What is traditional Chinese medicine?
An interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine or “TCM” derives from the fact that it is fundamentally a different way of looking at the disease and the body in comparison to Western medicine.
It all began with ancient Chinese sages and doctors. Evolved over thousands of years, traditional Chinese medicine includes various modalities for both the mind and the body.
These include practices like acupuncture, tai chi, and herbs ingested or applied over the body. A system developed to help the body and mind create a healthy balance where energy flows through freely.
Acupuncture is a technique in which fine needles are inserted through the skin to stimulate precise points on the body. Tai chi on the other hand is about the posture of the body. It is a combination of mental focus with breathing exercises and body movement.
The whole idea is to generate internal energy and cultivate it to flow throughout the body. And then we have the Chinese herbal medicine (TCM). 1 in 5 Americans uses Chinese herbal medicine.
History of Chinese medicine and timeline.
A brief look at what traditional Chinese medicine is cannot begin without going back to the mythological beginnings before written records through the countless dynasties and ending up in the 21st century China. With 2000 years of recorded continuity in practice, traditional Chinese medicine has a long and complex history.
History of traditional Chinese medicine is divided into 5 periods:
Han dynasty – 206 BCE – 220 C.E.
Tang dynasty and Song dynasty – 618-907 C.E. and 906-1279 C.E.
Jin- Yuan Period – 1115-1368 C.E.
Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty 1368-1644 C.E. and 1644 – 1911 C.E.
Republic of China and People’s Republic of China 1912 – 1949 C.E. and 1949- present
During the Han dynasty period, the world was introduced to a lot of developments. During this period one of the most significant medicinal books was released. Shennong Bencaojing is considered a classic of Herbal Medicine. Considered the earliest complete ‘Chinese pharmacopoeia’, the book records over 360 Chinese medicines from which over 200 were of plant origin.
Some were from animals and others from minerals. Known as the Golden Ages in Chinese history; during this period, you can find the growth of acupuncture practices.
It was a widely accepted and supported practice by the dynasty. Also during this period, a project to publish an official completed book called the “Materia Medica” was ordered. It contained over 800 different medicinal substances from minerals, plants, herbs, animals, fruits, etc.
TCM was valued during this period and learning of it was encouraged through the Imperial medical office establishment.
Jin-Yuan period shows a slight shift from previous dynasties during which several schools for different ailments and diseases were established. One of the physicians responsible for the establishment of these schools was Liu Wansu.
The centre of his theory was based on 5 movements and 6 influences. He used heat therapy alongside herbs which had cold properties to target and treat certain illnesses.
Of the major issues during the Ming period was the plague. It was widely believed that herbs could cure the plague.
Li Zhong-Zi was a prominent Chinese doctor in the Ming dynasty. He was one of the first non-sectarian doctor of China who claimed if to treat a patient, we should work together with all schools.
Although a herbalist, he used ice to reduce fever and also came up with a technique to prevent infection.
Today, worth over $60 billion, TCM is popular not only in China but around the world. WHO- World Health Organisation, has increased its support for Traditional Chinese medicine.
Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Said to provide a holistic approach to relieve pain, encourage physical and mental wellbeing, treat diseases and illnesses, traditional Chinese medicine has been around for over 5000 years.
Chinese herbalists claim there are 4 main benefits of traditional Chinese medicine:
Minimum side effects to Chinese Medicine
In general, herbal medicine has very little side effects. These medicines driver their efficacy from raw and organic substances and do not contain anything synthetic. That is one of the reasons why the body can process them better with minimum side effects.
Seen as a root cause for so many diseases and illness, many traditional Chinese medicines have known properties for reducing inflammation. Herbs like turmeric, fennel, ginger, etc. have known properties to reduce inflammation. These are widely used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Improving cognitive health
Alongside reducing inflammation, traditional Chinese medicine has properties which can reduce stress. Effectively regulating hormones which protect the brain, traditional Chinese medicine has served to strengthen the immune system.
