counters (poisons) some aspect of the HBF and metabolism.

One must be very accomplished at the practice of Qi Gong as well as to be able to follow the affects of an herb through the energy M/C system after ingestion. This process took many long years and the efforts of many persons inclined to endure being poisoned repeatedly while learning the effects of the herbs consumed. Such persons are reported to ingest as many as five or six different herbs in any particular day. This is true dedication!

Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica

Various animal and mineral substances are included in the formal listing of herbs along with the greater majority of plant materials into what is now known as Chinese herbal medicine. This work will focus upon the herbal substances of Plant origin, in the main.

The compilation of individual herbal materials has been categorized into 18 sections:

  1. Herbs that release to the exterior - herbs that release disorders located in the very superficial levels of the body, most are diaphoretics (cause sweating) in that they cause the release or expulsion of the external pathogenic influences through sweating. The signature herb for the warm, acrid group is Chinese Ephedra stem (Ephedra sinica) and for the cool, acrid group it is Field Mint (Mentha haplocalyx) leaves and stems.
  2. Herbs that clear heat - febrile disorders and any condition showing interior heat signs, these herbs are "cold" in nature and have antipyretic, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial affects, The signature herb for draining fire is Chinese Anemarrhena rhizome (Anemarrhena asphodeloides); for cooling the blood is Chinese Foxgloove root (Rhemannia glutinosa); for clearing heat & drying dampness it is Baical Skullcap root (Scutellaria baicalensis); for those that clear heat & relieve toxicity it is Honeysuckle flower (Lonicera japonica); for herbs that clear and relieve summerheat it is lotus leaf (Nelumbo nucifera).
  3. Downward draining herbs - those that stimulate or lubricate the GI tract in order to facilitate the expulsion of the stool: classed into purgatives, moist laxatives and cathartics. The signature herb for the purgatives is Rhubarb root and rhizome (Rheum palmatum or R. tanguticum); for the moist laxatives it is hemp seed (Cannabis sativa); for the harsh expellants it is Morning Glory seeds (Pharbitis nil).
  4. Herbs that drain dampness - the accumulation of fluids in the body and the clearing of damp-heat; essentially these are diuretics. The signature herb for this group is Poria (Poria cocos).
  5. Herbs that dispel wind-dampness - these herbs dispel wind-dampness from the muscles, sinews, joints and bones to alleviate painful obstruction and invigorate the connecting channels; there are 4 main types: migratory painful obstruction (wind predominant), afflictive or very painful obstruction (cold predominant), lodged painful obstruction (damp predominant) and febrile painful obstruction (heat predominant); these herbs have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic and circulation promoting properties. The signature herb for this group is Pubescent Angelica root (Angelica pubescens).
  6. Herbs that transform phlegm and stop coughing - phlegm is the pathologic accumulation of thick fluid in the respiratory and digestive tracts, the muscles, integument and other body tissues; some of these herbs are expectorants and strongly stimulate the lungs. The signature herb for those that cool & transform phlegm-heat is Hogfennel root (Peucedanum praeryptorum) and for those that warm & transform phlegm-cold it is Pinellia rhizome (Pinellia ternata). For the herbs that relieve coughing & wheezing it is Apricot seed (Prunus armeniaca). For the herbs that expel phlegm by inducing vomiting it is melon pedicle (Cucumis melo).
  7. Aromatic herbs that transform dampness - in this case dampness means the pathogenic influences that cause stagnation in the organs of the middle jiao (upper abdomen); most of these herbs are warm, aromatic acrid and dry. The signature aromatic herb that transforms dampness is Patchouli (Agastache rugosa).
  8. Herbs that relieve food stagnation - the action of these herbs is to reduce or dissolve and guide out; herbs are of 2 types: herbs that clear heat and herbs that warm the interior; these herbs stimulate the digestion, posses enzymatic action and optimize peristalsis for better digestion. The signature herb that relieves food stagnation is Hawthorn fruit (Crataegus pinnatifida).
