List of traditional Chinese medicines

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In traditional Chinese medicine, there are roughly 13,000 medicinals used in China and over 100,000 medicinal prescriptions recorded in the ancient literature.[1] Plant elements and extracts are the most common elements used in medicines.[2] In the classic Handbook of Traditional Drugs from 1941, 517 drugs were listed - 442 were plant parts, 45 were animal parts, and 30 were minerals.[2]

Herbal medicine, as used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), came to widespread attention in the United States in the 1970s. At least 40 states in the United States license practitioners of Oriental medicine, and there are about 50 colleges of Oriental medicine in the United States today.[3]

In Japan, the use of TCM herbs and herbal formulas is traditionally known as Kampo, literally "Han Chinese Medical Formulas". Many Kampo combinations are manufactured in Japan on a large scale by reputable manufacturers.[4]

In Korea, more than 5000 herbs and 7000 herbal formulas are used in Traditional Korean Medicine for the prevention and treatment of ailments. These are herbs and formulas that are traditionally Korean or derived from, or are used in TCM.[5]

In Vietnam, traditional medicine comprises Thuoc Bac (Northern Medicine) and Thuoc Nam (Southern Medicine). Only those who can understand Chinese characters could diagnose and prescribe remedies in Northern Medicine. The theory of Northern Medicine is based on the Yin-Yang interactions and the eight trigrams, as used in Chinese Medicine.[6][7] Herbs such as Gleditsia are used in both Traditional Vietnamese Medicine and TCM.

Ginseng is the most broadly used substance for the most broad set of alleged cures. Powdered pre-calcified antler, horns, teeth, and bones are second in importance to ginseng, with claims ranging from curing cancer to improving immune system function to curing impotence.


Human parts and excreta[edit]

Human body parts and excreta are currently used in TCM medicines and are included in its new textbooks and handbooks, such as licorice in human feces, dried human placenta, finger nails, child's urine, hair, and urinary sediments (Hominis Urinae Sedimentum, Ren Zhong Bai).[8] The current consumption of human parts is considered cannibalism by some.[9] Other parts include pubic hair, flesh, blood, bone, semen, and menstrual blood.[8] The classic Meteria medica (Bencao Gangmu) describes the use of 35 human body parts and extreta in medicines, such as bones, fingernail, hairs, dandruff, earwax, impurities on the teeth, feces, urine, sweat, organs, but most are no longer in use.[8][10][11]

Also listed are human breath and the "soul of criminals that were hanged", which is considered under TCM to be a material object resembling pine charcoal dug out of the ground beneath the body shortly after a hanged criminal died, but many are no longer in use.[8][10][11]

There is considerable controversy about the ethics of use of criminals for body parts, using humans as commodities, and consumption of human body parts which some consider to be cannibalism.[10][12]

Dried human placenta[edit]

Human placenta is believed to be sweet, salty, and warm, so it is dried and believed to treat impotence, infertility due to cold sperm or deficiency, and female infertility because of uterine coldness, chronic cough, asthma, and insomnia, and marketed as such.[13][14][15][16][17][18]

Human feces and urine[edit]

The contemporary use of licorice in prepared human feces is known as "Radix glycyrrhizae Cum Excremento Hominis Praeparatum" (Ren Zhong Huang).[8][19][20] Human urine sediment is called Hominis Urinae Sedimentum (ren zhong bai). Both Ren Zhong Huang and Ren Zhong Bai are used to treat acute inflammatory conditions in oral cavity sores in children due to mycotic or fungal infection, and that their observations have confirmed this.[21]

In Traditional Chinese medicine, human feces is used in a decoction of licorice. These feces-licorice decoctions have been found to have a profound difference in pharmacokinetics regarding glycyrrhizin as compared to not so decocted.[22] Initial studies investigating traditional Chinese Medicine indicate that taking fecal bacterial products orally may improve on protective effects over taking it by injection to the body cavity,[23] and that associated bacteria may produce an antitumor effect and an autoimmune boosting effect.[24] Depending on preparation, human feces may protect against cell damage caused by hydrogen peroxide due a byproduct of fecal bacteria.[25]

