When I was a student in acupuncture school, I remember one
of my teachers telling me that “you have to get to know herbs as if they are
people. They have their own personalities, preferences, likes and dislikes.
They get along with certain other herbs and not others. They have their own
strengths and weaknesses, and their own ways of acting. They can change their
behavior based on who else is around them. They have their own issues and ways
of being in the world. Like people. You need to get to know them in that way.”
Chinese Herbs, unlike Western herbs, are prescribed in a
formula of about 4-20 herbs. This means, as an herbalist, I need to think about
how each herb in the formula interacts with the other herbs – as well as with
any medications that a particular patient is on. I might take certain herbs out
of a formula, or adjust dosages, based on how I know that herb will react with
the other herbs that I am prescribing. Chinese herbal formulas are tiny
ecosystems – much like our bodies and the many relationships and communities we move through
I was having a conversation the other day with a friend
about what makes a healthy romantic relationship. And I realized that the kinds
of things that we were saying – “the two people can be open and honest with
each other”, “they bring out the best in each other”, “they are stronger as a
partnership than as individuals, while leaving space for each to be their own
person” – are concepts that are, in a way, mirrored in Chinese Herbal Medicine
theory and the way we understand herbal interactions in the body. And it got me
thinking about how Chinese Herbal Medicine theory can be applied to so many
other aspects of our lives – relationships with other people, relationships
with ourselves, healthy versus unhealthy communities, our patterns of existing
in relation to others.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is all about relationships. There
are 7 kinds of relationships in Chinese Herbology – these describe ways that 2
herbs can interact with each other in a formula.
The first is the Single Effect (Dan Xing). The Single Effect is how a single herb acts
on its own within the body, in no combination with others. It is the action of
the herb unadulterated by other herbs, other factors. The Single Effect is how
you would act in the world if no one would know what you did. What decisions
would you make if there was no recognition for your positive actions, no
ramifications for your negative actions? What kind of person would you be, if
all external motivation and judgment was removed? Are you pleased with your answer?
The next kind of relationship is that of Mutual Accentuation
. Mutual Accentuation refers to when two herbs that have similar
therapeutic actions individually are combined to achieve a greater effect. For
example, two herbs that strengthen the body’s Qi (energy) can be used together
to more strongly tonify, nourish, and strengthen that energy in the body.
Mutual Accentuation is the herbal equivalent of the idea of the whole being
more than the sum of its parts. When I first opened my acupuncture practice, I
opened it with a dear friend a fellow acupuncturist. We had a similar skill set
(our “therapeutic action”) and with the two of us working together, our
practice grew much more quickly than we expected. We often talked about how we
felt that the way that we worked synergistically with each other allowed our
partnership to be stronger than the sum of each of our efforts as individuals.
We mutually accentuated each other’s skills and strengths.
You can apply this idea to any relationship
in your life – in family (are you able to bring out the best in each other
while working together to create a life you all want to live?), or romance (with whom is your
partnership better than the individuals who make it up?), or business (what
co-workers make you better at your job, and vice versa?)
Another kind of relationship in Chinese herbology is that of
Mutual Enhancement (Xiang Shi). This is when two herbs that have different therapeutic
actions in the body combine to achieve a common goal. For example, if someone had severe
constipation that I diagnosed to be from excessive heat in the system, I would combine an herb that
clears heat to relieve constipation with an herb that strongly pushes energy
downward to relieve constipation. Their therapeutic mechanisms as individuals
are different, but they work together to achieve the desired outcome.
Mutual Enhancement reminds us to surround ourselves with
people who are different from us. It speaks to the power of collaboration, to
the idea that there are indeed many paths to any outcome, and often the best
solution is one that incorporates many different paths. In work or in social
situations, our lives are the most fulfilling when we surround ourselves with people with
diverse backgrounds and opinions who allow us to be who we are, and who value
that in each of us.
The fourth relationship in Chinese herbal theory is Mutual
Counteraction (Xiang Wei). This sounds like a negative interaction, but actually it is
quite positive. Mutual Counteraction refers to when one herb counteracts, or
modifies, the harsh/negative/or toxic effects of another. For example, the herb Ban Xia is a really good herb for eliminating phlegm in the body, but it
can sometimes cause the stomach to be upset. Therefore, we prescribe it with Sheng
Jiang (fresh ginger), which moderates that effect in the body so that the
patient does not experience any digestive discomfort, and also gets the benefit
of phlegm reduction. The emphasis in Mutual Counteraction is on the “toxic” or
I see so many parallels here in human relationships, and thinking about how we interact with different parts of ourselves. First off,
what parts of you are “toxic” or harsh or produce unwanted effects in the
world? Do you get overwhelmed easily? Do you get angry and fly off the handle
and yell at your loved ones, even though you don’t mean it? Are you passive
aggressive? Are you a bad listener? Are you careless with your environment? What are the parts of yourself that you
wish you could change?
And then, what relationships help you moderate those things?
