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Despite regulation problems, demand for herbal medicine is on the increase in the West since scientific medicine and the decline of so called natural medicine.

A survey carried out in 1980 on behalf of the Threshold Foundation found that the number of alternative medicine consultations was increasing at a rate of 10 - 15 % per year. Also the numbers of practitioners are increasing five times more rapidly then conventional medicine.

What is the Difference ?

The main difference between the two is the approach to illness. Conventional medical science holds that diseases have specific causes which can be proved scientifically and these causes should be treated with a proven uniform treatment, or if there is no treatment to alleviate their symptoms. Many complementary treatments are based on observations but do not use scientific provable reasoning, also the whole body and emotional state is considered as opposed to centring in on a specific site in or on the body. When a person is seriously ill their vitality (resistance) is reduced. Any treatment is often said to boost the ‘KI’ energy as it is viewed that there is an imbalance in this vitality allowing or causing the illness; or in other countries an imbalance of humours (earth, fire, water and air).


The earliest forms of all medical practices lie in magic and local ‘wise men’. There is evidence of medical practises pre-dating any written records. One of the earliest evidence of treatment was treppaning, this is when a hole is drilled in to the skull of the patient; skulls have been found as old as 10,000 years in Peru. The reasoning behind this is not clear but the holes are often drilled near pre-existing skull fractures perhaps to release the ‘evil’ spirits. There is evidence that patients survived this procedure, and was sometimes carried out many times on the same patient. This practise may have also used for headaches, this would have preceded aspirin (extracted from willow bark) by five millennia or more. Traditional herbalism in this country for many centuries, dying out around 1860’s, since the rise of scientific medicine in the country started gaining more and more support the demand and trust in herbalism declined. Some of the early doctors described the practise of herbalism as witchcraft; this was due to it being seen as an un-disciplined practise.

Chinese Medicine

The main and most advanced modern day discipline using herbs is in Chinese herbalism, it is a well organised medical system that has been developed for many years first summarised approximately 2,000 years ago in a book called Nei-ching. This discipline has been ignored by western medicine for many years, in the early part of the century scientists studied Chinese herbal medicine but when they could not isolate an active principle they gave up.

The key in herbal medicine is often the combination of herbs used and in the way they are gathered cleaned and prepared. Chinese doctors trained in both Western medicine and Chinese herbal medicine have been studying various herbs on a large scale to find out as much scientific information about any healing properties of the herbs and their possible side effects. The Chinese emphasise the need to treat the person as well as the disease, since medical theory makes constant progress through practice, the Chinese investigators consider that the examination and employment of drugs that show good empirical results are of tremendous importance in the integration of traditional Chinese and Western medicine.

Through this research some compounds have been isolated such as the alkaloid ephedrine from the Ephedra plant that is used as a bronchodilator and a decongestant. In other cases a mix of various herbs have been proven to have biological activity such as Liu wei di huang tang, which has been shown to relieve renal hypertension in rats.

Case Studies

A single agent that has been identified from the Chinese solancea plant, Anisodus tanuticus is Anisodamine that is a new antichlinergic drug that has been successfully synthesised since. It has been used to treat meningitis, toxic dysentery, septic shock, severe lobar pneumonia, hemorrhagic enteritis and some other acute infectious diseases. It has similar properties to Atrophine, which is widely used in the West. There is evidence that Anisodamine is less potent then Atrophine but with less severe side effects and reduced toxicity levels, Anisodamine is also excreted from the body more quickly.

In 48 cases of severe lobar pneumonia treated between July 1965 and December 1971 not a single death occurred. In recent trials 23 cases of severe toxic bacillary dysentery was treated with anisodamine in combinations with other drugs, all but one was cured. The one that was not cured died of cerebral oedema and respiratory failure because the initial dose of anisodamine was insufficient to correct circulatory failure.

It has been found that anisodamine is effective in improving microcirculatory blood exchange and correcting shock. Acute microcirculatory disturbances of the arterioles are the chief changes in the early incipient stage of acute infections. Since anisodamine helps prevent or correct this it stops the infections at this early stage.

Liu wei di huang tang
Another compound prescription being studied is Liu wei di huang tang, which contains six extracts from different herbs. Traditionally it has been used for kidney diseases; from experimental studies it has been found that it has a hypotensive affect i.e. it lowers blood pressure. Rats have been successfully treated suffering from renal hypertension in a lab environment.

