Sunday, February 24, 2013

Acupuncture and herbs: a five element approach

In my first year at acupuncture college JR Worsley explained to us his decision not to incorporate a study of herbs into the curriculum.  This was because “herbology”, as he called it, was such a profound discipline that it required as many years of study as acupuncture, and, like the food we should be eating, the herbs prescribed should come from the country in which we are living.

I have since thought a lot about this, and added my own understanding as to why I think acupuncture, or five element acupuncture in particular, needs to stand alone as a discipline.  In acupuncture we work from the inside out, stimulating a patient’s own energy back to health and relying only on this energy to do the work.  Herbs, on the other hand, are foreign substances entering the body from the outside, and have a different action.  To offer both herbs and acupuncture is therefore, to me, a bit like a Pushmi-pullyu approach (a two-headed animal familiar to me from my childhood reading of Doctor Doolittle), as though we may be tugging a patient’s energies in different directions.  And, even if I considered it necessary, which I don’t, I certainly haven’t had available to me the years of study required to reach a competent level equivalent to that of my study of acupuncture.

Interestingly, Liu Lihong, my host in China, and an outstandingly skilled herbalist of many years’ standing, has told my students, all of them originally also herbalists, not to practise both, but to concentrate entirely on acupuncture.

This blog has been prompted by questions from a fellow practitioner who had heard a herbalist “who also does acupuncture” talking about the need always to add herbs to acupuncture for infertility treatment.  Many herbalists do a bit of acupuncture, as many acupuncturists feel they should add a few herbs, but in my view you can’t add little snippets of other disciplines into your practice without confusing the elements and, as a five element acupuncturist, that is the last thing you want to do.


  1. Dear Nora,

    People sometimes ask me why I stopped using herbs when I switched from TCM to Five Element Acupuncture. My answer is twofold: 1) I don't need herbs anymore, this strand of acupuncture is good enough even in situations for which TCM considers herbs to be necessary; and 2) working with herbs AND Five Element Acupuncture would mean I have to do two treatments at once, each with their own diagnosis, their own treatment plan and their own evaluation. This is too confusing for me, and which is confusing for me harms my treatment.
    There is a third reason, which I don't usually tell, but it is interesting nonetheless. 3) The prescription of herbs is based on pulse diagnosis, but which pulse to take when the placement of just a few needles (when treating blocks like E/E, H/W, let alone Ren/Du (CV/GV)) can make such an enormous difference as it often does?

    It would take a Five Element herbal medicine to be able to combine herbs with acupuncture. Some people have tried something which looks like it, but none of these systems seem to offer the depth and simplicity of what Five Element Acupuncture treatment offers to me and my patients every day.

    Best wishes,

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  3. I think the difference between herbs and acupuncture is more complex than that, but you have to have trained properly in herbal medicine for that.