Chinese herbal medicine offers the oldest and the most advanced system of herbal medicine in the world today. Complex herbal formulas are standard treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in many countries including Japan and Korea. Many of these traditional formulas have been used for over 2000 years to relieve symptoms of joint pain and swelling.
Chinese herbal medicine for internal use can be taken in pill form, strong teas called decoctions, or granules. Decoctions are concentrated teas made by boiling the ingredients for upwards of 40 minutes. These water extractions are not very convenient in modern times. The end result tends to be dark in color, have a strong odor, and can pose taste and smell palatability issues. Most Chinese take decoctions, while granules are far more popular for the Japanese and Taiwanese. Granules are powders that can come individually wrapped in convenient single dose packets. People can pour them directly into their mouths or dissolve the granules in hot water and drink as a tea.
How do these herbs really work? The answers lie in complex plant chemicals. It is hard for us to understand because we are used to taking one chemical at a time and not a milieu of ingredients that work on multiple systems in the body. One plant medicine can contain hundreds of chemicals that are active in the body.
Researchers have been examining traditional formulas looking for the biochemical answers for how these herbs are anti-inflammatories and protect the joints.
Chang shan, Chinese blue green hydrangea (Latin name Dichroa febrifuga), targets a specific immune system cell, Th-17, that is implicated in driving the inflammatory process of Rheumatoid arthritis. That immune cell makes interleukin-17, currently the focus of millions of dollars of pharmaceutical research. Interleukin-17 is a powerful messenger in the immune system that sends signals to increase inflammation leading to destruction of joints. Other herbs with some interesting research include Gu Sui Bu, commonly called Drynaria root (Latin name Drynaria fortune) and Lei gong teng, called thunder god vine (Latin name Tripterygium wilfordii).
Most formulas include eight to twelve ingredients comprising a complex array of plant chemicals and affecting many body systems and biochemical pathways.
The complexity can be mystifying but is based on very specific principles that have developed over many generations. After close examination, the traditional formulas prove to be brilliant in working synergistically to alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. It is possible (and likely) that the traditional formulas provide superior benefit than isolated active ingredients of single herbs. One formula commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis contains an herb associated with digestive complaints. The traditional herbal combination also includes an herb that soothes the digestive tract in the recipe, thereby curbing side effects.
Are herbs safe? According to Norman Farnsworth, internationally respected medicinal plant researcher: “Based on published reports, side effects or toxic reactions associated with herbal medicines in any form are rare. In fact, of all classes of substances reported to cause toxicities of sufficient magnitude to be reported in the United States, plants are the least problematic.” However, there are serious quality issues surrounding the use of Chinese herbs. Choosing a company with the strictest quality standards is important. First and foremost, the company must test to make sure that they are selling the right plant species. Many case reports exist where a more toxic plant has been substituted and caused harm. Chinese herbs need to be tested for contamination. Good herb companies employ independent labs to test for heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium. Also, pesticide residues like DDT and BHC.
Please see these resources for finding a qualified practitioner to guide you.
The American Herbalist Guild; http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/
The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine;
Kara Burkhart is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in West Hartford, CT. She teaches botanical medicine and supervises clinical rounds at the University of Bridgeport School of Naturopathic Medicine and is recognized as a professional member of the American Herbalist Guild.