Western Medications and Chinese Herbs

At Acupuncture in the Park we see a number of patients who are taking prescription medications. We also see a lot who are trying to avoid having to take Western medications or who are trying to get off these drugs altogether. Sometimes these patients assume that because we practice Chinese medicine, we are completely opposed to any and all prescription drugs. This is not the case; in many instances, Western medications are appropriate and can be life-saving.

Our role is not to prescribe or advise people about their medications. What we can do is support those people who are looking for an alternative (when appropriate), a way to complement the meds they’re taking, or for support as they wean off their Western drugs. All of this must be done under the supervision of the Western doctor who prescribed the medications in the first place.

Chinese herbal formulasOur patients’ concerns about prescription meds are two-fold. First, they want to avoid taking them because of the side effects that frequently accompany these drugs. Second, if they are trying to wean off their medications, they may be faced with a rebound effect, in which the symptoms return more severely than before taking the medication.

So as Chinese herbalists, how is what we do any different from prescribing Western medications? Perhaps the biggest distinction is that in Chinese medicine we can’t prescribe an herbal formula until we have determined the underlying cause of the problem. This means that if someone is having trouble sleeping, we need to uncover why that’s happening–are they stressed out, depleted, not digesting well, or Yin deficient? In contrast, if you go to your Western doctor because you aren’t sleeping well, you’re likely to get the same medication as everyone else with insomnia.

A second difference between Chinese herbs and Western medications concerns side effects. A Chinese herbalist prescribes a formula, usually made from several herbs. The herbs have specific actions and are included in a formula because of those actions. For example, an herb can cool you off, calm you down, help your energy move, and even create a moistening effect in your body. These actions are very real, but can be subtle. Several herbs are included in a formula to promote and balance the effects of the other ingredients. Because the formulas are balanced in this way, side effects only occur if you are prescribed a formula that is not right for you. In addition, most Chinese formulas are not taken long term, which decreases the risk of a rebound effect.

Many Western medications are derived from herbs, many of which are Chinese in origin. These meds are made by distilling out the one or two ingredients from an herb with the strongest or desired effects. They are then concentrated into a medication with a very powerful action–so powerful that they can cause side-effects. These Western drugs work well and quickly, but can be accompanied by some funky side-effects.

Here’s the trade off: You can take a Western medication that works quickly and effectively, but may have unpleasant side-effects. Or you can take a Chinese herbal formula that is specific to your condition but takes some time to work. In many cases, the best option is the Western medication. However, there are many situations in which a Chinese herbal formula will get the job done in a kinder, gentler way.

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