For quite a while, I’ve been curious about Western alternatives to Chinese herbs. I’m particularly interested in creating effective alternative formulas to traditional Chinese ones (to know why, read my prior blog, Are Herbs from the West Really the Best?). As I investigate possible substitutions, I’m running into several problems. It’s possible to match an herb’s energy and flavor but that doesn’t mean it always has the same actions. Each herb is unique, just as twins have differences even though they may look and act alike. So it’s more difficult finding Western herbal substitutes for Chinese herbs than you might think.
As far as I know, Michael was the first to establish Western-Chinese-Ayurvedic herb "cross-overs" when he began to identify energetics of Western herbs in the 70’s. As he created substitute formulas for Chinese ones using Western herbs, he discovered that he actually ended up with something that served a different purpose than the original formula but was effective for treating other conditions. While new formulas are valuable, I’m intrigued with crafting alternatives that serve the same intended purpose as their traditional Chinese counterparts and yet have Western herbal substitutes when possible.
Western herbalism today is spreading its wings into many other countries and incorporating non-native herbs. This is occurring for many reasons. First of all, if you can’t find the herbs you need in your own backyard or local community, then you must purchase them from other sources. However, while you may think you are buying an herb from the West, the overwhelming majority of herbs by volume used in the U.S. are imported from other countries. I find this both amazing and enlightening.
Secondly, many herbs traditionally used in the West aren’t available anymore, are hard to find, or are endangered and so can’t be found at all. Lastly, certain herbs have simply not yet been identified in Western herbalism, such as the true Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang tonics. What this means is that many people end up using non-Western herbs along with Western ones. Because of this, we are headed toward a planetary system, one which combines herbs that best treat a particular condition regardless of their geographic origin.
So can we find Western substitute herbs for Chinese formulas and be just as effective? This is exactly what I intend to explore over the next months in these blogs. Join me on this journey and help me out. This job is much bigger than any one person, so send in your comments, experiences, and ideas and let’s explore this together!
How to Choose Herbal Substitutes
Many people think that Western herbalism is purely allopathic, and today it mainly is, but Western herbs were applied according to energetic systems in the past, such as Cherokee herbalism, the Greek humour system, and Culpeper’s assignments (which delineated herbal energies as warm, slow, or sticky, and as treating particular parts of body). Today it’s just as important that we employ some energetic system when using herbs, whichever one, just so long as you choose one to guide you.
To substitute Western herbs for Chinese ones then, several factors are important to take into account. These include an herb’s flavor, nature, energy, unique characteristic and more, as follows:
Flavor: Acrid, sweet, bitter, salty, sour (some include bland or astringent)
Energy: Heating or cooling, dampening or drying, building or eliminating, etc.
Direction and movement: Inward, outward, dispersing, consolidating and so on
Body systems or parts/Organs & meridians affected: For example – digestive, respiratory; spleen, lungs, gallbladder; datu (tissues)
Properties: Diaphoretic, diuretic; Qi-regulating, aromatic transform Damp, etc.
Pattern: The traditional energetic system being used and thus, the pattern, humour, or other assessment being treated – this is the major purpose of using a particular formula and so the substitute herbs should also treat, or be used to assist treatment of, that specific pattern.
Special Use: An herb’s special action such as ma huang (ephedra) has the special action of dilating the bronchioles; bupleurum and pueraria harmonize the exterior and interior; and hawthorn berries support heart function but also remove food stagnation from meat and fats.
Plant part: A flower has a different energy and action than a root or bark. It may be tempting to substitute chamomile for bupleurum, for instance, but is it really adequate even if given in much higher doses?
Formula: Because herbs work together and influence each other in a formula, the other herbs being used must be considered as well.
Of all the above factors, the most important to match when choosing an herbal substitute is the flavor of an herb. This is because an herb’s flavors delineate its actions. I’ve even seen it written that herbs don’t treat disease but are vehicles for flavors and their actions! (For more in-depth explanation of the value and importance of flavor, see Michal’s blog, "Herbal Flavor vs. Taste: What’s the Difference?")
According to the Nei Jing (Inner Classic), the thousand year-old book of Chinese medicine, each flavor affects the body as follows:
Acrid: disperses, moves
Sweet: builds, slows, harmonizes
Bitter: dries, drains, firms
Sour: gathers, astringes
Salty: descends, softens
Bland: leaches, promotes flow
Astringent: strongly tightens, and draws but is not necessarily sour in flavor
The flavor of an herb is different than its taste. Taste refers to the senses in the mouth and tongue senses (taste buds) and how they interact with food and drink. Flavor, on the other hand, encompasses many senses, not just taste, and these include how it acts on the body, or its overall actions. This is why flavor is the primary focus when choosing herbal substitutes.
Technically, no herb really can substitute for another. Each herb has a unique personality and so the best we can do is approximate as good a substitute as possible. Sometimes one herb may work well, such as elecampane for pinellia, while other times dui yao combinations must be used (two herbs that work synergistically together to create a specific action and achieve a dependable therapeutic effect that is different than when used alone or with any other herb).
Overall, it’s important to not over-think these substitutions. It’s easy to do so and then you end up with a formula that’s either too complicated, or doesn’t serve the original intended purpose.
There are several other factors to consider when choosing Western substitutes for Chinese herbs:
- Keep in mind that herbs considered "Chinese" are from the Imperial Materia Medica used today, which was derived from agreed-upon herbs by the Chinese empire. However, there were far more herbs used by village healers who actually considered some of these unlisted herbs more powerful. When we take the full Chinese herbal spectrum into account, there are many commonalities worldwide.
- When creating a Western formula to substitute for a traditional Chinese one, the thrust and purpose of the Chinese formula should be primary in considering different herbal alternatives. In other words, what pattern does the formula treat? What is the final action desired? It’s possible to choose herbal substitutes for each herb in a Chinese formula that seem appropriate in terms of flavor, energy and organs affected, and yet the overall end product of the formula may actually have a different thrust than the initial one. This is fine when designing new formulas, but if creating a substitution, the treatment principle and approach should match the original Chinese formula.
- Consider WHY each herb is included in a formula, i.e., its specific purpose, for that might not always directly treat the presenting pattern, but support it. For example, white peony is a weak Blood tonic that has a cool energy (Blood tonics are generally warm to neutral in energy) and yet because white peony preserves and protects the Yin, it is included in Blood-tonifying formulas.
- Guard against choosing herbal substitutes with commercially hyped Western uses such as St. John’s wort for depression or black cohosh for menopause. St. John’s wort only treats depression from Excess Heat, so if creating a substitution for say the formula, Xiao Yao Wan, which treats depression due to Qi Stagnation and Blood Deficiency, this herb isn’t appropriate and so other herbs should be considered instead.
- Know that some herbs don’t need substitution. For instance, baked licorice can be Western licorice stir-fried in honey, or mint could be peppermint or lemon balm, or berberine-containing herbs such as phellodendron (huang bai) could be substituted with other berberine-containing herbs such as Oregon grape or barberry, or goldenseal for scutellaria.
Let’s Get Started
Which herbs should we try to find substitutes for first? I think it may be useful to consider categories of herbs that really need substitution. Western herbalism has many effective alteratives, diaphoretics, diuretics, expectorants, laxatives, and emmenagogues, so what categories are missing? Where do we need to find substitutes or broaden our herbal horizons? What herbs need substitution because they are hard to find, no longer available or illegal (or unethical) to use? These are all good starting points.
 Western herbs have been energetically classified in the past, but most of those systems are either obsolete (Greek, Egyptian, Culpeper) or only known to a few (Cherokee, Pueblo).