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  • Writer's pictureJuliette Aiyana, L.Ac. MTCM

Anti-Inflammatory Science Behind Chinese Herbs


Chinese herbal cabinet wooden with drawers one is open and a scale haning from a handle

Inflammation is a normal immune response which defends the body from harm but when it over reacts, it can result in various pathological inflammatory problems. 

People with a variety of inflammatory, allergic, dermatological and viral conditions look to natural methods for healing. Many of them wonder if Chinese herbal medicine can help and if so how does it work?

There are two ways to answer that question. One way is through the lens of traditional Chinese medicine’s methodology. The other way is through the lens of biomedical science research behind the chemistry of Chinese herbs.


Recently, I was scanning literature about the biomedical mechanisms of anti-inflammatory nature of Chinese herbs, I came across a fantastic research review, Anti-inflammatory and Antimicrobial Effects of Heat-clearing Chinese Herbs: A Current Review, by Rekik A. Muluye, Dr. Yuhong Bian, and Paulos N. Alemu. Their review explores the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects of certain heat-clearing Chinese herbs. The study notes that while modern drugs can relieve inflammation, there are concerns about their efficacy and the emergence of drug-resistant strains. As a result, there's growing interest in herbal medicine, particularly in Chinese herbs.


In Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) heat syndromes are often identified as the internal root cause for inflammation.

Internal heat can also be caused or aggravated by environmental external heat invading the body. To clear heat we primarily use cooling herbs. Heat clearing Chinese herbs are expertly combined together to garner the most effective anti-inflammatory results.


In this blog post, I summarize the study findings on each of the eleven heat-clearing herbs and add context for their traditional uses. 

Each herb is described along with its traditional uses and pharmacological effects, supported by various studies. Of note, while this review lists eleven herbs, there exist over ninety heat-clearing Chinese herbs (HCCHs). 


For example, Scutellaria baicalensis/Radix Scutellariae has been shown to alleviate inflammation by reducing the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines and inhibiting bacterial growth. Similarly, Coptis chinensis has anti-inflammatory effects by inhibiting NF-kB signaling and reducing pro-inflammatory cytokine secretion, along with significant antimicrobial activity against various microorganisms. These are important findings because cytokines play a role in modulating the immune response to infection and/or inflammation and in regulating inflammation through a complex network of interactions.


This review concludes that further research is needed to understand the detailed mechanisms of action of these herbs and to evaluate their effectiveness as therapeutic drugs. It suggests focusing on the collection of HCCHs to explore their potential in treating inflammatory and microbial diseases based on Chinese medical theory, rather than studying individual herbs in isolation. Biomedicine tends to hyperfocus on what they consider active, chemical constituents within individual herbs yet often misunderstand the potency of whole plant synergy and by disregarding Chinese medicine theory of application altogether. 


The complexity of herbal formulations extends beyond the sum of their individual components.

As formulas consist of multiple herbs, they entail a myriad of chemical constituent interactions that contribute to their overall efficacy. It's a bit like cooking a gourmet meal: you need the perfect blend of ingredients to create something truly delicious. It's not just one ingredient that makes it tasty, but the combination of flavors that creates something exceptional.


While synergistic effects of herbs have been well-documented in ancient texts and somewhat in modern research, many remain unexplored by biomedical researchers due to the intricate nature of herbal combinations.

The full extent of chemical dialogues remains a frontier awaiting exploration. There's still much to learn about the nuanced interplay of compounds. These investigations could unlock new insights into the biomedical mechanisms behind CHM formulations, potentially enhancing therapeutic strategies and furthering the acceptance and validation within the biomedicine community of Chinese herbal medicines, which have been used for over 2,000 years.


The Eleven Heat Clearing Herbs Featured 

Below, I've condensed their findings and supplemented them with Chinese medicine’s traditional classifications and uses.


Scutellaria baicalensis/Radix Scutellariae (Huáng Qín)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Drain Fire

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Lung, Stomach, Large Intestine

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Purges Fire, Cools Blood, Relieves Toxin, Drains Dampness, Calms Liver Yang Rising.


Pharmacological Effects:

Scutellaria baicalensis/Radix Scutellariae, commonly known as Huang Qin, possesses various pharmacological effects, including anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, antihypertensive, diuretic, and antibiotic activities. It is traditionally used to treat various dermatological disorders, high fever dysentery and chronic hepatitis.


Scutellaria baicalensis/Radix Scutellariae alleviates inflammation by reducing the expression of interleukins and the production of tumor necrosis factor. It also exhibits antibacterial effects against various pathogens such as H. Pylori, E. Coli, and coagulase negative Staphylococcus.


Coptis chinensis (Huáng Lián)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Dry Dampness

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Stomach, Liver, Gallbladder, Lung, Heart, Small Intestine, Large Intestine

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Drains Dampness, and Detoxifies.


