Traditional Chinese Medicine

What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a type of holistic, natural health care system that dates back at least 2,000 years to the year 200 B.C. TCM is “holistic” and “natural” because it stimulates the body’s own healing mechanisms and takes into account all aspects of a patient’s life, rather than just several obvious signs or symptoms. TCM practitioners view the body as a complex network of interconnected parts (part of a larger concept known as Qi), rather than separate systems or organs.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments aim to correct imbalances in the body and primarily work in three major ways:

  • Addressing a patient’s external factors and environment

  • Helping patients relate to their internal emotions in a healthier way, including managing stress

  • Improving someone’s lifestyle factors, including diet and exercise routine

Organs that are especially focused on during TCM treatments include the kidneys, heart, spleen, liver, lung, gallbladder, small intestine and large intestine. Depending on the specific type, the benefits of TCM therapies range considerably. Some of the health problems most commonly treated with Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies include:

  • Chronic pain

  • Arthritis

  • Fatigue

  • Infertility

  • Liver disease

  • Headaches

  • Indigestion

  • Hormonal imbalances

  • High blood pressure

  • PMS or menopause symptoms

  • Cancer recovery or chemotherapy

Tenets and Beliefs of TCM

TCM was mostly practiced in Asia and not commonly known of or studied in the U.S. until around the 1970s. Since Eastern practices, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi and acupuncture, started to gain notoriety in the media during this time period, hundreds of studies have investigated the health effects of such modalities.

Traditional Chinese Medicine draws on the belief that Qi (which roughly translates to “vital energy” and is pronounced “chee”) is essential for overall health.

  • Qi is said to circulate throughout the body along pathways called meridians, and proper Qi is needed to keep all systems in balance.

  • Meridians are utilised in many TCM practices, including acupuncture and acupressure, which focus on treating specific meridian points throughout the body that can be located anywhere from the head to the soles of our feet.

  • Meridians are believed to be connected to specific organ systems, and therefore focusing on certain meridians helps resolve specific symptoms. Restoring Qi can be beneficial for preventing diseases from developing and treating existing inflammation, injuries, pain or illnesses.

Another concept that’s vital to Traditional Chinese Medicine is yin and yang, defined as opposing but complementary energies. You might be familiar with the yin-yang symbol (a circle that’s half white and half black with smaller circles inside), which is used to represent the concept of all of earth’s opposing forces, including hot and cold, winter and summer, energy and rest. Just like Qi, yin and yang negatively affect your health when they’re out of balance and one is more dominant than the other, so a primary goal of TCM treatment is to restore their equalising relationship.

Chinese Herbal Medicines

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Chinese herbal medicine is a major part of Traditional Chinese Medicine … it has been used for centuries in China, where herbs are considered fundamental therapy for many acute and chronic conditions.” (4) Chinese herbal therapy has its roots in a traditional medicinal text called “Materia Medica.” Thousands of different herbs, minerals, teas, tinctures and other extracts are listed in this text and utilised by trained herbalists depending on a patient’s specific symptoms.

Who can benefit most from Chinese herbal medicines?

  • Chinese herbs focus on correcting dysfunction of certain organs and unhealthy body patterns. The goal of herbal therapy is to bring the body back into a state of homeostasis (balance) and restore proper energy (also called Qi).

  • Patients with many different symptoms can be treated with herbs, including those with frequent colds or the flu, fatigue, trouble breathing, infertility, allergies, chronic pain, anxiety or depression, trouble sleeping, menopausal symptoms and even people recovering from cancer or chemotherapy.

  • Some scenarios that make a patient a good candidate for herbal therapy include having more than one unexplained symptom, feeling fatigued on top of having other symptoms, not responding well to medications or experiencing side effects, feeling anxious or depressed, in addition to having other symptoms.

  • Common Chinese herbal medicines include astragalus root, reishi mushroom, goji berry, ginkgo biloba, ginseng and many others.

  • Here’s what you can expect during a Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal session: Customised, various herbs (almost always more than one) are prescribed following an exam with the herbalist. Sometimes herbs are used as a complement to another treatment, such as acupuncture. Chinese herbal therapy is usually not covered by insurance, but in some cases a referral from a physician can help lower the cost. Oftentimes a herbalist works closely with a physician to manage a patient’s treatment, especially if the herbal therapy can interact with the patient’s prescription medications.

Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine

1. Lowers Inflammation and Might Offer Increased Cancer Protection

The Journal of Traditional & Complementary Medicine reports that Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, including herbal treatments and the use of medicinal mushrooms, can have positive “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic and autophagic regulatory functions. ” This translates to lowered levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, thereby protecting cells, tissues and organs from long-term disease development. Inflammation is the root of most diseases and tied to the majority of common health problems, including cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, cognitive impairment and diabetes.

TCM treatments, including acupuncture, acupressure and herbal treatments, can also help patients overcome a variety of harmful lifestyle habits related to inflammation, such as cigarette smoking, overeating, resisting chronic pain, chronic stress and alcohol-induced liver damage. Certain treatments are capable of lowering the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response, which helps patients manage the effects of chronic stress — which can include poor sleep and hormonal imbalances.

Several herbal treatments that have been found to directly help lower oxidative stress include:

  • Medicinal mushrooms, including reishi and cordyceps: promote stronger immunity, help fight fatigue, have anticancer properties, help balance hormones and control the body’s stress response

  • Monascus adlay and Monascus purpureus: used to lower lung inflammation and damage

  • Amla (Emblica officinalis Gaertn. of Euphorbiaceae family), aka gooseberries: lowers hepatotoxin-induced liver inflammation

  • Virgate wormwood decoction (Yīn Chén Hāo tāng): also used to lower liver damage

  • Green tea extract and its active components, catechins: help protect the brain, reduce fatigue and regulate appetite

  • Crataegi Fructus (Shān Zhā): helps treat symptoms of hyperactive bladder

  • Five Stranguries Powder (Wǔ Lén Sǎn): has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities

2. Reduces Chronic Pain and Headaches

Two of the most popular TCM treatments for managing pain are acupuncture and acupressure. Acupuncture is a practice that is more than 3,500 years old. It’s most often embraced by patients who are looking to alleviate chronic headaches, pain due to arthritis, neck or back pain, plus many other symptoms related to injuries or stress too.

Studies have found that acupuncture, especially when combined with other Traditional Chinese Medicine methods like tai chi and a healthy diet, can be valuable, non-pharmacological tools for patients suffering from frequent chronic tension headaches. (6) Research done at Memorial Sloan Kettering found that patients receiving acupuncture experienced less neck muscle aches and pain, osteoarthritis and chronic headaches compared to patients in the placebo control group. (7) Research published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine even showed that one month of acupressure treatment can be more effective in reducing chronic headaches than one month of taking muscle-relaxant medications. (8)

Research conducted at Toronto Western Hospital has found that tai chi contributes to chronic pain management in three major areas: “adaptive exercise, mind-body interaction, and meditation.” Trials examining the health benefits of tai chi have found that patients often experience improvements in five pain conditions: osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, low back pain and headaches. (9)

3. Balances Hormones and Improves Fertility

Research suggests that certain “adaptogen” Chinese herbal medicines contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can change the way that nerves transmit messages to the brain, improving various functions within the endocrine and central nervous systems. This helps naturally improve the body’s healing abilities and helps balance hormones — including cortisol, insulin, testosterone and estrogen.

Studies done by the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Zhejiang University in China show that reishi mushroom supplementation can help lower symptoms of diabetes, fatigue and other hormonal imbalances, while improving fertility and reproductive health. (10) By reducing the body’s stress response, TCM therapies like acupuncture, tai chi and massage therapy can also be beneficial for treating hormonal imbalances.

Even in the West, massage therapy has been recommended for diabetes for over 100 years, and various studies have found it can help with other hormone-related conditions by inducing relaxation, raising energy levels, helping people become more active, reducing emotional eating, improving diet quality and improving sleep. (11) A 2001 study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine showed that acupuncture plays a positive role in hormonal balance and treating infertility. Acupuncture seems to work by modulating the central and peripheral nervous systems, the neuro-endocrine and endocrine systems, ovarian blood flow, and metabolism. It’s also been shown to help improve uterine blood flow and decrease effects of depression, anxiety and stress on the menstrual cycle. (12)

4. Improves Liver Health

Herbal medicine and nutrition are important aspects of TCM, since a poor diet can directly contribute to liver damage — and the liver is one of the focal organs in Eastern medicine. The Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation explains that TCM views the liver as “the organ responsible for the smooth flow of emotions as well as Qi and blood. It is the organ that is most affected by excess stress or emotions.” (13) TCM therefore draws a link between liver damage and illnesses like obesity, fatigue, indigestion, emotional stress, trouble sleeping and much more.

