Taste, Temperature, Channel, & Direction – Basic Properties of Herbs in TCM | Intro to Herbology

Hey this is Nicholas, let's talk about
the properties of herbs, like temperature taste, entering channel, and direction. So
first we should ask why do we even need to know this? Is it just because Chinese
medicine teachers are mean and like to torture you by making you memorize a
bunch of useless information? Well, maybe… But really, understanding these basic
properties is our first step towards understanding how these herbs work, what
they can do for us, and how we can use them to treat our patients. Because
Chinese herbology isn't like Western herbology. With Western herbs, we tend to
take an herb and match it to a symptom. So ginger is good for upset stomach,
chamomile is good for insomnia, ginkgo is good for memory, and St.

John's Wort is
good for depression. But that's not how Chinese medicine works. In Chinese
medicine, we're not treating symptoms we're treating patterns of disharmony. So
what do we mean by that, "patterns of disharmony"? Well, these are things like
Liver Qi stagnation, Kidney Yin deficiency, damp heat in the lower-jiao. So
these patterns describe an imbalance or a disharmony in the normal functioning
of the body systems. So by understanding the nature of these herbs in terms of
taste, temperature, entering channel, and direction, that can give us some insight
into how these herbs can work to restore balance and ultimately heal our patients.
So maybe the simplest to understand is temperature. Each herb is assigned a
temperature, also called the Qi of an herb. So an herb can be hot, warm, cool, or
cold. And then, as a fifth one, we can also say an herb is neutral and temperature
or that it's Chi is balanced.

So even though we say the four Qi there are actually
like five temperatures. So this gives us a very basic treatment principle to
follow when using herbs. Chapter 74 of the Ling Shu states, "hot diseases must be
cooled; cold diseases must be warmed." So basically, if a person is hot,
give them cold herbs. If a person is cool, give them hot herbs. Now admittedly
sometimes it gets more complicated than this. People aren't always just hot or
just cold. We might see more complicated patterns where there's a mix, like heat above and cold below, cold on the exterior with
interior heat, or false cold was true heat. So in situations like this where we
have a combination of both heat and cold in the body, we might end up combining
both hot and cold herbs together in a formula. And then we'll just direct those
herbs to different parts of the body. And that's something we'll talk more about
later. But for now, hopefully this idea of herbs having a temperature makes sense
or is already familiar to you.

For example, we have common spices like
cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove, and these are all warm in temperature. That's
why we eat them during the winter in things like apple pie or pumpkin spice
lattes. Things like watermelon and mint, on the other hand, are very cooling in
temperature. And that's why we eat them during the summer. Watermelon is very
cooling and refreshing, so if you eat it during the winter when it's cold outside,
people are going to look at you funny. So that's the idea of temperature, and it's
one of the basic things we want to keep in mind when we're prescribing herbs to
our patients.

The next thing we want to talk about is the five tastes or the
five flavors, which are sour, bitter, sweet, acrid, and salty. So each herb will have
one or more of these flavors, and the flavor of an herb will determine what
action or effect it has on the body. So let's go through them one by one. So with
sour, we say that the sour flavor induces astringency. But what does that even
mean, "induce astringency"? No, not that. When we say "induce astringency" we mean that these herbs prevent or stop the abnormal leakage of qi and fluids. Or,
more simply stated, sour herbs stop leakage.

Remember in fundamentals class
we learn the five functions of qi. Well one of those functions was containment.
Qi is supposed to contain and hold things in place. When qi is deficient
and fails in its function of containment then things leak out. What does this
leakage look like? Well, we could have leakage of fluids, like spontaneous
sweating, night sweats, incontinence, bedwetting, or frequent
urination. We could have leakage of qi like with chronic cough. Here we would
say this is the Lung qi leaking out. We could have leakage of essence, like
seminal emission or vaginal discharge. Or we could even have large intestine
leakage such as chronic diarrhea. So herbs with a sour flavor can be used to
prevent or stop these types of leakage.

