How to Take Herbs

After herbs are combined in a formula, they must be prepared for consumption. There are three common methods of taking a formula: decoction, powder, and tablets.  


Although many Chinese formulas are now available in tablet or powder form, the majority are still only available in decoction form. Decocted herbal formulas are readily absorbed and take effect more quickly, making them beneficial for acute disorders. To produce the best therapeutic effects, formulas should be decocted according to established methods.

The pot used for decoction should not be made of iron or bronze to prevent chemical changes; an earthenware pot is typically used instead. Place the herbs in the pot, add enough cold water to cover all the herbs and then add one more cup, so that the water is about half an inch higher than the herbs. Stir the mixture and let the herbs soak in the water for approximately 20 minutes. Bring the water to a boil, and as soon as it begins boiling, reduce the heat to low to prevent the water from overflowing and to prevent its premature exhaustion. During decoction, cover the pot and avoid opening it too frequently to retain the volatile constituents of some herbs. The amount of water used varies with the herbs and the heat, as some herbs absorb more water than others, and high heat consumes more water than low heat.

Before decoction, soak the herbs in water for about 20 minutes to make them soft and moist. Use the same water for decoction to avoid any loss of the herb's potency. The total decoction time varies depending on the herbs being decocted. For instance, herbs for inducing perspiration can be decocted over high heat for less than 10 minutes after the water starts boiling, while herbs for strengthening the body (traditionally called tonics) can be decocted for as long as an hour over low heat. After decoction, strain the herbs.

When a Chinese patient receives a prescription from a doctor, they typically take it to an herb shop for filling. The clerk at the herb shop will wrap up the herbs in small paper bags and provide instructions for each bag to be decocted two to three times for oral administration. Normally, each decoction is taken all at once as one dosage, usually in one or two cups, and two dosages are taken each day. The same bag of herbs can be decocted in the morning and then again in the late afternoon.

Sometimes it may be necessary to decoct heavy or hard herbs, such as wood or roots, over low heat for 10 to 20 minutes first so that their constituents will become fully soluble in boiling water. Clinical experiences have shown that such heavy herbs can be decocted repeatedly to produce good results. After heavy and hard herbs have been boiled for 10 to 20 minutes, add the aromatic herbs, and then the very light herbs, such as leaves and flowers, which should be decocted for only about five minutes or so to prevent evaporation of some constituents like essential oils.



When herbs in a formula are ground into powder, they are easy to carry, take, and preserve. Powder is also more economical than decoction, as one bag of herbs supplying one day's consumption by decoction will supply four days of consumption in powder with the same effects. After the herbs have been ground into powder, filter the powder to ensure that it is fine enough for consumption. Here is how to take a formula in powder:

    • First, mix the powder thoroughly either in a jar or a bag to ensure that the powder is properly mixed, as herbal formulas contain different herbs that should be evenly mixed.
    • Put the powder in a cup and pour boiling water into the cup; then stir and drink it warm. If any residue remains at the bottom, repeat the same process and drink it again to avoid wasting any powder.
    • The quantity of powder to take depends on your weight, as the heavier you are, the more you should take. Assuming you weigh 140 pounds, you should take 6 grams of powder (roughly one-third of the formula weight) each time (increase or decrease 1 gram for each 15 pounds of body weight). Therefore, if you weigh 155 pounds, you should take 7 grams each time; if you weigh only 110 pounds, you should take only 4 grams each time, twice daily.
    • Drinking Chinese herbal powder is similar to drinking instant coffee, except the powder may not dissolve in boiling water as quickly and easily as instant coffee, and the powder may not taste as good as coffee. If you don't like the taste, you can also put it in empty capsules, which are available in health food stores. Alternatively, you can place the powder on your tongue, hold your breath, and wash it down with a cup of warm water. Wash any residue down with another cup of water. This should be done twice daily.


Herbal powder can be made into tablets, which is usually done by manufacturers. Tablets have several advantages: they are the easiest to take and carry, they are slow in absorption and therefore good for chronic and deficient diseases, and since some formulas are very drastic in action, taking them as tablets can slow down such drastic action. Follow the manufacturer's instructions on the quantity of tablets to take each time.