Human penis[edit]

According to Li Shizhen:

the human penis is not a drug


Human penis is believed under TCM to stop bleeding, and as with other TCM medicines, the basis for belief in its therapeutic effects is anecdotal and not based on the scientific method; Li Shizhen, author of the greatest pharmacological work in pre-modern China, the Bencao Gangmu materia medica, objected to use of human penis, but cited the anecdotal evidence and included it in the Bencao Gangmu, which is still a standard reference today.[8][26]

Human pubic hair[edit]

Human pubic hair ("shady hair") was claimed to cure snakebite, difficult birth, abnormal urination, and "yin and yang disorder", which is a disease unique to TCM based on its views of sexual behavior.[8]

Ass-hide glue pellets[edit]

Further information: Donkey-hide gelatin

Glue made from the hide of donkeys is made into pellets for use in making teas.[27]

Deer penis[edit]

Further information: Deer penis wine

Deer penis is commonly sold in Chinese pharmacies.[28] and served in specialized restaurants such as the Guo Li Zhuang restaurant in Beijing.[29] The deer penis is typically very large and, under TCM it must be extracted from the deer whilst still alive.[30] Often it is then sliced into small pieces, typically by women and then roasted and dried in the sun and then preserved while the deer looks on.[30][31][not in citation given]

China banned deer penis during the 2008 Summer Olympics.[32] Under TCM it is believed that deer penis wine is an effective remedy for athletic injuries, to enhance male virility, and to be an aphrodisiac.[33]

Flying squirrel feces[edit]

Flying squirrel feces is used to "invigorate" the blood and dry-fried to stop bleeding.[13][14][15][16][18][34]

The text Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology notes that flying squirrel feces has a "distinct odor" that "may decrease patient compliance" with ingesting it.[35]

It is believed to have uses for amenorrhea, menses pain, postpartum abdominal pain, epigastric pain, and chest pain.[14] It is boiled in a decoction with other herbs prior to ingestion. If it is to be used in a formula to stop bleeding (dark purple uterine bleeding with clots, retained lochia due to stasis), it is dry fried prior to making the decoction.[13][14][15][16][18][34] Flying squirrel feces has been associated with typhus fever.[36]

Rhinoceros horn[edit]

Endangered rhinoceros horn is used as an antifever agent, because it is believed to "cool the blood".[37] The black market in rhinoceros horn decimated the world's rhino population by more than 90 percent over the past 40 years.[38]

Tiger penis[edit]

Further information: Tiger penis

"Medicinal" tiger parts from poached animals include tiger penis, believed to improve virility, and tiger eyes.[39][40] Laws protecting even critically endangered species such as the Sumatran Tiger fail to stop the display and sale of these items in open markets.[41]

Reptiles and amphibians[edit]

Snake oil[edit]

Further information: Snake oil

Snake oil is the most widely known Chinese medicine in the west, due to extensive marketing in the west in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and wild claims of its efficacy to treat many maladies.[42][43] Snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine used to treat joint pain by rubbing it on joints as a liniment.[42]

It is claimed that this is "plausible" because oils from snakes are higher in eicosapentaenoic acid than some other sources. But there are no replicated studies showing that rubbing it on joints has any positive effect, or that drinking it in sufficient quantity to get an effect from the acid is not dangerous because of the many other compounds in the oil.[42][43]

Toad secretions[edit]

Toad (Bufo spp.) secretions are an ingredient used in Traditional Chinese teas and have been found to be highly toxic and possibly lethal.[27]

Toad-headed gecko[edit]

Toad headed gecko (ge jie) is gutted and beheaded then dried and crushed, to treat asthma, impotence, improve male endurance, and treat coughs and colds.[44]

Turtle shell[edit]

Widespread medicinal use of turtle plastron is of concern to conservationists.[45]

Marine life[edit]


