Herbal quality : the Fuzi (aconite) dilemma

Fu ZiAs you all know, herbs are my passion. More accurately, formulas are my passion.  Formula science is my passion!  🙂  But, I do have a strong affinity for the herbs as plants and study them as such.  Further, I have a real desire to get as close as possible to the original way of prescribing the herbs in formulas, where “original” means Han dynasty or thereabouts.  If you read the Shang Han Lun, there are very specific instructions for how herbs are prepared and how they should be processed.  Many of these instructions appear to be ignored in contemporary times, and I can only imagine that this is having some effect with regards to our herbal effectiveness.

However, even if we prescribe and prepare the herbs exactly as indicated it means nothing if the quality of the herbs is terrible.  Recently, in a class at NCNM, a professor allowed us to taste Fuzi from different sources.  We had three samples of bulk Fuzi.  One was from a popular herb company, the second was from China, specially prepared in the traditional way at the instruction of Heiner Fruehauf.  The third was raw Fuzi – unprepared – from China.

We were asked to observe how the herb tasted, its texture, and how it made us feel.  The first batch was – depressing.  It was brittle, soft, had almost no flavor and absolutely no bodily sensation resulted from tasting it.  This is similar to what is found in many clinics.  We tasted the second batch a few minutes later, the differences were striking! There was an almost immediate pungency and quite a bit of numbness on the tongue.  This numbness continued for quite a while.  We have been told by several professors that we want to find this quality in the Fuzi we prescribe to our patients – it indicates that the living potency of the herb is retained.

The best fun happened when we tasted (just a bit) of fresh Fuzi.  Oh boy!  My THROAT was numb after that one.  You could really feel the medicinal quality – it was incredible.  The only thing I could think after this little taste test was, “How can we get more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff?”  The consensus seems to be that the best quality Fuzi is not available in the states or really anywhere in the West.  Further, the recent earthquake in China apparently did great damage to the areas where much of the high quality Fuzi is produced – creating even greater shortages.

The quality of the initial herb is only part of the problem – processing is the next piece of the puzzle. Fresh Fuzi is often brined, and then treated in various ways.  Reports have indicated that industrial chemicals and harsh processes are used in the preparation of lots of commercial Fuzi.  At the very least, you can tell that much of what’s available from the major herb companies is wildly over-brined.  The brining process reduces the toxicity of the herb – but we have to remember that the “toxicity” of herbs (usually produced by alkaloid content) is a large part of why it is clinically effective!  Skilled herbalists know how to exploit the positive nature of the herb while minimizing the potential for harm from the strong compounds contained within.  When we overprocess herbs, we don’t do anyone any favors.

How can we, in the contemporary West, make up for these various deficiencies? How can we prescribe herbs in the way they are meant to be prescribed – full of their vital force and particular benefits?  How can we know if an herb has been processed appropriately?  These questions can easily be added to the ones I’ve had about using local species and other related conversations on Chinese Medicine Central.

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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