“Hanyak” is a type of traditional Korean medicine that uses herbal and folk remedies to treat illnesses. It features influences from traditional Chinese medicine. A person may use it alongside Western contemporary treatments, making it a type of complementary medicine, or as a stand-alone form of care.

Hanyak is one component of Han bang, which is the broader umbrella of traditional Korean medicine that incorporates acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, and herbal remedies. It focuses on balancing the energies of the body and the elements of earth, fire, water, metal, and wood.

People may use Han bang and its components, including hanyak, to manage and treat common symptoms such as stomach pain. They may also use it to cure culture-bound syndromes such as “hwa-byung,” a condition that occurs when a person suppresses and internalizes their anger.

Read on to learn more about hanyak, including the benefits, uses, and risks.

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Traditional Korean medicine focuses on balancing um, which is similar to yin, and yang — the energies of the body. It also aims to balance substances within the body and the body’s harmony with the world. For example, some Korean practitioners believe that illness derives from the inability to meet a person’s spiritual needs.

Hanyak falls under the larger umbrella of Han bang, which is traditional Korean medicine. Other elements of traditional Korean medicine include:

  • ch’im, which is acupuncture
  • d’um, which is moxibustion, the process of heating a stick on or near the skin
  • buwang, which is cupping, a process of applying glass cups to the skin, creating suction

An important benefit of Hanyak is that it honors a person’s culture and heritage. Colonial powers have long tried to destroy the practice of traditional Korean medicine. So its use pushes back on these forces. Historically, traditional Korean medicine also ensured access to care among disadvantaged people living in under-resourced communities or rural areas in Korea.

Western medical practitioners may be able to work alongside traditional Korean practitioners. Incorporating elements of hanyak may also expand treatment and care options for cultural syndromes such as hwa-byung.

Researchers have also tested various traditional Korean herbal remedies and have shown that some can help with various symptoms. For example, a 2015 study showed that the herbal decoction Samsoeum could disrupt the process of adipogenesis in a petri dish. Adipogenesis is the process where the body builds fat, and it plays a role in obesity.

Animal studies also suggest that Zizyphi fructus, another herb, may ease symptoms of asthma.

Similarly, a number of Korean herbs, such as chrysanthemum, Ginkgo biloba, and ginseng root, are popular anti-inflammatory remedies. Emerging evidence suggests at least some of these herbs may offer measurable benefits. For instance, a 2019 study of Ginkgo on human cells in a petri dish found that it could help inhibit certain kinds of inflammation.

However, it can take science a long time to test folk medicine. And not all benefits of these therapies, such as honoring a person’s culture or subjective experience, are measurable using traditional scientific processes.

Therefore, scientists have not conclusively proven that hanyak works or that it can cure illnesses. This is similar to the science of studying other herbal remedies. More research must test hanyak on humans rather than in animals or a petri dish, and scientists must compare it with placebos or other treatments.

Practitioners use hanyak to treat a wide range of conditions, including:

  • common symptoms such as stomach pain and headaches
  • chronic illnesses such as arthritis
  • serious illnesses such as cancer and infections
  • culture-bound syndromes that traditional Western medicine does not usually treat or name

A person can use Hanyak as a form of complementary medicine along with other remedies, such as acupuncture, and standard treatments, such as antibiotics. Indeed, some United States medical clinics urge doctors to acknowledge the role of hanyak when providing care to Korean patients.

Hanyak historically incorporated plants native to Korea. This includes:

  • mushrooms and fungi, such as poria
  • herbs such as pinelliae
  • roots of plants such as ginseng
  • flowers and shrubs such as ephedra and chrysanthemum

A person may take a single herb or plant or use them as part of a decoction containing numerous ingredients. In most cases, they can use the herb orally, often as part of a tea.

There are a number of research studies on the healing properties of herbal remedies. However, larger standardized trials are necessary to incorporate them into the mainstream standard of care.

For this reason, a key risk of Hanyak is that it may not work to manage or treat symptoms. People who replace proven treatments with hanyak methods may delay care or worsen symptoms.

Some other risks of hanyak include:

  • Safety: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbal remedies, which may not be safe for everyone. Some may also cause harmful side effects.
  • Drug interactions: All medications, including natural and alternative remedies, can interact with one another. Because hanyak is not a treatment with scientific validation, it has not undergone thorough testing for harmful interactions with other drugs. Therefore, people who take other medications should seek guidance from a doctor.
  • Dosage: Because the FDA does not regulate hanyak, there is no standard dosage or potency. Getting the dosage correct can be difficult, and a person may experience side effects or even a dangerous overdose.

Hanyak has a long history in Korean culture. It has fostered access to medical care for disadvantaged populations and helped oppressed groups push back against colonialism. Many Korean people continue to use it, either to manage daily symptoms or as a complement to standard Western interventions.

People who wish to use Hanyak should consult with a skilled, experienced practitioner. As with all herbal and alternative remedies, a person should speak with a doctor about any drugs they intend to take. A doctor who is knowledgeable about Hanyak or works with a traditional Korean herbalist may be the most helpful source of information.