Seahorse (hai ma) is a fundamental ingredient in therapies for a variety of disorders, including asthma, arteriosclerosis, incontinence, impotence, insomnia, thyroid disorders, skin ailments, broken bones, heart disease, throat infections, abdominal pain, sores, skin infections; it is also used as an aphrodisiac and to facilitate childbirth.[46][47] As many as 20 million seahorses per year may be used for TCM purposes.[48][49] In one study, 58 seahorse samples were collected from various TCM vendors in Taiwan, and of the eight species found, seven were vulnerable, and one was endangered.[50]

Shark fin soup[edit]

Shark fin soup is traditionally regarded as beneficial for health in East Asia, and its status as an elite dish has led to huge demand with the increase of affluence in China, devastating shark populations.[51]



Chinese beetle (Mylabris phalerata, Ban mao) is believed under TCM to treat skin lesions, because it causes them.[52][53] It contains the toxic chemical cantharidin.[54]


Powdered centipede (wu gong) is believed under TCM to treat lockjaw, seizures, convulsions, skin lesions, and pain.[55] It is toxic.[55]

Hornets nest[edit]

Hornets nest (lu feng fang) is used to treat skin disorders and ringworm.[56] It may be toxic.[54]


Leech (shui zhi) is used in TCM to treat amenorrhea, abdominal and chest pain, and constipation.[57] It is toxic and so is believed under TCM to treat toxics.[52][57]


Dried scorpions (Chinese: 全蠍, Pinyin:quan xie) may be ground into a powder and mixed with water.[58] Powdered scorpion is toxic and is used to treat other toxins.[58] A scorpion venom was found to block bone loss, and may be useful to those with periodontal disease and arthritis.[59]

Medicines made from fungus[edit]

Various fungi are used in TCM. Some may contain dangerous toxins, such as the mycotoxin 3-nitropropionic acid.[60]

Supernatural mushroom[edit]

The supernatural mushroom (lingzhi mushroom, Chinese "linh chi" = "supernatural mushroom", "reishi mushroom" in Japan) encompasses several fungal species of the genus Ganoderma, and most commonly refers to the closely related species, Ganoderma lucidum and Ganoderma tsugae. G. lucidum enjoys special veneration in East Asia, where it has been used as a medicinal mushroom in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years,[61] making it one of the oldest mushrooms known to have been used medicinally. Today, the ling zhi mushroom is used in a herbal formula designed to minimize the side effects of chemotherapy.[62]

Extracts of ling zhi are used as a commercial pharmaceutical to suppress cancer cell proliferation and migration, although the mechanisms by which this is achieved are unknown.[63]

Cosmetics and skincare[edit]

Tremella fuciformis is used as a beauty product by women in China and Japan as it reportedly increases moisture retention in the skin and prevents senile degradation of micro-blood vessels in the skin, reducing wrinkles and smoothing fine lines. Other anti-ageing effects come from increasing the presence of superoxide dismutase in the brain and liver; it is an enzyme that acts as a potent antioxidant throughout the body, particularly in the skin.[64][64]


There are thousands of herbs that are used as medicines.[65] The following list of herbs represents a very small portion of the pharmacopoeia.

Aconite root[edit]

Aconite root (wolfsbane) is a root commonly used in TCM.[66] It was once so commonly used it was called "the King of the 100 Herbs".[67][68]

Aconite root contains what is called "the Queen of Poisons", the highly toxic neurotoxin aconitine.[69] There is no antidote. It is quickly absorbed via mucous membranes, but also via skin. Respiratory paralysis, in very high doses also cardiac arrest, leads to death. A few minutes after ingestion paresthesia starts, which includes tingling in the oral region. This extends to the whole body, starting from the extremities. Anesthesia, sweating and cooling of the body, nausea and vomiting and other similar symptoms follow. Sometimes there is strong pain, accompanied by cramps, or diarrhea.[70]

When a person has a negative reaction to the highly toxic aconite root, some proponents of classical Chinese medicine think that this is because it was either processed incorrectly or planted on the wrong place or on the wrong day of the year, i.e., for supernatural or astrological reasons, not because of the toxins.[68][71]

The Chinese also used Aconitum poisons both for hunting[72] and for warfare.[73]


