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
Nope, I did not find human remains in my garden plot. I didn't
even find live children playing in there. What I'm talking about is
the Siamese onion I pulled out of my soil this week during a
particularly fruitful harvest.
It had two huge shoots, and I thought I was pulling two separate
onions. To my surprise, two smallish and oddly connected onions
popped out. They had grown too close together, no doubt because I
planted them too close together this spring. Technically, my then
3-year-old son was doing the dropping-in of the onion bulbs, so I
guess I could blame him on this one. But, I won't. I'm not trying
to blame anyone, or even to suggest that there is something
inherently wrong with my Siamese onion twins.
Here's their cousin(s), Extra Heads Tomato, as I called
What's going on here? I've recently heard about the French trend
of embracing ugly produce. OK. I like heirloom tomatoes with their
colorful streaks and odd plump shapes. I'm in. What's the big deal
with how many lobes my vegetables have? I'm just going to eat them
anyways. After a few chomps of the teeth, any tomato is going to be
a total train wreck of juice, seeds, and goo.
This spring, when I planted my vegetables, I tried to open
myself to what the garden wanted. Peppers over there? Sure.
Potatoes in vertical containers? Alright. Make a 6-foot-tall wall
of rusty metal for the snap peas to climb? You got it.
In my Daoist journey to become more natural, harmonious, and
simply of less resistance to the energy of the universe, I
tried to be mindful that the garden didn't need to look perfect.
Whatever it was -- that would be perfect. I don't know if was the
Dao De Jing or the Tai Chi, but over the past couple of years, I've
realized that I intervene too much. I need to spend more time with
my mouth shut and my energy open.
As a bad artist in junior high school, I heard and repeated the
phrase, "Nature isn't perfect, so you don't have to be," and used
this mantra as my own whenever my mountain and tree scenes came out
all wrong. Bob Ross would not have been proud. My little trees were
not happy. They always looked upside down and sad. I was forcing
them. I was forcing them to be perfect, with each branch directly
across from another. The result was that it never looked right. It
never looked real.
As the season progresses, the trimester break approaches, and
the peppers and tomatoes ripen, I remind myself that it is perfect.
It doesn't have to look like it, but it...just...is.
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
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
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