Definition of Phytotherapy
Herbal medicine is one of the pillars of traditional Chinese medicine, based on the use of plants to treat various diseases, either preventively or curatively. It has been part of the traditional medicine of many countries and cultures for centuries and is still widely used today.
The working principle of phytotherapy is based on the use of active substances contained in medicinal plants, called active ingredients, which have therapeutic effects on the body. These active ingredients can be extracted and used in different forms, such as mother tinctures, decoctions, infusions, capsules or tablets, or essential oils. In concrete terms, phytotherapy is a specific mixture of various plants, which is presented in powder form and diluted in hot water, or in liquid form, prepared by pharmacies, depending on the pathologies of each individual.
Herbal medicine is used to treat a wide range of health disorders, such as digestive disorders, nervous system disorders, cardiovascular disorders, respiratory problems and many other disorders. However, it is important to note that herbal medicine may have contraindications and risks, such as pregnancy, allergies to herbs or interactions with other medications. It is therefore recommended that a qualified health professional be consulted before starting any herbal treatment.
History of Phytotherapy
Chinese herbal medicine has a long history. The earliest historical discovery of herbal prescriptions dates back to the pre-Qin dynasty around 400 BC. The manuscript entitled “Prescriptions for 52 ailments” was found in the tombs of Mawangdui in the present-day Changsha region. It contained 103 boxes, 283 prescriptions and 247 medicines. Later, the Han Dynasty marked the revolutionary moment in Chinese herbal medicine. It was at this time that the book Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing was compiled. Shen Nong was a farmer who is mythically regarded as the father of agriculture and herbal medicine throughout China. The book contains 365 medicines and their detailed use. Based on this book, another medical maestro, Dr Zhang Zhongjing of Nanyang, compiled the most competent and extraordinary medical book of all time, the Shang Han Za Bing Lun. It is one of the oldest comprehensive clinical manuals in the world (cf. Carakasaṃhitā and the Hippocratic Corpus) and one of the most commented texts in history. It is the foundation of all Chinese herbal medicine as well as the theoretical basis for one of the most important diagnostic methods in TCM called liujing, the six conformations. It gives methods of treatment for diseases that we are just beginning to understand in Western medicine. There are 113 formulas in the Shang Han Lun that are still prescribed in the same way today as they were in the Han Dynasty. Later on in history, many doctors were inspired by this book to create their own formulas. And in this way, depending on the geographical locations of the different doctors, many other schools of thought emerged such as Wen Bing Xue, the school of hot diseases.
With each dynasty, doctors from different parts of China discovered hundreds and hundreds of different plants and formulas, which were all compiled in a book called the Ben Cao Gang Mu. This is a 16th century Chinese encyclopaedia of medical material and natural history by Li Shizhen (1518-1593). The culmination of a sixteen hundred year history of Chinese medical and pharmaceutical literature, it is considered the most important and comprehensive book ever written in the history of Chinese medicine and remains an invaluable resource for scholars and practitioners. This nine-volume set reveals a panorama of nearly two millennia of far-reaching observations and sophisticated interpretations, ingenious manipulations and practical applications of natural substances for the benefit of human health.
How Phytotherapy works
The active ingredients of medicinal plants
Bioactive ingredients are the main components extracted from herbs that have therapeutic properties. Since artemisinin was discovered to inhibit malaria by Nobel Laureate Youyou Tu, natural plant extracts, especially bioactive ingredients, have received increasing attention among medical researchers.
How medicinal plants are used
Medicinal plants have been used in many different forms throughout history. Some of the most commonly used forms are :
- whole plant decoctions
- topical ointments
The Chinese pharmacopoeia is made up of several thousand substances of which more than 300 are in common use. Some of the plants used are common in Europe, such as liquorice or verbena. Others are unknown outside China and do not have a French name. Each preparation is specifically composed according to the patient’s pathology and personal physiology, so one preparation is not suitable for treating another patient for the same pathology. It is only by having a global vision of the symptoms, their cause, and the patient’s own nature that the doctor can decide which plants should be combined to restore the desired balance in his patient. Phytotherapy provides toning, detoxifying, blood circulation or Qì fluidifying treatments, or harmonising treatments for the organs.
Why use Phytotherapy? The most common cases
Digestive system disorders
Nervous system disorder
Disorder of the cardiovascular system
Respiratory system disorder
Precautions to take to fully benefit from Phytotherapy
Precautions for use
Formulas are medicines and, like any other medicine, also have contraindications depending on their chemical compound, class and interactions. It is therefore recommended that you consult your doctor before taking any medication.
It is relatively safe to consume certain plants that are considered foods such as ginger, red jujube, goji berries, green onions, etc.
Risks associated with herbal medicine
Like any other medicine, herbal medicine is powerful and is therefore only practised by qualified doctors who know the risks associated with the various interactions of plants with diseases. Health professionals will therefore make decisions accordingly to ensure that the patient’s balance is respected and that herbal medicine is integrated harmoniously.
The different methods of use
Capsules and tablets
Other methods of use
What research says about the effectiveness of Phytotherapy
Xiao Chai Hu Tang for Peptic Ulcers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials Min Li et al. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34012475/
A Mechanism of Action Study on Danggui Sini Decoction to Discover Its Therapeutic Effect on Gastric Cancer https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7830678/
Wen-jing-tang, a traditional Chinese herbal medicine increases luteinizing hormone release in vitro https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3799533/
Efficacy of different forms of Guizhi Fuling Wan on reproduction and metabolism in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: A protocol for a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33126363/
Benefits and recommendations
Benefits of herbal medicine
The advantages of herbal medicine are, like any other Chinese medicine therapy such as acupuncture or tuina, that it sees and treats the body holistically. That is, when we take a decoction for the stomach, it does not just treat the organ itself, but the stomach as a complete system involving the body tissues, fluids, sense organs and emotions.
Current state of research on herbal medicine
With the western world becoming more open to the practice of Chinese medicine, global research is on the rise, bringing only benefits to our global health.
Recommendations for those who wish to try herbal medicine
If you are interested in herbal medicine as part of your Chinese medicine treatment, it is important to consult your doctor for a detailed diagnosis. Depending on the case, herbal medicine may or may not be prescribed in conjunction with acupuncture sessions.
And often, when you book an acupuncture session, your doctor will recommend that you take an herbal prescription along with it. Acupuncture treatments guide the flavours and nature of the herbs to specific meridians and organs, enhancing and accelerating the effects of your overall therapeutic programme.