Further information: Birthwort

Birthworts are plants in the genus Aristolochia used many for conditions, including hypertension, haemorrhoids, and colic.[74] It was recently discovered that birthworts contain the toxic substance aristolochic acid and can cause cancer and kidney failure. Birthworts are thought to be a significant cause of upper urinary tract cancer and kidney failure in Taiwan because of their prevalence in herbal medicine; in 2012, approximately a third of all herbal prescriptions in Taiwan contained aristolochic acid.[75] Birthwort has also been linked to Balkan endemic nephropathy.[75]


Camellia tea from India, Sri Lanka, Java, Japan is used in TCM for aches and pains, digestion, depression, detoxification, as an energizer and, to prolong life.[76]


Cayenne is believed under TCM to be a prophylactic medicine.[77]

Chinese cucumber[edit]

Chinese cucumber (Trichosanthes kirilowii) is believed to treat tumors, reduce fevers, swelling and coughing, abscesses, amenorrhea, jaundice, and polyuria.

Extracts are extremely toxic. Side effects include hormone changes, allergic reaction, fluid in the lungs or brain, bleeding in the brain, heart damage, seizures, and fever.[78]

Chrysanthemum flowers[edit]

Chrysanthemum flowers (Ju Hua ) are used in TCM to treat headaches, fever, dizziness and dry eyes. It is also used in certain beverages.[79] Chrysanthemum flowers are believed to "brighten the eyes, pacify the liver, break blood, clear heat, stop dysentery, disperse wind, relieve toxicity, and regulate the center".[80]

Cocklebur fruit[edit]

Cocklebur fruit (Xanthium, cang er zi) is one of the most important herbs in TCM, which believes it can be used to treat sinus congestion, chronic nasal obstructions and discharges, and respiratory allergies.[81]

Xanthium is toxic and causes vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.[82]

Crow dipper[edit]

Crow dipper (sheng ban xia, Pinellia ternata) is believed under TCM to be the strongest of all TCM herbs for removing phlegm[83] even though crow dipper is highly toxic to humans.[84] This is because traditional Chinese medicine advocates believe toxicity can be reduced in their method of preparation.[83]

The constituents of this herb include methionine, glycine, ß-aminobutyric acid, gamma-aminobutyric acid, alkaloids 1-ephedrine and trigonelline, phytosterol and glucoronic acid.[62]

Croton seed[edit]

Croton seed (Croton tiglium) is used in TCM to treat gastrointestinal disorders, convulsions, and skin lesions. It is often used with rhubarb, dried ginger and apricot seed.[85] Croton contains cancer causing chemicals.[86]

Dioscorea Root[edit]

In TCM, Dioscorea Root (Radix Dioscorea, Huai Shan Yao or Shan Yao in Chinese), benefits both the Yin and Yang, and is used to tonify the lungs, spleen and kidney. It can "be used in large amounts and 30g is suggested when treating diabetes". If taken habitually, it "brightens the intellect and prolongs life".[87]


Ginger root (Zingiber officinale) has been used in China for over 2,000 years to treat indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea, and nausea. TCM also teaches that it helps treat arthritis, colic, diarrhea, and heart conditions. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that it treats the common cold, flu-like symptoms, headaches, and menstrual cramps. Today, health care professionals commonly recommend ginger to help prevent or treat nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness, pregnancy, and cancer chemotherapy. It is also used as a digestive aid for mild stomach upset, as support in inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and may even be used in heart disease or cancer.[88]


Ginkgo biloba seeds are crushed and believed under TCM to treat asthma.[89] Ginkgo has been used in TCM for nearly 5,000 years.[90] Further studies to establish the efficacy both as used in TCM and for proposed uses as evidence-based medicine are required.[90]


