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
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.
"I hope the points aren't just nerves being shocked by needles,"
I said to AOM classmate Irene. As one of the few AOM students who
originally came into the program to focus on herbal preparations
and dietetics, I felt particularly uninformed about this whole
acupuncture thing. So, there in one of the first courses on the
theory of point energetics -- what the acupoints do and how they do
it -- I finally vocalized, albeit in a whisper-like fashion, my
growing fear: Maybe there's no meridian or point energetics beyond
just sticking a needle into a nerve and hoping it stimulates
something productive in the patient's body. Sure, that might still
help, but it certainly doesn't have the mystique that interested me
in the first place.
"Moving blood and qi," "balancing
energy," and "harmonizing yin and yang"...these concepts are
intriguing, promising, and yes, darn near magical in my opinion. If
we're just jabbing people with needles and shocking them wildly,
then I'm not sure I have the buy-in that a 3-year master of science
in oriental medicine degree requires. So there I sat, giving power
to my secret fear by speaking it aloud, not knowing what Dr. Yihyun
Kwon was going to say to pull me back over to his side of the
fence, and hoping that there was something more -- more ancient,
more Daoist, more qi-related in any way. (Spoiler Alert. Dr. Kwon
Irene surprised me with her response, which I recall as being
something along the lines of, "So what if acupuncture is
just stimulating nerves with needles?" How could she be so callous
to this deep fear that I'd been subconsciously fostering for the
first three months of our program? Didn't she understand that I was
sitting there, suffering in silence, desperate for some oriental
What Dr. Kwon went on to explain in that first Energetics class,
and even more so the following year in Neurophysiology of
Acupuncture class, was a concept that bridged the gap between the
mysticism and the mundane. He simultaneously satisfied my cravings
for evidence-based medicine as well as ancient tradition. Dr. Kwon
= 2. Juli's irrational fears = 0.
Yes, he explained, some points are located right
beside or above a nerve -- grazing it ever so slightly and
eliciting that loved or hated sensation we call "de qi," when
energy arrives along that meridian. Further research and
dissections have confirmed that many of those points not located at
a nerve are actually located exceptionally close to an artery or
vein. Here's where he blows my mind in 3...2...1....
Next, he tells us that these vessels and other structures
harboring acupoints are essentially wrapped up in nerve fibers
themselves. Yes, readers, we've come full circle in Juli's
understanding of neurophysiology (which doesn't take long). Many
acupoints are on a nerve; those that aren't, still kind of are.
And now to process this information.... Do I hate this answer?
Does it ruin the grandeur of ancient energy meridian theory? Nah. I
took the news fairly well, all ignorance and expectations
considered. In today's health care climate, I like that modern
science keeps proving acupuncture theory to be true. Time and time
again, I see modern western research pointing to the validity of
traditional medicine. At the end of the day, or the century, who
doesn't like being told, "You're right"?
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/
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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