  9. Herbs that regulate the qi - the disorder of qi stagnation; these herbs unblock stagnant qi that is the cause of pain, especially in the organs and usually in the chest and abdomen; there are 3 major organ systems involved: stagnant Spleen and Stomach qi, constrained Liver qi and stagnant Lung qi; most of these herbs optimize the function of the GI tract. The signature herb to regulate the qi is Tangerine peel (Citrus reticulata).
  10. Herbs that regulate the blood - of 2 types: those that stop bleeding (herbs that stop bleeding due to trauma or due to internal capillary disruption) and herbs that invigorate the blood (relieve blood stasis) for pain due to blood stasis, abscesses & ulcers, abdominal masses. The signature herb that stops bleeding is Cattail pollen (Typha sp.); for those that invigorate the blood it is Szechuan Lovage root (Ligusticum chuanxiong).
  11. Herbs that warm the interior and expel cold - these herbs treat interior cold due to internally generated cold or to the invasion of cold pathogenic influences; these herbs are cardiotonics that also stimulate the vasoactive center of the CNS to stimulate blood flow in the organs. The signature herb for those that warm the interior & expel cold is Szechuan Aconite (Aconitum carmichaeli).
  12. Herbs that stimulate weak body processes - these herbs relieve deficiency of qi, deficiency of blood, stimulate the yang and stimulate the yin. The signature herb that strengthens the qi is Korean Ginseng root (Panax ginseng). For herbs that strengthen the blood it is Chinese Foxglove root (Rhemannia glutinosa) cooked in wine. For herbs that strengthen the yang it is Chinese caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps sinensis). For herbs that strengthen the yin it is Glenhia root (Adenophora tetraphylla).
  13. Herbs that stabilize and bind - these herbs are used for disorders in which bodily substances are discharged abnormally or internal structures slip from their proper positions; these herbs treat only the manifestation and not the cause. The signature herb that stabilizes and binds is Asiatic Cornelian Cherry fruit (Cornus officinalis).
  14. Substances that calm the spirit - these substances treat disturbances of the consciousness. The signature substances that anchor, settle & calm the spirit are mineral salts of fossilized bone and seashell. For the herbs that nourish the heart & calm the spirit it is sour Jujube seed (Ziziphus spinosa).
  15. Aromatic substances that open the orifices - these herbs are used to open the sensory orifices and awaken the consciousness. The signature aromatic herb to open the orifices is Stryax (Liquidambar orientalis) resin.
  16. Substances that extinguish wind and stop tremors - these herbs are used in the treatment of the internal movement of wind: headache, dizziness, tinnitus, irritability, vomiting, palpitations with anxiety and muscle twitches; these herbs improve circulation and speed nervous recovery. The signature herb for this group is the stems and hooks of the Gambir vine (Uncaria rhynchophylla).
  17. Herbs that expel parasites - these herbs are mainly used to treat intestinal parasites as flat worms and round worms. The signature herb for this group is the fruit with seeds of the Rangoon Creeper (Quisqualis indica).
  18. Substances for external application - applied topically for bleeding, inflammation, swelling, pain and oozing fluids; some promote healing of skin lesions and others stop itching. The signature substance for this group is mineral powder alum (KAl(SO4)2.12H2O).

Considerable work has been conducted on all herbs in the Materia Medica of CHM to determine the biochemical constituents and physiological properties of each herb. This has been done with the purpose of determining "The" active constituent of each herb with the view of manufacturing said active ingredient in the laboratory from compounds derived from petroleum. This produces the man-made and racemic mixture of the active compound. This is however, as has been discussed in previous articles, not producing the same state of the compound as those ingredients extracted with care from the whole herb. Man-made compounds are not conducive to the well being of the patient! Also, giving only the active ingredient is not as affective/effective as giving a synergistically acting group of compounds in a clinically recognized formula. When the author was pursuing a Doctorate in Behavioral Biology/Medicinal Chemistry, the professors to whom were to be my advisors always spoke of the synergistic effects of whole herb extracts versus individually isolated compounds.

Reference - Bensky, D. and Gamble, A., 1993, Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, Revised Edition, Eastland Press, Seattle