Why Chinese Herbs for Digestive Issues?

Why Chinese Herbs for Digestive Issues?

There are many reasons as to why Chinese Medicine has stuck around for over 3,000 years- before the renaissance and yes even before the English language.

One of the many reasons is due to the elegance and sophistication of its herbal medicine. 

While there are over 450 herbs included in a Chinese pharmacy, around 300 of them are most common. Being a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, let me tell you- experiencing such a pharmacy is inexplicably captivating. Wafting smells of dried flowers, plants, minerals, shells, bones, roots, stems, leaves and berries stimulate the senses in the most surreal of ways. It’s as if one were inhaling the test of time. From deep browns of earth and ash to the golden musk of forest and resin, it is almost impossible to inhale these treasures and not feel their powers. Perhaps it is because I am an herbalist by nature……but I swear these things have a life of their own. 

While Western herbalism frequently prescribes individual herbs for health, Chinese herbal  Medicine believes in formulas. Rarely does a formula contain less than 6-8 herbs…..some include up to 15. This blend of herbs becomes synergistic by nature; herbs enhancing one other. A Chinese herbalist, while conjuring up a formula, has been trained extensively in balancing out the formula so that the body is supported in all directions throughout treatment. If the body needs to be cooled down (inflammation) then cooling herbs are administered. However (for example), cooling herbs alone could potentially be too threatening to one’s imbalanced state, so we add a splash of warming herbs and a pinch of herbs to invigorate the blood to mitigate the any dominate properties of the primary herbs.   To bring it all together and cause even distribution throughout the meridians, we then add a hint of sweet. To understand this more fully, I suppose some Chinese theory could come in handy.

Oriental Medicine is known for seeing each person as unique, with energetic patterns specific to their body and constitution. It recognizes that the elements in nature run parallel to the human body. While this may seem esoteric at first, in actuality it runs parallel to science; most differences,

Chinese Medical theory is based on the elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Study of the elements, their characteristics and how a person’s constitution actually emulates one predominant element is of great importance to a Chinese Practitioner. It is through this complex system that we learn to not only diagnose, but treat a patient. Not only do we develop a thorough understanding of the energetics behind these elements, but a deep awareness around how the elements interact and affect each other. These interactions can create perpetual cycles (energetically) in the human body; a Chinese Doctor’s greatest skill is one of pattern recognition.

Five Elements

Every patient is given a different point prescription for needles when they receive acupuncture. There are indeed frequently used point prescriptions for certain conditions. Sometimes in Chinese Medicine we need to cool a person’s system down and support the Yin energy, sometimes we need to warm it up and stimulate the Yang energy. With needles we can also get the blood moving when it has become stagnant, descend the energy back down if it’s going upward, or get the clear Yang energy to rise back to the head if need be. Needle technique can actually tonify energy or disperse it- there is much we can do with needles. In scientific terms, we are simply working with one’s nervous and lymphatic systems. The ancients knew the map of the blood vessels and realized that needles could profoundly tap into a patient’s physiology. 

While acupuncture is surely a magnificent modality for almost any condition, I must confess I find Chinese herbalism to be more effective in these modern day times. Sadly, our bodies these days are inundated with the 2,000 chemicals just by walking outside our doors. Our stress levels are at an unprecedented high and our food is tainted.  I find the subtleties of Acupuncture and all its brilliance to be losing potency.  This is just my honest opinion, as an Acupuncturist. Our epidemic of so many diseases (particularly digestive) simply did not exist when Chinese medicine was born and flourishing. Herbs, however, cut to the chase of any issue, as they change things on a bio-chemical level.  Yes, acupuncture can be effective and will always remain a significant piece of Eastern medicine. However, it often takes a long time for needles to really change things, while herbs can do the job much faster. Herbs function in a similar manner as described above; herbs can cool things down, warm things up etc.  With digestive issues (inflammation), we almost always need to clear the heat in the intestines and often drain the damp (mucous) as well. Chinese herbalism is so incredible because not only do we know the energetics (hot, cold, moist, drying, cloying, moving, blood building etc) of every herb, we know exactly what Meridians and organs the herbs will go directly to. This means we can get very, very specific with treatment. This is why I love Chinese Herbalism so much. 

“In terms of health care delivery, China has a unique cultural background in developing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as well as an extensive experience in its implementation. In fact, as opposed to other countries, TCM is practiced alongside conventional Western medicine in China. This is reflected by the substantial number of Chinese proprietary herbal medicines included in the National Essential Medicines List in China. Chinese physicians are often trained in both Western and Chinese medicine techniques and often use combined TCM and conventional Western medicine to manage different diseases and disorders. In recent years, due to dissatisfaction with conventional treatments, many IBS suffers have turned to alternative medicine, particularly TCM or integrated Chinese and Western medicine for remedy. A number of clinical trials have shown that TCM therapies alone or combined with Western medicine produced improved treatment outcomes in IBS patients.”

World J Gastroenterol. 2015 Feb 28; 21(8): 2315–2322

The individuality of each person is always recognized in Oriental medicine which means herbal prescriptions require investigation per patient. This is indeed why I offer my services, so that I can appropriately interview and assess each patient and prescribe herbs with accuracy. However, for those that simply do not have the means to work with me, I do offer Chinese Herbs in my shop with a detailed description per bottle. You can read the description and my notes to discern weather or not you feel the formula would benefit you.

