Valerian and the Globalization of Chinese Medicine
Valerian and the Globalization of Chinese Medicine
by Eric Brand
As the Chinese and Western worlds grow closer together, we see that each culture is rapidly becoming interested in natural remedies from outside their traditional geographic zone. The idea of incorporating outside substances into Chinese medicine is very old, and many of the mainstays in modern Chinese medicine were originally introduced from traders outside of China. For example, the use of myrrh and bezoar came into Chinese medicine from Arabic traders, and illustrated ancient Chinese materia medicas clearly depict non-Chinese traders next to some of the entries.
Similarly, trade in plant substances between the Americas and China goes back for hundreds of years. Historically, the Americas imported extensive quantities of da huang and tu fu ling from China, along with tea. We exported American ginseng to China, and even Daniel Boone was a ginseng trader (also in the ton volume). American ginseng caught on in Canton, the Southern Chinese trading hub, and it became integrated into formulas and common use. At present, Hong Kong is still the world’s largest consumer of American ginseng, and their wholesale prices on wild American ginseng are even better than the prices of the same roots here in the U.S. (because of the volume).
There is a tremendous amount of Chinese interest in Western herbs, just as there is a tremendous amount of Western interest in Chinese herbs. Yet both sides face a daunting language barrier, because all the knowledge in the target field is in a different language. This generation is the first one to have a critical mass of people that speak the other’s language, so the gap is narrowing rapidly. However, at present, the field of Western herbs is largely un-pioneered in Chinese academia, just as the knowledge about Chinese herbs remains largely untouched in the West (current English sources only have a fraction of the total information available in the Chinese herbal world).
There is a movement in China to find new and effective plants, as well as new sources of existing Chinese medicinal herbs. At the forefront of such research are doctors like Zhao Zhongzhen of Hong Kong, who takes trips all over Africa and South America to survey the wild populations of medicinal plants. Apparently he discovered that South Africa has rich natural reserves of lian qiao, which grow wild there but are not used by locals. He then takes samples back to the lab to assess their constituents for comparison.
Because China may not always be able to supply the growing demand for Chinese herbs, it is important to look globally at plant reserves and growing environments. However, beyond finding new sources of existing medicines, there is significant interest in finding new medicinal substances. Several Western herbs have already made it to China. In fact, the South American herb maca is more popular in China that it is here in the U.S. And China now grows huge amounts of echinacea, though much of it is destined for export back to America in the form of extracts.
A number of Western herbs have become creeping into the Chinese materia medica literature. One of the most important examples of this is valerian. Valerian is one of the few Western herbs to have a relatively extensive track record of Chinese medical use.
It takes generations for Chinese doctors to form a consensus on the TCM properties of a new substance, and there are very few Western herbs that have extensive Chinese language resources that look at the plant from a TCM perspective. Beyond Western herbs, we see new arrivals into the traditional materia medica literature coming from Tibetan medicine, such as hong jing tian. Or medicinals like jiao gu lan, which were used historically but saw new uses and new popularity after modern research discoveries. Such medicinals are always disputed in terms of their nature and flavor, channel entry, and medicinal actions.
Valerian is most famous for helping with sleep in Western herbal medicine. In Europe, it is made into pharmaceutical tablets, while in the Americas it is often taken as a tincture. Similarly, the Chinese classify it as a spirit-quieting medicinal. Yet they also ascribe a blood-moving action to it, which is often not something Westerners associate with it.
We covered valerian in our Concise Chinese Materia Medica. There weren’t a lot of monographs on it in the core Chinese textbooks, but it was featured in a few key sources. The basic consensus is the following, taken from our text Concise Chinese Materia Medica (Brand and Wiseman, Paradigm Publications):
Nature and Flavor: Acrid, sweet; warm.
Channel Entry: Heart, liver.
Actions and Indications
Nourishes the heart and quiets the spirit: Insomnia, reduced sleep, and palpitations.
Xié cǎo is used to nourish the heart and quiet the spirit because it has a sweet flavor and enters the heart channel. It may be combined with other spirit-quieting medicinals, such as suān zǎo rén (Ziziphi Spinosi Semen), hé huān pí (Albiziae Cortex), and shǒu wū téng (Polygoni Multiflori Caulis).
For cases of dual vacuity of qì and blood that deprives the heart of nourishment, it is used with medicinals such as dāng guī (Angelicae Sinensis Radix), huáng qí (Astragali Radix), rén shēn (Ginseng Radix), and lóng yǎn ròu (Longan Arillus).
Rectifies qì, quickens the blood, and relieves pain: Blood stasis patterns of painful menstruation or amenorrhea, pain in the lumbus and legs, knocks and falls, and pain in the stomach duct and abdomen.
Xié cǎo has a blood-quickening and pain-relieving action that accounts for its use in treating menstrual irregularities and pain.
Blood stasis manifesting in painful menstruation, amenorrhea, or irregular menstruation: Combine with hóng huā (Carthami Flos), dān shēn (Salviae Miltiorrhizae Radix), yì mǔ cǎo (Leonuri Herba), and zé lán (Lycopi Herba).
Enduring impediment pain, such as pain of the lumbus and legs: Combine with sāng jì shēng (Taxilli Herba), dú huó (Angelicae Pubescentis Radix), chuān xiōng (Chuanxiong Rhizoma), and mò yào (Myrrha).
Knocks and falls with swelling and pain: Combine with medicinals such as rǔ xiāng (Olibanum), mò yào (Myrrha), sū mù (Sappan Lignum), hóng huā (Carthami Flos), and gǔ suì bǔ (Drynariae Rhizoma).
Pain in the stomach duct and abdomen that is primarily due to qì stagnation: Combine with medicinals such as mù xiāng (Aucklandiae Radix) and yán hú suǒ (Corydalis Rhizoma). If the pain is primarily due to blood stasis, combine with pú huáng (Typhae Pollen) and wǔ líng zhī (Trogopteri Faeces) instead.
Dosage and Method of Use
3–6 g, either in decoctions or prepared as a medicinal liquor. Xié cǎo is commonly used in Western phytotherapy.