Are Chinese Herbs Right for You?

Avoid risky side effects — consult a qualified herbalist

chinese herbs

You may have heard ginseng touted on TV for its ability to boost your immunity.

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As a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, I believe that ginseng and other Chinese herbs have powerful health benefits that can complement your medical care.

But while Chinese herbs are easy to buy online or at your pharmacy, they’re serious medicine.

Despite their healing properties, taking the wrong herbs not only won’t help you but may also worsen your symptoms. Or give you a headache, nausea or diarrhea.

More importantly, Chinese herbs may not work well with medications from your doctor.

That’s why you should get your doctor’s blessing before trying Chinese herbs. Once you get an OK, look for a qualified Chinese herbalist. You’ll need a face-to-face consultation and follow-up visits.

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Good vs. bad interactions

It’s important to find a Chinese herbalist trained in Eastern as well as Western medicine. Some Chinese herbs enhance the effects of Western drugs, and others act as antagonists.

For example, herbs can help antibiotics fight infection, which is a good thing. However, Chinese herbs can also enhance the effects of diuretics like Lasix®. That’s risky

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Some Chinese herbs are dangerous for anyone taking blood thinners like Coumadin® or Plavix® because they can increase the risk of bleeding.

Herbs can also be hazardous if you’re taking antidiabetics, anti-seizure drugs, immunosuppressants or interferon therapy.

Creating custom formulas

Chinese herbal therapy is a complex, sophisticated system of diagnosis and prescription. A qualified herbalist will create a customized herbal formula. The formula will be based on your unique Eastern medicine diagnosis.

Formulas are typically a blend of Chinese herbs, so that the side effects of one herb offset the side effects of another. The dosage, formula and how long you are treated are critical.

To arrive at the right formula for your body pattern, herbalists try to fit many pieces of the puzzle together.

We ask about things such as pain, urination and bowel movements. We examine your skin, eyes and tongue. We feel your pulse. We take a very detailed history of your condition.

Then we formulate an Eastern medicine diagnosis. Once we prescribe your herbal formula, we monitor you as if you were taking a prescription drug — something not usually done in private practice.

Regular blood draws ensure that your doses reach therapeutic levels without causing side effects. Monitoring liver and kidney function tells us whether your body is metabolizing the herbs well.

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We share these results with your physician.

RELATED: Chinese Herbs Can Be Good Medicine for You

Ordering online: Risky business

When you order Chinese herbs online, you don’t know whether you’re getting the right species of plant. You also run the risk of getting poor-quality products that may be contaminated by heavy metals or pesticides.

A qualified Chinese herbalist will vet all herbal products and suppliers.

We consider Chinese herbs as a tool to enhance your treatment plan. Like acupuncture, the herbs are a form of traditional Chinese medicine — but without needles.

So the next time you shop, pause before adding ginseng or astragalus to your cart. Consider searching instead for a Chinese herbalist who will work with your doctor.

It’s the best way to get these potent herbs to work for you — and not against you.

Editor’s note: This post represents the views of integrative medicine specialists. Conventional medicine specialists may or may not recommend these techniques to complement the care they provide.

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Jamie Starkey, LAc

Jamie Starkey is Lead Acupuncturist at the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine, where she bridges the worlds of Eastern and Western medical philosophy.
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