Are essential oils (EOs) the answer to the challenging questions
of how to locate, transport, store, and prepare Chinese herbs? I'm
starting to think so. The more I use EOs in everyday life, in
everything from cleaning my kitchen floor to healing skin wounds,
and even to give my beer that summery citrus flavor, the more I see
the large overlap between EOs and Chinese herbs.
As a student of Acupuncture and
Oriental Medicine (AOM), mostly derived from Traditional
Chinese Medicine (TCM), I respect and value the efficacy of a
freshly decocted batch of raw Chinese herbs. I know they work, I've
gained a basic understanding of why they work, but I struggle with
the practicality of using them either for my family now or for a
future patient population.
What are these challenges? First, there are a lot of "herbs" in
TCM's Materia Medica (book of medical substances, whether plant,
animal, or mineral derived). To stock a shoebox-sized amount of
just most of them would require a very large storage room.
Some need to be refrigerated, some need to be pulverized just prior
to use, and some are illegal to use in the United States. No
rhinoceros horn for you!
Finding them--even the
legal ones--presents yet another stumbling block. Should you order
online, feign condition after condition to cache all the prescribed
herbs you can squeak out of your clinician at school? Drive to
Chinatown and take a stab at which shop has fresh, safe and
affordable herbs? Sure enough, within a few days of making each
trip to Chinatown myself I realize, "DOH! Now I need
that other herb, too!" Back in the car....
After a year or so of engaging in this disorderly and expensive
game of cat and mouse, I'd tried all (well, most) of these
tactics--even growing some of my own! All legal, of course. Think
"mint," not "ephedra." So, what's an AOM student to do? For the
past year, this one's been exploring the way that high-quality EOs
could fulfill many of the same needs as our Chinese herbs. How?
Well, I'm not entirely sure that the properties translate exactly,
but many sure seem to do just that. Let's take a look at our good
Chinese name: Bo
he. Common English name: Field Mint. Latin name: Mentha
piperita. Same plant...same medicinal properties? I argue
"yes." Most basically, peppermint is "cold" in nature. Both West
and East agree on that. TCM goes on to add other attributes such as
aromatic, acrid, and thus capable of dispelling the common
wind-heat invasion (think: yellow snot and sore throat). My western
manual of EOs describes peppermint as "anti-inflammatory,
antibacterial and invigorating," with primary uses including
"congestion, fever, influenza, heartburn."
Sure, the harvesting, processing, and distillation processes
change, emphasize, or even exclude some of the chemical
constituents, and the final usable product of dried bo he
differs greatly in appearance from the bottle of peppermint EO.
Does that mean they function differently, though? I used to
harvest, dry, and lightly decoct my own bo he when I felt
a wind-heat invasion coming on. It worked, as long as I was at home
with my own garden and had some time to prepare it all. Lately,
I've been easily reaching into my oils cabinet and tapping two
drops of peppermint EO into a mug of warm water. Instant peppermint
tea? Definitely. Instant medicinal answer to a wind-heat invasion?
I say yes again, based on my own experiences.
I'm not a chemist or a doctor, but in my experience
and increasingly informed opinion, I'm finding that EOs can make a
handy substitute for Chinese herbsin many cases. As with raw herbs,
quality is of upmost importance when selecting an EO company.
Storage, convenience and ease of use are all in favor of EOs, but
they are limited in number. I haven't found one called "gecko" or
"scorpion," or especially "Bear Gall Bladder," all of which are
clutch entries in a TCM Materia Medica.
Conclusion: If you can manage to live and treat without the more
exotic or illegal Chinese herbs, then EOs might be a practical
substitute much of the time. Imagine the difference between handing
a patient a bag full of raw ingredients, a pictorial instruction
sheet, and a handshake full of hope that they can execute the
cooking process effectively vs. handing the patient a small bottle
of EO and the simple instructions to put two drops into a mug of
Extra considerations abound; this post cannot attempt to cover
every angle or offer every comparison point. Granule or patent
pills can make Chinese herbs more practical, while some EOs are
quite expensive to purchase. Frankincense can easily run $100 per
15 ml bottle. Hey, if it's good enough for the Christ Child, you're
going to have to pay up! There are also some pesky mind-blocks when
trying to move seamlessly from one medical paradigm to the other.
How could a TCM practitioner possibly use hot cinnamon bark and
clove bud for a yellow-snot, sore throat sinus infection? Yet,
that's exactly what the EO prescription is in that case. Homeopaths
have no qualms with the theory of treating heat with heat, but
that's not the plan in AOM!
