Are essential oils (EOs) the answer to the challenging questions
of how to locate, transport, store, and prepare Chinese herbs? I'm
starting to think so. The more I use EOs in everyday life, in
everything from cleaning my kitchen floor to healing skin wounds,
and even to give my beer that summery citrus flavor, the more I see
the large overlap between EOs and Chinese herbs.
As a student of Acupuncture and
Oriental Medicine (AOM), mostly derived from Traditional
Chinese Medicine (TCM), I respect and value the efficacy of a
freshly decocted batch of raw Chinese herbs. I know they work, I've
gained a basic understanding of why they work, but I struggle with
the practicality of using them either for my family now or for a
future patient population.
What are these challenges? First, there are a lot of "herbs" in
TCM's Materia Medica (book of medical substances, whether plant,
animal, or mineral derived). To stock a shoebox-sized amount of
just most of them would require a very large storage room.
Some need to be refrigerated, some need to be pulverized just prior
to use, and some are illegal to use in the United States. No
rhinoceros horn for you!
Finding them--even the
legal ones--presents yet another stumbling block. Should you order
online, feign condition after condition to cache all the prescribed
herbs you can squeak out of your clinician at school? Drive to
Chinatown and take a stab at which shop has fresh, safe and
affordable herbs? Sure enough, within a few days of making each
trip to Chinatown myself I realize, "DOH! Now I need
that other herb, too!" Back in the car....
After a year or so of engaging in this disorderly and expensive
game of cat and mouse, I'd tried all (well, most) of these
tactics--even growing some of my own! All legal, of course. Think
"mint," not "ephedra." So, what's an AOM student to do? For the
past year, this one's been exploring the way that high-quality EOs
could fulfill many of the same needs as our Chinese herbs. How?
Well, I'm not entirely sure that the properties translate exactly,
but many sure seem to do just that. Let's take a look at our good
Chinese name: Bo
he. Common English name: Field Mint. Latin name: Mentha
piperita. Same plant...same medicinal properties? I argue
"yes." Most basically, peppermint is "cold" in nature. Both West
and East agree on that. TCM goes on to add other attributes such as
aromatic, acrid, and thus capable of dispelling the common
wind-heat invasion (think: yellow snot and sore throat). My western
manual of EOs describes peppermint as "anti-inflammatory,
antibacterial and invigorating," with primary uses including
"congestion, fever, influenza, heartburn."
Sure, the harvesting, processing, and distillation processes
change, emphasize, or even exclude some of the chemical
constituents, and the final usable product of dried bo he
differs greatly in appearance from the bottle of peppermint EO.
Does that mean they function differently, though? I used to
harvest, dry, and lightly decoct my own bo he when I felt
a wind-heat invasion coming on. It worked, as long as I was at home
with my own garden and had some time to prepare it all. Lately,
I've been easily reaching into my oils cabinet and tapping two
drops of peppermint EO into a mug of warm water. Instant peppermint
tea? Definitely. Instant medicinal answer to a wind-heat invasion?
I say yes again, based on my own experiences.
I'm not a chemist or a doctor, but in my experience
and increasingly informed opinion, I'm finding that EOs can make a
handy substitute for Chinese herbsin many cases. As with raw herbs,
quality is of upmost importance when selecting an EO company.
Storage, convenience and ease of use are all in favor of EOs, but
they are limited in number. I haven't found one called "gecko" or
"scorpion," or especially "Bear Gall Bladder," all of which are
clutch entries in a TCM Materia Medica.
Conclusion: If you can manage to live and treat without the more
exotic or illegal Chinese herbs, then EOs might be a practical
substitute much of the time. Imagine the difference between handing
a patient a bag full of raw ingredients, a pictorial instruction
sheet, and a handshake full of hope that they can execute the
cooking process effectively vs. handing the patient a small bottle
of EO and the simple instructions to put two drops into a mug of
Extra considerations abound; this post cannot attempt to cover
every angle or offer every comparison point. Granule or patent
pills can make Chinese herbs more practical, while some EOs are
quite expensive to purchase. Frankincense can easily run $100 per
15 ml bottle. Hey, if it's good enough for the Christ Child, you're
going to have to pay up! There are also some pesky mind-blocks when
trying to move seamlessly from one medical paradigm to the other.
How could a TCM practitioner possibly use hot cinnamon bark and
clove bud for a yellow-snot, sore throat sinus infection? Yet,
that's exactly what the EO prescription is in that case. Homeopaths
have no qualms with the theory of treating heat with heat, but
that's not the plan in AOM!
For now, I'll chalk this entire idea up to just another piece of
evidence that an integrated approach to healthcare is truly the
best option. Taking what works from any and all medical systems
offers our patients the most options for being well. I'm open to
I get this question all of the time: "Do you acupuncture
Yes, kind of, not really, I don't know what I'm supposed to say
exactly. Do I put needles in people? Yes, of course. Should I?
Well, that's where you've got me. Technically, I'm not a licensed
acupuncturist yet, so I take that to mean that I can't
charge people for acupuncture yet. Is it safe for me to
needle people? Well, I do have my Clean Needle Technique
certificate filed away somewhere....