Pharmacological Effects:

Coptis chinensis, known as Huang Lian, has been used traditionally to treat intestinal infections, skin diseases such as eczema, psoriasis, acne and skin infections, conjunctivitis, and hypertension. It exhibits anti-inflammatory effects through various mechanisms and significant antimicrobial activity against bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoans, helminths, and chlamydia. Coptis chinensis inhibits inflammatory pathways and cytokine secretion, and it demonstrates antimicrobial activity by inhibiting bacterial growth and adherence to mucosal surfaces,.


Flos Lonicerae (Jīn Yín Hūa)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Relieve Toxicity

Flavor(s): Sweet

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Lung, Stomach

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Relieves Toxicity, and Disperses Wind-Heat.


Pharmacological Effects:

Flos Lonicerae, or Honeysuckle Flower, is widely used in Chinese medicine to treat infections by exo pathogenic wind-heat, skin disease such as eczema, or epidemic febrile diseases. It exhibits various pharmacological effects, including anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-tumor, antipyretic, and hepatoprotective activities.


Flos Lonicerae suppresses inflammatory mediator release from mast cells, exhibits anti-inflammatory properties through multiple pathways, and demonstrates antimicrobial activity against bacteria and fungi, inhibitory effect against H. Pylori and gingivitis, and antimicrobial effects against Streptococcus mutans, and dental caries.


Forsythia suspensa (Lián Qiào)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Relieve Toxicity

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Heart, Lung, Gallbladder

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Dispels Wind-Heat, and Relieves Toxin.


Pharmacological Effects:

Forsythia suspensa, also known as Lian Qiao, is traditionally used to treat carbuncle, disperse lumps, and expel wind and heat. It possesses antiviral, choleretic, antipyretic, hepatoprotective, antiemetic, and diuretic effects. Forsythia suspensa inhibits inflammatory pathways, reducing the anaphylactic antibodies, mast cell degranulation and suppresses histamine release, and exhibits antimicrobial activity against various bacteria, fungi, and viruses, reduces number of bronchial inflammatory cells induced from influenza-A.


Isatidis folium (Dà Qīng Yè)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Resolve Toxins

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Liver, Gallbladder

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Cools Blood, and Resolves Toxins.


Pharmacological Effects:

Isatidis folium, or Isatis Leaf, is traditionally utilized for treating sore throat, dermatological conditions, acute dysentery, influenza, viral pneumonia and fever due to its cooling and detoxifying properties. It exhibits antipyretic, antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory effects. Isatidis folium inhibits inflammatory mediators, reduces capillary permeability, and demonstrates significant virucidal activity against various viruses. It’s derivatives sinapic acids and skin protective ferulic acids, exhibit antioxidant and ani-inflammatory activity


Radix Isatidis (Bǎn Lán Gēn)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Resolve Toxins

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Heart, Stomach, Liver

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Cools Blood, and Resolves Toxins.


Pharmacological Effects:

Radix Isatidis, or Isatis Root, is used traditionally to cool blood and treat various infections and sore throat. It possesses antibiotic, antipyretic, and immune-stimulating effects. Radix Isatidis inhibits inflammatory mediators and cytokines, suppresses microbial growth of E. Coli and H. pylori, and enhances immune function, inhibits LPS-Induced endotoxin shock, making it effective against infections particularly various strains of influenza including SARS and  of inflammatory conditions.


Andrographis paniculata (Chuān Xīn Lián)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Dry Dampness

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Lung, Large Intestine

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Expels Dampness, and Reduces Swelling.


Pharmacological Effects:

Andrographis paniculata, also known as Chuan Xin Lian, is traditionally used to clear heat and dry dampness, for sore throat and swollen lymph glands. It exhibits anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, antipyretic, antimicrobial and immune stimulating properties. This herb inhibits inflammatory mediators, reduces fever, and demonstrates antimicrobial activity against bacteria and viruses such as Influenza A secretion of bronchial epithelial cells, making it beneficial for treating infections and inflammatory conditions.


Houttuynia cordata  (Yú Xīng Cǎo)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Relieve Toxicity

Flavor(s): Pungent, Slightly Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Lung, Stomach

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Relieves Toxicity, and Reduces Swelling.


Pharmacological Effects:

Houttuynia cordata, or fishy-smelling herb, is traditionally used to clear heat and relieve toxicity. Often used to treat pneumonia, bronchitis, colitis, urinary tract infections, chronic respiratory diseases. Topically it can be used to treat herpes simplex. It exhibits anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. It is immune stimulating, diuretic, hemostatic and analgesic. This herb inhibits inflammatory responses, suppresses viral replication, and demonstrates antibacterial activity, making it beneficial for treating infections and inflammatory conditions.


Patrinia Herba (Bài Jiàn Cǎo)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Resolve Toxicity

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Large Intestine, Stomach

Traditional Actions: Clears heat, disperses stagnation, and detoxifies.


