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Accounts differ, deities get in the mix, but according to most sources, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as we understand it began with the Shennong, a demigod known as the Divine Herdsman. He was a farmer and herbalist whose knowledge of herbs was collected into a 5000-year-old text called the Shen-nong Bencao Jing, (The Divine Herdsman’s Herb Cannon). Though the original Shennong herbal cannon is gone, the knowledge lives on to this day.

To help our readers puzzle through the large and sometimes bewildering array of herbs and herbal combinations, we called upon Tim Baglio of the Bellingham Chinese Herb Pharmacy. Baglio is also an acupuncturist at Birchwood Acupuncture with a degree from the Seattle Oriental School of Medicine. He also holds a certificate of advanced study from the Zhejing Provincial College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The Three Sisters: Huang Qi, Huang Bai, and Jiang Huang

The art of Chinese medicine, particularly as practiced by an expert like Baglio, is not only to find the right herb to match an ailment, but to blend complementary herbs to create a balance of symptom control, potency, and efficacy. In Baglio’s words, “Generally in the clinic I see people who have different varieties of pain or physical limitation as the result of injury, the accumulation of stress and tension, or the wearing-out of normal physiological functions as a result of overuse. As such I have found that I rely on several primary ingredients that have great applicability for a variety of ailments.”

Astragalus (Astragalus membrancaceus) is Huang Qi (Huang means yellow, and Qi means of the people), a helpful herb that encourages tissue strength. Baglio describes astragalus as, “The milk-vetch genus has more different species than any other plant and thus it is thought of as an adaptogen, helping moderate immune response and boosting the upright Qi of the body. In this way, Huang Qi helps to support the integrity and functionality of physical tissues and is valuable to tone the flesh after hernia or prolapse and prevent or recover from neurological degeneration. Huang Qi is also one of the most useful spleen Qi tonics and can benefit fluid metabolism and supplements the Qi and builds blood.”

According to shen-nong.com, astragalus is excellent in combating the six exogenous evils, which are wind, cold, summer heat, dryness, dampness, and fire. Shen-nong recommends Huang Qi to prevent blood exhaustion and edema.

The second herb in Baglio’s arsenal is Huang Bai, or Amur cork-tree bark. Baglio says, “Phellodendron bark is one of the three most powerful antibiotic berberine containing bitter herbs in the pharmacopeia, very useful for clearing inflammation and preventing infection. Huang Bai also has a function to drain dampness and is thus invaluable for resolving all varieties of swelling and inflammation, and is also remarkable for resolving post-menopausal hot flashes. Huang Bai combined with astragalus is a powerful combination to supplement the Qi and restore normal functionality of the Qi mechanism while simultaneously clearing dampness and inflammation.” Caution: do not confuse Phellodendron with the houseplant Philodendron that drapes across beige cubicles in offices everywhere.

The third sister is likely in your spice drawer: Jiang Huang, or turmeric. Commonly known for its yellow, powdery consistency and deliciousness in stews and sauces, it’s also a powerful agent in healing. Baglio writes, “Turmeric and its extract Curcumin are some of the most popular herbal supplements in America today. Prized for its flavor and pain relieving qualities, turmeric is very good at warming and resolving abdominal pain, as well as arthritis or physical trauma. Turmeric can be combined with astragalus and Phellodendron bark to assist in stopping pain for conditions including weakness, swelling, pain and inflammation.”

Through his expertise, Baglio found that protecting tissue from degeneration with Huang Qi, preventing inflammation in the body with Huang Bai, and pain relief from Jiang Huang makes a potent base remedy for many ailments, including peripheral neuropathy that is associated with diabetes, the side effects of chemotherapy, hot flashes, and more. When a patient comes to Baglio with a prescription or a diagnosable illness, he prepares a formula (typically with base herbs including the three we’ve profiled) from raw ingredients. He grinds the herbs in an industrial grinder, then grinds them again into a fine powder. The mixture is then taken orally, typically as a tea. This process allows Baglio to ensure the right balance of herbs is appropriate for the symptoms. Some patients come in off the street seeking a diagnosis, or just wanting an all-purpose herbal supplement. Baglio sells mixtures with these three herbs as the base. Though it isn’t as personalized as a mixture he creates from raw ingredients, the encapsulated pills offer convenience.

"The art of Chinese medicine, is not only to find the right herb to match an ailment, but to blend complementary herbs to create a balance of symptom control, potency, and efficacy."