If it was good enough for the Christ Child, then
it's good enough for me. That's my motto. I've been using a (gasp)
commercially prepared skin care product for the past month or so,
and these are two of the main ingredients -- frankincense and myrrh
Once again I've found myself playing the "overlapping medical
paradigm" game. You know the one -- you realize you're eating a
vegetable that also happens to appear in a Materia Medica
(giant book of medicinal herbs). Suddenly you second-guess yourself
at every meal. "Should I add sautéed onions to my steak," "Does a
cooked onion still hold the same medicinal properties as a raw
one?" Who eats raw onions anyway? "Is the live peppermint growing
in my backyard the same as the dried peppermint in my tea bags, the
essential oil of peppermint in my cabinet, or the bo he (Mentha
piperita) listed in my TCM Materia Medica?"
Now I'm having this same sense of wonderment about
my facial products. As I'm rolling on and rubbing in this blend of
ancient oils that smells distinctly like a special day in a
Catholic church, I'm pondering the reach of these powerful
substances. It's no secret that frankincense can run $100 per
bottle of essential oil, and myrrh comes in around $70.This is good
stuff, people. But why? What properties do they carry that have
made them, along with the missing "gold" in my formulation, so
heavily sought after for millennia? Myrrh was not only presented to
the baby Jesus but also used to anoint his body after death.
Egyptian pharaohs were also doused in the stuff.
Myrrh on the left, frankincense on the right
Myrhh (mo yao) has been a documented herb in TCM since
the Kaibao Era circa 975 AD. Frankincense (ru xiang) has been on
the books since 500 AD. How are they used in Chinese medicine? Both
come from small shrub-like trees in the Arabian Peninsula and
Northeast Africa, and both are used in resin form to invigorate
blood, treating a variety of "stasis" issues, from traumas to
tumors. Specific entries might look like this:
Myrrh: neutral, bitter, downward draining; enters
the Liver meridian; moves blood, dispels stasis, disperses phlegm
Frankincense: warm, acrid, aromatic; enters the Heart and Lung
meridians; moves blood, relaxes sinews, freecourses qi, and removes
obstruction from the channels.
Together, they have complementary properties of healing weeping
sores and engendering new flesh. Well, there we have it. Now I see
why this blend (which also includes lavender, Hawaiian sandalwood,
helichrysum, and rose oils) would be used as a facial formula of
the anti-aging variety. Hey, I'm 31. I might as well be
Qi Li Sanis the name of the formula utilizing the highly
effective complementary herbsmo yao(myrrh) and ru xiang
(frankincense). Technically they are resins, but we call every
substance in our Materia Medica an "herb." This
traditional formula combines our frankincense and myrrh with
dragon's blood (spoiler alert: not really the blood of a dragon),
catechu (another resin), carthamus (flower), cinnabar (ooh, an
illegal one!), musk (illegal plus you'd smell like a deer), and
borneol (one more resin for good measure).
Ayurvedic medicine, native to India, also uses
frankincense and myrrh, now sometimes in nutraceutical forms like
guggulsterones and bowsellic acids, respectively, for high
cholesterol and joint pain.
So, what am I putting on my face? Sure, an essential oil is not
exactly the same as a resin or a neutraceutical, or a Chinese
decoction for that matter, but that's not what matters. What's
important here is another step in the direction towards integrated
medicine. Maybe western and eastern are both right this time. As
one of my favorite patients helped me realize recently, you'll kill
yourself trying to figure out which is the one right
answer. There isn't one. Open your eyes, open your ears,
and open your heart to acknowledge the truth in each tradition.
With the start of a new trimester here at NUHS, and -- for many
-- the start of a new school year, it's the perfect time to break
it down. Just what is Traditional Chinese Medicine? How does
acupuncture fit into the picture? Do you have to use herbs, too?
What about tui na, qi gong, and tai chi?
Let's not forget about my personal favorite -- dietary therapy!
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has arguably five branches,
and I'm going to give it to you as I understand it. After two full
years in the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Program, a first
professional master of science degree program, I think I'm finally
scratching the surface of what the ancient Chinese had to
This is the big guy, right? Acupuncture is the most
well-known branch of TCM today in the U.S., involving the insertion
of needles into specific points on the body. While some other
fields offer an abbreviated, "stick it where it hurts" method, we
TCM acupuncturists take the entire body, its functional organ
systems, and each person's general constitution into consideration
when deciding where to stick the needles. I know it's confusing
when you say your back hurts and I put needles in your legs, ears,
and hands, but just trust me. It's all connected through energy
meridians. This is also why we ask you about your poop when you
come in for knee pain.
Yes, it smells just like marijuana, but
it's actually a different herb called ai ye in Chinese
pinyin, artemesia argyi in Latin, or Mugwort in plain old
English. It does come in a tightly rolled stick form, we do light
the end, but instead of smoking it we hold it near an acupoint on
the body. After a few minutes of pecking the moxa stick close
enough to provide penetrating heat but never burning you -- I
promise -- you will reap the benefits of not only pain relief but
tonification of certain organ systems and the freecoursing of
energy through particular meridians. It feels great, but you will
have to explain to people for the rest of the day why you smell
Like many medical systems, from western
naturopathy to Indian Ayurveda, TCM has a unique Materia
Medica, or giant book of herbs, their properties, and their
medicinal uses. While you don't have to "do herbs," most students
at NUHS work towards the full MS of Oriental Medicine (which
includes the herbal coursework in addition to the acupuncture
work). Interesting fact: not all "Chinese herbs" are plant-derived.