Pharmacological Effects: Patrinia Herba, shows potent anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, making it an excellent choice for treating infections and inflammation-related conditions such as hyperalgesia. The herb's actions in reducing inflammation and combating microbial infections are likely linked to its ability to inhibit pathogenic bacteria and soothe inflamed tissues, supporting its traditional use in clearing heat and resolving toxicity.


Viola yedoensis (Zǐ Huā Dì Dīng)


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Resolve Toxicity

Flavor(s): Sweet, Bland

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Lung, Liver

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Relieves Toxicity, and Cools Blood.


Pharmacological Effects:

Zi Hua Di Ding exhibits a range of pharmacological effects, including antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic activities. It is commonly used in the treatment of skin diseases such as eczema, impetigo, acne, pruritus, and cradle cap, as well as upper respiratory tract infections with fever. Additionally, it has demonstrated antimicrobial activity against bacteria such as B. subtilis, Str. mutans, and Po. gingivalis. It also inhibits the replication of herpes simplex virus-1 and enterovirus 71 in human neuroblastoma SK-N-SH cells. Moreover, cyclotides derived from Viola have shown effectiveness in inhibiting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) replication.


The herb's ability to reduce inflammation and combat microbial infections is likely attributed to its capacity to inhibit pathogenic bacteria and soothe inflamed tissues. These actions align with its traditional use in clearing heat and resolving toxicity, indicating a correlation between its pharmacological effects and traditional actions.


Pulsatilla radix (Bai Tou Weng):


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Dry Dampness

Flavor(s): Bitter

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Stomach, Large Intestine

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Dries Dampness, and Purges Fire.


Pharmacological Effects:

Bai Tou Weng, a commonly used herb in Chinese medicine, exhibits notable anti-inflammatory, anti-parasitic and antimicrobial properties, making it an effective remedy for conditions involving inflammation and microbial infections. 


The herb's anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial effects are likely attributed to its ability to inhibit inflammatory processes and microbial growth. By clearing heat and drying dampness, Bai Tou Weng helps alleviate symptoms associated with inflammatory and infectious conditions such as dysentery. It contains 4-hydroxy-3-methoxycinnamic acid which inhibits growth of Clostridium Perfringens and E.coli. It has antimicrobial activity against gram positive bacillus, Pr. Acnes which causes inflamed acne.


Patrina Herba (Bai Jian Cao):


Traditional Use

Category: Herbs that Clear Heat and Resolve Toxicity

Flavor(s): Bitter, Cold

Temperature: Cold

Meridians Entered: Liver, Gallbladder

Traditional Actions: Clears Heat, Resolves Toxicity, Cools Blood, Eliminates Damp-Heat.


Pharmacological Effects:

Bai Jian Cao possesses several pharmacological effects, including antibiotic, hepatoprotective, sedating, and hypnotic properties. It is traditionally used in the treatment of conditions such as mumps. Furthermore, Patrinia Herba demonstrates the ability to inhibit adjuvant-induced inflammation and hyperalgesia. In experimental studies with rats, it has been shown to attenuate hyperalgesia induced by Freund’s adjuvant (CFA) and aid in the recovery from hyperalgesia. Additionally, Patrinia Herba exhibits anti-inflammatory properties, reducing edema associated with inflammation.


The pharmacological actions of Bai Jian Cao are attributed to its ability to inhibit microbial growth, protect the liver from damage, and exert sedative and hypnotic effects. Additionally, its anti-inflammatory properties are evidenced by its capacity to inhibit adjuvant-induced inflammation and hyperalgesia, thereby reducing swelling and alleviating pain. 


Crafting of herbal formulas is not a haphazard process. Chinese herbal formulas are more than just a mixture of herbs. 

They are a carefully curated blend designed to nourish and heal. CHM herbalists undergo rigorous training, typically spanning at least four years in Chinese medical colleges. They draw upon a deep understanding of CHM principles, herb properties, and clinical experience to design formulas tailored to each individual's unique constitution and health concerns. I offer personalized telehealth visits to help individuals reclaim their health. Learn more about me here.


Juliette Aiyana Herbalist

Juliette Aiyana, is an internationally respected specialist in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and natural holistic health. She is a nationally board-certified and New York State-licensed acupuncturist with a Master's Degree in TCM. She is professional member of the National Eczema Association and trained in identifying skin disease in richly pigmented skin. Practicing since 2001, she specializes in treating chronic, stubborn and mystery diseases, including dermatology, autoimmune disorders, allergies, digestive disorders, chronic fatigue, viral diseases, menstrual and pelvic health, and more. She is dedicated to identifying the root cause of diseases, and empowering people to reclaim agency over their health. Juliette’s health consultations are available virtually via Zoom to people in the US and CA.









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