We owe much to advances in modern medicine. But Western medicine and obscure figures on pharmaceutical boardrooms may be missing part of the bigger picture.
Powerful prescriptions and hands-on surgeries may be necessary, but in the long run they can also lead to recurring symptoms, side effects, and general imbalances in the body.
That said, it’s no surprise that public curiosity about holistic medicine is on the rise. New York-based acupuncture and herbal medicine practitioner Emily Siy says there are actually fundamental differences in outlook between Chinese medicine and Western medicine. She says:
“Traditional Chinese medicine does not prescribe the same treatment for a condition. Instead, it is important to discuss an individual’s unique presentation, condition, and tendencies.
“Treatment should always be tailored to the individual – that’s why TCM is successful, but sometimes difficult to understand for those who come from a Western background.”
“Hard to understand” is a recurring theme. Sentiments toward traditional Chinese medicine in the United States tend to be negative — the practice is often confused with pseudoscience and the abuse of exotic animals, or seen as a primitive, outmoded precursor to modern medicine.
When the World Health Organization approved TCM, Forbes told us that we should “expect deaths to increase”. When scientists speculated that Covid-19 could have been transmitted to humans by pangolins, the internet was quick to point the finger at the underground TCM trade, where the animal was hunted for the alleged medicinal properties of its scales.
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The wildlife trade, especially the trade in endangered animals, is a very serious concern. But for most Chinese medicine users around the world, endangered animals play no role in the treatment. This subsection is incredibly small compared to the proportion of TCM users who focus on standard wellness practices such as massage, acupuncture, and herbal medicine.
“There are misunderstandings around TCM and herbal medicine. The United States has a long history of xenophobia and anti-Chinese sentiments, and this affects how TCM is perceived in the West,” says Siy.
“The United States tends to place Western culture above others, labeling other systems of traditional medicine as ‘alternative’ or invalid forms of medicine. There are evidence-based research studies on different forms of Chinese medicine, but the authors often claim it to be pseudoscience.
However, the principles of holistic and herbal medicine have been backed up by modern scientific testing and more connections are being discovered every day.
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But before we dive in, let’s not get too excited – in most cases you still need a professional.
“It’s not typical to use herbs alone in Chinese medicine. There’s an art and a science to combining herbs,” Siy says. “That’s the difference between using herbs and prescribing of medicinal plants. In Chinese medicine, herbs are combined in order to enhance their functions, create new functions, or modify an herb that may be too strong or potentially toxic. Single herbs are much more limited in their use.
However, for beginners who want to explore the world of Chinese herbal medicine, here is our guide to some science-backed basic simple herbs you can start using at home.
“Chrysanthemum flowers are a popular dim sum tea,” says Siy. “It’s a good summer drink and helps to cool you down.”
What does it mean to chill you? In Chinese medicine, herbs are classified according to their energetic properties rather than their chemical constituents. Chrysanthemum is known for its cooling effect and is therefore used to combat conditions associated with excess heat.
“It can help with the first signs of a sore throat or fever. It can also help with red, itchy eyes and certain skin irritations.
2. Black sesame seeds
Despite TCM knowledge, any Chinese food lover worth their salt will know this one.
Sesame seeds are believed to be one of the first spices in the world to be used. Black sesame is a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine, but the seeds themselves can also be eaten on their own for medicinal purposes.
“Black sesame seeds are rich in vitamins and nutrients,” says Siy. “In Chinese medicine, they are known to promote healthy hair growth and delay graying. Others use black sesame seeds for constipation, dizziness, numbness, or to increase breast milk supply.
The seeds are usually harvested in early fall just after ripening and dried in the sun before being eaten. Their oil content helps lubricate the intestines, adding to a food that is already naturally high in fiber.
3. Goji Berries
Goji berries, also called Chinese goji, have exploded in popularity over the past two decades as a trendy superfood.
But are goji berries really that good for you? The answer seems to be a resounding “yes”.
“Goji berries help retain moisture in the body,” says Siy. “They can be used to promote healthy skin tone or to help with certain eye conditions, especially dryness.”
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Chinese medicine’s use of goji berries for skin, eye, and liver health has been supported by the scientific community. One study found that elderly people who drank goji berry juice for 90 days developed markedly increased amounts of certain antioxidants, while a second study found that goji berries protected the retina from glaucoma-causing ganglion cells .
Research in animal models shows that goji berries can promote liver health and halt the progression of alcohol-induced disease, and when mice were given 5% goji juice, it gave them enough antioxidants to protect against UV damage and skin disorders.
How much more super can you get?
“Ginger has many anti-inflammatory properties,” says Siy. “It can help relieve digestive upset, nausea and is safe to use for morning sickness. Taken early, ginger can be used to help fight colds and flu.
In Chinese medicine, ginger is known for its warming properties – think of your mother pouring a cup of hot ginger lemon tea when you feel sick.
Warming ingredients promote the flow of Qi – energy in the body considered important in traditional Chinese medicine – and fluids in the body, which is why you can sweat while eating spicy foods. In Chinese medicine, heat is believed to enhance wei-qithe TCM version of the immune system.
If chrysanthemum tea is your summer to cool off, make ginger hotter for your winter.
“It’s a great herb for relieving fatigue that can occur after a long illness,” says Siy. “Astragalus may be useful for people with weak lung conditions and may help boost energy and immunity. However, it is not appropriate to use it while you are actively ill.
This might be the only herb on our list that you haven’t heard of before. So what is astragalus?
Astragalus, also called huangqi (黄芪) or Mongolian milkvetch, is one of the fifty fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine. And although there are more than 2,000 species of astragalus, only two – Astragalus membranaceus and Astragalus mongholicus — are mainly used as medicines.
Chinese medicine users take Astragalus to invigorate qi, promote yang energy (of yin and yang glory) and strengthen the body’s wei qi defenses.
Does traditional Chinese medicine have a place in a whole new epidemic?
Outside of Asia, many still see Chinese medicine through the veil of exotic mystery.
However, in daily practice there is often nothing exotic about it – our bodies want to be in balance, and traditional Chinese medicine seeks to restore this balance in nuanced ways.
“Cultural differences cause many people to misunderstand the drug,” says Siy. “In the United States, people often wait until symptoms get worse before seeking help. Not everyone has access to health care, and hospital bills still play a part. Chinese medicine is about maintaining health and preventing disease – it can be hard to fathom that one should have been using herbal medicine all the time.
But by listening to our bodies and taking care of ourselves in small ways, we might find that those doctor visits become less and less frequent.
All illustrations: Helen Haoyi Yu