Another phrase we use here is "stabilize
and bind" and that's just another way of saying "stop leakage". I just want to bring
this up here because this is the name of the category in Bensky, "Herbs that
Stabilize and Bind." And this is just a category of herbs that stop leakage. The
thing we want to be careful of though is that these herbs are for chronic,
long-standing cases due to deficiency where qi is failing in its function of
containment. So if we have chronic, long-standing diarrhea due to spleen Qi
deficiency then we can use sour herbs to stop the diarrhea. However if we have an
acute case of diarrhea due to an excess damp-heat pathogen, then we would not use
sour herbs. In that case using sour herbs would just trap the pathogen inside the
body, and that's not what we want. So next is bitter. Bitter herbs have two
functions: they clear heat and drain fire, and they dry dampness. Now here, some
people like to ask, "What's the difference between clearing heat and draining fire?"
Well the answer is, not much.

If you want to be a real nit picky you can look at
Nigel Weissman's Practical Dictionary of Chinese Medicine where he says, "fire
denotes a form of repletion heat arising from the transformation of other evils
and from the transformation of yang qi." But on the other hand I've had
Chinese teachers telling me that the only reason we say it this way is
because in Chinese things sound more poetic when you use four characters. So
when you say it this way, "Qing Re, Xie Huo" it just sounds more beautiful.

But then
we can maybe also say that the word "draining" implies that bitter herbs have
a downward direction. For example, Da Huang drains heat and
fire downwards to relieve constipation. But however you want to say it I think
the important thing to remember is that bitter herbs are good for getting rid of
heat in the body.

Besides that, the bitter flavor also dries dampness. So we can
combine this function with the first one and say that bitter herbs are good for
damp heat. But we also have bitter herbs that treat cold-damp as well. So don't
get confused, just because we say that one function of bitter herbs is that
they clear heat and drain fire, that doesn't mean that all bitter herbs are
cold and temperature. We do have herbs that are bitter in flavor and warm in

And that just means they're using the second function of the bitter
flavor which is drying dampness. Next we have sweet herbs. Sweet herbs tonify
and moisten. So anytime we're dealing with deficiency, whether it's Qi
deficiency, blood deficiency, yin deficiency, or yang
deficiency, we tend to use herbs that are sweet in flavor. One thing we might want
to worry about, though, is that sweet herbs tend to be rich and cloying and
difficult to digest. So taking a lot of sweet herbs can very easily cause
stagnation. So when we take sweet herbs, it's very common to combine them with
herbs that have a moving property as well. And that brings us to the next
flavor which is acrid. The acrid flavor moves and
disperses so anytime we're dealing with stagnation whether it's qi
stagnation, blood stagnation, or stagnation due to cold, we'll likely use
acrid herbs to move and disperse. And then, when we say that acrid herbs
disperse, that also means that they disperse outward to expel pathogenic
influences from the exterior levels of the body.

So we can also say that
acrid herbs promote sweating to release the exterior. So the actual taste
of acrid can be kind of difficult to explain. Some other translations we use
are pungent or even spicy. But we don't necessarily mean spicy in the way that
cayenne peppers or jalapeno peppers are spicy. Some other examples are things
like ginger, garlic, onions, and even cinnamon are considered acrid in flavor.
So it's that kind of spiciness.

And then, since acrid herbs are dispersing and
drying, we'll use caution in cases of deficiency.
Basically, if a person is already low on qi, we don't want to disperse what
little qi they have left. And finally, we have salty. The salty flavor softens
hardness and purges excess so salty herbs can be used to treat hard nodules
like goiter and scrofula. And salty herbs can purge accumulations or induce moist
precipitation. These are just fancy ways of saying that they have a strong
laxative effect. Think of like Epsom salt which is commonly used as a laxative.
And as a side note, we're going to see that most of our medicinal substances that
come from animal parts are going to be marked salty and flavor as well. So
things like cicada skins, gecko tails, or deer antler are going to be marked salty
in flavor.

So those are the five tastes or the five flavors. And again, understanding
these flavors allows us to make some connection between the taste of an herb
and its therapeutic action. And then, something that happens pretty often in
Chinese medicine, whenever we have five of something we tend to match it up with
the five elements or the five phases. So each one of the five flavors corresponds
to one of the five phases, and that's why we call it a "five phase correspondence".
So the sour flavor corresponds to wood.

