The Healing Power of Chinese Herbs and Medicinal Recipes by Joseph P. Hou and Youyu Jin. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Integrative Healing Press; 2005. 812 pages, soft cover. ISBN 0-7890-2202-8. $69.95.
Writing a text on Chinese herbal medicine is always a challenging task. The traditional Chinese approach to healing involves a comprehensive medical system, not just a collection of healing plants; it is based on a foreign culture, an ancient time, and a different language; the method of using herbs has changed over time and continues to change rapidly today. Books on this subject can be written with the full Chinese medicine jargon, relying on minimal explanatory text, to provide information for health professionals who have attended extensive formal training programs, or they can be written in simplified terminology for the general reader with additional explanations to fill in for their lack of specific training.It is not easy to write a book that falls in between.
Hou and Jin have managed to deal with these difficulties in an admirable way and have produced a text that falls in between the professional and popular approaches. They first defined their audience by saying that the book is a “self-help manual…directed toward the general public who are actually seeking help with Chinese herbs…and those who want to try herbs for their illnesses…”Although they also mention health care practitioners and students who may want to add herbal prescribing to their practices as potential readers, it is clear that those individuals will have access to professional education that the other readers won’t easily find, so this book has to take care of the needs of the former group. The text has plenty of Chinese medicine jargon, but there is an attempt to explain it in terms the general reader can understand.
In the introductory chapters, the authors make it clear that Chinese medicine has a long history and is quite complex, which should actually direct the readers to rely on health professionals rather than trying to obtain and use the herbs on their own. Thus, the main self-help aspect of this book is that itlets these readers know more about Chinese medicine before deciding to embark on a therapeutic regimen through a local practitioner (licensed to practice Oriental medicine). The book can also be a means by which the readers learn more about the treatments that have been prescribed to them.
The main part of this book, nearly 500 pages, is a “Materia Medica”—a set of monographs on 138 individual herbs, divided into therapeutic categories with explanations of each category as an introduction. When health professionals are trained in this area, they study a Materia Medica (typically with over 300 herbs) divided up by a system that has been used in China for several decades. For this new book, the authors have effectively rearranged several of the categories to help the reader better understand the applications of the herbs.
The monographs follow a set format: a general introductory paragraph to the herb (the plant identification, where it grows, how it is collected and processed, and what it was traditionally used for); followed by a list of the properties as designated in the Chinese system; the medicinal uses (including typical combinations with other herbs for those specific actions); the dosage, precautions, side-effects, toxicity, and very brief statements about research findings.
These monographs are mainly derived from four sources: The Encyclopedia of Chinese Materia Medica from the Jiangsu New Medical College; Contemporary Clinical Chinese Materia Medica by Dong KS, Wang XQ, and Dong YF; Manual of Commonly Used Chinese Medicine Herbs by Wang JH (all three in Chinese), and the English language book Chinese Materia Medica—Chemistry, Pharmacology, and Applications (1998) by Zhu. These books are considered authoritative presentations; they are produced by reviewing and collating information from prior works, mainly Chinese documents from the 1950s through the 1980s.
There is also a section on traditional herbal formulations and patent remedies (101 recipes). The explanations are necessarily limited. In keeping with my comments about turning to a health professional to actually get the treatments, I’ll relay a typical description of using one of the formulas: Huo Xiang Zheng Qi Wan (page 610). The directions for use are as follows: “…grind the ingredients into a fine powder and either mix with honey for honey boluses or cook the powder for oral administration. Take 6 g each time with a decoction of fresh ginger and Chinese dates. Available commercially in pills or soft capsules.”The grinding to a fine powder is something done in Chinese factories and difficult for the reader to do without special equipment (a coffee grinder will not work). While the formula is available commercially, the dosage to be used, the timing, and other aspects are not defined here, and the package instructions are often not sufficiently clear to help the user. This is where the practitioner can help the reader acquire the materials and describe their use to get the best results.
The down-side of the book is related to the attempt that has been made to put so much into a single volume (even one of 800 pages). The supporting evidence from studies (many of them conducted decades ago under poor conditions) gives no hint as to how the study was conducted and what were the details of the outcomes, so that it is easy to misinterpret the statements provided. As an example, for pueraria root (aka kudzu, Pueraria lobata), there is a section headed “clinical findings” where only a laboratory study is relayed about this herb’s seeming ability to reduce drinking of alcohol. However, a clinical study published in 20001 and not reported in the book had shown that it doesn’t have this effect in humans (a more recent study,2 published after the book, indicated a modest positive outcome on reducing alcohol consumption in an informal setting). It is also reported in this clinical findings section that the herb has been used for alcohol detoxification, but doesn’t describe what that means (in fact, the herb is mainly used to treat hangover symptoms). Another potential problem is that the information provided about contraindications and side-effects for the herbs usually applies only to the high doses used in China that most Westerners will not encounter, and so may concern herb users unnecessarily.
In all, this book does a very good job of presenting traditional Chinese medicine and the commonly used herbs and formulas so that a well-educated and motivated reader can gain a reasonable level of understanding.It should help people to decide whether or not to pursue this method of therapy with professional assistance and help them to better understand what has been prescribed to them. It may also encourage some readers to consider a professional career in Chinese medicine.
—Subhuti Dharmananda, PhD, Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, OR
1. Shebek J, Rindone JP. A pilot study exploring the effect of kudzu root on the drinking habits of patients with chronic alcoholism. J Alt Compl Med. 2000;6:45-48.
2. Lukas SE, Penetar D, Berko J, et al. An extract of the Chinese herbal root kudzu reduces alcohol drinking by heavy drinkers in a naturalistic setting. Clin Exp Res. 2005;29(5):756-762.