Are Chinese Herbs Toxic?

Written by Jason Burke, LAc

If you've ever been to see an acupuncturist, odds are even that you had a brush with Chinese herbal medicine. If you didn't take herbs, maybe you saw shelves lined with pretty, exotic labels. Or perhaps there were big glass jars filled with even more exotic roots, bark, and... and what is that stuff anyway? While acupuncture has become something of a media darling, earning stamps of approval from the likes of Dr. Oz and Oprah, Chinese herbal medicine has been the best kept secret in the world of holistic medicine. It is also the best value in health care.

Then why is it still obscure? Well, there's the taste. Many practitioners offer pills and capsules, but the real deal is in customized formulas. Like acupuncture, formulas are based on classical experience and tailored to each patient's unique condition. We're using roots and twigs to treat the root and branch of disease, so precision is key. That means drinking a brew made from raw herbs by the patient at home, or dissolving powdered extracts in hot water. The taste is not beloved by all. Resistance to bad taste can be even stronger than fear of needles, but many patients find they have a strange attraction to the intense flavor, and quickly learn to associate it with feeling good. If that sounds hard to swallow, think about the first time you tasted coffee. Yuck! (Oh, wait. Lemme try that again...)

Another hurdle for Chinese herbal medicine to cross has to do with safety. Recently an article about herbs found on the market in China appeared in the New York Times. In past years, there have been cases of herbal products containing pharmaceuticals. Health-conscious people have reason to be leery of edible things from China.

But we're lucky to have the safety standards of the West while enjoying the best stuff from the East. Trained, reputable herbalists use sources with integrity. The raw herbs are subject to rigorous laboratory testing for potency, authenticity and purity. They meet strict standards for heavy metal content, pesticide residue, and bacteria levels. Tests are done in FDA-approved third-party labs.

The best and biggest secret of Chinese herbs is their good old bang-for-your-buck value. For the cost of a consultation plus about $20 per week, you can have a daily therapy that balances multiple symptoms. For example, want to sleep better and have more energy during the day without sedatives or stimulants? Herbs available from the store might jack you up or calm you down — but getting your body to regulate itself better takes skill. A quick search on pubmed for “Chinese herbs” brings up more than 3500 research citations, which should give you an idea of the possibilities.

If you've already overcome your fear of needles and seen the benefits of acupuncture, you have the stuff to try Chinese herbs. When used with skill and experience, they're safe and effective.

Ready to learn how to fight inflammation and address autoimmune disease through the power of food? Join our 5-Day Inflammation Video Summit with mindbodygreen’s top doctors.

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