TCM Herbs you know

11 July 2012

TCM herbs you may have heard of?

What are Chinese herbs? The ‘herbs’ of Traditional Herbal Medicine (TCM) can actually be roots, bark, flowers, seeds, fruit, leaves or branches, all used for medicinal purposes. Herbal medicine has been used in China for centuries. There are over 3000 different herbs that can be used in TCM but only 300 to 500 of these herbs are commonly used.  Herbal medicine has three main functions: to treat the immediate problem, i.e. killing bacteria/virus or pain relief, to strengthen the body, helping it to recover, and to maintain health.

Similarly to how foods are categorised in Chinese Medicine, all herbs have their own properties and flavours. Every herb is said to have the property of being cold, cool, warm, or hot. Cool and cold herbs treat ‘heat’ symptoms, such as fever, inflammation, sore throat etc. Warm and hot herbs treat ‘cold’ or ‘damp’ symptoms, such as fatigue, bloating, cold extremities etc. There are seven flavours of herbs; pungent, sweet, sour, astringent, bitter, salty, and neutral. They are also categorised by their actions and the meridians they affect. The different actions that herbs perform in the body are known as lifting, floating, lowering, and sinking. Meridians are pathways of energy that run throughout the body, affecting different organs. Each herb works on a particular meridian and organ.

With over 450 herbs in our dispensary, a lot of them look like they’re from another planet and even when I discover their names, it may as well be Martian! There are, however, a few that I’m pleased to say I know quite well but was still surprised by their TCM uses.


We’ve all heard of Liquorice, even if it’s only thanks to the rainbow coloured Bassett’s Liquorice All-Sorts, it’s one of those love/hate tastes! The word liquorice/licorice is derived from the Greek meaning ‘sweet root.’ During a French exchange, when I was quite young, I remember being rather over-excited by the fact that the ‘twigs’ the French children were chewing were ‘real-life’ liquorice, which was what made the gummy sweets that I knew as liquorice at home! I have never forgotten the French for liquorice, réglisse, since. Looking back, my family must have been really delighted to receive a bunch of twigs upon my return!

Liquorice has been used in medicine for centuries. The Chinese call it the ‘grandfather of herbs’ as it is used in the majority of prescriptions to balance out the other herbs and ‘improve’ the flavour! People have chewed liquorice roots for oral hygiene for as long as the plant has existed. It’s actually a legume, related to peas and beans.

Liquorice isn’t just used to moderate and harmonise the characteristics of other herbs it is also well known for its detoxification powers, reducing the toxicity of nicotine and caffeine amongst other substances. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-allergy properties; soothes digestive and respiratory problems; tonifies the spleen and benefits Qi.

Liquorice is the second most prescribed herb in China followed by Ginseng.


Turmeric is something you might associate more with lovely lentil dhal rather than TCM. For those of you who may not be familiar with turmeric (although you have probably eaten it in a diverse selection of foods) it is the bright yellow powder found in the spice section in supermarkets. It is used in curries from all over the world; as a colourant (E100) in foods such as table mustard, cheese, salad dressings and has been used as a cheap alternative to saffron in paellas and other saffron based dishes. Its bright colour and use as a less expensive alternative to saffron in medieval Europe led to it being nicknamed ‘Indian Saffron.’ It has long been used as a dye for clothes and textiles as well as foods. If you have ever cooked with it you will know that it stains easily.

It has also been used for centuries, across the world, as an herbal medicine. It is a cherished member of the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia and Arab traders introduced it to Europe in the 13th Century having used it extensively in foods and as a medicine in their culture. It is only, relatively, recently becoming popular in the West. Turmeric comes from the root of the Curcuma longa plant, has a tough brown skin and a deep orange flesh. This herb has a very interesting taste and aroma. Its flavour is peppery, warm and bitter while its fragrance is mild yet slightly reminiscent of orange and ginger, to which it is related. The active constituent in turmeric is called curcuma.

