Together with acupuncture, herbal supplement is a major pillar of Chinese medicine. The Chinese pharmacopoeia lists over 6,000 different medicinal substances in terms of their properties and the disharmonies that they were helpful with. There are about 600 different herbs in common use today.
Herbs are classified in two major dimensions. The first dimension refers to the temperature characteristics of the herb, namely hot (re), warm (wen), cold (han), neutral (ping), and aromatic. The second dimension refers to the taste property of the herb, namely sour (suan), bitter (ku), sweet (gan), spicy (xin), and salty (xian).
The various combinations of temperature and taste give the herb its properties that can influence the yin and yang energy patterns of the body. For example, sour, bitter and salty tastes are related to yin, whereas acrid, sweet are attributed to yang. There are herbs that will warm, herbs that will cool, herbs that will tonify, herbs that will move stagnation and so on. It is also important to understand that herbs do not possess one quality. They are most always a combination of properties and temperatures and may reach one to as many as twelve organ systems. Warm herbs can be used with individuals suffering from Heat disorders, but the herb with warm energy must be mixed with herbs with Cool/Cold energy so that the overall balance of the mixture is on the Cool side. Likewise, Cool herbs can be used with people with Cold disorders as long as the overall balance of the mixture is warm. Neutral herbs are those that are neither hot nor cold, so they are often considered gentle herbs. There are not too many neutral herbs in the pharmacopoeia.
The unique characteristic of Chinese herbal supplements is the degree to which formulation is done. In other forms of herbal supplements, especially western herbal medicine, herbs are often delivered singly or combined into very small formulas of herbs with the same function. In contrast, Chinese herbalists rarely prescribe a single herb to treat a condition. They create formulas instead. A formula usually contains at least four to twenty herbs.
Herbal formulas can be delivered in all manners of preparation. Pre-made formulas are available as pills, tablets, capsules, powders, alcohol-extracts, water-extracts, etc. Most of these formulas are very convenient as they do not necessitate patient preparation and are easily taken. However, the concentration of the herbs in these products is low and don’t allow the practitioner to adjust the contents or dosages. These products are usually not as potent as the traditional preparation of herbs.