For now, I'll chalk this entire idea up to just another piece of
evidence that an integrated approach to healthcare is truly the
best option. Taking what works from any and all medical systems
offers our patients the most options for being well. I'm open to
Think it's too difficult for you? I think you're wrong. File
this post away under the "if I can do it, you can do it" series.
Unfortunately, this practical how-to post is the result of someone
actually needing to use raw Chinese herbs to feel better--and that
someone is me.
Remember that whole "damp-heat
in the gall bladder" thing from a couple of weeks ago? Yep, me
too. Turns out, I still have that going on. Yes, I self-diagnosed
and self-treated in near silence. Did I say I was good at this? I'm
sorry. No. I'm a student. I know close to nothing. In my defense,
upon an actual visit to the NUHS AOM clinic to exercise my
student-access-to-free-care privilege, I learned that I nailed my
diagnosis and was only one off in my acupoints selection plan.
Ingredients for Treatment
I was indeed on my way towards getting back to normal, but not
quite there yet. No. What I needed was a boost -- a big powerful
boost in the health direction. I needed herbs from Dr. Cai. After
showing my tongue and displaying my pulsating wrists to the masses
of interns, I left the clinic with my trusty sack of Chinese herbs.
At Dr. Cai's request, I also needed to add in a slice of fresh
ginger and three red dates with each batch, which I happened to
have on hand.
Many people would peer into this bag thinking, "What the heck do
I do with this pile of roots, bark, mushrooms, berries, and other
unidentifiables? Technically, there could be geckos and cicada
shells in there...shudder. In fact I refuse to look up everything
in the formula shown on my receipt just in case therearegeckos and
cicada shells in there.... So, here it is--your pictorial
step-by-step guide to using raw Chinese herbs in a decoction. This
is the instruction sheet that goes home with the patient.
Instructions for Cooking Chinese Herbal Formula
What this is trying to say is dump one batch of the herbs into a
pot, soak it, bring it to a boil, then simmer to reduce the liquid
to a drinkable amount. Now, you'll want to find the perfect balance
between "disgusting taste" and "effective dose," and that
isnoteasy. You know you want to concentrate the liquid for potency,
but you also know that you're increasing the taste by the same
Before Cooking and After Cooking
Most herbal decoctions do not taste good. Face it. Most of us
are damp. We eat dairy and fried foods (mmmm...fried dairy), and we
end up with damp-heat. Thus, we need bitter herbs much of the time.
Who's the lucky fella who gets a simple Spleen Qi deficiency
diagnosis that results in a sweet licorice and berries formula to
take home? Not this guy!
So, I soak my bitter herbs, I boil my bitter herbs, I simmer my
bitter herbs. I drink my powerful decoction, and I go to sleep to
let my body do its thing. I wake up a little better, and I know I
have five more nights of chugging down my "bedtime tea" before my
tongue can register just how gross it really tastes.
I could avoid much of the "hard work" in this process by
requesting my herbs in granule form (like a dusty powder that you
stir in warm water to dissolve). But then I'd lose a little
potency. I could avoid all the work and the taste
by requesting a patent pill formula, but then I'd lose even more
potency. No thanks, weak sauce. I need the most full-strength
option known to man -- ancient Chinese man, specifically. I need to
decoct my raw herbs!
Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) better than conventional
western medicine? Would a provider of oriental medicine and
one of the ayurvedic traditions treat a patient the same
way? Do naturopaths diagnose the same medical conditions as
The answer to each of these questions is probably a solid
The point is that one medical system is not
necessarily better than another. Each of the above-mentioned
categories exist as an entire medical paradigm, complete with its
own unique way of diagnosing and treating an array of
health-related issues. Did you know that your chiropractor could
give you a pelvic exam, ladies? Did you know that your naturopathic
doctor could give you a spinal adjustment? And what about those
herbs? Why do western naturopaths have a different materia
medica than we students of oriental medicine do? Is slippery
elm awesome? I'll never know. And neither did the ancient Chinese,
because it didn't grow there.
We've all heard that there is competition between the students,
all graduating in Lombard at the same moment, as they get dumped
out into a market that becomes more and more saturated every day.
We all feel it from time to time -- a student of acupuncture who
assumes her classes are 10,000 times more difficult than that of
the massage student down the hall; the chiropractic intern who
thinks he's way more important than any acupuncturist in the
clinic; or the naturopath who points out that she can do everything
a chiropractor can do and more!
