Chinese Patent Medicine or formulas can come in many various forms, such as pills, liquids, syrups, powders, granules, instant teas, and capsules. They are made both within and outside China by various companies. It is not patented in the traditional sense of the word such as copyright protected. Nobody has exclusive rights to the formulas that these medicinal tablets contain. The term patent in this context refers to the standardization of the medicinal formula offered. Meaning it is a well-known standard formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine that is possibly centuries old.
Chinese patent medicine often consists of extracted herbal remedies in powder form encapsulated within a gelatine capsule. Other forms of tablets are available that consist of ground herbs and coated in a sugar or film coating of some sort. Condensed pills called tea pills, are usually small, round, and black, appearing like black pearls (see below). They are called tea pills because the herbs are cooked into an herbal tea to make the pills.
Modern tea pills are created from herbs extracted in stainless steel extractors to create either a water decoction or water-alcohol decoction, depending on the herbs used. They are extracted at a low temperature of below 100 degrees Celsius, to preserve the essential, health promoting, active ingredients of the herbs. The extracted liquid is then further condensed and a bit of raw herb powder from one of the herbal ingredients is mixed in to form a herbal dough-like compound. This dough is then machine cut into tiny pieces, a small amount of excipients (a pharmacologically inactive substance used as a carrier for the active ingredients of a medication) are added for a smooth and consistent exterior, and they are spun into pills.
Honey pills and water pills have been made since ancient times by combining several dried herbs for the required formula which are ground into a powder. These are then mixed with honey or water to form a kind thick paste. This is then rolled by hand into appropriate sized balls to be stored, and taken as and when required. However, modern honey or water pills are formed into pills by machine. The traditional binder for honey pills is honey, and water for water pills, as you would expect. Sometimes another binder, such as molasses or even malt extract may be used in place of the honey, and mixed with the water. Modern manufacturers of Chinese patent medicine still produce many patent formulas as honey or water pills, such as Wuji Baifeng Wan, a popular honey pill formula to “nourish qi and blood”, to strengthen the body.
Many forms of Chinese patent medicine do not list all ingredients, presumably to protect the secrecy of the formula. This is an acceptable practice in China, and seen as rightful protection for ‘family secrets’ and their ‘secret Chinese herbal formulas’.
Chinese classical herbal formulas form the basis of patent medicines and are the basic herbal formulas that students of traditional Chinese medicine would learn. Many of these formulas are very old and have been traditionally used for their individual clinical application for hundreds of years or more.
Chinese patent medicine has been the subject of concern in the past and to some extent still now. This is due to the fact that some patent formulas were tested and found to contain high to dangerous levels of heavy metals. The most common heavy metals found were mercury, lead, and arsenic. These ingredients can obviously cause serious medical problems.
It is not uncommon for a patent medicines to have been found to contain pharmaceutical drugs such as decongestants, analgesics or antihistamines. The most common type of Chinese patent medicine found to contain pharmaceutical drugs, were for the treatment of asthma, pain, and arthritis. It could be possible that these decongestants, analgesics and antihistamines that were found in the Chinese patent medicines, could have been the active ingredients of the herbs themselves, as all herbs do have a medical action of some sort or another such as de-congestant, analgesic and/or antihistamine. However, this is beyond the scope of this text and therefore, further research would be necessary to validate any truth surrounding these points.
The Benefits of Chinese Patent Medicine
These medicines can be a very beneficial, practical and cost effective way of taking Chinese medicine. Patent medicines and formulas are easy and convenient and relatively good value for money. They are often used when a patient’s condition is not severe and the medicine can be taken as a long-term treatment.
The best advice I believe, is to only take a Chinese patent formula, if you have some idea of what it contains. Therefore, you will need to be able to read the ingredients and then look those ingredients up. Alternatively, buy from an herbalist that you know and/or trust. If you are buying Chinese patent medicine from a Chinese herbalist, you will probably not be able to read anything on the side of the container as it will more than likely be in Chinese or Mandarin. Go with your instinct and preferably go to somebody that you have heard about through somebody else.
There are many English speaking herbalists, that offer these forms of Chinese medicine with the ingredients written in English, or they can sometimes tell you what the ingredients are. Don’t be afraid to ask.