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Ways to Use or Ingest Chinese Herbs

By: Diane Joswick, L.Ac., MSOM

Over the course of the past three thousand years, practitioners have developed many ways in which to administer herbal medicine to patients. Matching the appropriate type of herbal preparation to the patient and health concern is one of the most important aspects to good practice.

NOTE: Always be sure to ask for easy to follow preparation and dosage instructions when you purchase medicinal herbs

Herbal Teas:

The most effective method of using herbal medicine is in the form of a decoction or herbal tea. Decoction is the ancient art of cooking herbs in water as a means of concentrating the active ingredients within the plants. (You will find easy to follow cooking instructions with your supply of herbs.) Traditionally, a special glazed clay herb cooker is used but a glass or stainless steel pot will do. The liquid is strained and taken as a tea two or three times a day.

One of the primary advantages of a decoction is that the body rapidly absorbs it; its effects are strong and immediate. In addition, it is easy to modify the recipe to customize the treatment of a particular patient. Although herbal teas are strong and powerful, they may have an unpleasant odor and taste that many people find unpalatable. More convenient methods of taking Chinese herbs are available.

Liquid Extracts:

These are made by soaking the herbs in a solvent (usually alcohol) to extract the active ingredients, and then heating the liquid to evaporate some of the alcohol. The benefit of a liquid extract is that the bottle is convenient to take with you where ever you go and the recommended dosage is minimal; usually 3-9 droppers full a day. Approximately 1ml of a liquid extract contains the active ingredients of 1g of a normal ingredient.

Tablets and Capsules:

This is the usual method that Chinese prepared medicines are processed. A combination of Chinese herbs is finely ground and rolled into pills or put into capsules. In general, tablets and capsules are absorbed slowly and over a long period of time. The benefit of tablets and capsules is that they are more easily stored and ingested than teas, and are inexpensive.

They are most commonly used for treating chronic disorders, but can also be kept in your medicine cabinet for quick use in acute disorders such as the common cold, indigestion, or mild constipation. Chinese prepared medicines are available over the counter, but they are nevertheless medicines and should be treated as such. It is important to consult with a qualified practitioner of Chinese medicine before taking Chinese prepared medicine.


This is the most modern method of processing herbs. The herbs are boiled until thick syrup remains and then dried. After decoctions, granules are considered to have the highest effectiveness of all the preparations. Granules can retain their potency for long periods of time. They are stronger-acting than most pills, and require less medicine per volume than liquid extracts.

Lotions, Creams, Salves and Poultices:

Lotions, creams, salves and poultices are generally applied to sore or inflamed areas of the body to relieve pain and inflammation. They are traditionally called "hit medicines" because of their origination in the martial arts. Over the past two thousand years, masters of the martial arts have discovered that many herbs have a remarkable effect on the healing process of bruises, cuts and broken bones.

A poultice is prepared by combining powdered herbs with a moistening agent such as honey or egg white. The paste is than spread on muslin or cloth and applied for one to eight hours to the sore or inflamed area of the body.

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To search for an herb or formula by name, see pictures and learn common uses, indications, and precautions, Visit our Chinese Herbs Directory


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