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Chinese Herbal Medicines

Principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Information prepared by postgraduate students Wei Wang, Hasini Wijesuriya and Chin Wen Co with assistance from Dr Tai-Ping Fan and edited by Dr Jenny Koenig.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) prescriptions usually contain several herbs called a “fufang”. This formulation is based on the principle of “Jun-Chen-Zuo-Shi”.

“Jun” (emperor) treats the main cause of the disease

“Chen” (minister) enhances the actions of “Jun” or treats accompanying symptoms

“Zuo” (adjuvant) reduces or eliminates possible toxic effects of the Jun or Chen herbs but also treats accompanying symptoms

“Shi” (courier) helps to deliver or guide the other herbs to the target organs.

A TCM practitioner will modify the ingredients and dose according to the individual patient. Read more about Dr Tai-Ping Fan's research  here and in Fan et al 2006, Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Vol 27, Pages 295-308.


Focus on Ma Huang

Ma Huang comes from the plant Ephedra sinica which has been used for 500 years in Chinese herbal medicine for treating asthma, hay fever, colds, fever and coughs. Ephedra is also found in India and America (see photos)

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Current uses of Ma Huang in the West

Ephedrine has been extracted from Ephedra and is used in a nasal spray for decongestion (colds, hayfever). Giving it as a nasal spray means that its action is largely restricted to the nose and it doesn’t reach the rest of the body where it can have side effects.
It is no longer used in Western medicine for asthma
Ephedra has been used as a nutritional supplement for weight loss. It was banned in the USA because of serious side effects if taken in sufficient doses (see “Consumer Advisory” from the USA National Institutes of Health National Center For Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Take home message

any medicine can have adverse effects if used inappropriately always consult a qualified practitioner and make sure your GP is aware if you take herbal medicines (see

How does it work?

Ephedra sinica: contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The chemical structure of ephedrine is very similar to adrenaline.

Ephedrine acts in a similar manner to adrenaline:

  • It constricts blood vessels in the nose to stop it dripping
  • Increases heart rate and force of contraction of the heart
  • Widens the airways
  • Brain stimulant
  • Stimulates adrenals and thyroid
  • The body becomes accustomed to its effects after using it for some time. Withdrawal can then cause depression.

Have a look at the results of our experiments on the effects of Ma Huang on the heart rate of Daphnia in The Experimental Results

Plus other ingredients? There are some reports that there are other important ingredients in Ephedra sinica

  • It may also contain chemicals which decrease the effect of ephedrine on the heart
  • It may also contain chemicals which decrease the inflammation that occurs in the lungs in asthma

Common ground?

Western medicine is moving from using a single drug to using combinations of drugs – this is common in AIDS, cancer chemotherapy, asthma and heart conditions( A)

This approach now involves affecting several protein targets within the body rather than just one “Magic Bullet”.

It is now possible to test large numbers of different drugs and of combinations of drugs in isolated systems

There is a great deal of enthusiasm … aiming to produce an evidence-based validation of the efficacy of Chinese medicine (B)

(A) Wagner H (2005) Trends and challenges in phytomedicine: research in the new millennium. In Handbook of Medicinal Plants (Yanic, A. and Bachrach, U. eds) pp 3-28 Haworth Press

(B) Fan et al 2006, Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, Vol 27, Pages 295-308.