Envisioning the Future: Alumni Spotlight Frank Griffo, MSTCM

Frank Griffo, MSTCM, LAc earned his master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2005 from American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM). He has been in private practice for 15 years and started Griffo Botanicals, a handcrafted herbal tincture company, six years ago. He is based in Petaluma, CA, where he has his tincture laboratory and a farm of Chinese herbs.

Our Envisioning the Future blog series gives you a glimpse of some of the exciting and diverse careers and opportunities our ACTCM graduates are pursuing. Our alumni share their stories, experiences, and advice with you. Get to know what motivates them, our ACTCM community—and be inspired!

Tell us about yourself and your current practice.

I’ve been in practice for about 15 years now and making herbal tinctures for my patients for about 10 years. I started Griffo Botanicals, an herbal tincture company, six years ago. We started out providing tinctures to my clinic. Slowly, we supplied other clinics, got into schools, and then a bunch of distributors picked us up. Our tinctures are now being sold in 34 states. While running Griffo Botanicals, I continue to see patients two days a week. 

 

What inspired you to start Griffo Botanicals?

The business really started organically. I didn’t intend to start an herb business. I really loved working with the raw herbs in the clinic at ACTCM, and I missed that aspect when I went into practice. I started following traditional techniques of making raw powders for patients. Xiao Yao San, Sheng Mai San… .These are all formulas that were ground up into powders and mixed with water. I started making powders and having them on hand for patients to cook for just 10 minutes and drink like a tea. I found that effective for certain types of problems but not so effective for others. I then started to extract with alcohol and some other things, warm it up, close the system down, so it’s a closed-loop system. The tinctures became more and more effective over time. I then started packaging them properly, putting labels on them, getting FDA compliant and following GMP, and getting big facilities. It just grew and grew on its own. And next thing I knew, I had a business.

 

Describe your products and what makes them unique.

I wasn’t happy with the options I had to give patients. I wanted something that was professional but also beautiful. I wanted to have something that I could hand to my patients that felt really nice and that I had confidence in. Packaging was really important to me. It has an old-world apothecary feel that I think matches our medicine. I also wanted to know exactly what herbs were in there. Are they safe? Are they clean? Do they smell and feel like the herbs that are in my garden? This also inspired me to start growing Chinese herbs of my own up here in Petaluma. 

Patient compliance is also always a challenge for patients, so I wanted to create formulas that were easy to take. I found that when I switched from raw herbs, powders, or pills to liquid extracts, that patient compliance went way up. Fewer patients would complain about the muddy dregs at the bottom of the cup or the stink from raw herbs. 

What Chinese herbs do you grow on your farm?

I have two-and-a-half acres of land in Petaluma. When I first moved here in 2012, the first thing I did was plant some herbs because Chinese herbs take a long time before you can start harvesting them. I planted things that I thought would grow well in this climate. I planted a few mulberry trees which Sang Bai Pi, Sang Ye, Sang Zhi all come from. I’ve also planted Jin Yin Hua, You Qi Zi, Zi Su Ye, Zi Su Zi, Ma Huang, Huo Xiang. I would love to do more, but then do I want to be a farmer? A chemist in the lab? An herbalist? An acupuncturist? These are all very different hats to wear, so I ultimately had to decide how much time I wanted to spend growing. The Zi Su Zi gets into our formulas as it is pretty easy to grow. I also love offering it in my clinic as a tea with Huo Xiang. Huo Xiang is a beautiful herb, and I love seeing it grow all over the property.

I would love to grow more, but we source from other domestic growers on the West Coast that are growing Chinese herbs. It’s definitely a growing market since herb prices for China continue to go up and issues with trade begin to pop up. 

 

In light of the recent COVID-19 crisis, what do you see in the future for herbal medicine and infectious disease? Are you making any changes to your business in response to this? 

A part of me wishes I had better foresight when COVID-19 started spreading in Wuhan. The whole world is now quarantined. The company has definitely had to adapt to the COVID situation. We have seen a spike in sales probably about 10 times what we are used to for our immune boosting and antiviral formulas like Gan Mao Ling, Yu Ping Feng San, Xiao Chai Hu Tang, Yin Qiao San. 

I’ve personally had three patients with COVID-19 who I’ve treated. It’s been interesting. I was just chatting with some other people in the industry today about formulas that have been published. There are different schools of thought, Shang Han Lun formulas and Wen Bing formulas. In the early stages, you’re trying to release the exterior so there isn’t as much differentiation. But once the pathogen gets in deeper, that’s where you start to see very different approaches to treating it. The three cases that I’ve seen were clearly wind cold cases, and all the symptoms lined up: runny nose, loss of sense of smell, chills, headache, cold hands and feed, aches and pains, and low-grade fever. I used Ma Huang Tang and Jing Fang Bai Du San combo to treat an early-stage case. Another patient had chills that weren’t going away and a low-grade headache for about four to five weeks. I gave her Xiao Chai Hu Tang and Gui Zhi Tang, which seemed to resolve it for her. 