Rats were operated on to surgically induce renal hypertension by ligating their kidneys slightly after birth and then split in two, one group were given Liu wei di huang tang whilst the other was a control group. Blood pressure was then monitored, in the first 30 minutes blood pressure rose, after one week the treatment was started with one group. Before operation the mean blood pressure in the rats was 108.5mm Hg, 2-4 weeks after the operation the mean blood pressure was approximately 131mm Hg if untreated. After four weeks of treatment however the mean blood pressure was 104mm Hg compared with 127mm Hg of untreated at the same time. If treatment continues for eight weeks it was found that the blood pressure dropped to an average of 96mm Hg, which shows hypotension (low blood pressure).

The hypertensive rats blood pressure dropped but those treated with no renal hypertension showed no effect, so in conclusion from these and other tests it was considered that Liu wei di huang tang has been shown to increase the blood circulation of the kidney and/or stimulate the secretory function of the renal tubules, i.e. it improves kidney function.

Other Herbal Remedies

There are a number of traditional prescriptions which have proven effective in the treatment of acute abdominal conditions, including acute appendicitis, some of which I shall now talk about. Ta cheng chi tang combined with Huo hsueh hua yu tang promotes circulation of the isolated segment of a dog’s intestine, yielding a mean increase of 70 % of blood flow as compared with the controls. Lan wei ching chieh tang and Huo hsueh hua yu tang possess the ability to inhibit the growth of organisms often seen in the intestinal tract and to detoxify their endotoxins. These prescriptions of herb combinations can be utilised to combat infections and improve the efficiency of the intestinal tract.

Approach to "Curing" a Medical Problem

Some of the treatments used by herbal practitioners are contradictory to Western practises; laxatives such as rhubarb and Mu-hsiao (which has been identified as sodium sulphate) are freely used whereas this treatment would not normally be considered by Western medicine. The principle of treatment is to promote peristalsis so as to expel the bacteria and toxic material from the lumen of the appendix, to increase local blood circulation and to inhibit the growth of bacteria and detoxify their toxins. The common ancient prescription for this purpose is Ta cheng chi tang or Ta huang mo dan pi tang. Often during treatment acupuncture is employed for pain relief or relief of other symptoms.

On a series of 57 cases of appendicitis reported by a hospital in Sian, 93.4 % of patients got well in a few days without operation and went back to their normal work. In chronic cases relapse often occurred and surgery revealed “faecal stones” inside the appendix, as they were too large to be expelled by the medication. Western medicine in contrast would usually operate straight away in these cases, leaving scarring and requiring a much greater recovery time as well as time of work.

Patient Wang aged 55, was admitted 24th November 1971 diagnosed with acute appendicitis, ruptured, with spreading peritonitis and paralytic intestinal obstruction. The patient was orally given the standard Ta cheng chi tang (a mix of 8 different substances inc. sodium sulphate) for two days. Intestinal obstruction was relieved, treatment was then changed to Lan wei ching chien tang (containing rhubarb) and the patient completely recovered without operation or other medication and was discharged on the 13th December 1971 when he returned to work.

Treatment of Gallstones is Successful !?

Some gallstone cases have been successfully treated with herbal medicine without operation, the principle is to induce peristalsis of the gall bladder to expel the stone. Various prescriptions are used for this purpose; two of them are the Nan-Kai hospital prescription and stone expelling mixture No.5. After the patient has taken the medicine the secretion of bile is increased and the gallbladder is enlarged. The patient usually feels pain in the abdomen; fried eggs are then fed to the patient in order to increase the flow of bile in to the intestine. At the same time, acupuncture is used with the intent of regulating physiological function, so that the gallbladder contracts and expels the stone in to the intestine, in documented case a 1cm diameter stone was found in the faeces. However when the stone is too big or when serious infection sets in, operation is still necessary but small stones cannot be easily removed by operation so herbalism does provides a non-invasive cure. As can be seen by this example the treatment given is more centred on helping the body to cure itself, rather then directly cure the disease, or as herbalists describe it to redress the balance of energy within the body.


One of the main successes in herbalism medicine is the personal time and consideration given to the patient. This seems to be becoming less important in conventional medicine as the patient doctor relationship is being lost in the science behind the treatment. A strong doctor patient bond adds to the confidence of the patient in both the ‘healer’ and there suggested treatment, making the patient feel happier in themselves. This increases the chance of the treatment being successful or at least increasing the placebo effect. As Socrates wrote, “I said the cure itself is a certain leaf, but in addition to the drug there is a certain charm, which if someone chants when he makes use of it, the medicine altogether restores him to health, but without the charm there is no profit in the leaf”.


(1985) Alternative therapies, a guide to complementary medicine for the health professional.
Buning, F.(1993) Herbalism.
Buckman, R.(1993) Magic or medicine?, an investigation of healing and healers.
Hoffman, D.(1987) Thorsons guide to medical herbalism.
Sharma, U.(1992)Complementary medicine today, practitioners and patients.

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