Are they all right? Or are we all just egotistical jerks? Again,
the answer is an unreassuring "sometimes."
What I'm learning at NUHS is the unmistakable value
of the various medical systems. My friends ask me if I scrape my
tongue daily or if I've dabbled in oil pulling. No and no, I tell
them. That's from the ayurvedic traditions of India, not the
ancient Chinese medicine that I'm studying. Does that mean I don't
think these practices have merit? Nope. I'm sure they do...I'm just
not learning about them in my program. I've actually tried oil
pulling, but I'm fairly certain I did it wrong, and I swallowed,
which I learned later defeats the point. Whoops. I also love
essential oils, and I frankly have no idea which tradition claims
What are we learning in the MS in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
program at NUHS? I've memorized hundreds of acupoints -- well,
a good chunk of them anyways -- and dozens of Chinese herbs, I
finally realized that ginger and garlic are making it
worse when I have a heat invasion, and I'm piecing
together why a point on my inner wrist is so helpful for my heart
palpitations. I finally learned how to spell "ayurvedic," and I
hope I can pronounce "naturopathy" correctly most of the time these
More importantly, I'm also learning that the
"competition" chatter has a much bigger bark than bite. We students
of oriental medicine like you students of chiropractic,
naturopathy, and massage therapy, and I feel fairly confident
assuming that you guys like us, too. In fact, the sheer number of
students who dual enroll in more than one program at NUHS proves
this point for me.
I value what the other practices and traditions bring to the
overall health and well-being of the patient. I don't expect that
I'll offer a patient the same knowledge and services that an ND or
an MD does; I'll offer them something almost entirely different in
fact. And that, my friends, is the point. We have a better shot at
helping people if we work together, value each other's
contributions and specialties, and keep an open mind to things that
might sound crazy at first. Energy crystals...what?!
It's already second
nature. When I see people, I see tongues. I notice when the actor
in the movie on the big screen has a thick white coat. I try to
sneak a peek at my friends' tongues when we're having a casual
conversation. If there's a thick yellow coat, I subconsciously take
a step back and continue our conversation from a safer distance.
I've actually had dreams about analyzing someone's tongue shape,
size, color, and coat.
Why am I haunted by tongues? As a student of acupuncture and
oriental medicine, I've taken classes on how to evaluate various
tongue appearances and use that valuable, albeit gross, information
when formulating a diagnosis about the patient's overall condition.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the tongue and pulse are
integral pieces in the puzzle of health and wellness.
The 2,000 year-old classic "Huang Di Nei Jing", translated as
"The Yellow Emperor's Inner Cannon," offers around 60 quotes about
the tongue. We are instructed to examine the exterior, including
the orifices, in order to gain a clear picture of the interior.
Specifically, the tongue can reveal problematic areas or functional
systems within the body, such as stagnated Liver Qi or an
accumulation of dampness. Not everyone in oriental medicine relies
on the "stick out your tongue" method when diagnosing patients,
though. Different practitioners place a varying amount of
importance on the tongue's appearance. One professor even told us
to treat the tongue appearance as a "tie breaker" if you are
wavering between two diagnoses.
As a result, we students study the tongue diligently, searching
for heat prickles, digging for signs of sublingual dilation. If we
see a thick tongue with a white coat and scalloped edges, we feel
fairly confident suggesting that the patient suffers from Spleen Qi
deficiency. If you see a purple tongue with ventral dilation that
gives you nightmares of giant black caterpillars crawling towards
you, then you check into the patient's Liver Qi stagnation issues.
Unfortunately, what you see in the average person's mouth is a
combination of every diagnosable characteristic you've ever
learned. In other words, it's not as easy as it sounds!
I'll leave you with this tongue conversation that I had today
with my 3-year-old son. Yes, even toddlers are getting in on the
trend of diagnosing tongues these days! Enjoy...
Me: Let me see your tongue, buddy. (I look at the normal
beautiful tongue that only children seem to have.) Thanks, it looks
Him: Thanks, Mom. Show me your tongue now. (I stick out the
mess that we adults always seem to have.) Whoa! Yours looks bad. It
looks like a pirate ship... with windows... and people... and a
volcano... and some beds!
Go ahead...check out some tongue info here: http://www.sacredlotus.com/diagnosis/tongue/
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