There has been a lot of research in America, China, India and Japan, into the cancer fighting affects of turmeric. Studies have linked the frequent use of turmeric to lower rates of breast, prostate, lung, pancreatic, oral and colon cancer; laboratory experiments have shown turmeric can prevent tumours from forming and research conducted at the University of Texas, published in Biochemical Pharmacology (September 2005), suggests that even when cancer is already present turmeric can slow it’s growth. Our practitioner Andrew Flower uses it in many of his herb prescriptions. Various studies published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology have researched the effects of turmeric on Alzheimer’s disease, its cholesterol-lowering effects, cardiovascular protection and its ability to improve liver function. It has similar effects to steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in reducing swelling and pain but without the side effects or risks of the drugs. Due to these properties TCM uses it for rheumatic conditions, especially for the shoulder.

In TCM turmeric has a somewhat confusing history. It did not appear in Chinese herbals until the Tang Dynasty (7th century), a time of great international trade and it was probably imported to China from India. In Chinese, the most common name for the herb is Jiang Huang, meaning yellow (huang) ginger (jiang). However, there are also the herbs Yu Jin and E Zhu which also refer to the curcuma genus but if I start trying to explain species, domesticated and wild plant differences not only will I completely confuse myself but probably you too. Let’s leave that to the practitioner experts! In TCM turmeric is used to stimulate circulation and cool the blood. It relieves congestion and resolves bruising and clots, having the ability to dissolve abdominal masses. It aids digestion, dissolves gallstones and decongests the liver. It can also be used for nosebleeds and heatstroke. As with all TCM herbs, when a practitioner adds it to one of their tailored prescriptions, combining it with other herbs it can treat a many more ailments.

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo biloba was all the rage a couple of years ago and powders and pills started appearing in Health Food shops and can even be found in your average supermarket these days. Of course it’s pretty old news in China!

The gingko tree is one of the oldest species of tree still in existence and has no living relatives. It’s also a living fossil with fossils of the tree having been found that date back 270 million years! Some trees planted outside temples and in holy areas are said to be between 1,500 and 2,500 years old. The nuts were chewed by monks when they had to sit for hours in meditation, as it is also excellent to reduce urination. At one point, it was thought to be extinct in the wild but trees have now been found in a couple of areas of the Chinese wilderness. The tree is also known as Kew Tree or Maidenhair Tree and is quite beautiful.

The nuts are edible, when cooked, and used in a variety of Asian dishes, one of the more famous being ‘Buddha’s Delight,’ which is one of the many dishes eaten during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Some people find they are allergic to the outer fleshy part of the nut and skin reactions such as blisters or itchy irritation can occur if you don’t use gloves when handling the fruit. Known as Bai Guo Ye in Pinyin, the nuts are mostly used in TCM but the leaves also have health benefits and are being used in formulas and tinctures.

It has been widely toted as a cure for bad memory in the West; its abilities to slow mental decline and as an overall tonic for the mind have been well documented. In TCM it has bitter sweet, astringent properties and is associated with the lungs hence it is used for asthma, coughs and chronic inflammation from allergies. It has been attributed with anti-oxidant and anti-allergy properties. TCM finds it to be very effective for Vitiligo, a German study into its effects on Vitiligo can be found on our website. It is also used for cardiovascular conditions, stomach upsets, eye conditions and much more. It has long been used to treat erectile dysfunction in China and is even an ingredient in modern-day Viagra!

By Victoria Osterbery

Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, Bensky D, and Gamble A, Eastland Press, Seattle, WA, 1993 rev.

The Herb Society's Complete Medicinal Herbal, Ody, P. Dorling Kindersley, London,1993.

Chinese Medicinal Herbs, compiled by Li Shih-Chen, translated by F. Porter Smith, M.D., and G.A. Stuart, M.D., Georgetown Press, San Franscisco, 1973.

Chinese-English Manual of Common-Used Herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ou Ming, ed., 1989 Joint Publishing Co., Hong Kong.


Ginkgo biloba for Prevention of Dementia - A Randomized Controlled Trial / Steven T Dekosky, MD, Jeff D Williamson MD et al / JAMA. 2008;300(19):2253-2262.

Clinical use of ginkgo biloba Robert B Saper MD, Suzanne W Fletcher MD, Pracha Eamranond MD

Indian Journal of Exploratory Biology, N Ghatak and N Basu, Issue 10, 1972


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