The system of herbal medicine that developed in China differs in several significant ways from European herbal medicine. The most obvious difference is that the Western herbal tradition focuses on “simples,” or herbs taken by themselves. In contrast, traditional Chinese herbal medicine (TCHM) makes almost exclusive use of herbal combinations. More importantly, these formulas are not designed to treat symptoms of a specific illness; rather, they are tailored specifically to the individual according to the complex principles of traditional Chinese medicine. For this reason, TCHM is potentially a deeply holistic healing approach. On the other hand, it is both more difficult to use and to study than its Western counterpart.

TCHM is widely used in Asian countries, both in its traditional holistic form and in a simplified disease-oriented version. There have been a few properly designed scientific trials of TCHM, but the evidence base remains highly inadequate. In addition to questions regarding effectiveness, there remain serious safety concerns to be resolved.

Chinese herbal medicine has a long historical tradition, although it is not quite as ancient as popularly believed. Ancient herbology in China focused on potions whose function was part medicinal and part magical, and it lacked a substantial theoretical base. Sometime between the second century B.C.E. and the second century A.D., the theoretical foundations of traditional Chinese medicine were laid, but the focus was more on acupuncture than on herbs.1 Only by about the 12th century A.D. were the deeper principles of Chinese medicine fully applied to herbal treatment, forming a method that can be called TCHM. This was further refined and elaborated during various periods of active theorizing in the 14th through the 19th centuries. Western disease concepts entered the picture in the 20th century, leading to further changes.

In China today, TCHM is used alongside conventional pharmaceutical treatment. Considerable attempts have been made to subject TCHM to scientific evaluation; however, most of the published Chinese studies on the subject fall far short of current scientific standards. (For example, they generally lack a placebo group.)

In neighboring Japan, a variation of the TCHM system known as Kampo has become popular, and the Japanese Health Ministry has approved many Kampo remedies for medical use. The scientific basis for these remedies remains incomplete, but several studies of minimally acceptable quality have been reported.