Further information: Ginseng

Ginseng root is the most widely sold traditional Chinese medicine. The name "ginseng" is used to refer to both American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng), which belong to the species Panax and have a similar chemical makeup. Siberian ginseng or Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) is another type of plant. Asian ginseng has a light tan, gnarled root that often looks like a human body with stringy shoots for arms and legs. In ancient times, herbalists thought that because of the way ginseng looks it could treat many different kinds of syndromes, from fatigue and stress to asthma and cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng was often combined with other herbs and used often to bring longevity, strength, and mental alacrity to its users. Asian ginseng is believed to enhance the immune system in preventing and treating infection and disease. Several clinical studies report that Asian ginseng can improve immune function. Studies have found that ginseng seems to increase the number of immune cells in the blood, and improve the immune system's response to a flu vaccine. In one study, 227 participants received either ginseng or placebo for 12 weeks, with a flu shot administered after 4 weeks. The number of colds and flu were two-thirds lower in the group that took ginseng.[91]

Ginseng contains stimulants, but may produce side effect including high blood pressure, low blood pressure, and mastalgia.[92] Ginseng may also lead to induction of mania in depressed patients who mix it with antidepressants.[93] One of the most common and characteristic symptoms of acute overdose of ginseng from the genus Panax is bleeding. Symptoms of mild overdose with Panax ginseng may include dry mouth and lips, excitation, fidgeting, irritability, tremor, palpitations, blurred vision, headache, insomnia, increased body temperature, increased blood pressure, edema, decreased appetite, increased sexual desire, dizziness, itching, eczema, early morning diarrhea, bleeding, and fatigue.[35] Symptoms of gross overdose with Panax ginseng may include nausea, vomiting, irritability, restlessness, urinary and bowel incontinence, fever, increased blood pressure, increased respiration, decreased sensitivity and reaction to light, decreased heart rate, cyanotic facial complexion, red face, seizures, convulsions, and delirium.[65]

The constituents of ginseng include triterpene saponins, aglycone protopanaxadiol, aglycone protopanaxytriol, aglycone oleanolic acid and water-soluble polysaccharides.[62]

Goji berry[edit]

Marketing literature for goji berry (wolfberry) products including several "goji juices" suggest that wolfberry polysaccharides have extensive biological effects and health benefits, although none of these claims have been supported by peer-reviewed research.

A May 2008 clinical study published by the peer-reviewed Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine indicated that parametric data, including body weight, did not show significant differences between subjects receiving Lycium barbarum berry juice and subjects receiving the placebo; the study concluded that subjective measures of health were improved and suggested further research in humans was necessary.[94] This study, however, was subject to a variety of criticisms concerning its experimental design and interpretations.[95]

Published studies have also reported possible medicinal benefits of Lycium barbarum, especially due to its antioxidant properties,[96] including potential benefits against cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases,[97][98] vision-related diseases[99] (such as age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma[100]), having neuroprotective properties[101] or as an anticancer[102] and immunomodulatory agent.[103]

Wolfberry leaves may be used to make tea, together with Lycium root bark (called dìgǔpí; in Chinese), for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). A glucopyranoside isolated from wolfberry root bark have inhibitory activity in vitro against human pathogenic bacteria and fungi.[104][105]

Horny goat weed[edit]

Horny goat weed (Epimedium spp., Yin Yang Huo, 淫羊藿) is believed to be an aphrodisiac.[106] Exploitation of wild populations is having potentially serious consequences for the long-term survival of several species.[107]

Lily Bulb[edit]

Lily bulbs (Bai He) are used in TCM to treat dry cough, dry and sore throat, and wheezing.[108]


Rhubarb (大黄) is a large root and was once one of the first herbs that was imported from China.[109]

Round Cardamon Fruit[edit]

Round Cardamon Fruit (Bai Dou Kou) is used in TCM to treat poor appetite, a stifling sensation in the chest, vomiting or for dirreahea [110]

Thunder Vine[edit]

Thunder Vine (lei gong teng, Radix tripterygii wilfordii) is used in TCM to treat arthritis, relieve pain and reduce joint swelling.[111] It can be extremely toxic, if not prepared according to the traditional methods in Chinese Medicine.[111] If used inappropriately, within two to three hours after ingestion, a patient may begin to have gastrointestinal problems, headache, dizziness, severe vomiting (sometimes with blood), chills, high fever, and irregular heart beat. After inappropriate use, damage to the central nervous system may follow, as well as internal bleeding of the (real) organs, then their necrosis.[111]

