The study of the herbal aspects of Chinese Medicine is still new to me. I am grateful for this unique text and the vast, comprehensive standard which the authors have set. Its organization for a newcomer is stellar. I also anticipate it would remain extremely helpful to experienced herbalists.
The table of contents lays out the "Materia" by their purpose for specific diagnoses: releasing the exterior, clearing heat, extinguishing wind, etc. There is a significant section on obsolete herbs and other substances that details why -- fascinating and useful for those reading historical texts. It provides information on what has been modified to achieve greater safety and/or to cooperate with preventing extinction to endangered species.
Each chapter has its own title page which rapidly summarizes the materia therein and any overall general subdivisions. For example, the chapter on HERBS THAT RELEASE THE EXTERIOR is divided by those that are warm+acrid versus cool+acrid, and it is followed by a nice comparative summary of specialized functions at the end. Similarly, the chapter on HERBS THAT CLEAR HEAT has separate subsections for those which also drain fire, cool the blood, dry dampness, resolve toxicity, and address deficiency heat. Again, these are followed by a very helpful summary of comparative functions. This systematic structure is very useful to me as a student struggling to form an an overall gestalt for such a complex field. It also seems like a powerful resource to revisit when puzzling over a potential formula and wondering what other alternatives might better suit a particular individualized need.
For each herb listed the following topics are addressed:
Chinese character and pinyin name followed by the corresponding pharmaceutical (latinized)name, the classification of the substance such as its mineralogical name or plant family and species, and then the translation for English, Korean and Japanese. In many, if not most cases, the chinese text in which it was first mentioned is cited -- intriguing for historical research and those craving original sources. In most cases there is a simplified line drawing in black and white of each substance. I suspect, however, that in many cases searching for raw substances could require more detailed color photos. There is a highlighted summary of properties, channels entered, key characteristics, dosage and chinese contraindications as one would expect. This is followed by a quite helpful and more detailed description of: actions and indications; a commentary comparing brief quotes from several of the ancient texts; mechanisms of action or interactions with other commonly combined herbs; more detail on "Traditional" contraindications; specialized nomenclature and preparation; criteria for assessing quality; major known chemical constituents; alternative names such as those associated with different provinces in China; and finally any additional product information not inserted above. The latter section frequently seems to contain pearls regarding variations in quality that may be due to season, preparation, or locale.
There is an generous section of quick reference material at the back in tabbed sections for easy access. Ir is well worth becoming a familiar visitor to this portion of the book. These include a section of tables which highlight herbs for the 5 yin organs and then summarize again the bare essentials of the herbs by actions and indications. The indexing section is very adaptable and user-friendly with separate indices for each of the following: Pin-yin by pharmaceutical names; English, Korean and Japanese names cross-references with pharmaceutical names; and botanical, zoological and mineral names.
I appreciate the careful contributions of the publishers/editors to its very logical layout, consistency, font and spacing with subtle use of blue highlighting. All of these features makes the text very satisfying to either scan or read intently.
My concerns at this point regard future directions for the next edition, some of which are beginning to be addressed more clearly now by other authors other than Bensky and his team. Thus, I am hopeful these long-recognized experts will address the following issues with their future updates.
1. Improving the images. Chinese Medical Herbology & Pharmacology by Chen and Chen includes good black and white photos. I realize that color photos in a book this comprehensive may not be practical without escalating its price beyond reason.
2. Include more data on the known chemical composition of the herbs and their comparative pharmacological effects in western terminology. I am encouraged by the way that Chen and Chen have begun to tackle this task.
3. Include more outcome data and current primary research references for the most significant attributes of covered herbs and substances. Authors currently providing more help in this regard are: Chen and Chen mentioned above as well as Pharmacology and Applications of Chinese Material Medical by Chang in a two-volume set. However, the latter one is now nearly a decade old and becoming harder to obtain (ie. out of print).
4. Expanded cautions/contraindications for crucial interactions with disease conditions not just in the "traditional" language, but also for western diagnoses and major western pharmaceuticals classifications.