 I believe that bringing more awareness of Chinese Medicine to the public to be of utmost importance. Chinese Herbs, in my opinion, are hidden gems that (with an elementary understanding of) could profoundly benefit many- especially those suffering with digestive issues. Studies have shown that Chinese herbs can be extremely effective in assisting Crohn’s and Colitis sufferers stay in remission without steroids or other toxic medications. People suffering under the umbrella term of Irritable Bowel Syndrome can experience a drastic improvement in quality of life with the help of Chinese herbs. Yes, while every patient is unique and should optimally be screened and diagnosed by a practitioner, I have also found clinically that there are real similarities energetically in IBS and IBD. This is why I became so passionate about having a site that offered education into Chinese Herbs . Most of the time, these formulas (along with Functional medicine supplements and protocols) effectively do the job, regardless of the nuances in the patient’s disharmony. It is simply better to have all the tools one can have at their fingertips while suffering through IBS or IBD. Particularly when dealing with pain such as cramping sensations that can be quite debilitating or bloating and gas that is extremely uncomfortable ……there are formulas in my shop that are quite effective in alleviating these issues. Kang Ning Wan, Curing Pills, is such a formula. It clears the damp-heat (inflammation-pain/gas/bloating) and brings blood flow to the area (moves and descends qi), which alleviates the pain pretty quickly. When I was working on my gut infection I went through bottles upon bottles of it, and still it remains a staple in my cabinet for situations of over-indulgence, nausea etc…. this is merely one example. 

“Currently, TCM is widely used in the treatment of UC in Eastern Asian countries. Langmead et al has reported that herbal remedies for the treatment of IBD include slippery elm, fenugreek, devil's claw, Mexican yam, tormentil, and Wei tong ning (a TCM).Slippery elm, fenugreek, devil's claw, tormentil, and Wei tong ning are novel drugs in the management of IBD. Chen et al reported that 118 cases of UC patients were treated with integration of TCM and that 86 cases of UC were treated with prednisone as controls. The therapeutic effects were observed and compared after two therapeutic courses of 40 consecutive days. As a result, there were 39 cases cured, 60 cases improved and 19 cases failed, with a total effective rate of 84% in TCM-treated group. In contrast, there were 15 cases cured, 37 cases improved and 34 cases failed, with a total effective rate of 60.5% in prednisone-treated group. These data indicate that treatment of UC by the integrated TCM method is superior to that by simple Western drugs, such as prednisone and that it is also safe and effective in maintaining remission in UC.”

Saudi J Gastroenterol. 2012 Jan-Feb; 18(1): 3–10


As I am simultaneously a certified Functional Medicine practitioner, I find myself bouncing back and forth between the two systems. Although one is Eastern and one is Western, I have discovered they are really expressing the same thing, just in a different language. In Chinese terms, digestive issues are largely due to heat and damp; often stagnation resulting from the two. In Western terms this boils down to one thing- inflammation. This inflammation is the result of dysbiosis (imbalance of the flora in the microbiome). Again and again and again, I find that a cooling formula that goes directly to the intestines works very well. And, no surprise here, but most of the Chinese herbs that are in these formulas that are described as “cooling” are indeed antibacterial and antiviral. These mutually exclusive properties benefit most people within a defined Western diagnosis or even symptomatic checklist. Just read the descriptions of the products thoroughly, and if you have questions please email me. Of course if you ever experience any negative side effects from an herbal formula, discontinue immediately (rare). IBS and IBD are either due to or the cause of pathogenic microbes overhauling the system. These pathogens (weather bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic) are causing inflammation.  It is with great consistency I find the same herbal formulas doing wonders for gut problems. 

While natural antibiotics and probiotics can do incredible things for one’s digestive system, I have observed an interesting phenomenon clinically. Often when I have prescribed probiotics and western supplements alone in the absence of Chinese herbs, I have found the condition to return more often. The herbs seem to contribute to some deeper level, or to the most fundamental level, of healing. It appears that by changing the energetics of the terrain with powerful Chinese herbal formulas, the more the antibiotics and probiotics take hold. While in essence they are all working synergistically (perhaps at the most basic level all working on decreasing inflammation), it seems the herbs provide some sort of foundational repair that leaves the body open to more lasting change. This systemic approach is the one I find most effective. 

Perhaps this combination is twofold: Yes, gut infection = Heat = Inflammation. However, antibiotics = die off, die-off = Heat. For example, many people, while taking natural antibiotics to treat dysbiosis wind up feeling ill  sometimes for the first few days or weeks (depending on level of infection). During this detox response, the patient often feels irritable, restless, with a red face and red eyes, usually very thirsty. These are all signs of heat in Chinese terms. In Western terms it is most likely a histamine response to killing the pathogenic load temporarily causing an increase in inflammation. Whatever system or language you use……quelling this heat will make the patient feel better. When I was working on my own gut infection, I could not have lived without my ‘clear heat’ Chinese herbal formulas. On an energetic level, yes, but also on a very superficial level (vanity sometimes knows no bounds). Of course there are those patients that simultaneously have a ‘cold pattern’ at play with the inflammation. This is why it is best to work with a trained acupuncturist as all patterns can be addressed. Most patients suffering with chronic digestive afflictions are also dealing with Qi and Yin deficiency as well. 

By working on inflammation at an energetic level (herbs) as well as a physical level (natural antibiotics, probiotics) we really find the highest potential in treatment. Hence why my practice has become a complete blend of these two systems; the integration of two undeniably effective forms of treatment. It is essentially treating one’s ailments at the Root Cause level, in all directions. By treating the Root Cause, medications become unnecessary or only used in dire situations. Chinese Herbs are a priceless adjunct to whatever regime one is already following. Most certainly they can be used in conjunction with pharmaceuticals.  They have so much to offer- with zero side effects and low cost. If one is interested in lay explanations of Chinese Herbs and how one can incorporate them into their day to day life for things that comes up, check out Asian Health Secrets by Letha Hadady. It’s an oldy but goody for an intro to Chinese Herbalism written with wit and humor. Best to you on your herbal adventures!

Karen Mullins, DOM