Many are actually minerals, such as salt or arsenic, or
animal-derived, such as deer penis or flying squirrel feces. Just
seeing if you're paying attention (but yes, those are really all in
the Materia Medica).
dietary therapy, or food therapy, into the same branch as herbal
therapy above. Because I love the application of common foods and
nutritional principles so much, I'm awarding it half status as its
own category. Some items that we'd call "food," such as garlic or
onions, are also included in the Materia Medica as medicinal herbs.
They're working together -- that's the point. Who doesn't love the
ancient Greek saying, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy
food?" Thanks, Hippocrates, thy father of western medicine. The
Chinese happen to agree!
Can you pronounce it? Try this: twee nah.
Good job. This is most easily compared to the practice of massage.
Often called "Asian Body Work," these pushing and pulling movements
applied by the TCM provider to the patient's body accomplishes many
of the goals of general massage, such as relaxation and improved
circulation of blood and energy.
also where we are going to mention the practice ofcupping. Stick a
fire into a glass cup to create a vacuum that pulls toxins out of
the blood and releases the exterior in a "wind-cold invasion" and
you have a happy patient. In my admittedly limited clinical
experience, everyone loves cupping, but mind your manners. The
clinic is not an a la carte menu for your pleasure. Let the intern
and the clinician decide which modalities are best for your
condition each day.
Another new phrase for the day. Practice: chee
gong. Not so bad, is it? Qi gong offers the
practitioner a chance to step back, relax, and renew his or her own
energy and well being. Maybe you've seen images of elderly Chinese
individuals at the park, wondering why they are punching the air in
slow motion. That was a group of people cultivating their
qi. As Dr. Yurasek tells us interns, "You can't
give it if you don't have it!" Thus, practice your qi gong
postures and movements before you head in for your clinic
So, there it is--most of Traditional Chinese Medicine. We could
also tie in tai chi or talk about gua sha, but I
have to save something for next time! If you haven't tried TCM, now
is a great time. Interns are fresh off a nice two-week break, white
lab coats are pristine, and everybody's anxious to try out their
skills. See you in
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
Think it's too difficult for you? I think you're wrong. File
this post away under the "if I can do it, you can do it" series.
Unfortunately, this practical how-to post is the result of someone
actually needing to use raw Chinese herbs to feel better--and that
someone is me.
Remember that whole "damp-heat
in the gall bladder" thing from a couple of weeks ago? Yep, me
too. Turns out, I still have that going on. Yes, I self-diagnosed
and self-treated in near silence. Did I say I was good at this? I'm
sorry. No. I'm a student. I know close to nothing. In my defense,
upon an actual visit to the NUHS AOM clinic to exercise my
student-access-to-free-care privilege, I learned that I nailed my
diagnosis and was only one off in my acupoints selection plan.
Ingredients for Treatment
I was indeed on my way towards getting back to normal, but not
quite there yet. No. What I needed was a boost -- a big powerful
boost in the health direction. I needed herbs from Dr. Cai. After
showing my tongue and displaying my pulsating wrists to the masses
of interns, I left the clinic with my trusty sack of Chinese herbs.
At Dr. Cai's request, I also needed to add in a slice of fresh
ginger and three red dates with each batch, which I happened to
have on hand.
Many people would peer into this bag thinking, "What the heck do
I do with this pile of roots, bark, mushrooms, berries, and other
unidentifiables? Technically, there could be geckos and cicada
shells in there...shudder. In fact I refuse to look up everything
in the formula shown on my receipt just in case therearegeckos and
cicada shells in there.... So, here it is--your pictorial
step-by-step guide to using raw Chinese herbs in a decoction. This
is the instruction sheet that goes home with the patient.
Instructions for Cooking Chinese Herbal Formula
What this is trying to say is dump one batch of the herbs into a
pot, soak it, bring it to a boil, then simmer to reduce the liquid
to a drinkable amount. Now, you'll want to find the perfect balance
between "disgusting taste" and "effective dose," and that
isnoteasy. You know you want to concentrate the liquid for potency,
but you also know that you're increasing the taste by the same
Before Cooking and After Cooking
Most herbal decoctions do not taste good. Face it. Most of us
are damp. We eat dairy and fried foods (mmmm...fried dairy), and we
end up with damp-heat. Thus, we need bitter herbs much of the time.
Who's the lucky fella who gets a simple Spleen Qi deficiency
diagnosis that results in a sweet licorice and berries formula to
take home? Not this guy!
So, I soak my bitter herbs, I boil my bitter herbs, I simmer my
bitter herbs. I drink my powerful decoction, and I go to sleep to
let my body do its thing. I wake up a little better, and I know I
have five more nights of chugging down my "bedtime tea" before my
tongue can register just how gross it really tastes.
I could avoid much of the "hard work" in this process by
requesting my herbs in granule form (like a dusty powder that you
stir in warm water to dissolve). But then I'd lose a little
potency. I could avoid all the work and the taste
by requesting a patent pill formula, but then I'd lose even more
potency. No thanks, weak sauce. I need the most full-strength
option known to man -- ancient Chinese man, specifically. I need to
decoct my raw herbs!
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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