Chinese herbal treatment is not the conventional choice for treating disease among most people in the United States. Since it is not the mainstream option, the average American doesn't have much basis of understanding Chinese herbalism. With more conventional therapies, such as pharmaceuticals, we are taught both informally and formally about what they are and how we are supposed to take them. We learn these things in school and by doing research, of course, but also absorb a lot through everyday media, conversations with practitioners & social cues.
For most of us, that's not true for Chinese medicine. The lack of familiarity can present problems in Chinese herbal treatment in a variety of ways. In my private practice, I try to educate my patients as much as possible during the appointment, as well as in follow-up emails, so they can benefit from their herbal formulas. The following four points are the most common advice I share with patients and represents a simple roadmap for best benefitting from Chinese herbs.
#1 – Be consistent in taking your herbs
The majority of my advice in this article is designed to deal with one central feature of herbal treatment – it is fundamentally gentle medicine. This does not mean it cannot be powerful – it can be! This does not mean it can never hurt you – it can! But it does mean that the effects overall tend to be gentle and subtle over the short term. Chinese herbal treatment largely acts in an almost sedimentary fashion, layers of accumulation that build resonant health over time.
For that reason – consistency in treatment is absolutely essential. Yes, of course, consistency is also important with many pharmaceuticals. But because the effects of herbal treatment tend to be subtle in the short term, people are more likely to forget to take their herbs due to the lack of obvious backlash from missing doses.
There is a surprisingly huge difference between being, say, 80% consistent and being 100% consistent. This is frustrating for patients! We all hate to be bound by medical routines – but my clinical experience is clear. Consistency matters – a LOT. When you take your herbs as directed, if they are properly prescribed, you will see results over time.
#2 – Be patient with your Chinese herbal treatment course
For the same reason – the medicine's fundamental gentleness – you need to be patient. Some formulas are fairly fast acting, especially those designed to treat acute problems. But many of my patients are on formulas that may take 3-6 months to fully manifest their effects. Reasons for this include the intensity or depth of the presenting pathology, or due to some feature of the formula itself. Regardless of reason, rushing treatment that is meant to be done slowly rarely yields positive effects.
There's another reason for taking it slow and easy. The VAST majority of my patients need more than herbal treatment to find their way to lasting health. Herbs are a piece of the puzzle, as are other medical modalities. But lasting lifestyle adjustments and new approaches to life and work are often critical for full healing to take place. The long, slow, intentional method of herbal treatment gives patients opportunities to discover what adjustments might need to be made in their lives, and to make them.
One important note – in the kind of herbalism I practice we tend to change the precise composition of the formula quite a bit. This is particularly true when we're treating something like a cold or the flu, as well as during the early stages of any treatment. So, patience has to manifest not only in taking the herbs as prescribed over a long period of time, but also coming in for re-checks as requested in order to ensure your treatment is perfect for you.
#3 – Pay careful attention to your experience while being treated
As you are being treated – consider keeping a journal and recording your physical and mental experience daily. This journaling can be simple or complex, analog or digital, and never needs to be shared word-for-word with anyone. The journal should really just be a tool or a reminder to pay careful attention to your experience as you are being treated. This will help you spot both positive effects that may otherwise be too subtle to notice over time, as well as tracing any aggravation of symptoms or other challenges.
At minimum, tracking the nature and intensity of the primary symptoms you are hoping to treat will be helpful. But, listing any range of your experiences may also yield important information. Even if you're not a journaler, simply find a way to increase your awareness of your experience so that you can notice the changes as they are happening.
If you are a person with a lot of health anxiety or body dysmorphia you may find being more aware of your experience to be uncomfortable. You should talk to your practitioner, as well as any mental health support you have, about these challenges. Above all, don't engage in any activity that increases your own distress or pushes you to disengage with treatment.
#4 – Report your experience in detail to your practitioner
Part of the role of increasing your awareness is so that you can make more detailed reports to your practitioner when you come in for check-ups. Because Chinese herbalists typically do not use blood tests, radiological imaging and other conventional testing methods in our diagnosis, we rely on self-reporting of signs and symptoms from the patient more heavily than other practitioners.
It can be frustrating to figure out how to describe vague or confusing feelings to your practitioner! However, trying to develop increased awareness and working to articulate that awareness to someone you trust can be a valuable part of the healing experience. With time, you will find it easier to explain the movement of the interior landscape of your body.
These four simple interrelated pieces of advice will help you to get the most from your Chinese herbal treatment, whether you see me or another practitioner. If you are an herbalist, or an experienced herbs patient, is there any other advice you would pass on to folks new to herbalism? What has helped you get the best results in your own treatment?