Improving Your Health With Traditional Chinese Herbs


How Imbalances Within Your Meridian System Affects Your Health

By Elsa Cordero, MOAM, Co-Founder OHH

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is about balance and views the individual as a whole. There are no separate components, body, mind, and soul work together as one. Yin and Yang are two energies that complement and balance each other, and they are in a constant state of transformation.  There are times that the energies are perfectly in balance, and times when there may be more Yin than Yang and vice versa. By finding balance and harmony in these two forces you can achieve a strong immune system.

The Immune System from a Traditional Chinese Medicine PerspectiveThe Zang-fu Theory revolves around the concept of five “organ networks.”

  • Liver/Gallbladder
  • Heart-Pericardium/Small Intestine
  • Spleen/Stomach
  • Lung/Large Intestine
  • Kidneys/Bladder

The Zang are considered the “solid” organs and the fu the hollow organs. The interrelationship and dynamics of the five organ networks are considered the foundation of TCM.

Although the organs have the same name as those in western medicine, western medicine views each organ individually whereas TCM addresses the individual as a whole and considers the interrelationship of the five organ networks.

The main organ networks responsible for the immune system are the Lungs, Spleen and Liver. The lungs are the first line of defense since they dominate breathing and maintain moisture in the skin. They are also the main contributors to the creation of our daily Qi (energy) supply.

The Spleen and Liver are the major organs that dominate the digestive system. The Spleen helps the Lungs create our daily Qi and the Liver transports it throughout our body. The Spleen and Liver are responsible for not only the transportation of Qi and nutrients but also for the digestion and absorption of food.

Signs that the Lungs are not in balance are the symptoms of a common cold. Whereas imbalances in the Spleen and Liver will present as symptoms such as pain, diarrhea, bloating and headaches.

Traditionally, herbs like Astragalus (Huang Qi) and Codonopsis (Dang Shen – also known as the “poor man’s” Ginseng) have been used in formulas to tonify the Lung and Spleen which are responsible for the production of Qi and the reinforcement of Wei Qi (our immune system).

Other natural ways to strengthen the immune system and balance the main organ networks that support it are:

  • Using natural medicines and herbal formulas prescribed by a licensed acupuncturist or board certified herbalist.
  • Acupuncture treatments.
  • Get plenty of rest. In TCM, eating too often or overeating taxes the Spleen/Stomach’s ability to digest and create of Qi. Note: Overthinking and worrying are considered the same as consistently eating.
  • Eat warming foods.
  • Avoid raw and cold food and drinks.
  • Don’t over exercise.
  • Avoid stress.

Traditional Chinese Medicine takes a holistic approach to health, as opposed to a reductionist one like its Western counterpart. It approaches the use of herbs in the same manner. Herbs are not to be taken individually but as part of a formula incorporating two or more herbs depending on the situation.  The reason for this is three-fold. All herbs offer one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Mutual Reinforcement (combining similar herbs to enhance their effect)
  • Mutual Assistance (adding one or more assistant herbs to the main herb to improve its function)
  • Mutual Restraint (adding one or more herbs to the main herb to reduce or eliminate negative side-effects).

Herbs should always be used synergistically for the reasons illustrated in the following example.

Truth About Ma Huang

Do you remember the headlines surrounding Ephedrine, also known as the herb Ma Huang, back in early 2000’s? Over 100 deaths were blamed on the use of this herb as a weight loss supplement, and its dangers were well publicized when the FDA threatened to ban it from the market after the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler in July of 2003.  Bechler died from heatstroke during training after taking a supplement containing a derivative of ephedra to control his weight.

Of course, any death is unfortunate and should never be taken lightly, but if the ban on ma huang was about safety for the American people than what about the thousands of people who die each year from Tylenol and NSAID use? Why not ban these products as well?

In 2004 the FDA banned the sale of products containing ephedrine.  However, the ban was based on less than solid evidence.

Here’s what really happened…

The Immune System from a Traditional Chinese Medicine PerspectiveMa huang (Ephedra sinica) has been used and regarded as a key medicinal herb in China for well over 3,000 years. Ma huang, in conjunction with other herbs, was used in medicinal teas to help relieve symptoms associated with colds, flu, allergies and other upper respiratory tract conditions such as asthma.

However, manufacturers decided to disregard the traditional use of this herb which combined it with other herbs and instead sold it as a single herb. Now the reason ma huang had been used in combination with other herbs was that the other herbs counteracted possible side effects such as nervousness, sleeplessness, high blood pressure and heart palpitations. (These are the same possible side effects listed on a box of Sudafed that contains ephedrine).

Another possible side effect of ma huang is a loss of appetite. It was this side effect that manufacturers promoted as a weight control tool.  

Thus began the controversy surrounding ma huang.

In Chinese medicine, ma huang was never used as a weight loss aid. It was not until it was introduced in the West that manufacturers began producing supplements containing the herb and marketing them for weight loss and increased energy. Making matters worse, the herbal supplements often contained higher doses than used by licensed Chinese medicine practitioners and this can double or triple the risk of a cardiovascular incident. Compounding this with strenuous exercise further increases blood pressure.  Are you getting the picture now?

Basically, these supplements induced weight loss plus a host of other dangerous side effects which together were a recipe for possible death. And that is exactly what ultimately occurred. The families of those who died should really be suing the companies responsible for the rise and demise of the herbal supplement for removing the counteractive herbs from their formulas!

Sadly, that part of the story did not get reported.

The bottom line to remember when considering taking herbs to strengthen your immune system, or for any other reason associated with health, is to be mindful that no herb should be taken alone as it can lead to devastating side-effects. However, herbs specifically prescribed for you by a licensed acupuncturist and board-certified herbalist who is familiar with your unique condition can have a dramatic and amazing effect on your health!

The Immune System from a Traditional Chinese Medicine PerspectiveKeep in mind though, there is a difference between a practitioner certified in acupuncture and a licensed acupuncturist.

Many chiropractors, physical therapists, and medical doctors are “certified” in acupuncture and this allows them to use needles when indicated, usually for pain control and/or to help the body heal from an injury.

A certification requires anywhere from no hours of study to one hundred hours (six months) of study and minimal clinical experience before sitting for an exam. They are simply certified to use needles but are not licensed acupuncturists.

Licensed acupuncturists, on the other hand, must complete nearly five thousand hours (four years) of study which includes learning about treating the body using the meridian systems, tongue and pulse analysis, Chinese medicine diagnosis, diagnosis using emotional components, and Chinese herbology, along with hundreds of hours of clinical experience prior to becoming eligible to sit for national board exams required for licensure.

Furthermore, in many states, it is not required for the acupuncturists to sit for the herbology board exam and this is indeed unfortunate. This is a grueling exam and ensures sufficient knowledge of herbs, its uses and safety concerns. It is in your best interest to seek out only board certified herbalists for this reason.

Traditional Chinese herbs can play a vital role in recovery from many health conditions and/or the prevention of one occurring.  However, it should be noted that as circumstances and health conditions change so should the prescribed herbal formulas.

Never having settled long enough on a career or life path, Elsa discovered Martial Arts and it transformed her life. The tenets of martial arts instilled in her the discipline, dedication, and perseverance that ultimately led her to become an International and National Martial Arts Champion.

Years later when she left the martial arts industry in search of a new and meaningful career, she discovered Traditional Chinese Medicine, first as a patient battling digestive and women’s issues, and later as a student.

From the beginning, she embraced a holistic approach to medicine along with traditional healing methods, and today she is a Board Certified Acupuncturist and Herbalist. A natural born teacher she now wants to share her passion and knowledge with others!