The bitter flavor corresponds to fire.
The sweet flavor corresponds to earth. The acrid flavor corresponds to the
metal. And the salty flavor corresponds to water. But what's maybe more
interesting here is through these five phase correspondences we can say that
each taste is associated with an organ or channel. So the sour flavor enters the
liver. The bitter flavor enters the heart. The sweet flavor enters a spleen. The
acrid flavor enters the lung. And the salty flavor enters the kidney. So, for
example, herbs that are salty in flavor or have been prepared with salt tend to
enter the kidney and treat kidney- related disorders. Now I'm not sure that
there's actually a good way to explain or remember these correspondences, but
maybe we can try to make something up. So the sour flavor stops leakage and
holds things in, and that's similar to the liver's function of storage.

bitter flavor clears heat and drains fire, and so it corresponds to fire. Or
you can think about fire drying things out, and that's related to the bitter
flavor's function of drying dampness. The sweet flavor tonifies, just like the
spleen is our source of postnatal Qi and it tonifies the entire body through
nutrition and proper digestion. The acrid flavor moves and disperses, just like
when you do rhythmic breathing during Qi Gong, you're using your lungs to move and
circulate Qi. Or you can think that the acrid flavor releases the exterior and
the lung governs the exterior and the opening and closing of the pores. And the
salty flavor is associated with water because salt attracts water. If you eat a
lot of salt you'll get bloated because you're retaining water. Also, if you eat kidneys like pork kidneys, you might know that they're salty in flavor.
Because that's how the kidneys regulate water in the body is through sodium

