Herbs: history, identification, granules and manufacturing
With Guest: Eric Brand
It’s easy for us to think that because we have a darned good English version of the material medica that the centuries of herbal knowledge is at our finger tips. But there is a lot of back story to the medicinals that we use everyday in our practices
Where herbs come from, how they are cultivated, how different plants have been used over the centuries; there is a lot we take for granted. Or simply trust our suppliers to have worked out the details of identification and quality. The medicinals we use regardless of whether they are granulated, tableted or raw have a natural history. This includes not just the process of growth and harvest, but also various kinds of processing as well.
In today’s conversation we look at the identification, cultivation and processing of the plants we use everyday in our clinical work.
In this conversation we discuss:
- What Eric has been up to lately
- Issues around herb identification
- Manufacturing of granules in different regions
- The Taiwanese way of prescribing granules
- The effect of alkalinity
- The origin of 5 to 1 ratio for granulated herbs
- What to consider in prescribing the right amount of herbs
- What's on the horizon
Simply put, I am an herb nerd with a passion for materia medica. I feel lucky to have had the chance to work with fantastic teachers at every stage along my journey, which seems to have gradually evolved from a focus on medicine to a focus on pharmacy. I started studying Chinese when I was 19, so when I began studying Chinese medicine at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, I forged a relationship with the boss of a traditional Chinese herb shop in San Diego, where I spent three years filling formulas and soaking everything up like a sponge. After I graduated in 2003, I moved to Taiwan and had the great fortune to be taken in by Nigel Wiseman and Feng Ye for many years. Nigel's tutelage in Chinese language, translation and terminology turned out to be life-changing, and my big homework assignment from Nigel resulted in our publication of the text Concise Chinese Materia Medica in 2008.
At the same time, I was inspired by Feng Ye's clinical genius, and he was kind enough to get me into a prolonged clinical internship at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, in the departments of acupuncture, internal medicine, and gynecology. My time at Chang Gung exposed me to the unique style of granule prescribing that is common in Taiwan, and I became fascinated by the differences in how granules are made and used in Taiwan vs. mainland China. Over the years, I ended up visiting almost all the major granule factories in Taiwan and mainland China, and talked to dozens of quality control experts and clinicians. At the same time, I ended up building relationships with the bosses at the best factories, and years later I found myself wondering if I could hook up my friends with the best prices and quality and somehow support my study habit, which was showing no signs of waning. Thus, my herbal company Legendary Herbs was born.
After a brief hiatus when I returned to the US and taught for a few years at PCOM in San Diego, my study habit got the best of me and I moved back to Asia. I was fortunate to have the chance to earn my PhD in Chinese herbal pharmacy at Hong Kong Baptist University, and my supervisor Prof. Zhao Zhongzhen took me on the journey of a lifetime. Over the three years I was studying in Hong Kong, Prof. Zhao took me to 12 different countries and 15 provinces of China, embarking on epic trips to see herbal markets, farms, and ancient specimens. I did my research on historical changes in Chinese herbal medicines, and focused on using rare historical collections of Chinese herbs in the UK, Holland and the US to investigate how the herbs of centuries gone by compare to the herbs that we use today. My “entrance exam” to study with Prof. Zhao involved translating the beautiful text Chinese Medicinal Identification: An Illustrated Approach, which was the first English text to preserve all the traditional technical terms used in Chinese herbal pharmacy to describe the key identifying features of herbs.
Now that I am finished with my PhD, I am spending more time in the US, and we are working on a large initiative to advance Chinese herbal pharmacy education in America. With support from the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and Beijing Tongrentang, a nearly 350 year-old Chinese medicine company, we are preparing to do CEU programs across the country, featuring top-quality experts teaching about topics related to herbal pharmacy, including herbal identification and safety, pao zhi, bencao (materia medica) literature, natural resources, and herbal quality control. Stay tuned and keep in touch!
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I’ve heard it said that for something to be heard — it takes someone to speak and another to listen.
Acupuncturist, Podcast Host
I've always been more drawn to questions than answers. And the practice of medicine seems to more lively when infused with a sense of curiosity and inquiry. It's been delight and honor to be able to discuss our medicine with so many thoughtful and skilled practitioners.