The Herbal Consumer

A Simple Look at Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda


HerbalConsumer-PNG-8-SmallHealing practices that include herbs exist throughout the world. Countries and e ven specific regions have their own traditions built on a set of principles and treatments that include herbs. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda are considered two of the oldest traditions in the world. Both include the use of herbs in their treatment options. With the growing interest in herbal medicine, these traditions are working their way into the U.S. consumer consciousness. There’s more to TCM and Ayurveda than herbal formulas, however. Each has their own set of principles and intricate theories. As the herbal marketplace continues to grow, it’s worthwhile for the herbal consumer to have a basic knowledge of these traditions.

The Basics of TCM

TCM is believed to have been founded by legendary Emperor Shen-nong (The Divine Husbandman) and Emperor Huang Ti (The Yellow Emperor). Each is attributed to writing herbal texts (Shen-nong pen ts’ao ching and Huang-ti Nei ching, respectively) that are considered the foundation of TCM. There is no agreement as to when they lived. Estimations range between 2838 BCE and 2597 BCE. Throughout the centuries, many texts were written about herbal and medical experiences and observations. Some of them were then used as a basis for other texts while others stood alone. Over time techniques, formulas and overall knowledge that make up TCM was shaped and accumulated not only from these texts and experience, but was also influenced by religion, culture and politics.

The purpose of TCM is to bring the body into balance. Yin and yang is one of the theories used in TCM. Everything in the universe contains yin and yang. Yin and yang represent two parts of a whole that come together in a complementary manner. These parts are opposing to each other while being interdependent and harmonious. They actively balance each other. When they are out of balance in the body disease and illness occur.

Another theory that is a part of TCM is called the Five Elements theory. The five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal and water (considered to be the basic elements of the universe). These elements are used to create a system that explains how the body’s function is organized and how disease arises. This system also includes how the elements relate to different aspects of nature, parts of the body, emotions, and other items and is usually organized into a chart that can assist with diagnosis.

Qi is the universal life force that flows through everything including the body. Each body has meridians which basically compose a type of “circulatory” system for Qi to flow through the body (meridians are not a physical part of the body). When Qi doesn’t or can’t follow correctly through the body, the body’s normal function is disrupted.

Yin, yang, Qi and the Five Elements theory all go into the diagnosing process, along with assessments of the tongue and pulse and questions by the practitioner. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment can include dietary therapy, acupuncture, tui na, herbal prescriptions, tai chi and qi gong. Each treatment is personalized to the individual. The herbal prescriptions are usually multi-herb formulas that can also include animal parts and minerals. Herbs are organized by taste (acrid/pungent, bitter, salty, sour and sweet) and temperature (hot, warm, cool, cold). Typically the prescriptions come in the form of decoctions, decoction granules, or pills/capsules. Each prescription is tailored to the needs of the person. Sometimes stock formulas may be used.

The Basics of Ayurveda

The Ayurvedic tradition is said to have its origin in the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures), specifically the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda. The contents of the Vedas are believed to come directly from the Gods. While the exact age of the Vedas isn’t known, estimations put them between 1700 and 1200 BCE. The Charaka Samhita and Susruta Samhita are Sanskrit texts that are also fundamental to Ayurveda containing knowledge, logic and philosophy of medicine and information on surgery.

The goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to rebalance the body. Illness or disease is a sign of imbalance whether spiritual, mental and/or physical. The Tridosha theory is the main theory of Ayurveda. The tridoshas or doshas are different permutations of space, air, fire, water and earth. The three doshas are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Very basic definitions of the doshas include:

  • Vata – made of space and air; animating force; movement and change in the body
  • Pitta – made of fire and water; destructive force; digestion and metabolism
  • Kapha – earth and water; creative force; body fluids and immune system

Each person is believed to be a combination of these with one or two being dominate. This combination is set at the time the person is conceived. This is referred to as their Prakruti or constitution and is their balance point. When the doshas are out of this balance, health issues occur.

The nature of a person’s imbalance is determined by a physical exam including the pulse, tongue, skin, nails and voice. There is also extensive questioning about diet, lifestyle, behaviors and health issues. Treatment can include diet therapy, yoga, meditation, massage, herbal medicines, a detoxification process called panchakarma and lifestyle changes. Each treatment is personalized to the individual. The herbal medicines are usually multi-herb preparations. Herbs are organized in part by taste (astringent, bitter, pungent, salty, sour and sweet) and whether they have a warming or cooling effect. Herbal tonic preparations (rasayana) are common to help restore and promote vigor, and herbs are also used in cooking daily meals.

TCM and Ayurveda in the U.S.

TCM has a better foothold in the U.S. with the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) for schools and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) for examinations and certifications of practitioners. Ayurveda has neither an established accreditation commission nor a certification commission for this country. There does appear to be a newly formed National Council on Ayurvedic Education that is in process of becoming a 501 c-6 and is working on offering national board exams.

So What’s a Consumer to Do?

As interest in herbal medicine continues to rise, information on different herbal traditions will flow into the marketplace. It can be easy to be enticed by the latest round of herbal products without understanding the principles of the traditions from where they originate. Having a basic understanding of these practices can help you as a consumer to decide if the product/tradition is right for you and can help you sort through good and not-so-good products/companies. Quizzes provided by product websites are fun, but are they really effective as a diagnostic tool? Principles can be reduced to a simple explanation, but it may not be a completely accurate one and therefore be misleading. Can the role of a practitioner really be reduced to descriptions and questionnaires?

Both TCM and Ayurveda can be used as alternatives to modern medicine, but are more often used in a complementary way. While certain therapies such as yoga and acupuncture can be part of an overall treatment regimen, they can also be used on their own. If you choose to include any treatments or therapies from these traditions in your health care, let your other practitioners know.

When it comes to herbal formulas, remember that in the U.S. they are most often regulated as supplements and not as medicines, even if they are considered such in the TCM or Ayurvedic traditions. Supplements do not have to evaluated or proven safe and effective before being available on the U.S. market.

Herbal supplements can be subject to contamination and/or adulteration. There have been issues with some TCM remedies containing prescription drugs as a way to boost their effectiveness. Bhasmas are Ayurvedic medicines that can contain heavy metals such as lead and mercury as part of the formula. Both TCM and Ayurvedic preparations could contain animal parts depending on the formula; important to know if you are a vegetarian or vegan. Another point to remember is that certain herbs can interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications having an additive, synergistic or antagonistic effect. It’s important to recognize TCM and Ayurvedic herbal formulas as potentially potent medicines.


Links to Learn More

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website – Ayurvedic Medicine: In Depth

The University of Maryland Medical Center website – Ayurveda

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website – Traditional Chinese Medicine: In Depth

Shen-nong website

Institute for Traditional Medicine website –

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website – Credentialing, Licensing and Education

Remember to check your local library for resources on TCM, Ayurveda and other herbal medicine practices.