by Clare Lowry
Human beings have used herbs, plants and other natural substances for healing purposes for thousands of years. In ancient times we were dependent on the resources available to us season by season. As cultures developed, the shamans and medicine people catalogued and categorized substances according to specific effects that they had on the body. This information was passed on through the generations. Every culture had its own way of passing on medicinal information. For many it was an oral tradition and the information was lost. Fortunately some cultures had written language.
The Chinese culture was particularly refined in its written language. They also were very advanced in the cataloging of medicinal substances. The ancient Chinese Emperors were obsessed with longevity and relied on their physicians to keep them healthy. This, combined with the Taoist philosophy and understanding of nature through observation, produced an incredible body of information. As far back as the Yellow Emperor, ca. 2500 BC, they began to document the properties of herbs.
These ancient scholar-physicians developed a system of categorizing substances according to their flavors, heating or cooling properties, and nourishing or clearing effects. Even which organs they effected, and in what specific way. For example, Ophiopogon/creeping lily root, is sweet, bitter and cold. It treats the heart, lung and stomach. It replenishes vital energy by promoting the secretion of body fluids. It is used to treat dry throat, dry lungs, constipation, palpitations and insomnia. That is just one herb. There are over eight hundred more which have been cataloged. Herbs are then combined into formulas which can be specifically tailored to a patients needs. Traditionally these herb formulas were boiled to make a tea. Now, more often, they are prescribed in pill, liquid extract or freeze dried form.
Chinese herbal medicine developed over thousands of years to help balance,nourish and cleanse the body. The whole body is seen without isolating its parts. A skilled herbalist can diagnose and prescribe formulas to maintain and optimize health. Herbal formulas are often taken for years being subtly modified for changing physical conditions. In China herbs are even incorporated into meals. Congee, a thin rice soup is very popular. Herbs are added to the congee according to a persons needs. Food medicine is a simple and practical way to maintain health.
Modern life has largely cut us off from our roots of using natural substances for healing. Our foods are devitalized by chemicals, soil depletion, hormones and antibiotics. An endless list of toxic substances are in many of the foods we eat and the drugs we are prescribed. If we want to get back to balance and harmony within ourselves and with the earth as our sustainer we can learn a great deal from our ancestors. The earths resources were our sustainers and our medicines. The good news is that the wisdom of the ancients has been preserved. Traditional Chinese Medicine is intact with thousands of qualified practitioners and many reputable sources for herbs and formulas which are organically grown and naturally processed. Availing ourselves of these resources is cost effective and, lest I wax poetic, soul as well as body nourishing.