Over the past several decades, Eastern alternative (also called complementary or integrated) medicine practices have continued to be adopted by conventional medical establishments in the U.S. and other Western nations. The Department of Complementary-Alternative Medicine at Medical University of South Carolina reports that according to a study of 3,200 physicians conducted by Health Products Research, more than 50 percent of physicians in the U.S. planned to begin or increase use of alternative medicines, including those rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), within the following year. (1)
More and more medical schools are now recognizing the importance of training students and staff in “mind-body” practices that emphasize disease prevention and holistic treatments. Although some physicians and patients tend to be skeptical about the effectiveness of many TCM practices, research continues to show that complementary modalities can make a big difference in many patients’ quality of life.
Several of the advantages that Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Eastern practices have to offer include a high level of patient compliance (often due to patients noticing improvements in their symptoms quickly), reduced stress levels, natural pain management, improved sleep, stronger immunity and decreased need for medications.
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:
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:
Different Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies include:
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.
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. It is believed that, 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 equalizing relationship.
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.” (2) 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 utilized by trained herbalists depending on a patient’s specific symptoms.
Who can benefit most from Chinese herbal medicines? (2)
Here’s what you can expect during a Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal session: Following an exam with the herbalist, customized herbs (almost always more than one) are recommended. 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 an 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.
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.” (3) This translates to lowered levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, thereby protecting cells, tissues and organs from long-term disease development. Inflammation is at 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 remedies that have been found to help lower oxidative stress include: (4)