I realize these additions will make a book already pretty advanced in its comprehensiveness even bigger, possibly turning it into two volumes. However as many reviewers have already noted, Bensky and his team have painstakingly created a "Bible" for the english speaking world. Their work is an extremely critical reference now for avoiding confusions and mistakes which might weaken the impact of this very intriguing multi-generational body of work -- one that is becoming increasingly more influential in our inevitable move toward integration of western and eastern healing sciences. I recall reading that the People's Republic of China Material Medica now requires 3 volumes in order to cover the chinese materia medica as well as things relevant to western pharmaceuticals and procedures that are being utilizing alongside their traditional herbal choices.
Those of us coming from the western side could deeply benefit from a resource which meaningfully helps us understand better when our patients have decided to design their own health care team composed of a variety of western practitioners, acupuncturists and specialists in chinese herbology. Doing so understandably takes time and is "never a fully completed process". But I believe that strengthening these resources ultimately helps improve safety for our mutual patients and for all of their practitioners. I think it is no longer realistic to deny that many patients who take responsibility for their own health and comfort will endeavor to combine the best of both hemispheres and will themselves begin reading these books in order to better communicate and cooperate with their practitioners. All of the members of their team will then increasingly need to be able to communicate meaningfully with each other.
Eventually for each of these herbs western-trained practitioners will need to know more specific details about absorption times, drug metabolism and excretion, durations of action, half-lifes of the critical components and at least the fundamentals of how dosing may need to change in the setting of liver failure, renal failure, etc. Potential interactions between the herbs and common western drugs with specific diseases is essential. Some intuitions about this can certainly be gained by relevant western practitioners being willing to learn a shared language about yin and yang, as well chinese pathogens and pattern discriminations. Obviously chinese medicine practitioners have been willing and demonstrated a clear dedication to learning more about western diagnosis and therapeutics. However, better clarification and quantification of pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic issues would be very helpful, sometimes in fact critical to safe and effective teamwork. I think we increasingly need an auhoritative resource written and published by western leaders such as Bensky et al. to consult for this purpose. I know it would still be very prudent to seek confirmation as well as alternative perspectives from recognized translations by chinese authors and publishers as well).
Finally, I am hoping the authors will continue their already monumental and compulsive efforts to clarify naming/identification issues on common herbs available here in the west. One difficulty I found with Bensky's 3rd edition unfortunately arose with the very first herb I was seriously interested in researching -- Qi Ye Lian or schefflera arboricola. This is an analgesic and sedative herb particularly intriguing to me because so far it seems that it might not invoke the same mechanisms of action (and side effects) attributed to common nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). However, I am still having trouble gaining enough information about that hypothesis. Unfortunately, Qi Ye Lian is not mentioned in a primary monograph at all by Bensky's team. It is only referred to as an alternate name for a totally different herb, paridis rhizoma, used in the Guangdong province. However, all internet sources I have found so far including an herbal pill sold directly out of Guangdong province (the latter claiming the high quality product prize for Guangdong) identify the source of Qi Ye Lian as schefflera arboricola. The two plants share bitterness and tropism for the liver channel, but they differ substantially in action. Paridis is cool and slightly toxic. Schefflera is warm. And perhaps less toxic? Hence their applications are quite different, if not opposite. Furthermore, the other two well-respected sources which cover Qi Ye Lian much more extensively than Bensky's text Chinese Medical Herbology & Pharmacology and Pharmacology and Applications of Chinese Material Medical) both identify this name with schefflera arboricola. Mayway (the US distributor for the PlumFlower brand of herbs as Qi Ye Lian as it is sold on Amazon) likewise identifies the preparation as schefflera arboricola. The Mayway website asserts that its owner standardizes all of her herbal identifications with the PRC Materia Medica, implying that China's "bible of herbology and pharmacology" sides with schefflera as well.
Given the well-earned stature of Bensky's work, I would love to see the author and his team include more information in their next text about where to turn in order to resolve these puzzles. Better yet, access to their own website for interim support between printed editions and updates would be an invaluable service.