The Story Behind the Herbal Formulations

Or ‘the herbal formulations story’ in brief.

Q. Exactly what is the story behind the herbal formulations we use?

Flowering oregano
Oregano flowering in early autumn

A. It’s simple. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise known as ‘synergy’.

Within Traditional Chinese Medicine, (TCM), every herb has a “down” side and an “up” side.

Good formulas knock the hard edges off the “star player”, with the philosophy that “the team is greater than its star player.”

The combination of individual components in a formula produces a new therapeutic agent that treats more effectively and completely the cause, as well as the symptoms of a health problem.

These principles have been proven and refined over thousands of years of written clinical experience. There are organizing principles that govern the combining of thousands of active ingredients in plants to create a harmonious, effective team.

The foundations for the organizing principles, which I use in my practice today, were laid down in the first or second century in the Chinese medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic. In the seventy-fourth chapter of the basic questions, (Su Wen), it is stated, “That [ingredient] which primarily treats the disease is the Chief, that which aids the Chief is the Deputy, that which is bound to the Deputy is the Envoy/Messenger.”

Through centuries of practice, these Confucian-like roles are expressed in an ancient political organization of the State, and have come to be defined as follows:

Chief / King / Emperor herb: Produces the main effects. It dominates the whole formula and is the chief ingredient. One or two herbs will focus the purpose of the formula.

For instance, Chinese Rhubarb, Da Huang, used in large amounts as a “chief” will have a stool-loosening effect through the predominance of anthraquinones, purgative compounds; yet when relegated to a lesser role, its tannins predominate and produce a stool-solidifying effect.

Deputy / Minster herb: A “deputy” or “minister” has the primary function of helping to strengthen the effect of the “chief” or “king” herb. Added to assist the primary effect of the chief or king.

Usually one to five herbs are added to work with the leaders to emphasize, magnify or broaden their effects.

Assistant herb: The idea of an “assistant” has, since the Su Wen was written, been incorporated into standard TCM practice. It is added to lessen the hard edges of the chief. For example, it may cool the overheating effect of the chief.

The assistant herb performs this function by opposing the irritating property of the king herb without lowering its effects. They may counteract side effects or modify the overall energy of the formula from warm to cool or visa versa.

Envoy/Messenger/Servant herb: This herb directs and guides the chief or smoothes the way for its use. It may help transport active constituents into the body for the best possible absorption and circulation throughout the body.

This function also traditionally included binders for pills. The “messenger” may also lead the other herbs in the prescription to the affected site in the body.

Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine have the oldest continuous written traditions of herbal medicine on the planet.

Both traditions place great emphasis upon using combinations of herbs in formulas.

The hundreds of compounds in any one plant, when formulated with nine others should produce one thousand compounds (10 x 100 =1,000), yet in actual fact, one hundred new compounds are produced from interactions of compounds upon each other, therefore 1,100 total may be produced by a formula giving each formula a totally unique “signature” that is not possible from the sum of its parts – the whole is greater.

The Chinese have believed for thousands of years that these combinations were more effective than any single herb used alone. The energetics of the plants were assessed to consider their therapeutic action and help in their “assignments” into formulas.