Herbal formulas include medicinal substances such as plants, roots, tubers, stalks, flowers, and leaves. Of the many thousand different plant materials available, only hundreds are commonly used as herbal medicine, along with mineral and animal products as well.

According to the theory of Chinese herbal medicine, each herb has a particular flavor and temperature. This temperature does not correlate with the actual temperature of the food, but rather to how the herb affects the person when consumed. The main pharmacological effects of the herbs are based on their temperature, while the physiological effects are based on their flavor. Therefore if a patient was suffering with an acute ankle sprain, which typically manifests with hot swollen joint, herbs that are considered "cold" in nature or temperature would be prescribed to reduce the "heat" (inflammation) of the ankle, in order to facilitate a faster and complete recovery.

Herbal remedies can consist of a single ingredient or multiple ingredients can be used to make a formula. The job of the herbalist is to form diagnoses based on a full examination of the patient, and prescribe the correct herbal formula to heal the patient. Herbal medicine comes in a variety of forms today, from raw herbs requiring decoction, to concentrated granules, pills, and tinctures. As well herbal medicine can be applied externally, typically for external conditions such as pain, laceration, or a variety of dermatological conditions. If used externally, herbs come in the form of compresses, plasters, poultices, liniments, creams, pastes, and soaks.

It is clear that certain conditions require Western pharmaceutical treatments, yet there are a vast amount of conditions better suited to the milder more balanced approach of herbal medicine.

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