What is the difference between herbal supplements and herbal medicine?

Herbal supplement is currently quite popular in America. Many herbal supplement even originated from Traditional Chinese Medicine, like ginseng and goji berries. However, taking herbal supplements is very different from taking Chinese Herbal Medicine, even though they may contain some of the same ingredients. Many people in the US have tried herbal supplements after reading some research report in mass media. However, when they took the herb, they find it ineffective.

Herbal supplements are usually based on pharmacological research of each single herb. It ignores how this herb is traditionally used and the clinical context of using such herb. Take ephedra for example, it is traditionally used for common cold and coughing. Chinese knew that over using ephedra can cause arrhythmia, so in traditional formulas, ephedra is usually accompanied by other herbs that will limit its side-effect.

Supplement manufacturers saw that ephedra can raise heart rate and metabolism rate so introduced the herb for weight-loss. Some people overdosed it and died. Ephedra, an important Chinese medicinal herb, was almost banned in the US. So taking herbs without a qualified practitioner is not only ineffective, can also be dangerous. You should always seek professional advice for herb.

Unlike other medical traditions that utilize natural materials, Chinese rarely uses single herb alone. Herbs are always used in formulas, many of which have been passed down over two thousand years. Chinese uses herbs in combinations because ancient Chinese discovered that certain herbs used together can reduce side-effects and improve efficacy.

Over thousands of years, massive medical literature accumulated, including detailed use of herbs in combinations. Safe and effective herbal formulas have been repeatedly used over generations while unsafe and ineffective formulas discarded. Modern pharmacological research has further our understanding of traditional formulas to make them more safe and effective. So keep in mind, herbal supplement is very different from herbal medicine.

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