Shen Nong’s Materia Medica

The world has a vast history of herbal traditions, each of which uniquely taps into the healing ability of nature found all around us. But, there are quite a few differences between herbal medicine in the West and herbal medicine in the East. Let’s take a look at three distinctions:

What Is an Herb, Exactly?
One key difference is that in the West, by and large, the term ‘herb’ refers to flowers, roots, leaves, and shoots; i.e. different plants. We still use the word ‘herb’ in the East, but its range of reference is far wider-reaching. Traditional Chinese herbalism recognizes anything found in nature as a medicinal herb. This of course includes flowers, roots, leaves, and shoots, but also stones, animal bones or antlers, insects, and even some naturally occurring metals.

Water or Liquor?
The natural follow-up question would be: what does someone do with these bones, insects, or metals? How are they used to promote health and healing? Great question and segue to the second difference between Eastern and Western herbal medicine I want to highlight. In the West, a single herb is typically made into a tea (also called an infusion) or a tincture. A tincture is produced when an herb has been soaked in alcohol for a prolonged period of time to extract the therapeutic essence of the herb. That tincture is then consumed in drops on breads, cooked grains, or directly under the tongue.  In the East, however, a soup or 汤 (tang ) is typically decocted by placing all the herbs in a earthenware pot with 6 cups of water, bringing it to a boil, and simmering for about an hour until the liquid reduces to 2 cups. This cooking process extracts, combines, and transforms the essences of the herbs into a medicinal drink, typically quite bitter. The herbal soup is then consumed twice daily, 1 cup in the morning and 1 cup in the evening. Again, these are not the only ways to use herbs in the East and West, but are two of the most common approaches.

One or More?
You’ll notice that a tincture (West) often uses just one or two herbs, whereas an herbal soup (East) may combine upwards of 12 herbs. That brings us to the third and most important difference. In the West, a single herb is typically matched to a single symptom. For example, you may have heard that ginger is good for digestion, chamomile for relaxation, turmeric for joints, or ginseng for energy. While these statements are true, Chinese Medicine offers a more systematic approach to understaning and categorizing herbs thanks to the work of a man called Shen Nong.

Shen Nong, or the Divine Farmer, is a legendary character in early Chinese history. He is said to have lived as far back as 2453 BCE, but the facts are difficult to discern from the legends at this point.  Nonetheless, Shen Nong is credited with teaching the ancient Chinese their practices of agriculture, crafting the Chinese solar-lunar calendar, inventing the plow, axe, and hoe, instituting the weekly farmer’s market, and, most notably, codifying the first 365 medicinal herbs and their uses.  It is said that his teachings were passed down orally until it was compiled into the first written, herbal encyclopedia, the 神农本草经 (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing) which dates to circa 250 AD.

Legend goes that the Divine Farmer harvested and tasted hundreds of herbs and took meticulous notes to understand each herb’s individual nature and how that nature collaborates with other herbs in order to combine into a formula. Each herb is classified with one of five tastes and temperatures, noted on which organ systems it primarily affects, along with a list of specific actions. The 神农本草经 (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing) was China’s first
Materia Medica or pharmacopeia, and containied 365 herbs, one for each day of the year. Nowadays, we primarily pull from Bensky, Clavey, and Stoeger’s Materia Medica 3rd ed. and Nigel Wiseman’s Fundamental’s of Chinese Medicine.  These encyclopedias are far more expansive with lists of thousands of herbs and detailed explanations of their functions and contraindications, but they will forever be indebted to the the dutiful work of the Divine Farmer some 5,000 years ago.  

Reading the Materia MedicaTemperature
At first it may seem odd to conceive of herbs as having temperatures, but think for a moment. Chili peppers, cinnamon, and ginger are hot enough to make you sweat sometimes, whereas peppermint oil on the back of the neck or a piece of fresh watermelon may cool you on a hot summer day or when suffering from a fever. In Chinese Medicine, each herb has one of five temperatures: Cold (寒), Cool (凉), Neutral (平), Warm (温), or Hot (热). Knowing an herb’s temperature is crucial when fighting specific ailments. If you have an inflamed (too much heat) sore throat, you’ll want to use cooling herbs. If you have a cold with chills, warming herbs are the way to go. Of course, many disease patterns are far more complicated and this is a bit of an oversimplification, but illness is almost always accompanied with change in body temperature as it impairs the body’s natural ability to self-regulate. Undertanding an herb’s temperature is central to coax the body back to health and homeostasis.