Do I know what I'm doing?
Can I help someone feel better? I don't want to be a pretentious
jerk and assume the answers are "yes" here, but over the past year
I've certainly had some good feedback. As a sometimes full-time and
sometimes part-time student in the acupuncture program, I'm
somewhere around Tri 5. I've completed a large chunk of the
coursework, the whole observation phase in the clinic, and now I'm
actively practicing on everyone who schedules an appointment with
me in the AOM clinic on campus.
For the next year, I'll continue along in this internship,
enjoying the opportunity to test out treatment strategies, hone my
diagnosis skills, and figure out if "patient consents to treatment"
actually belongs in the "A" or the "P" portion of the SOAP note.
I'll do intakes; I'll form diagnostic impressions; I'll pow-wow
with Dr. Cai, Dr. Stretch, and any other clinician I can find. I'll
needle patients; I'll moxa their cold feet; and I'll do as much
moving cupping as my forearm strength permits. If you're really
special, I'll do tui na and I'll gua sha you
afterward. Want some herbs? Sure, we have raw, granules, or patent
pills. Right this way!
While the patient visits are the most important and most fun
parts of the clinic internship experience, the clinic lottery is
the part that causes the most anxiety among the interns. "Will I
get my same shifts next tri?" "Which clinician will I work under?"
"Which interns or observers will be on my shift?" All of these
panic-stricken questions and many more can be heard all over campus
right now -- the infamous Week 12 clinic sign-up and resulting
lottery has arrived!
interns get to sign up for their preferred shifts and locations for
clinic internships. We AOM students have the luxury of choosing the
on-campus Lombard Whole Health Center clinic or driving to Stroger
(Cook County Hospital) in Chicago for an off-site experience. My
45-minute commute is plenty, so I try to keep it simple and stick
to the main campus. There we all are, fluttering around the sign-up
sheet in the clinic lounge room, which is busting at the seams on a
regular day, elbowing the interns who are actually trying to sit
nicely and write SOAP notes that day.
If all goes well, there is a nice white empty slot shining and
waiting just for you on the day and time that you've decided would
be perfect for your upcoming trimester. In reality, someone else
probably agreed and already signed up for that one. In the end,
many interns are able to secure an acceptable shift and everyone
survives the sign-up week. Some lucky individuals end up in the
clinic lottery, where randomly drawn numbers allow devastated
interns to play a sort of game-show rendition of "This will be your
life next trimester."
In my two years at NUHS, we haven't lost anyone yet! The sign-up
process can be stressful for some, but by the time the next
trimester rolls around, we're all just excited to start treating
our patients and working with our clinicians to hone our skills. I
have one more year of this endearing learning process, and then
it's out into the real world for me (again). No more clinicians to
ask questions of, no more easily accessible chiropractors down the
hall to consult with on orthopedic issues (thanks, Dr. Anderson!),
and no more half-days of work! Maybe this whole clinic deal is
pretty great after all....
A friend surprised me a few weeks ago by lending me her
continuous brew kombucha set-up. Apparently a "symbiotic colony of
bacteria and yeast" (SCOBY) isn't so appetizing to a pregnant lady.
"Sure, thanks!" I naively responded. I've had a couple of bottles
of kombucha tea over the years...kind of fizzy, kind of yeasty and
stringy, yum. I'll give it a shot!
What really excited me was how much money I could save by
brewing the kombucha at home instead of buying it at the store.
That stuff can be really expensive, and I can be really cheap. I'm
also down with anything that reduces the amount of additives,
preservatives, and other artificial baggage that comes with my
A week later, she shows up at my house and unloads the blessed
gift--the kombucha, not the baby--in my kitchen. She starts heating
up water, stirring in loose-leaf black tea, requesting all sorts of
wooden spoons, cane sugar, and glass bowls. I'm trying to keep up,
tossing things over to her so she could work her magic on a new
batch of kombucha tea for my tasting pleasure. "It's easy--here's
the directions!" Technically she stayed for another hour, but I
felt like she ran out right then. I was so less prepared than I
All week, I tried but failed to resist lifting the lid and
looking down into the brewing tea vessel. I imagined all sorts of
bacteria riding along from my exhaled breath and taking up shop in
the floating white SCOBY. It's a symbiotic colony of bacteria and
yeast, and I'm surely going to disrupt the balance in there. Sure
enough, at the end of the week, I panicked and almost threw out the
entire 2-gallon batch of tea. Relax, Juli...maybe the black spots
aren't mold...how could they not be mold? I've left a
colony of bacteria and yeast on my counter all week!
Compromise with myself: I'll pick off the top layer of SCOBY
(where suspicious black spots appeared), throw that out, and then
move on to tasting the brew out of the spigot on the bottom. Deal!
Except yuck...apparently my turbinado sugar was a big
deal, because it was all wrong. I was drinking apple cider vinegar
out of a pretty glass. Next compromise: I will bottle this product
as apple cider vinegar and use it for marinating meat, pouring in
my laundry, and catching random fruit flies in the kitchen.
With the first batch of kombucha a near failure, I pressed on.
