Herbs have been used since the beginning of life form. Animals have
instinctively learned early on to use different plants for their own healing and
strengthening. The usage of herbs by humans has been documented in all major
ancient civilizations. Earliest herbs were discovered by trial and error. There
were bitter experiences that taught people which herbs are toxic and happier
experiences that have shown herbs with therapeutic and strengthening
properties.

The oldest Chinese herbal compilation was Shen Nong’s Materia Medica
(Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing). It was reputed to be very old, perhaps from 2,700 B.C.
It had recorded 365 herbs. 252 herbs are from the plant kingdom, 67 from the
animal kingdom, and 46 from minerals. Depending upon the therapeutic
characteristics, the herbs were divided into three categories: the superior
grade, the medicinal grade and the inferior grade. In the book, there were 120
superior grade herbs, which are mainly nourishing and strengthening. There were
120 middle grade herbs, which are nourishing as well as for treatment of
diseases. There were 125 inferior grade herbs, which are solely used for
treatment of diseases. This compilation, though ancient, is still a respected
required reading for all herbalists.

The superior grade herbs are used mainly to nourish one’s body
and increase vitality. Many herbs in this category have immunity strengthening
and anti-aging properties. Also called, Tonic Herbs, these herbs contain high
levels of vitamins, antioxidants and nutritional compounds that are not commonly
found in regular foods. These herbs can be taken just like food on a daily basis
for a lifetime of benefits. Superior or tonic herbs are used often for
prevention of diseases. Examples of the superior grade include such herbs as
ginseng, hawthorn, astragalus, dang quai, cordyceps, reishi mushrooms, gingko
and wild yam.

The medicine grade herbs can be used both in nourishing the body
and treating diseases. These herbs are disease-specific and used in a targeted,
custom formulated fashion. Most of the herbs in this category are non-toxic and
can be used for long periods of time without harmful effect to the body as long
as their use are supervised by an expert doctor of Chinese medicine or
herbalist. Some medicinal herbs include skullcap, feverfew, pulsatilla, gentian
and coptidis.

Inferior grade herbs do not mean that the herbs are of poor
quality. The idea of inferior grade comes from the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of
Medicine: Physicians that treat disease after it has occurred are inferior
physicians while physicians that prevent diseases are superior physicians.” The
herbs in this category are mainly used to treat serious and urgent conditions
therefore named the “inferior” grade. These herbs are to be used to achieve
rapid results for a short period of time. Inferior grade herbs should definitely
be prescribed by knowledgeable. Many of the herbs in this category include
senna, scorpion, betel nut and euphorbiae.

Modern day Chinese Materia Medica contains over 11,000 herbal
substances. Herbs in common usage number about 400-500 and are still categorized
according to their properties as tonic, medicinal and urgent remedies, and
according to their major therapeutic action. By learning about tonic herbs, one
can use them safely to prevent disease and increase vitality and promote
longevity. By consulting with an experience doctor of Chinese medicine or
herbalist, one can enjoy personalized medicinal herbal approach to treatment of
disease. Finally, we are grateful to have this repository of time-tested
knowledge from our ancestors so that we do not have to be subjected to trial and
error experiments, such as those being done with drug medicines.

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