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
How could salads cause weight gain? If you have
Damp-Cold and you're trying to lose weight by eating cold, raw,
veggie salads, you might not shed the pounds. "How can this be?"
everyone is now screaming -- probably silently, that's fine. I
thought eating lots of spinach, topped with radish, cucumbers,
celery, etc. was supposed to help melose weight.
For some people, this might be an effective strategy,
particularly if you are swapping out fast-food double cheeseburgers
in favor of homemade veggie salads. Certainly, there is the
undeniable benefit of increasing the nutrition you're taking in by
adding more produce to your diet. I'm sure we all know someone who
started eating more salads and less junk food and fairly promptly
dropped a few pounds. Great.
So, why doesn't it work for everyone? In fact, why does eating
all raw, cold veggie salads even have the possibility of causing
weight gain in some people?
No, the answer is not about the dressing that you put on the
salad! That would be too easy, not eastern-medicine-related, and
frankly, it would probably cast a dark shadow on my consistently
whole-fat dietary lifestyle approach.
Instead, my point here is related to one of TCM's six evil qis
-- technically, two of them. I used the terms "cold" and "damp"
earlier, and this is one of those special moments when normal,
everyday words take on more specific meanings in the context of
Chinese medicine. I think we call that "connotations." In TCM, Cold
and Damp have pathogenic connotations.
A person can be constitutionally Cold or Damp from the get-go,
or a person can be invaded by a Cold or Damp external pathogenic
factor (actually called an "evil (xieh) qi"). Foods are like
people; each food has specific properties, such as Cold, Hot, and
whether the food leads to damp retention or drying out in the
person who ate it.
In the case of a Cold, Damp person trying to lose
weight, we need more hot, drying, acrid foods, and fewer raw, cold,
damp foods on the plate. If this seems counter-intuitive, keep in
mind that there are plenty of healthy, nutritious foods that have
hot and acrid properties. Ginger and peppers, anyone? Yes,
What is your favorite food doing for you--or to you? My favorite
book on nutrition, Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and
Modern Nutrition, goes into detail on the connections between your
diet and your health. Or, quickly check out the properties of some
common fruits, veggies, meats, etc. here: http://www.tcmecc.org/foodtherapy.htm
Choose wisely, my friends.
Is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) better than conventional
western medicine? Would a provider of oriental medicine and
one of the ayurvedic traditions treat a patient the same
way? Do naturopaths diagnose the same medical conditions as
The answer to each of these questions is probably a solid
The point is that one medical system is not
necessarily better than another. Each of the above-mentioned
categories exist as an entire medical paradigm, complete with its
own unique way of diagnosing and treating an array of
health-related issues. Did you know that your chiropractor could
give you a pelvic exam, ladies? Did you know that your naturopathic
doctor could give you a spinal adjustment? And what about those
herbs? Why do western naturopaths have a different materia
medica than we students of oriental medicine do? Is slippery
elm awesome? I'll never know. And neither did the ancient Chinese,
because it didn't grow there.
We've all heard that there is competition between the students,
all graduating in Lombard at the same moment, as they get dumped
out into a market that becomes more and more saturated every day.
We all feel it from time to time -- a student of acupuncture who
assumes her classes are 10,000 times more difficult than that of
the massage student down the hall; the chiropractic intern who
thinks he's way more important than any acupuncturist in the
clinic; or the naturopath who points out that she can do everything
a chiropractor can do and more!
Are they all right? Or are we all just egotistical jerks? Again,
the answer is an unreassuring "sometimes."
What I'm learning at NUHS is the unmistakable value
of the various medical systems. My friends ask me if I scrape my
tongue daily or if I've dabbled in oil pulling. No and no, I tell
them. That's from the ayurvedic traditions of India, not the
ancient Chinese medicine that I'm studying. Does that mean I don't
think these practices have merit? Nope. I'm sure they do...I'm just
not learning about them in my program. I've actually tried oil
pulling, but I'm fairly certain I did it wrong, and I swallowed,
which I learned later defeats the point. Whoops. I also love
essential oils, and I frankly have no idea which tradition claims
What are we learning in the MS in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
program at NUHS? I've memorized hundreds of acupoints -- well,
a good chunk of them anyways -- and dozens of Chinese herbs, I
finally realized that ginger and garlic are making it
worse when I have a heat invasion, and I'm piecing
together why a point on my inner wrist is so helpful for my heart
palpitations. I finally learned how to spell "ayurvedic," and I
hope I can pronounce "naturopathy" correctly most of the time these
More importantly, I'm also learning that the
"competition" chatter has a much bigger bark than bite. We students
of oriental medicine like you students of chiropractic,
naturopathy, and massage therapy, and I feel fairly confident
assuming that you guys like us, too. In fact, the sheer number of
students who dual enroll in more than one program at NUHS proves
this point for me.
I value what the other practices and traditions bring to the
overall health and well-being of the patient. I don't expect that
I'll offer a patient the same knowledge and services that an ND or
an MD does; I'll offer them something almost entirely different in
fact. And that, my friends, is the point. We have a better shot at
helping people if we work together, value each other's
contributions and specialties, and keep an open mind to things that
might sound crazy at first. Energy crystals...what?!
It's already second
nature. When I see people, I see tongues. I notice when the actor
in the movie on the big screen has a thick white coat. I try to
sneak a peek at my friends' tongues when we're having a casual
conversation. If there's a thick yellow coat, I subconsciously take
a step back and continue our conversation from a safer distance.
I've actually had dreams about analyzing someone's tongue shape,
size, color, and coat.
Why am I haunted by tongues? As a student of acupuncture and
oriental medicine, I've taken classes on how to evaluate various
tongue appearances and use that valuable, albeit gross, information
when formulating a diagnosis about the patient's overall condition.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the tongue and pulse are
integral pieces in the puzzle of health and wellness.
The 2,000 year-old classic "Huang Di Nei Jing", translated as
"The Yellow Emperor's Inner Cannon," offers around 60 quotes about
the tongue. We are instructed to examine the exterior, including
the orifices, in order to gain a clear picture of the interior.
Specifically, the tongue can reveal problematic areas or functional
systems within the body, such as stagnated Liver Qi or an
accumulation of dampness. Not everyone in oriental medicine relies
on the "stick out your tongue" method when diagnosing patients,
though. Different practitioners place a varying amount of
importance on the tongue's appearance. One professor even told us
to treat the tongue appearance as a "tie breaker" if you are
wavering between two diagnoses.
As a result, we students study the tongue diligently, searching
for heat prickles, digging for signs of sublingual dilation. If we
see a thick tongue with a white coat and scalloped edges, we feel
fairly confident suggesting that the patient suffers from Spleen Qi
deficiency. If you see a purple tongue with ventral dilation that
gives you nightmares of giant black caterpillars crawling towards
you, then you check into the patient's Liver Qi stagnation issues.
Unfortunately, what you see in the average person's mouth is a
combination of every diagnosable characteristic you've ever
learned. In other words, it's not as easy as it sounds!
I'll leave you with this tongue conversation that I had today
with my 3-year-old son. Yes, even toddlers are getting in on the
trend of diagnosing tongues these days! Enjoy...
Me: Let me see your tongue, buddy. (I look at the normal
beautiful tongue that only children seem to have.) Thanks, it looks
Him: Thanks, Mom. Show me your tongue now. (I stick out the
mess that we adults always seem to have.) Whoa! Yours looks bad. It
looks like a pirate ship... with windows... and people... and a
volcano... and some beds!
Go ahead...check out some tongue info here: http://www.sacredlotus.com/diagnosis/tongue/
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