Trichosanthis Root[edit]

In TCM, Trichosanthis Root (Radix Trichosanthis or Tian Hua Fen in Chinese), is used to clear heat, generate fluids when heat injures fluids causing thirst, in the wasting and thirsting syndrome. The pairing of Tian Hua Fen and Zhi Mu had a faster, stronger and longer effect in reducing blood sugar levels than either herb alone.[87]

Strychnine tree seeds[edit]

Strychnine tree seeds (Strychnos nux-vomica, Ma Quan Zi) are marketed and sold with a claim to treat diseases of the respiratory tract, anemia, and geriatric complaints. It contains toxic strychnine, so can also be used as a poison for rodents.[112] Dan Besky writes in his Materia Medica that "due to the small difference between the therapeutic and toxic doses, use of strychni semen (ma quian zi) bears a high risk of inducing severe poisoning and for this reason should be regarded as an obsolete drug".[113]

Sweet wormwood[edit]

Further information: Sweet wormwood

Sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua, Qing Hao) is believed under TCM to treat fever, headache, dizziness, stopping bleeding, and alternating fever and chills.[114]

Sweet wormwood had fallen out of common use under TCM until it was rediscovered in the 1970s when the Chinese Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments (340 AD) was found. This pharmacopeia contained recipes for a tea from dried leaves, prescribed for fevers (not specifically malaria). The plant extracts in TCM have the antimalarial artemisinin.[115]

However, it has been questioned as to whether the TCM tea made from Sweet wormwood is effective, since artemesinin is not soluble in water and the concentrations in TCM medicines are considered insufficient to treatment malaria.[116][117][118]

Willow bark[edit]

Salix genus plants were used since the time of Hippocrates (400 BC) when patients were advised to chew on the bark to reduce fever and inflammation. Willow bark has been used throughout the centuries in China and Europe to the present for the treatment of pain (particularly low back pain and osteoarthritis), headache, and inflammatory conditions such as bursitis and tendinitis. The bark of white willow contains salicin, which is a chemical similar to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). It is thought to be responsible for the pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory effects of the herb. In 1829, salicin was used to develop aspirin. White willow appears to be slower than aspirin to bring pain relief, but its effects may last longer.[119]



Further information: Arsenic poisoning

Arsenic sulfide (Realgar, xiong huang) is a toxic mineral used in TCM to kill intestinal parasites and treat sore throats, swellings, abscesses, itching, rashes, and malaria.[120][121]

Arsenic is a poison.[121] It is most commonly sold as a powder and given as a pill or capsule, although it is also incorporated into a mixture with other TCM medicinal ingredients.[121]


Asbestos ore (Actinolite, Yang Qi Shi, 阳起石) is used to treat impotence and is toxic.[122]


Further information: Lead poisoning

Lead (Galena, litharge, lithargyrum, mi tuo seng) is used in TCM to treat ringworm, skin disorders and ulcers, and is thought to "detoxify" the body.[123] It is crushed and taken orally or used on the skin.[123] Lead is toxic to humans. Lead tetroxide (Minium, Qian Dan) is used for conditions such as anxiety, itching, and malaria.[120][124][125][126]



Further information: Mercury poisoning

Despite its toxicity, sulfide of mercury (cinnabar) has historically been used in Chinese medicine, where it is called zhūshā (朱砂), and was highly valued in Chinese Alchemy. It was also referred to as dān (), meaning all of Chinese alchemy, cinnabar, and the "elixir of immortality". Cinnabar (HgS, sulfide of mercury) has been used in Traditional Chinese medicine as a sedative for more than 2000 years, and has been shown to have sedative and toxic effects in mice.[127] In addition to being used for insomnia, cinnabar is thought to be effective for cold sores, sore throat, and some skin infections.[128]


Mercurous chloride (calomel or Qing Fen) is used in TCM for toxicity, intestinal parasites, and as a tranquilizer.[129][130][120]

See also[edit]


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