It’s interesting to see these cases.  As providers, we’re going to be seeing more cases in the future. This is our new normal. It’s a time and place, and time for herbal medicine to step up and treat some of these symptoms. We’re probably not going to see super-severe cases, but we’re going to see prevention and mild cases. 

 

Your thoughts on how the role of TCM practitioners might change after COVID-19?

When practices were shut down due to COVID-19, everyone had to figure out how to use telemedicine to earn a living, which is tough for acupuncturists. There’s a lot we can do around lifestyle counseling, but many of us also specialize in pain management and its difficult to do that now. Clinics also have to keep things more sanitary: Practitioners and patients will have to wear masks, gloves, and use sanitizer everywhere. It’ll be more difficult building that relationship and trust with patients. If they can’t see your face as you’re talking to them, it will be hard for them to trust you. And trust is integral to our medicine. 

 

Any advice for current students or alums who are interested in starting to build out a pharmacy for their practice—or perhaps want to start their own herbal business?

Herbs and acupuncture points are similar in that it takes a lot of time to get to know them well. Herbs in particular take a lot of time. When you’re in school, those first rounds of herb classes are just an introduction. It’s like you’re meeting a person. Herbs have their own character, they have their own personality. It’s like a cocktail party where you don’t really get to know them that well. You might exchange a couple funny lines or quips, and then you move on to the next person. Then in formulas class, you are then creating a dinner party. You invite this herb and that herb over for dinner. You’re figuring out who’s going to be the funny one, who’s the quiet and balanced one, and you watch how they interact at the table together. But you can’t really do that until you know the individual person. Every dinner party you host you might change up who you invite, and maybe one herb wants to bring their friend. You create different dynamics by just changing one or two people in a small group. 

That’s how herbs work, and you really have you stick with it. You have to keep touching and connecting with them little by little over time, and get to know them. It takes a lot of work and time, but the reward is really incredible for you and your patients. I encourage people to not give up and continue studying herbs after graduating. I think herbs will also start playing a bigger role in our treatments. In the East, herbal medicine is the center, with acupuncture playing a minor role. 

We’re starting to also develop some COVID-19-specific formulas. That’s partially why I met with the other practitioners to discuss these cases. I personally tend toward Shang Han formulas, but many other practitioners tend toward formulas like Yin Qiao San or Gan Mao Ling—more modern and cold formulas. That’s where I have to start thinking about what other practitioners want, versus what do I want? What will sell? I’m coming out with three formulas: one for prevention, mild symptoms, and recovery. 

 

What did you do before studying TCM? How does your background influence your current practice?

I completed my undergrad at U.C. Berkeley and started a woodworking business out of school. I realized after a while that I wanted to have a different impact on people and our culture. I wanted to do something other than building cabinets for clients’ kitchens that were going to be redone in 10 years. So I left that business and landed in acupuncture school with no medical background whatsoever. 

I started studying Tai Chi when I was 19 years old; that first introduced me to the concept of qi. One time I got really sick with giardia, and the hospital staff wasn’t able to help me. For some reason, I went to an acupuncturist who gave me a bottle of teapills, unlabeled, no directions. I took those and it worked. That experience left a lasting impression on me, so that 10 years later when I wanted to do something else with my life, I decided to study TCM. I studied East Asian religion and Chinese in college.

My woodworking experience has definitely helped me gain comfort with building out a lot of our own machinery needed to create our tinctures. They are all custom-built, and I’ve created a unique process that allows me to extract herbs efficiently and obtain their maximum therapeutic benefit in very little time. 

 

What is your fondest memory from your time at ACTCM?

I miss the camaraderie with classmates—all the studying and cramming for tests. Once you’re in private practice, you’re on your own seeing patients. You’re not conversing with colleagues very much anymore. I definitely miss case studies and case reviews. I would love to still be able to sit in a room full of colleagues and review cases. People go down their own little pathways inside the medicine, too. After a while, it’s hard to see eye-to-eye, because everyone has their own theories on how to treat things. 

 

Talk about a class or experience at ACTCM that has greatly shaped or influenced your TCM knowledge and practice.

Dr. Tao was one of my favorite professors. I appreciated his approach to both acupuncture and herbs. At the time, I scoffed at his conservative approach to acupuncture with new patients. He taught us to start with a very simple treatment—just the basics. But now 15 years in, I’m like, yes, that is exactly the way to do it. There is no reason to beat people over the head with acupuncture on their first visit. They just need to get a sense of the medicine and see that it is remarkably effective. 

 

Interview by Rachele Lam.

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