Traditionally, Chinese herbal medicine assumes the use of bulk herbs. Everything that we know about Chinese herbs, including their flavors, functions, actions and indications are based on thousands of years of empirical evidence with raw herbs. The processed products which have become available in recent years lack the history, reliability, and precision of the way we know herbs to work, and therefore compromise in many ways the integrity of the tradition of Chinese herbal medicine.
Very simply, if you aren’t using bulk herbs, it is harder to know what you are using.
“When we say, for example, that Dang Gui (Tangkuei) has the actions of supplementing and moving blood we are saying that when cooked in a decoction as has been done for centuries, we have observed that this herb can have these actions. If prepared in a different fashion, where the components are present in different proportions than would be present in a normally-cooked decoction, the resulting product may or may not have the same actions." - Andy Ellis, 2008
At Red Pine Chinese Herbs, we believe in bulk Chinese herbs for a few simple reasons.
Chinese herbs have been used in bulk form for thousands of years. Throughout this time, details on flavors, channels entered, actions and indications have been carefully tested, challenged, confirmed and documented by literally hundreds of thousands of doctors and millions of case studies. It is these records that form the foundation of Chinese herbal education and the practice of herbal medicine around the world today. No other form of Chinese herbs comes close to the breadth and depth of time-tested results that we have come to trust and depend on with bulk herbs.
Bulk herbs allow for the most flexibility and accuracy in prescribing. In a bulk formula, every ingredient is easily identified, dosages are easily adjusted and both the practitioner and patient can see exactly what they are getting. Herbs are easily added to or subtracted from a formula if desired. There is no concern over “extraction ratios” or additives, and ingredients that need to be cooked for a longer or shorter time are easily accommodated, all of which allow for a level of precision which is not possible with any other form of herbal medicine.
As health care practitioners, many of us encourage our patients consume more whole, unprocessed foods. Of course TV dinners and canned soup are easier than cooking with whole ingredients from scratch, but we know that convenience products often start with inferior materials and that processing and additives damage the inherent qi of most substances. The same is true of herbs. Additional processing for convenience affects the flavor, balance, and intrinsic properties of herbs, in often unpredictable ways. Processing also adds a layer of unnecessary cost which is usually passed on to the patient.
Being the best understood and least processed form of herbal medicine, bulk herbs are inherently the most effective. There is research which further indicates that when bulk herbs are cooked together in traditional decoction, there is a synergistic effect which cannot be duplicated by combining processed versions of single herbs
Of course, any incorrectly prescribed medication can result in side effects. When using processed products, especially those with added preservatives, fillers, dyes, waxes, etc., side effects can be unpredictable, even in “perfectly” prescribed formulas. Bulk herbs, when prescribed based on a solid Chinese medicine diagnosis, have very predictable effects and contraindications which practitioners can rely on.
Some Chinese herbs are meant to be processed in certain ways, which result in very different effects. For example, jiu xi dang gui (wine-washed Angelicae sinensis Radix) is traditionally used in bu zhong yi qi tang (Tonify the Middle to Augment the Qi Decoction), mi zhi huang qi (honey-prepared Astragali Radix) is traditionally used in yu ping feng san (Jade Windscreen Powder), and yan chao huang bai (salt-fried Phellodendri Cortex) is called for in zhi bai di huang wan (Anemarrhena, Phellodendron, and Rehmannia Pill). Countless other processed herbs are used in China and found in our textbooks. Correct processing is often omitted or unavailable in patent, granular, and liquid forms of Chinese medicine. While some practitioners are unaware of the availability and importance of using appropriately processed medicinals, they can be essential to the success of a prescription. For more information, see What is herbal processing and why is it important?
What about convenience?
We understand that convenience is important to modern patients and practitioners, and convenience is in fact at the heart of Red Pine’s mission. Our formulas are ready to go off the shelf, and a single packet of Red Pine herbs is designed to last 4 days, which means patients have to cook herbs less than twice a week. Beyond that, while modern medicine culture has led us to believe that there should be a simple pill available to correct every malady, we all know from experience that restoring the true health and balance of our bodies is not that simple. Taking the time to prepare one’s own medicine, tasting the various flavors that balance the body, and investing effort to engage our own healing are in fact therapeutic processes in themselves. Most patients come to value the process of cooking bulk herbs and appreciate the opportunity to experience “real” Chinese herbal medicine.
For more information, see How to get your patients to take bulk Chinese herbs and setting up a Red Pine bulk pharmacy.