WHAT IS CHINESE MEDICINE?

When we think of medicine we think of our medicine, western, modern, or allopathic medicine.   Images that may come to mind may be a doctor in a white coat taking our pulse, checking our blood pressure, or writing us a script.  Maybe we think of the taste of some liquid our mom made us drink as a kid, or of a loved one ill in a hospital.  More recently we may think of Obamacare.  

Long before modern medicine, there were several other medical systems dating back thousands of years.  I’m not just talking about some pre-historic person using a plant to heal a wound or settle a stomach.  I’m talking about complete systems of medicine that recognize and define medical conditions as we do today, have complete diagnostic and prognostic guidelines as we do today, and utilize complex preparations of medicinals to treat these conditions, as we do today.  One such medical system is what we now call Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine originated thousands of years ago in China.  It developed through observation of the environment, profound insight, communication with neighboring groups of peoples and their practices, and trial and error.  Today in this part of the world when you say Chinese Medicine it may conjure images of needles and weird animal parts.  These things are a small part of the medicine.  As a complete system of medicine it includes:  Medicinals, both internal and external; acupuncture; cupping; moxibustion, both direct and indirect; bleeding; scraping; dietary advice and lifestyle guidance.  

In China, Chinese Medicine means what we would call herbal medicine.  Acupuncture is considered a separate discipline.  In Chinese Medicine, substances of animal or mineral origin are part of the Chinese pharmacopeia.  Because of this, it is more accurate to call healing substances medicinals instead of herbs.  Unlike western herbal medicine, Chinese Medicine evolved so completely that there is a complete diagnostic system in place for recognizing and categorizing signs and symptoms, and formulations have been created for everything you can think of.  Some Chinese formulations may be only one or two substances, but most are complex combinations of medicinals that act synergistically to create a complete harmonious healing effect in the body. 

The system of Chinese Medicine is so refined that the Chinese even figured out which herbs should not be paired together or which foods to avoid while taking specific medicinals or formulas.  Today Chinese Medicine is being used in combination with modern medicine.  Chinese Medicine practitioners today are well versed in understanding basic modern medicine, how the body and mind work, how diseases work, lab work, and what lab work results correspond to in Chinese Medicine terminology.  We can take blood pressure, take the pulse (for which there is a complete diagnostic framework), and put together all the pieces of what we perceive and what the patient tells us to know which medicinals to recommend the patient take.  Chinese Medicine practitioners are well trained in potential drug-herb interactions and are careful about how and what they prescribe.  

In China, Chinese Medicine was standardized in the 1950’s.  Since then, it has been increasingly combined with modern medicine in Chinese hospitals.  When you enter some hospitals or clinics, you have a choice of whether to choose modern medicine or Chinese Medicine for treatment.  Chinese medicinals are delivered to hospitals by the truckload.  There are formulary preparation rooms where medicinal formulas are decocted on site and sealed in individual packets for taking home and rewarming through out the course of treatment.  

One teacher I had at Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine who specialized in oncology, Tai Lahans, recalled how marvelous it was to see the truckloads of herbs being delivered to the hospital in the morning.  Another teacher, I believe it was Dr. Su, a dermatology expert, told me about how stroke is treated in Chinese hospitals.  Chinese medicinals are prepared for people with a specific type of stroke.  The decoction is then administered intravenously.  Patients who received this type of treatment almost always recovered without serious paralysis.  He said the incidence of serious post stroke paralysis is much lower in China when Chinese Medicine is utilized in treatment.

To simplify, Chinese medicinals are used like we use pepto bismol, preparation H, vagisil, maalox, anti-anxieties, anti-depressants, sudafed, aspirin, ibuprofen, mucinex, x-lax, antibacterials, anti-vials, anti-inflammatories, tums, ice packs, bengay, airborne, and others.  There are internal or external formulas for things such as colds, coughs, flu, reflux, sleep, menstrual cycle regulation, anxiety, depression, cysts, tumors, blunt trauma, broken bones, tendonitis, phlegm, libido, allergies, asthma, pain, energy, food sensitivities, malabsorption, eye health, acne, you name it.  Sometimes they work more quickly, sometimes more slowly.  Chinese Medicine practitioners aren’t allowed to say Chinese medicinals treat specific conditions, so I’m not saying that.  What I’m saying is that if you have the symptoms of any of the above, Chinese Medicine may help alleviate those symptoms.  

Chinese medicinals come in patent formula pills, tinctures, capsules, or tablets.  Because the actual taste of the formula has something to do with the body’s healing response it is ideal to make a decoction or tea.  There are different ways “raw” formulas can be prepared.  Honey pills can be made out of powdered medicinals.  Powdered medicinals can be cooked in water and brewed as a tea.  The other is to cook the whole medicinals in batches that last from one to three days and drink the decoction as directed.  

Whether a pill, tea, or decoction is recommended will depend upon the situation.  Whether or not one is traveling or has a crazy schedule, and the nature of one’s condition are all taken into consideration when dispensing medicinals.  Formulas are created based upon one’s constitution and complex set of signs and symptoms.  This is what makes Chinese Medicine so wonderful.  The person is not an illness.  Each person is a one of a kind expression of nature made up of the five elements in unique combination.  Body, Mind, and Spirit are all part of the same whole and Chinese Medicine recognizes this fact.  In an atmosphere where pharmaceuticals carry massive lists of potential side effects and people are increasingly turning to natural alternatives where possible, it makes sense to give Chinese Medicine a try.