The use of various natural substances as medicine is as old as cooking. There is a reason for this. In many ways medicinal herbs are extreme foods used in particular ways. Ancient healers looked for the most powerful substances they could. These items often had the strongest tastes and in many cases were actually poisonous. We still rely on poisons in medicine to this day. Medications have recommended dosages because of this. Many herbs are also poisonous. Sometimes the herbalists used only small amounts. In many cases however herbalists figured out how to cook or otherwise process the herbs to change the function of the herb and make it safe.
This concept that some herbs need to be cooked should not be surprising. There are many foods that we do not eat raw. Cooking or otherwise preparing food is important. It is also important in regards to many herbs. One very toxic herb known through much of the world is the root of the aconite plant, often called wolfsbane or monkshood. The raw root was only used in severe cases where the patient was close to dying. It is not possible to import aconite into the U.S. unless it has been cooked in salt. This process makes the root safe to use in more mild cases.
Another interesting herb is the tufts on the top of the cattail plant. In Chinese Herbal Medicine cattail tufts are used in some trauma and pain formulas, in what is called "moving Blood". The nature of the herb can be changed by frying it until it is charred, in which case it is used to stop bleeding. Licorice root is very sweet to the taste which is its main attribute. The sweet flavor of licorice moderates other herbs. Some formulas use licorice that is fried in honey, making an extremely sweet herb that strongly nourishes the body rather than moderating. Some other herbs are cooked in ginger to alter the affect or to decrease possible unwanted side effects or reduce toxicity.
Some herbal supplement manufacturers do not have herbalists who understand the herbal processing. Having a list of ingredients does not make a good herbal formula. Just as having a list of food ingredients does not give you enough information to create a gourmet meal. Ginger is listed in some formulas as an ingredient. In some formulas however, the ginger was intended to be used to process a particular herb before it was added to the rest of the formula. If the ginger was meant to be used to decrease the toxicity of a particular herb, then just adding the ginger to the mix of herbs may not adequately control the toxic side effects. Some formulas were meant to be a mix of raw powdered herbs, other formulas were formulated to be cooked in specific ways, and some formulas a patient was to drink the cooked tea or "tang" of the herbs and throw out the herbs themselves after cooking. Knowing these details can be the difference between a good medicine and an ineffective or dangerous medicine.
Consumers should be asking their herb provider if the herbs are properly prepared. Herbs are medicine and it is a good idea to check if the company providing the herbs actually has a trained herbalist on staff to monitor processing of herbs, and whether that information is even available.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066