While taste does refer to the actual flavor of an herb, it serves another purpose. The ‘taste’ of an herb acts as metaphorical shorthand for how it can be used. Take a look at the five flavors for a better idea:
Sour (酸): The sour taste “induces astringency,” which means it stops leakage. A leaky Large Intestine may appear as diarrhea, whereas leakage of Lung qi may present as a cough. Sour herbs that enter the Large Intestine Meridian or Lung Meridian can successfully address these symptoms.
Bitter (苦): The bitter taste “clears heat” and “dries dampness.” Heat or Fire are the Chinese Medical ways of referring to inflammation which can occur almost anywhere in the body. Inflammation of the skin might be acne, psoriasis, or ezcema, whereas inflammation of the joints may be arthitis. Dampness can refer literally to excess liquid in the body like edema or pus, but also excess weight, distention, or even emotional depression. Prolonged cases of stagnation may produce dampness which in turn may produce phlegm.
Sweet (甘): The sweet flavor “strengthens” and “moistens” which is necessary in cases of deficiency. Deficiency can present in a number of ways, but a common one is fatigue or exhaustion.
Acrid (辛): The acrid taste is said to “move” and “disperse” in order to combat qi, blood, or cold stagnation. They also promote sweating to “release the exterior” which can help combat external pathogenic invasions. Acrid is a word we rarely use in English, but the Chinese xin is sometimes translated as pungent or even spicy. Some examples of acrid herbs are cinnamon, ginger, and garlic.
Salty (咸): The salty taste can “soften hardness” and “purge excess.” This makes sense and we see it in cooking, especially pickling, all the time! If you add some salt to hard carrots, they’ll become soft in only an hour’s time. For this reason, salty herbs are used to soften lumps, fibroids, nodules, or cysts. Purging excess simply means that the herbs often induce bowel movements. 

Meridians & Elements
Now that we have explained some of the therapeutic effects of the five flavors, its important to mention one more piece of shorthand that is used. Much of Chinese Medicine is an outworking of the Wu Xing (五行)or Five Elements theory. This theory offers a systematic way of understanding how all the pieces of the body are interconnected. The Five Elements act as poetic shorthand to refer to energetics of the body and herbs. For example, the salty flavor is associated with the Water element which is associated with the Kidneys and Baldder. This means that the salty herbs are most likely to enter the Kidney and Bladder meridians. Similarly, Sour is associated with Wood and so is paired with the Liver and Gallbladder meridians. The Fire Element is connected to the Heart and Small Intestine which is most directly effected by the Bitter Flavor. Sweet is associated with the Earth element and so enters the Spleen and Stomach meridians. And the Acrid flavor is connected to the Metal Element, entering the Lung and Large Intestine meridians. Just like temperatures, understanding the herb’s entering channels allows you to more pointedly treat patterns of organ disharmony.

Actions & Dosage
Up to this point, much of the categorization of the herbs by temperature, taste, and meridians is very systematic and symbolic. The actions and dosage, on the other hand, become incredibly specific to each herb. Some herbs may have some of the same actions, but it is more an outworking of clinical observation, than of theoretical associations. That being said, the language is still written in Ancient Chinese and is difficult to understand with out proper instruction. What does it mean exactly that an herb “clears toxic heat from the lower burner” or “dispels wind and overcomes dampness”? Thorough explanations of herbal actions is what books upon books are dedicated to and far beyond the scope of this one blog post. But suffice it to say that paying attention to dosage and actions it of high importance when using and combining herbs.

The Secret Flavors: Bland, Aromatic, Astringent and Toxic
The last piece I’d like to comment on are the four extra or “hidden” flavors: bland, aromatic, astringent, and toxic. These are also used to metaphorically describe the “taste” of herbs as well as their therapeutic effects, but they fall beyond the scope of the Five Element Theory.  In some sense, they aren’t “flavors” at all, but merely additional properties of certain herbs. Let’s take a look:
Bland (淡): Bland herbs are said to “drain dampness” which is different from Bitter (苦) herbs which “dry dampness.” The difference is that the Bland flavor acts as a diuretic to promote urination or “drainage.”
Aromatic (香): Aromatic herbs “open the orifices” and “awaken the spirit.” Think of a eucalyptus herbal steam to clear sinuses, peppermint oil to increase mental clarity, or smelling salts used to revive consciousness.
Astringent (涩): Astringent herbs provide the same action of stopping leakage as Sour (酸) herbs, but is applied to herbs that accomplish this same effect but don’t have a sour taste.
Toxic (毒): Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, some herbs are toxic. This is why dosage and education are incredibly important. At this point, some might wonder: “But if it’s all natural, how could it harm me?” More on this in an upcoming blog on the Dangers of Dichotomy, but until then, think of snake venom, hemlock, and poison ivy. All of these are toxic in varying degrees and all of these are 100% natural.  This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be used. Xing Ren (杏仁) or Apricot Kernel is often used to treat coughs and yet too high a dosage contains fatal amounts of cyanide. That’s right, cyanide is 100% natural as well.  Toxicity levels of herbs is definitely something you’ll want to pay attention to.

A Final Note
The goal of this post was to offer a brief explanation and orientation to the world of Chinese Herbal Medicine. Ideally, after reading this post you feel more confident in your understanding of Chinese Medical language and categorization, while also perhaps more hesitant to self-prescribe. It’s helpful to remember that herbal doctors study this language and these herbs for years before being certified to prescribe herbal medicine. While we want you to grow in your understanding and confidence to use herbs, we also want you to be wise and safe. This seems like a perfect time to point out and conclude with the disclaimer at the bottom of each individual herb listing on the site: 

Please Note: Do not self-prescribe herbs. A single herb is rarely eaten on its own, but as part of a formula containing several ingredients that act together. Always consult a certified Tradtional Oriental Medicine practitioner before using herbs.

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