So kidneys are literally salty. So maybe that's helpful, or maybe it
isn't. Some of them are kind of a stretch. But the other thing we should look at is,
besides the five flavors, we also have additional properties that help
determine the actions of an herb. So besides sour, bitter, sweet, acrid, and
salty, we can also say that herbs can be bland, aromatic, or astringent. So even
though we call it the five flavors, there are really like seven or eight five
flavors. So bland is more like a lack of flavor. But the bland flavor has the
action of promoting urination and draining dampness. We usually use bland
herbs for edema and water retention, or for urination problems like UTI. So we
need to keep this straight: bitter herbs DRY dampness, meaning the dampness dries
up and just disappears, but bland herbs DRAIN dampness meaning we're promoting
urination to drain dampness out of the body. So don't get these two confused. And
aromatic isn't really a taste it's more like a property. Aromatic herbs have a
strong smell they have a fragrance or aroma and this aromatic property has the
action of opening and awakening aromatic herbs can open the sensory orifices like
the eyes nose and ears think about like vicks vapor rub the strong smell opens
up your face aromatic herbs also open the harp orifices to revive the Shen or
awaken the spirit and aromatic herbs also awaken the spleen so think about
like smelling salts if a person passes out you can use the strong fragrance of
smelling salts to wake them up similarly aromatic herbs wake up the spleen so
that can perform its function of transforming dampness that's why we
might also say that aromatic herbs transform dampness astringent is another
one that's not really a taste it's more like a property it's pretty much the
same thing as sour we just use it for herbs that have the ability to stop
leakage but aren't necessarily sour and flavor when you put them in your mouth
so there we have the seven or eight five flavors next we can talk about entering
channels or the idea that herbs enter specific channels in order to have a
therapeutic effect so this is maybe a little bit weird because the idea of
entering channels kind of evolved over time in order to bridge the gap between
acupuncture and herbs so entering channels weren't really mentioned in the
original Shen Nong benzo Jing they were first alluded to in a Song Dynasty but
it wasn't until the Jin yuan dynasty that they got explicitly mentioned so
part of what this means is there isn't always complete agreement between
sources about which herbs enter which channels so if you're looking at two
different books and you have two different entering channels for the same
herb that's kind of normal or if you're looking at an herb and you don't
understand why this herb enters these channels or why this herb doesn't enter
these channels that's also kind of normal but for us I would say that
entering channels are just another way of characterizing and understanding the
functions of an herb so if an herb stops coughs it probably enters a lung channel
if an herb calms the shen we enters the heart channel if an herb
brightens the eyes probably enters the liver channel because the liver governs
the eyes if an herb strengthens the tendons and bones
it probably enters the liver and kidney channels because the liver governs
attendance and the kidneys govern the bones things like that sooner going
through the individual herbs we want to try to make these connections when we
can but really if you come across an herb and you don't understand why it
enters a certain channel let's say don't worry about it too much there may be a
reason but it might be really weird and convoluted one so for now I would say
just don't think too hard if that all sounded really weird and confusing let's
look at an example this is bull hook which is mint leaf so here we see that
bull hook is the Chinese name and mint I have local Kasturba is the Latin
pharmaceutical name in terms of Chi or temperature
waha is cool and temperature so we know that it's used to treat warm conditions
waha is acrid in flavor remember the acrid flavor moves and disperses so boja
disperses wind heat from the superficial levels of the body and it also moves
liver Chi bull hood is also aromatic this refers to its ability to open
orifices opening up the eyes head and throat if you're making mint tea you can
stick your face over it and the fragrance of the steam will open up your
eyes and nose as far as entering channels go bull hook enters the lung
and liver channels and enters the lung channel because it releases the exterior
and benefits the skin and those are governed by the lung it enters a liver
channel because it moves liver Chi and brightens the eyes and the eyes are
governed by the liver so when we're going through the individual herbs don't
think of these properties as extra pieces of information that you have to
memorize instead try to understand in herbs functions in terms of its
temperature taste and entering channels then the last thing we can talk about is
direction herbs can have a direction of action they can move upward downward
inward outward or go to a specific area of the body for example flowers tend to
have a light ascending nature so this upward direction makes
them good for treating symptoms in the head and face roots and heavy minerals
tend to have a downward direction so they can move downward and anchor
ascendant young some of the diseases we treat have a direction associated with
them so for example with coffee nausea and vomiting we might say that the Chi
is rebelling upward so we treat these conditions using herbs with a downward
Direction diarrhea or rectal prolapse could be cheese sinking so we counter
that by using lifting herbs if a pathogen is on the exterior trying to
invade and work its way in word we can use herbs with an outward direction to
push the pathogen out if fluids are leaking out like in the case of
spontaneous wedding we can use herbs with an inward direction to hold things
in then we have certain herbs that can guide the therapeutic effect of a
formula to a specific part of the body for example chong who guides herbs the
upper body well do all guides herbs to the lower body Jia gum can guide herbs
to the chest so this idea of an herbs direction can be kind of weird because
it's not always explicitly stated so if you open your textbook you'll probably
see sections for taste temperature and entering channel but you won't
necessarily see a section for the direction of an herb for that you might
have to go looking through the commentary so the directional property
of an herb is more pronounced in some herbs than in other herbs but it's still
something we can keep in mind during a treatment so those are the basic
properties of herbs and again the reason we need to know this is because this is
how we use Chinese herbs to treat patients one of the mistakes I see
beginning students make is they ask questions like what's a good herb for
insomnia what's a good herb for diabetes what's a good herb for when I get sick
and those are just the wrong questions to ask because remember in Chinese
medicine we're not treating symptoms we're treating patterns of disharmony so
the way it works is a patient comes in with a chief complaint we ask them a
bunch of questions about that chief complaint in order to come up with a
diagnosis that diagnosis informs our treatment principle and then we
prescribe herbs that line up with treatment principle for example let's
say you have a patient with a chief complaint of insomnia after looking at
the other signs and symptoms you might come up with a pattern diagnosis of
liver Chi stagnation transforming into fire so your treatment principle would
be drain fire and move liver Chi since this is the warm condition we'll
probably want to use herbs that are cool and temperature will probably use bitter
herbs since the bitter taste drains fire and
we'll probably combine that with acrid herbs
since the acrid flavor moves and disperses and now take care of the
underlying Chi stagnation and we'll use herbs that enter the liver channel so
that's how we would treat insomnia in this particular patient but say we have
another patient coming in with insomnia but this time the other signs and
symptoms are different here based on these symptoms we might diagnose spleen
Qi deficiency with heart blood deficiency so our treatment principle
would be tonify spleen Chi and Tana fie heart blood so here we'll probably use
herbs that are warm and temperature and sweet and flavor because the sweet
flavor Tana Faiz and this time we'll use herbs that enter the spleen and heart
channels instead so even though both of these people have insomnia the way we
treat them and the herbs we use are going to be very different depending on
the pattern diagnosis so that's it for today I hope this was helpful if we
haven't met my name is Nicholas I make videos about acupuncture and Chinese
herbs so if you're a student and you'd like to see more videos like this
consider subscribing below and checking out some of the other videos on this
channel but I hope you enjoyed this cuz that's all for today
thanks and see you next time

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