Balancing Act: The Yin and Yang of Chinese Herbs
By Gerald Kinro

Photos by Andy Katz

Betty Jay had endured painful and prolonged menstrual periods for three months. With no relief from Western medicine, she turned to an acupuncturist. After four treatments, supplemented with Chinese herbal therapy, she claims full recovery and renewed energy. Jay is just one of the growing number of Westerners opting for Oriental medicine—some for severe conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and cancer. But just what happens when East meets West in the medical middle?

Herb Orientations
Oriental medicine, or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), differs from what we are used to in the West. In Chinese Tonic Herbs (Japan Publications), author Ron Teeguarden describes its basis. The energies yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) flow through our bodies via meridians, or energy pathways. Each of our 12 meridians corresponds to areas of the body; these include lungs, large intestine, stomach, spleen, heart, small intestine, bladder, kidneys, sex organs, gallbladder, liver and triple warmer, an energy system. All ailments reflect an imbalance between yin and yang.

Yin energy is cold, feminine and represents passivity and a static condition. This frigidity does not reflect body temperature, but it does represent the energy condition of a person or an organ function. A cold person has reduced functions and less resistance to physical and mental stress than a warm person.

"He or she appears listless, sluggish and fatigued," says Hawaii-based practitioner Jack Burke, N.D., trained in both Western medicine and TCM.

By contrast, yang energy is masculine, hot and represents excess. A hot person has overactive functions and experiences physical and emotional over-reaction to pathogenic and other stresses. He or she is often nervous, agitated and angry. "There is energy present in the person," says Burke, "but there is nowhere for it to go."

A TCM practitioner diagnoses energy levels by observation, questioning and touch, then corrects these imbalances. Treatments may not necessarily occur at the apparent affected site but may, instead, involve nutrition, acupuncture, massage and/or herbs. When a person is balanced, each organ functions properly and all organs work in concert.

Herbology Basics
When the treatment involves herbs, it's best to learn herbology basics. According to The American Association of Oriental Medicine's Complete Guide to Chinese Herbal Medicine (Berkeley Publishing Group) by David Molony, Ph.D., several important properties of herbs include their characteristics, organ affinity and taste.

Molony lists five characteristics and five tastes. The characteristics are hot (yang), warm (yang), neutral (yang or yin), cool (yin) and cold (yin).

Diagnosis and prescription are complex. As a general rule, hot and warm (yang) herbs treat yin or cold conditions, while cold and cool (yin) herbs remedy yang or hot conditions. In addition, yang herbs move energy upward in the body and to its surface. Yin herbs move energy downward and to the interior.

Each taste generally has an affinity for a particular meridian or meridians, according to Molony. Herbs, therefore, are selected to affect the appropriate meridian. The tastes, along with their organ affinities, include:

  • SOUR / Liver and gallbladder
  • BITTER / Heart and small intestine
  • SWEET or BLAND / Stomach and spleen
  • SPICY / Lungs and large intestine
  • SALTY / Bladder

There are more than 1,000 herbs in Chinese medicine. Herbs may dispel, act as an astringent, purge or tonify. Burke says tonics such as ginseng (Panax ginseng) are the most important, for they strengthen and build health. Tonics are usually taken by those in reasonably good health, but they can also remedy serious conditions. See "Chinese Herbs" for a list of several common herbs along with their properties and uses.

Mix and Match
"Taking individual herbs is acceptable, especially for health maintenance," says Ying Wang, M.D., trained in both Eastern and Western philosophies and an instructor of Oriental Medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash. "However, many take single herbs with only partial information."

TCM practitioners prescribe mixtures of herbs to avoid giving a client too much of one type of energy. For example, a hot herb is matched with something cooler to protect the yin and to maintain balance. Some are added for safety, some aid the primary herb in its work and others help transport it to the appropriate site.

In addition, Chinese herbs usually require preparation before use, often by cooking. Many companies have already done the preparation and mixing, creating ready-to-use pills, drinks and teas.

Safety First
As with all medicines, there are concerns about the safety of Chinese herbs. These include issues of purity, contamination and the quality of the herbs themselves. The Lancet (1999, vol. 354) reports kidney failures in two persons who had taken Chinese herbs for a skin condition. They cite similar cases at a Belgian weight-loss clinic.

According to Molony, "natural" does not mean totally safe. Herbs are medicines to be used wisely. He goes on to explain that most single herbs, when combined properly with others, are generally safe.

Wang agrees. She adds that some herbs, often viewed as benign, can cause problems. Ginseng and ma huang (Ephedra sinensis), common energy boosters, can cause hypertension, heart problems or even death if misused, she says.

Molony, Wang and Burke all advocate consulting a well-trained practitioner. An accredited TCM practitioner can diagnose and prescribe herbs, plus know the contraindications of each.

"Get good quality herbs and follow directions," says Burke. "More is not better."

The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) certifies acupuncturists and herbalists in the United States. To find a practitioner, call 703.548.9004 or visit nccaom.org.

Gerald Kinro is a Hawaii-based freelance writer specializing in food, health and agriculture.