Traditional Chinese Medicine

By focusing on energy imbalances, this ancient healing
art restores vitality and well-being.

By Lisa James

May 2009

A visit with health practitioners at a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinic begins with questions—lots of questions.

The practitioner then carefully examines your tongue and notes your pulse, not just in terms of beats per minute but also whether it shows qualities such as “wiry” or “floating.” You’re told you have “kidney deficiency” but are reassured that the actual organs are not diseased. Perhaps you are given instructions in such gentle Chinese exercises as tai chi. Or you might receive acupuncture, which could involve sticking fine needles into your ankle and leg.

Finally, you’re given a list of herbs that you take to an herbal formulary. On one side shelves hold row upon row of glass jars containing dried stems and leaves; on the other side sit similar rows of plastic bottles filled with powders. The herbalist behind the counter places material from the jars in a bag with instructions on how to brew them into a decoction. If you don’t have the time to do that you might receive the powdered herbs instead.

Though experiences such as these still seem a little exotic to most Americans, more Westerners are coming to Chinese medicine to reap its benefits, says Yun Li, MD, LAc, Dipl Ac & Chinese Herbal Medicine (NCCAOM), Oriental sciences chair at the New York College of Health Professions in Syosset (www.nycollege.edu). The differences between Chinese medicine and its Western counterpart start with how each views the body.

Energy in Motion

While Western physicians see the body as cells organized into tissues, organs and systems, Chinese healers see it in terms of energy flows organized into sets of paired opposites, most notably yin (cold, inward, passive) and yang (hot, outward, active).

This elemental energy is called chi (or qi), which circulates along defined channels called meridians through “organs” that carry familiar names—liver, kidney, heart—but which refer to specific functions rather than physical masses of tissue.

“When I diagnose someone with ‘heart blood deficiency’ one of the possible Western medical diagnoses is anemia,” says Bill Reddy, LAc, DiplAc, vice president of the American Association of Acupunc­ture and Oriental Medicine (AAAOM). “If a woman is not ovulating the diagnosis may be ‘kidney chi deficiency’; in Western medicine, the kidney has nothing to do with reproduction.”


Health problems stem from imbalances in the flow of energy. “You take a symptom like hot flashes,” says Bryn Clark, LAc, Dipl OM, cofounder of New Harmony Wellness in Beverly, Massachusetts. “The body is no longer in a peaceful state of oneness—there is an exuberance of yang that shows up as heat.”

Needles and Herbs

Naturally, a TCM practitioner asks about the patient’s symptoms. But there are also questions about the person’s background—everything from sleep patterns and diet to emotional state and personal habits. To learn how and where energy is being disrupted, the tongue is checked for color and condition. Then the pulse is taken in several different positions and the body is palpitated.

Acupuncture, the practice most often identified with TCM, uses extremely fine needles inserted at various locations along the meridians. “For some pathologies acupuncture is most effective,” Li says. “In America it is popular for pain.” Diet, exercise, massage and other therapies—including tui na, which Li describes as “a combination of massage and chiropractic manipulation”—are also used in treatment.

Herbalism is the other big gun in TCM’s arsenal. Chinese theory classifies herbs in several different ways, but the most general system uses three categories. First-level, or “superior,” herbs are responsible for overall body balance. On the second level, tonics and boosters promote particular bodily functions, such as blood circulation, while third-level herbs are taken for limited periods of time to battle specific ailments.

TCM practitioners generally use herbs in combination. Sometimes they employ “patent medicines,” which in this context indicate traditional formulas that have become standardized over time. Other formulas are custom-designed to deal each patient’s unique needs. Herbs may be used along with acupuncture as needed.

TCM in the USA

The first time most Westerners heard of TCM was in 1971, when New York Times reporter James Reston received acupuncture for discomfort after an emergency appendectomy during a visit to China. As public interest in alternative medicine grew in the following decades, TCM started to establish itself in the US.

Today there are roughly 26,000 acupuncturists in the country and over 50 accredited schools, according to Reddy. He says the profession is regulated by three organizations. The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) accredits the schools, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) tests the schools’ graduates for competency to practice and his group, the AAAOM, is a membership organization he describes as “the AMA of acupuncture.” (Their website, www.aaaomonline.org, allows you to search for practitioners.) Some professionals are licensed or registered acupuncturists (LAc or RAc); others combine acupuncture with herbal medicine.

TCM and conventional medicine can be used together. “If someone has high blood pressure, let’s say, there are herbs, along with acupuncture, that can help,” says Reddy, who practices in northern Virginia. “I try to get patients to the point where they’re not taking as much of the drug in order to limit side effects.”

Its practitioners say that TCM is ideal for treatment of ongoing, chronic ailments. Reddy sees people with everything from musculoskeletal problems to sinus troubles; Clark has patients who are dealing with mental and reproductive health issues. At the New York College of Health Professions, Li says patients come seeking help with a wide range of disorders including gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and thyroid conditions, in addition to diabetes and pain.