Muscle strength and movement flexibility
Tai chi has proven to provide a significant workout. Practising it for just 3 months has shown amazing results such as improvement in balance, maintaining and enhancing flexibility, improving agility, and increasing the overall strength in muscles.
Pain management and relief
Acupuncture has been used for centuries to relieve pain in the joints and muscles. It has also been used on patients with frequent migraines and headaches. People have seen benefits in their digestion conditions from just a few sessions of acupuncture.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Herb List
Following are some of the herbs commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine:
The root of Astragalus or Astragalus membranaceous, a plant that is native to Asia, is one of the most important herbs used in TCM.
The traditional Chinese name for this herb is Hunag Qi or “yellow leader” because of the yellow colour of its root and the significance it holds in traditional Chinese medicine.
Astragalus is used to remedy several different medical conditions. It boosts the immune system, especially of patients by increasing the number of white blood cells. This root is also used as a diuretic for patients suffering from heart condition or hypertension.
It does so by lowering the blood pressure and relaxing the blood vessels. Another common use of the yellow leader is to boost stamina and remove fatigue especially in patients suffering from chronic and/or terminal illness.
One of the many types of ginseng roots, Panax ginseng is one of the most commonly used Chinese herbal medicines. TCM suggests that this particular ginseng is of a warm nature and functions through improving circulation of blood.
It is tested and proven to improve fasting blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. Another common function of Panax ginseng is to improve short term memory, especially cognition. This herb is also used to treat erectile dysfunction in men, but for that, it must be taken regularly as opposed to prescription medication that is taken on a need basis only.
Also known as Centella Asiatica, Gotu kola is a leafy plant used commonly in both traditional Indian (Ayurvedic) and Chinese medicines. This perennial plant is native to the wet tropical jungles of South East Asia and is commonly consumed as tea, juice or eaten whole in a salad.
Gotu kola has many health benefits. It is known for improving memory and mood. It has also shown to have reduced anxiety in patients by influencing how their gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitters are absorbed without causing any sedation.
For centuries it has been used for its anti-inflammatory properties in ointments. It doesn’t just reduce the localized pain but also helps heal the wound faster.
Scientific evidence for Chinese herbal medicine
The way how any medicine is scientifically tested is through double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. In these trials patients with a similar medical condition or disease are split into two groups.
One of these groups is given the real medicine while the other group is given a placebo without disclosing any information to the participants.
This method of testing is not very effective for Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine primarily because it doesn’t treat all patients suffering from a particular ailment the same way.
For Chinese herbal medicine practitioners, each patient is a separate case and should be treated according to their profile. To further simplify, Chinese herbal medicine aims to “treat the patient instead of the disease”.
That said, certain treatments within Chinese herbal medicine have shown results in double-blind, placebo-controlled trials.
Chronic Hepatitis is one of the more rampant diseases in Asia and Chinese herbal medicine is widely used for treating it. Shosaiko-to (Minor Bupleurum) is a herbal combination used to treat hepatitis and is approved by the ministry of health of Japan.
In a 24-week trial, this herbal concoction has been tested on 222 patients with chronic hepatitis using a test based on the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. The result showed a significant improvement in patients given Shosaiko-to as opposed to those given placebo.
Herbs and treatments that standout
Some of the herbs used in Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine and Kampo (the study of Chinese herbal medicine in Japan) and their corresponding benefits:
Clematis mandshurica, Trichosanthes kirilowii, and Prunella vulgaris are three herbs used in combination to treat patients with osteoarthritis. There are significant testing and research available to back this.
A combination of Peony root and Licorice root is used to treat muscle spasms. It has been tested on patients suffering from acute muscle spasms due to liver cirrhosis and reduced the frequency of these spasms significantly.
Zingiber officinale or more commonly known as Ginger is one of the most commonly used herbs in TCM. It is used to treat everyday form of nausea, motion sickness and morning sickness in pregnant women.