Herbal Medicine 101: A Guide to Buying, Consuming, and Storing

Herbal medicine is well-known for its healing properties. Taking the right steps when storing and using herbs ensure a longer shelf life and maximum efficacy.

Glass jars and plastic bowls containing herbal ingredients displayed on a wooden table 

For centuries, herbal medicine and decoction ingredients have played an integral role in fortifying the immune system and treating various illnesses. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has evolved over the years and has been used to treat respiratory diseases and mental health disorders. It also aids recovery from heart disease or a stroke.

If you’re a first-time buyer of TCM herbs or unsure how to use herbal remedies properly, here are a few tips for buying the right herbs, storing them for longer shelf life and consuming them for maximum efficacy.

TCM practitioner feeling the pulse of a woman’s right hand
Feeling a pulse is one of the steps taken by a TCM practitioner during a typical consultation session.

Buying Herbal Remedies That are Right for You 

In TCM, herbal ingredients have four “natures” (四气) – hot, cold, warm, and cool – and five “flavours” (五味) – sharp, sweet, sour, salty, and buttery. They can also be classified according to their distinct, individual functions and the meridians on which they are the most beneficial.

When it comes to buying herbs in person, it’s best to be critical. Be open to asking several questions so you can be sure that you’re getting good-quality herbs. A reputable seller should be transparent with their manufacturing, product testing, and quality control practices. As a result, you can purchase herbal remedies that are free from contamination and added preservatives.

In cases where you don’t know what to buy, it’s important to consult with a licensed TCM practitioner. How will the consultation go?

According to Physician Lim Sock Ling, a consultation session at a traditional TCM store will see licensed practitioners looking for key indicators that point to the onset of a health problem.

Firstly, they will observe the colour and thickness of your tongue coating. In addition, they will consider your facial expressions and physical characteristics. Next, a practitioner will listen for the presence of a cough and abnormalities in your tone of speech. They will also take note of bad breath.

After the practitioner completes your physical examination, they will ask you to describe your medical condition and its associated symptoms. Lastly, they will feel your pulse and check for areas of skin that are sensitive to touch. 

A prescription will be provided for specific formulas or ingredients that’ll help improve your health. Do keep in mind that consultation with a TCM practitioner is not mandatory. However, the practice is recommended for ensuring the suitability of certain remedies for your body constitution.

If you are consuming pharmaceutical health supplements, it’s advisable to speak to a clinical physician to avoid potential contraindications. 

Is it safe to buy herbal formulas and ingredients online?

Being able to purchase herbal products or TCM from online retailers makes it more accessible for people worldwide.

It also allows you the opportunity to compare offerings by various reputable retailers and get an estimate of how much they cost. However, the price of a formula or ingredient shouldn’t be the primary factor when considering traditional remedies. Instead, you should purchase from reliable and authorised retailers to ensure safety and quality.

Addressing Various Illnesses with Traditional Remedies 

In TCM, anxiety relates to disorders of the Heart and Shen (a spirit that resides in the Heart). It can also stem from imbalances in the Liver and Kidneys. Anger, rage, bitterness, and frustration constrain Liver qi, generating Heat that damages blood, and aggravates the Shen and Hun (a spirit that resides in the Liver). A decoction called Chai Hu Shu Gan San (柴胡疏肝散) may help.

Extreme or unresolved grief and sadness restrict and deplete Heart and Lung qi, leading to Fire (yang) or Deficiency. This imbalance can be addressed by consuming Gan Mai Da Zao Tang (甘麦大枣汤). 

If you have a cough or sore throat, try using a medicine called Yin Qiao San (银翘散) as it relieves symptoms of warm-febrile diseases. Gui Zhi Tang (桂枝汤) is suitable for fever, influenza, common colds, and upper respiratory tract infections.

Anaemia – a lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body – can be treated with different ingredients. Red dates (da zao, 大枣), goji berries (gou ji zi, 枸杞子), longan (long yan rou, 龙眼肉), and codonopsis root (dang shen, 党参) are the most common recommendations.

Additionally, goji berries work great with chrysanthemum (ju hua, 菊花) to calm Liver Heat, too. This condition can often be seen if a person has red eyes. Oral ingestion and topical application are the most popular methods of use. You can also use pastes or soaks.

Another method of using herbs is in soups. The following are some popular ones:

  • Ba Zhen Tang (八珍汤) can nourish blood and increase vitality for good health. 
  • Shang Deng Dun Tang (上等燉湯) is great for all ages and those suffering from poor appetite and bloating.
  • Lingzhi Qing Bu Tang (灵芝清补汤) is suitable if you want to boost your immune system or if you’re recovering from surgery or illness.
  • Si Shen Tang (四神汤) and Yi Qi Tang (益气汤) if you need an energy boost.

Do remember to seek a TCM professional’s advice instead of self-medicating.

Woman soaking her feet in a pail of soap-filled water next to a grey towel, and a glass container and wooden spoon containing a powdered ingredient
A foot soak is recommended by TCM practitioners as part of a holistic treatment regimen.

Storing and Preparing Herbal Medicine 

Store dry ingredients in a cool, dark, and well-ventilated space. Avoid placing them under direct sunlight or exposing them to heat or steam. Formulas that are moist and sticky ingredients, such as red dates (hong zhao, 红枣), can attract insects, hence, it’s best to refrigerate them to prolong their shelf life. 

Before use, you can grind ingredients into powder and encapsulate them. You can also brew or extract them with ethanol. If it is in seed form, crush them before boiling. Volatile ingredients like peppermint leaves (bo he ye, 薄荷叶) on the other hand, should only be put in a pot right before turning off a flame. 

While you may not experience the effects of herbal medicine use overnight, small changes and time can help you understand your body and what it requires to stay healthy and balanced.

This is an adaptation of an article, “Herbal Medicine Basics: How to Use Raw Herbs”, which first appeared on All Things Health’s website 

References

  1. Mayway. The Chinese Medicine Treatment of Anxiety. [online] [Accessed 14 June 2022]
  2. Giovanni Maciocia. Shen and Hun: The Psyche in Chinese Medicine. [online] [Accessed 14 June 2022]
  3. Four Seasons Herbs & Acupuncture. 2012. HOW SHOULD I STORE MY CHINESE HERBS? [online] [Accessed 14 June 2022]

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