TCM Herbal Formula Types

Earlier this week, I was discussing the different variations of how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herbal formulas are prepared.  The most common types of preparation are pills, powder, raw herbs, tea, capsules, tablets, and syrups.  As it's a subject I'll be touching on in my next book, I thought I'd write a little about the pros and cons of each.


Wán : 丸 : Pills

In an earlier article, I wrote about the formula Xiāo Yáo Wán for the early stages of Liver Qi Stagnation.  If you look at the products of Xiao Yao Wan on, you'll see that a good number for sale are called "teapills". These teapills are considered patent medicine in TCM and are used for simple, common ailments. 

Teapills have a very long history in TCM.  They are created by grinding up the herbal formula into a fine powder, mixing it with honey, then rolling the mixture into a ball.  It is then covered with a sugar, starch, or other preservative.  The dosage taken is usually 8 pills taken 3 times a day.

These teapills are convenient as they are cheap, small, and portable.  However, the quality of the pills and the herbs used aren't that great sometimes.  Although it's a matter of opinion, they are not as strong as powders or teas made from raw herbs.  However, they are good for acute conditions, like being bloated from overeating.  Should you wish to have some on hand, there are reputable brands that sell teapills, such as Plum Flower and Guang Ci Tang.

Capsules can also be sold under this description, but it's less common.  The capsules are made from either extract powder (which will be discussed next) or powdered raw herbs.  They are more expensive and larger than teapills, but are absorbed more efficiently by the body.

Sǎn : 散 : Powder

Traditionally, this referred to an herb or group of herbs ground down into a fine powder.  Over the last couple of decades, a new process was created to make a crystallized granule powder from the liquid extract of the herb or group of herbs.  As the process relies on making a concentration of the liquid, the efficiency of the final granules could be 5 times higher than using raw herbs.  Once the formula powder is put together, it can be taken as it is, mixed with water to make a tea, put into capsules, or pressed into tablets. 

Today, the extract granule has become the most popular choice for helping patients next to patent teapills.  TCM schools keep a large stock of all different types of herb granule extracts and mix them together to create formulas for patients in their student clinics.  Also, many of the schools have automated the process, where a computer calculates and records the dosages of all the herbs used, manages inventory, and records each formula and modification a patient is given.

While the granule powder is effective, there's a school of thought that believes it's not optimal as cooking raw herbs.  A custom granule formula is just a mixture of powders in a given ratio.  There is no chemical reaction or bonding that occurs when cooking with raw materials.  Instead, you're just creating an herbal "cocktail".  Many long time practitioners will always recommend you use a raw herbal tea for more serious conditions.

Tāng : 湯 : Decoction

Tang is a tea or decoction made from raw herbs and taken orally. It is traditionally the standard method of treatment with Chinese herbal medicine. This tea is created first with a base formula, like Sì Jūn Zǐ Tāng or Sì Wù Tāng, then added upon based on the patients diagnosis and symptoms.  You can also combine two or more base formulas to help with even more complex conditions, but that requires a very good understanding of how the herbs react with each other.

It is believed that TCM herbal medicine is also a base in the creation of pharmacology.  The Chinese were aware of chemical reactions while cooking, as well as reducing side effects through the use of other herbs.  More example, Ban Xia by itself is toxic, but when cooked with ginger, it is less so.  Unfortunately, this combination also renders Ban Xia ineffective with too large a dose of Ginger.  Therefore, there is a careful ratio that needs to be followed to make sure Ban Xia is both safe and effective.

While these teas are considered the most effective and optimal treatments, they taste and smell horrible.  One of the biggest problems in our society is that everything is sweet.  This also includes medicine and especially children's medication (which is dangerous in itself). If it's not sweet, we tend to refuse to take it.  Should we happen to manage though, we end up having digestive tract problems from our body not being used to this type of "food".  It will manifest as cramps, bloating, stomach pain, and/or vomiting.  However, these symptoms all subside within a few days of taking a little of the medicine with food.  Once the body is used to it, it's best to drink the tea an hour before you eat anything.  This allows for better absorption.

gāo : 膏 : Syrup

One of the lesser known types of formula are the ones made into a syrup.  These medicines are usually sweeter and used to tonify or lubricate.  One famous example of a syrup in Chinese medicine is Chuan Bei Pi Pa Gao.  It is used for treating cough and sore throat during a cold or the flu.  It also helps to break up phlegm in the chest, so it's like a natural cough syrup and expectorant.

I hope you enjoyed this article. I tried to simplify a lot of material, as TCM theory can get rather complicated at points. While these are just a few examples, there's one more type I want talk about and that's medicine made into wine or Jiǔ (酒).  I will discuss this type in another article, as it has a number of special characteristics.