That's the great part about a continuous brew kombucha set-up. You
get to try again. Immediately. You actually kind of have to try to
again immediately, because that SCOBY is calling out to you,
"Feeeeed meeeee!" Armed with the recipe and faced with the
challenge of having to do this all by myself this time
around, I readied the supplies. Wooden spoon, glass bowl, big
boiling kettle of water, sugar, loose-leaf black tea, and a cup of
the old batch to use as "starter liquid" for the new batch. And,
I followed directions, poured in fine evaporated cane juice this
time instead of big brown bad boy turbinado sugar crystals, and put
the lid on that thing for another week. I slept better, knowing
that black specks in the SCOBY were most likely the remnants of the
loose tea that I couldn't strain out with my low-quality kitchen
equipment. This time, I tried even harder, yet still failed daily,
to resist lifting the lid, breathing my germs inside the brew.
Despite my breath germs, Kombucha Tea Batch #2 was a huge
"Holy cow, I think I just made kombucha!" This is stuff you can
sell in a store, people!
Now to challenge myself again, I attempt what is called a
"second ferment" of the tea. I bottle up the delicious tangy tea
and dump cherries or blueberries into the jars. I leave these jars
on the counter for another three days, and then I refrigerate them
to stop the fermentation process. Success again! The result was a
super tasty, kind of fizzy, fruit infused kombucha batch that I
slurped up in the next three days. Looks like I need to squeeze
three gallons into that vessel for Batch #3....
Here's a detailed plan and recipe if you want to try this at
home: How to Make Kombucha Tea. I promise, it gets
You've made the first move. You've called to schedule an
appointment in the AOM clinic. Just as you think you're almost done
with this first critical step, the receptionist throws a massively
important, yet completely unexpected, wrench in your plan. "Which
intern are you looking to schedule with?"
Oh. My. God. What do you do? Which name do you say off the top
of your head? As you feel the pressure mount in those two seconds
of silence on the phone, your brain quickly scans the names,
personalities, general skill levels, and specific competencies of
every student you know at NUHS.
It might not seem like a big decision to some, but for many
patients, your intern will make or break the entire appointment.
I've heard it all in the halls of the clinic, "He got a D on that
Point Location Exam, so I don't want to schedule with him!" "She's
the only one who follows up needling with tui na every
week--I want her!" "I only (or, I don't) want my best
friends seeing me with my pants down." If you're bringing sensitive
people--the elderly or young children--then even appearance might
matter. If I scheduled my kids with a super-tall bearded man, they
might run outside and hide by the swans!
If you haven't thought about which intern you will choose for
your first or next acupuncture appointment, here is a handy guide
to help weigh your options. No, I'm not going to provide a rating
list of each intern in clinic this trimester, complete with names,
pictures, and assorted blasphemies or accolades. Instead, I'm going
to walk you through the options that may or may not be important to
you in your decision-making process.
Image source: www.visualphotos.com
Now for the great part--there isn't one intern who fits every
criteria! This is wonderful news, because it means that a variety
of options exist for each patient who walks through the door. Each
patient is different, and each intern is different. If you've tried
acupuncture once, but just didn't get that great feeling, then try
again with someone else! If you were lucky and hit it out of the
park with your first intern, then stick with that person, or ask
him or her for a referral for another intern who treats in a
Good luck, and happy hunting!
When they ask you why you
came in for an appointment today, go ahead and let them know that
your urine is coming out in long, clear streams, and that your
dreams have been creepily vivid this week. Tell them that your
bowel movements are light brown, formed, and coming with ease twice
per day in forearm lengths that would make Dr. Yurasek proud.
Mention that you've been feeling kind of cold and that you can't
stand being out in the wind. That heaviness in your arms? Mention
Dive straight into the rest of Oriental Medicine's famed "Ten
Questions," noting whether you've been extra hungry, not so
thirsty, frigidly anti-sexual, exhausted from periods with
quarter-sized black clots, or muzzy-headed in the afternoons. It
all matters. If you're in an AOM clinic, these are the types of
things you can expect to be asked by your acupuncturist or
herbalist. No one here bats an eye when patients share the color
and consistency of their bowel movements. In fact, if you withhold
that information, we can't really help you very well.
Here they are, in detail but translated by me:
The Ten Questions
Your acupuncturist or herbalist not only wants to know these
things, but also actuallyneedsto know many of these things in order
to properly diagnose your condition and begin a treatment plan. If
you have long, clear streams of urine, loose stool, weak knees, a
sore lower back, and feel cold all the time...well, we know what's
going on. No, I'm not going to tell you here. Look it up. Better
yet, visit an acupuncturist!
So, if you're in an AOM clinic, have your thoughts on these
vital topics prepared beforehand. Otherwise, you might be so thrown
off guard by some of the Ten Questions that you can't formulate
sentences. That's actually fine, because none of the 10 questions
directly correlate to grammar skill level. Thank goodness, right?
However, if you find yourself in the office of an MD, keep in mind
that you might not want to just jump right in with details about
where you are in your menstrual cycle and how gassy you've been, if
your chief complaint is seasonal allergies. Just a tip, from me to
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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