Chinese Formulas

What are Chinese Herbal Formulas?

Each Chinese herbal medicine prescription, which is called Chinese herbal formulas or decoction, is a cocktail of many substances, usually tailored to the individual patient.

Typically, one batch of medicinals is prepared as a decoction of about 4 to 18 substances (bulk Chinese herbs). Some of these are considered as main herbs, some as ancillary herbs; within the ancillary herbs, up to three categories can be distinguished. Some ingredients are added in order to cancel out toxicity or side-effects of the main ingredients; on top of that, some medicinals require the use of other substances as catalysts.

The common method to make Chinese herbal formulas is to boil the bulk Chinese herbs in a teapot. The purpose of steeping or decocting raw Chinese herbs in a formula is to draw out the therapeutic constituents of the herbs in to the water.

Nowadays, many Chinese herb practitioners prefer to use Chinese patent medicines and Chinese herbal extracts.

Chinese patent medicines, which are a kind of standardized traditional Chinese herbal formulas, are easy and convenient. They are not easy to customize on a patient-by-patient basis, however. They are often used when a patient’s condition is not severe and the medicine can be taken as a long-term treatment.

Chinese herbal extracts are Chinese herbal formulas that have been condensed into a granular or powdered form. Herbal extracts, similar to patent medicines, are easier and more convenient for patients to take. The industry extraction standard is 5:1, meaning for every five pounds of raw materials, one pound of herbal extract is derived.

How are Chinese patent medicines made?

From ancient times, pills were formed by combining several herbs and other ingredients, which were dried and ground into a powder. They were then mixed with a binder and formed into pills by hand. The binder was traditionally honey. Modern teapills, however, are extracted in stainless steel extractors to create either a water decoction or water-alcohol decoction, depending on the herbs used. They are extracted at a low temperature to preserve essential ingredients. The extracted liquid is then further condensed, and some raw herb powder from one of the herbal ingredients is mixed in to form an herbal dough. This dough is then machine cut into tiny pieces, a small amount of excipients are added for a smooth and consistent exterior, and they are spun into pills. Teapills are characteristically little round black pills.

How to prepare and cook Bulk Chinese Herb Formulas?

The recommended container is a ceramic teapot with a lid on it. Metal or cast iron teapots should be avoided as Chinese herbs can react with the metals altering their therapeutic properties, or worse, have negative effects. Do not lift the lid of the teapot when cooking as the volatile oils can evaporate and escape.

Room temperature spring water or purified water are the best choices for cooking herbs. The water should cover the herbs by about 2 inches and they should be soaked for at least an hour before turning the heat on. Bring the water to a rolling boil, then turn the heat down to a low simmer. Depending on the kinds of herbs, there is a great deal of variation in the cooking time. The average time is about 20 to 30 minutes. Once cooked, strain the herbal concoction through cheesecloth, or with the lid of the teapot.

Aromatic herbs or volatile herbs such as Bo He are cooked for no longer than 5-10 minutes and should be thrown in to the decoction at the very end of cooking. If cooking the herbs more than once, be sure to add fresh aromatics to each batch. Diaphoretic herbs are cooked no longer than 10-15 minutes. Tonifying herbs are cooked between 40-50 minutes. Bone, shell, or heavy mineral substances take longer to decoct and should be cooked 20-30 minutes longer than other herbs. Crush them (if possible), soak them separately, and then cook them for 20-30 minutes before adding the other herbs. Rare or expensive herbs such as Ginseng should be sliced and decocted separately for 2 to 3 hours to extract the maximum benefit from the herb and avoid interaction and absorption from other herbs. This will also prevent overcooking the other herbs in the formula. Very small substances such as powders, seeds, and some flowers should be wrapped in cheesecloth or a small bag so they can be decocted with the rest of the formula without creating turbidity or discomfort when drinking the tea. A good example of this would be Xuan Fu Hua. Gelatinous or viscous herbs such as E Jiao or Yi Yang should be heated gently to melt them slowly and to not char the substance.

Once you’ve made the first cup of tea, the same herbs are usually cooked a second or even third time. The first cooking is said to effect the patient on more of the Qi or more superficial level as the temperature energetics of the herbs are released. On the second or even third steeping, more of the taste energetics are said to be released, which effects the patient on more of the blood or internal level. For this reason, it is good to mix the batches of tea if possible.

How to drink Chinese herbal formulas?

Chinese Herbal formulas are best taken 1 to 2 hours before eating to allow for maximum digestion and absorption of the herbs. If there are substances in the formula that irritate the gastrointestinal tract, the formula can be taken 30 minutes to an hour after eating. Tonifying formulas should be taken on an empty stomach if possible. Sedating or spirit calming formulas should be taken 2 to 3 hours before bed time.

The taste of Chinese herbal formulas can be quite unpleasant to some people, but with time the patient will usually build an affinity for the formula they are drinking, especially if is well suited for them. If necessary, the tea can be watered down and consumed in a few cups versus just one. Honey can also be added to sweeten the formula, but do this only with the consent of your Chinese herb practitioner, as it can change the properties of the formula.

Chinese Formula Categories

Formulas that Release the Exterior, Clear Heat, Drain Downward, Harmonize, Treat Dryness, Expel Dampness, Warm Interior Cold, Tonify, Regulate the Qi, Invigorate the Blood, Stop Bleeding, Stabilize and Bind, Calm the Spirit, Expel Wind, Open the Orifices, Treat Phlegm, Reduce Food Stagnation and Expel Parasites


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