How to Prescribe Herbs the TCM Way


The history of medicine evolved from using plants as medicine. That is how aspirin was derived from willow tree or opium from poppy seeds for pain relieving.  Digitalis is commonly used for congestive heart failure and is from the foxglove plant. More recently, the active ingredient in Tamiflu is from a plant that is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) called Star Anise. In America, we have abandoned the knowledge of using herbal medicine because our medical system is strongly influenced by pharmaceutical companies to promote pharmaceutical med as the standard treatment.

One of the earliest documented history of using herbs as medicine is recorded in the Bible. Myrrh and Frankincense was given to Jesus as a gift from the Wisemen. Myrrh and Frankincense have healing properties as documented in TCM. Through out the Bible there are many other verses that talks about plants as medicine along with using essential oils as medicine.

Fortunately the Chinese physicians have preserved the knowledge of prescribing herbs as medicine. Through trial and error of more than 4000 years of combining herbs, the Chinese have mastered the art of using herbs as medicine. Herbs are best combined in formulas. These formulas are so effective that many of these formulas are used in hospitals in China. In fact, if you were to go to China and visit the pharmacy, you will only find herbal formulas on the shelf. Pharmaceutical meds are too expensive for the average citizen in China.

More interestingly, the hospitals in Cleveland, OH started using Chinese herbs to treat their patients.

The effectiveness of Chinese herbs are dependent on how it is prescribed as a formula. Chinese herbs are prescribed as formulas by combining herbs together to promote the synergistic effect of the herbs.

Structure of a Herbal Formula:

Herbal formulas must follow 4 criteria where ratio matters, too. TCM herbal formulas are created according to a complex hierarchy that includes Chief, Deputy, Assistant and Envoy herbs:

Chief (Jun): Herbs directed against the main pattern of disharmony.

Deputy (Chen): Herbs with two functions: (1) aid the Chief herb(s) in treating the principle pattern, and (2) serve as a main herb directed against a coexisting pattern or secondary symptom.

Assistant (Zuo): Herbs with three functions: (1) reinforce the effect of the Chief and Deputy herbs, and (2) mitigate side effects of the Chief or Deputy herbs, or (3) have an effect that is opposite that of the Chief herb to ease the acceptability of an herb by the body.

Envoy (Shi): Herbs with two functions: (1) focus the actions of the formula on a certain channel or area of the body and (2) harmonize and integrate the actions of the other herbs.

The Chief herb must be the strongest or the most in quantity among the four other herbs.  The Deputy and the Assistant herbs must be weaker in strength than the Chief herb.  The Envoy herb which directs the whole formula to specific part of the body is the least in quantity or strength.

Other Factors when Making a Herbal Formula

Constitution, age, size of patient, sometimes nationality can be factors when making a herbal formula.

Antagonistic & Toxic Effects:

Certain herbs can’t be mixed together because of antagonistic effect or counter effect. More importantly some herbs when mixed together can create a toxic effect. When prescribing herbs, pharmaceutical medications needs to be considered.


Chinese Herbs when prescribed properly have no side effects. However when a patient’s condition is diagnosed incorrectly and prescribed the wrong formula, there will be unwanted effect from the herbs.

Herbs should be cooked together so all the chemicals interact to create a synergistic effect.

Herbal formulas can be pills, tea, soup, or draft (powder.) It can also be applied topically. Another way of administering the herbs is in a tincture or mixed with alcohol. The old way of making pill was to grind the herbs down and roll with honey to create a pill-ball.

Most Chinese Herbal Formulas are not meant to be used long term. Once the body is balanced and harmonized the patient will discontinue use but can be taken again when needed.

This method of making a herbal formula can be used with non-Chinese herbs. If Western herbs can be prescribed in this format, herbs would be more effective.

A good book to read on properly using Chinese herbs is Dan Bensky book of Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica, (3rd Edition.)

Consult with a licensed acupuncturist or a master herbalist in this field before making an herbal formula for consumption.



Drugs from plants

Herbal Medicine in the Bible


About the author:
E. Wong is a licensed acupuncturist in Texas that practices Traditional Chinese Medicine. With over 30 years of training in Tai Chi and Qi Gong, he shares his knowledge with his student as a Tai Chi and Qi Gong instructor.

He believes in being a responsible denizen of this planet through actions such as recycling, alternative energy, and green living.


For more info, please visit:

Edward Wong is a licensed acupuncturist in Texas that practices Traditional Chinese Medicine. He is an alumni of American College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
His acupuncture website is

Edward has been practicing Tai Chi and Qi Gong for over 30 years. You can find more info on