A diet and herbal treatment plan that follows Traditional Chinese Medicine guidelines is one that’s very similar to eating an alkaline diet, helping restore the body’s proper pH and preventing deficiencies of key minerals. Stress reduction, exercise, sleeping proper amounts and many herbal medicines are used to treat liver problems. Acupressure massage is also used to stimulate the liver, improve blood flow and relieve tension caused by stress.

Adaptogen herbs (including reishi mushrooms or cordyceps) are commonly prescribed to improve liver function and prevent liver disease. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushroomsfound that reishi induces hepatoprotective effects on acute liver injury because it contains antioxidant properties. (14)

Foods that can help improve liver health, prevent liver disease and improve detoxification include raw and fresh vegetables (especially dark leafy greens), herbs and spices like garlic and ginger, healthy fats, and sweet potatoes. Alcohol, processed carbohydrates, sugary snacks or drinks, synthetic ingredients, fried foods, and refined oils or fats are all damaging to the liver and therefore usually reduced or eliminated when working with a TCM practitioner.

5. Protects Cognitive Health

By way of reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, Chinese herbs can help protect brain health and memory. Cognitive disorders, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, are linked to heightened inflammation, free radical damage, an inability to use glucose properly, vitamin deficiencies, stress and environmental toxins. Therefore, an alkaline diet, herbal supplements, exercise, proper nutrition and reducing stress all help control the body’s immune response and regulate hormones that protect the brain.

According to a 2007 report published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, “There has been a long history of research and medical practice in dementia in China, during which the ancient Chinese people have formed a whole theory and accumulated abundant experience in the treatment of dementia.” (15) In recent decades, it’s been shown through a growing number of clinical studies that certain herbal extracts — including glycyrrhiza, atractylodes, rhubarb, ginseng, fructus lycii, polygala, angelica and safflower — serve as expectorants and promoters for blood circulation.

Medicinal mushrooms have also been shown to help decrease the amount of toxins or heavy metals that can accumulate within the body, therefore promoting higher energy levels, better concentration, improved memory and better quality sleep (all important for a sharp mind and mood control). Coupled with other holistic treatments that promote well-being, they help prevent and treat many common age-related cognitive disorders.

6. Helps Lower the Body’s Stress Response

Acupressure (a type of massage therapy that’s also called Tai chong in TCM) is beneficial not only for liver health, but also for reducing stress. Tai chong is believed to stimulate a key point on the liver channel meridian, located at the top of the foot, that is related to emotional trauma and negative “energies,” such as resentment, bitterness, worry, anxiety and depression. Releasing these negative feelings helps lower the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which has significant benefits: reduced blood pressure, improved sleep, more energy, less muscle tension and more.

Acupuncture and tai chi can also be very helpful for managing stress. Tai chi is a type of qigong exercise that’s considered a “mind-body” practice because it combines the principles of martial arts with controlled breathing and focused attention. The spiritual dimension of tai chi, focus on turning attention inward and quieting of the mind can help prevent cortisol levelsfrom rising and improve someone’s overall sense of well-being. Similar to yoga or meditation, a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that tai chi is an effective natural stress reliever that can have positive effects in patients dealing with insomnia, anxiety or depression. (16)

7. Preserves Muscle Strength, Flexibility and Balance

Harvard Medical School reports that a regular tai chi practice can help address several core benefits of exercise: boosting muscle strength, maintaining flexibility, increasing and sustaining balance, and sometimes even providing an aerobic workout that’s important for your heart. Studies conducted by Harvard researchers have shown that 12 weeks of tai chi practice can help patients, especially those who are older or might have limited abilities, build a “healthy body, strong heart and sharp mind.” (17)

Massage therapy/acupressure are also beneficial for improving muscle recovery and helping prevent injuries. Massage practices rooted in TCM date back thousands of years, and ancient medical texts show that practitioners living in pre-dynasty China used massage to alleviate common aches and pains and improve the flow of Qi energy. Deep tissue massaging helps bring blood flow to muscles and strained tissue, lowers the body’s stress response (stress makes recovering from injuries tougher), decreases muscle tension, and might even help enhance athletic performance. Some massages rooted in TCM also utilise other mind-body practices like visualisation, meditation and deep breathing to calm the nervous system.