Whose presence in your life allows you to be less angry, or less overwhelmed,
or a better listener? Seek those people out. Find them. Let them moderate the
parts of yourself that hinder your own personal growth.
And more than that, what behaviors in your life moderate
those “harsh effects” of yourself? Relationships are not just between two
people – you have relationships with everything you do. Does yoga moderate your
anger? Does going for a long run help you feel less stressed? Does doing art
make you less closed off? What behaviors counteract the less-than-ideal parts
of yourself? Find those things. Know what they are. Hold
tight to those things.
The fifth relationship outlined in the Shen
Nong Ben Cao Jin (one of the earliest Chinese herbal texts) is that of Mutual
Suppression (Xiang Sha). Mutual Suppression is the same as Mutual Counteraction, but in the
reverse. For example, in the above example of Ban Xia and Ginger, Ban
Xia is counteracted by Ginger. Ginger suppresses Ban Xia. Like Mutual
Counteraction, Mutual Suppression is a positive relationship.
And what can we learn from this? To me,
Mutual Suppression reminds us that we do not exist in this world alone, and it
is our responsibility to help each other find our best selves. Just as you
should seek out people who help you to moderate your negative tendencies, so
should you help others to be the best that they can be. In romance, find that
person who means it when they say “you make me want to be a better person.”
Give your children the skills they need to overcome their own weaknesses.
Inspire the people you work with. Show compassion to all. Help your friends to
forgive themselves. Love them despite their faults. Be someone’s rock.
And do this for your community, for
your environment, too. Again, relationships do not just exist between people.
Mutual Suppression is about using your own strengths to stop that which is
troublesome, harmful, or unwanted. Get involved in your community. Help find solutions to issues. Be
passionate about causes. Take care of the planet. Stand up for equal rights. Suppress that which is founded in hatred or fear.
There are two negative relationships
outlined in Chinese Herbology – Mutual Antagonism (Xiang E)
and Mutual Incompatibility (Xiang Fan)
Mutual Antagonism is when two herbal substances minimize or reduce each others'
therapeutic effects. They don’t cause a bad reaction, they just kind of cancel
each other out so that the therapy is not effective.
Mutual Antagonism is a dead-end
relationship. The relationship might not be filled with anger, or malice, or
pain. But it isn’t filled with anything life-sustaining either. When a
relationship is in a state of Mutual Antagonism, neither person is being
nourished by it the way they should. You don’t deserve Mutual Antagonism. You
don’t deserve to be with someone who cancels out your strengths and passions and
Mutual Incompatibility is worse. Mutual
Incompatibility, in herbal theory, is when two herbs used together produce a
negative side effect in the body that neither herb produces alone. Mutually
Incompatible herbs are never used in a formula together.
Mutual Incompatibility is a “toxic”
relationship – again, it could be a romantic partner, or a friend, or a
workplace colleague. Have you ever found yourself doing things or saying things
to someone that you didn’t think yourself capable of? Have you ever had a
relationship that made you be a worse person? We all have, in one context or
You don’t need to surround yourself
with people with whom you are Mutually Incompatible. If you don’t have control
of the situation (ie, a coworker), you can work on the relationship so that you no longer fall into
the category of Mutual Incompatibility. This means examining YOUR role in that
dysfunction and being honest with yourself about what YOU need to change.
Likewise, what behaviors in your life
are mutually incompatible with you, or mutually incompatible with each other?
Do you feel awful after a night of drinking, but you do it anyway? Do you get
really cranky when you are hungry, yet constantly under-eat to try to lose
weight? Do certain foods make you feel fatigued or bloated or uncomfortable?
It should be noted here that Mutual
Incompatibility is about a relationship between two herbs – it does not say
that Herb A is bad or Herb B is bad. It says that Herb A and Herb B are BAD
TOGETHER. Herb A might get along fine with Herb C. The lesson here is that what
works for one of us may not work for another. I can run 12 miles and feel great
– but maybe that is way too much for you and that will actually make you feel
worse. Maybe you like the cold weather and your body is healthiest in a colder
climate – that doesn’t work for me. I can eat gluten without any adverse
effects – that doesn’t mean it is the right thing for you.
Working through the Mutually
Incompatible relationships in our lives – with people, with foods, with
behaviors – takes time. And it takes courage to examine how we truly feel about each of those relationships.
When I write an herbal formula for a
patient, I am thinking of all these things. What herbs strengthen each other,
what herbs moderate negative effects of other herbs, what herbs work well
together in all these different ways to achieve a common goal. What if we approached
life with the same intention? What if we actively sought out the people, places,
and behaviors that brought out our best and healthiest selves, that helped us
be better people, that inspired us to help others? What if we found the courage
to examine the parts of ourselves that need help, the parts of ourselves that
lead us down difficult, challenging, or destructive roads again and again? What if we found the people, places, food, behaviors, and parts of ourselves
that allowed us to change those negative aspects? What if we thought of all parts of our lives as working together towards a common goal - a state of health, in mind, body, and soul, for us and for all those we come across?
That, my friends, is holistic health. :)