Archive for tag: herbs

So What Is Chinese Medicine

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 offer.

Acupuncture

photo of woman receiving acupunctureThis 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.

Moxibustion

photo of Chinese herbYes, 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 marijuana.

Herbs

photo of Chinese herbsLike 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).

TCM­

photo of garlic and onionsLumps 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!

Tui Na

photo of woman receive a massageCan 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.

Cupping

photo of cupping treatmentThis is 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.

Qi Gong

photo of qi gong practitionerAnother 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 shift.

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 clinic!

Essential Oils or Chinese Herbs

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.

2014-07-28_booksAs 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!

2014-07-28_shelvesFinding 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 friend, peppermint.

peppermint plantChinese 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." Sounds...pretty...similar!

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.

2014-07-28_peppermintI'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 warm water.

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!

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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 that...

How to Use Chinese Herbs

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.

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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.

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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 stroke.

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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.

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"Bedtime Tea"

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!