Leg and lower back pain stemming from sciatica is what brought Linda Smith, 73, of Westbury, New York to the college after she had tried several other options. “I’ve gone to physical therapy, gotten three epidurals and seen a neurologist,” says the retired AT&T worker. She was at the school for an herbal consultation after having previously received acupuncture. While it was too soon to see definitive results, Smith did find the visits “very relaxing” when compared with a regular doctor’s appointment.

One of TCM’s strengths is its whole-body approach to healing. Clark, who serves as a NCCAOM commissioner, has a patient in her 70s with hepatitis C who came to him with liver damage and nerve problems in her feet. “Yes I’m treating a liver condition, but we did a thorough diagnosis to understand the whole person,” he says. After six weeks of treatment to not only support the liver but also correct an underlying energy deficiency, Clark says the woman “came walking in, grabbed me and we waltzed around the reception room.”

Barbara Carver, senior vice president at New York College, says that a combination of rigorous training and an increasing amount of research has led many conventional medical programs to integrate TCM into their practices. “Hospitals hire acupuncturists on a regular basis,” she notes. “It’s integrative; you take the best from Western and Eastern medicines.”

TCM “has the potential to transform healthcare in this country,” says Clark. “We can learn not only what’s wrong with the body today but project where the body is likely to go for 25, 30 years into the future.” He believes that this preventative approach can help the country enjoy better public health at a lower cost.

Carver thinks TCM has a bright future in the US. She likens Chinese medicine to the prevention-driven boom in supplements. TCM, she says, “fits right in with that type of thinking.”

 

Herbs in the chinese Tradition

The following are only a few of the herbs used in TCM. Often practitioners will recommend that herbs be taken as part of formulas, either as traditional patent medicines or custom mixed. If you have a pre-existing condition—and especially if you are already taking prescribed medication—work with a qualified healthcare practitioner to create an herbal supplementation program that best meets your specific needs.

Name

Traditional Use Modern Research Notes

Astragalus
(A. membranceus)

Known as “yellow leader” for both its color and its importance in TCM; one of the most widely used herbs in China Helps regulate immunity—is used tofight infections and chemo-induced immune suppression; also improves stamina and protects the liver Mentioned in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, one of ancient China’s classic medical texts

Dong Quai
(Angelica sinensis; also known as tang kuei)

Long esteemed as a woman’s herb; used for blood deficiencies, such as those resulting from menstruation or childbirth
Regulates the female reproductive system; promotes better blood flow; one of the few good non-animal sources of vitamin B12 Not recommended for use during pregnancy

Eleuthero
(Eleutherococcus senticosus)

A Siberian herb used in TCM to stimulate chi and to treat rheumatism, low energy levels Acts as an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body deal with stress; helps boost immunity Used by athletes to improve endurance

Ginkgo
(G. biloba)

Used to relieve wheezing and coughing, aid digestion and regulate urine flow Improves circulation in the brain and eases inflammation; has shown promise in helping people with stroke damage and Alzheimer’s Often planted as a shade tree, the ginkgo is long-lived—some specimens are reported to be thousands of years old
Ginseng
(Panax ginseng)
One of Chinese medicine’s best-known herbs; used to increase chi, relieve fatigue and improve overall well-being Acts as an adaptogen; used for physical and mental revitalization; has been found to disrupt cancer development Should not be confused with American ginseng, which is also used in Chinese medicine
Green Tea
(Camillia sinensis)
Has a 5,000-year history of usage in Chinese medicine; valued for its invigorating properties; used to clear excess heat Tea consumption has been linked with reduced cardiovascular-related mortality; may reduce the risk of liver disease and some cancers Black tea leaves come from the same plant; unlike green tea leaves, they are fermented before drying
Licorice
(Glycyrrhiza glabra)
Used in many herbal formulas to harmonize the action of other herbs and to improve the flavor
The whole root contains glycyrrhizin, which can raise blood pressure; chewable DGL, without glycyrrhizin, is used to help ease peptic ulcers Most “licorice” candy sold in the US contains none of the actual herb
Rhodiola
(R. rosea)
Siberian herb that is used in Chinese medicine to treat nervous-system conditions Helps improve mental and physical performance under stress; fights inflammation; has helped ease mild depression in studies Many early studies were done in the USSR, which treated them as classified documents
Schisandra
(S. chinensis)
Used to stop excessive sweating and to “quiet the spirit and calm the heart”; one of TCM’s 50 fundamental herbs In Russian studies, has reduced fatigue and improved vision under low light conditions; also used to ease insomnia and protect the liver Chinese name translates to “five flavor berry” because it is salty, sweet, sour, pungent and bitter

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