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Herbs, needles and cups

A glimpse into the world of traditional Chinese medicine.

By Anson Yu


Apart from pancit, porcelain and Richard Yap, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is here to stay in the Philippines, thanks to Chinese trade and commerce. As early as the 1800s, French traveler Jean Mallat wrote in his travel journal that TCM was not only popular among the Chinese then, but even among the Spaniards and Filipinos as well. In fact, there were hospitals in Manila that specialized in TCM back then—one of which has since gone on to become the Chinese General Hospital.

Physics of a micro universe

But what accounts for the enduring popularity of traditional Chinese medicine? TCM is a system of health care developed by the Chinese over its five thousand years of history. In a journal published by the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Science, the theoretical basis behind TCM is that … “human beings are conceived as a micro universe containing the same components as the universe and guided by the same laws.”

So what are these components that make up the universe and our bodies? According to the journal, there are two kinds of energy that make up the universe and our bodies: negative energy or yin, and positive energy or yang. For our bodies to work correctly, the proper balance of both energies is required, otherwise an imbalance will result in illnesses.

For TCM to work properly, it starts with the proper diagnosis. Most TCM practitioners conduct patient consultations by first observing the patient’s physical condition. But since TCM’s understanding of how the body works is different from western medicine, the interpretation is different as well. For example, TCM practitioners believe that the condition of the eye indicates the state of the liver: Any swelling underneath the eye indicates either a lack of sleep or a deficiency in the liver.

Diagnosing diseases, TCM-style

After observing the patient’s physical condition, the TCM doctor may ask the patient to describe the nature of their illness. For example, if the patient complains of headache, he would be asked to describe what kind of pain he is experiencing. If the patient described the pain as a “heavy sensation,” maybe the body has too much phlegm. If it’s a throbbing pain, perhaps the liver has a high level of yang. If the pain is centered in one area with a boring sensation, this is then associated with blood stagnation or the slow movement of the blood. As in western medicine, the TCM doctor would also ask about the patient‘s medical history, emotional state, diet, lifestyle and other factors that could affect the body to get a bigger picture of the patient’s state of health.

Once he’s done asking questions, the TCM doctor then proceeds to verify his findings with either a tongue diagnosis, a pulse diagnosis, or both. As the tongue is related to the internal organs, it can indicate the condition of the organ depending on its state and color. For example, if the tongue is shiny and the color is brighter than usual, then something might be wrong with either the heart or lung, depending on the area of swelling.

In pulse diagnosis, the practitioner will try to get a sense of how the blood is circulating within the body. Based on the frequency, rhythm and strength of the pulse, a TCM practitioner will try and determine a pattern and what sort of ailment it could indicate. For example, if the pulse is too slow, there may be an obstruction with the flow of blood due to too much heat within the body. If the pulse is felt to be intermittent, then it may be an indication of the advanced stage of heart disease. A rapid pulse may indicate a chronic disease.

Once the diagnosis is done, the practitioner proceeds with treatment—most likely a prescription of specific medicinal herbs to be placed in a pot and boiled into a tonic. TCM practitioners have learned to isolate the active ingredients in herbs and are now prescribing them as pills. Case in point: sweet wormwood or qinghao. First recognized some 1600 years ago when a Chinese physician noted its effectiveness against malaria-like fever, it regained attention in the 1960s when Chinese scientists were searching for an anti-malarial drug. Over 2,000 herbs were screened, but qinghao stood out. Chinese scientists have isolated its active chemical, artemisinin, in pure crystalline form, which has proven useful in the treatment against malaria.

Needle precision

Licensed acupuncture specialist Noel Zosa, L.Ac., of AcuPhil describes the process as inserting hair-thin needles into specific points of the human body to stimulate the central and peripheral nervous system. These would then stimulate the flow of energy and blood to the symptomatic area. Dr. Zosa claims that acupuncture can be used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions. But if the first session of acupuncture proves to be ineffective, a prescription of herbal remedies would be given instead.

In cases, moxibustion may be required, wherein a small stick or cone of mugwort is placed on top of a specific area in the body and burned. This will produce a deep penetrating heat, but will not cause scarring or blistering unless left on the skin too long. Similar traditional treatments include cupping, also known as ventosa, aided by diet, exercise and massage.

How can one reconcile traditional and modern medicine? Our contributor Anson Yu, who is a product of both sides, gives more information and advice in the November issue of HealthToday.

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