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What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) originated in China over thousands of years. As a TCM practitioner, I use herbal medicine to treat and prevent health issues or as a complimentary health approach.

When I first started working with Traditional Chinese Medicine, I was amazed at all the various types and categories. It truly is learning a different language. One of the most important and famous books on Chinese Medicine in TCM history is Shang Han Lun, (the Treatise of Febrile Disease Caused by Cold). It was written in 196 AD, in the Han Dynasty. The importance of this book is that it categorizes diseases caused by Cold into six stages from the most superficial i.e.: common cold to internal deficiency at the deepest level. Another book of importance in TCM is Wen Bing Lun, the Treatise on Febrile Disease written in 1667-1746 AD, which discusses four levels of external pathogens. Febrile diseases could be as simple as a common cold or flu eventually affecting the internal such as fever, a hemorrhage, to severe as meningitis for instance.

Just to give a quick overview, there are different parts and actions of each of the individual herbs such as flowers that are ascending and act as a guide to the head and upper body. Leaves, peels and barks influence the skin and respiratory by working close to the body’s surface. For example, a peel or in TCM, Xi Gua Pi (watermelon peel/rind) is a mild diuretic to reduce edema. Stems or vines act on or guide to the channels, whereas roots go to deeper levels. Shells/minerals are anchoring for qi. Animal based herbs are warm and salty and tend to be stronger than their plant counterparts.

My office, TLC Acupuncture & Natural Medicine located at the Backcountry Herbal Apothecary, inventories several of the western herbs as well that can be used as teas. Many of these western herbs translate into Chinese herbs. An example of this is Licorice Root. In TCM, it is called Gan Cao and has a pharmaceutical name of Glycyrhizae Radix. In general, Gan Cao is tonifying and harmonizes with other herbs in formulas, but if used improperly it can lead to edema or bloating and it also has incompatible and antagonizing herbs that it cannot be combined with.

When we discus common aliments such as insomnia, anxiety, menopause, back pain, the common cold or flu, there are various patterns. Looking at insomnia, basically there are four types:

  1. For many people, eating a big meal with rich, heavy and spicy foods too soon before bed can undermine the quality of sleep or cause insomnia due to indigestion. Not surprisingly, when the digestive system is very active, the body will be restless and it will be hard to fall asleep.
  2. Insomnia due to blood deficiency is an inability to properly digest food and produce enough healthy blood. With insomnia due to blood deficiency, it may be hard to fall or stay asleep, and the cause is typically due to worry or overthinking.
  3. Insomnia due to yin deficiency is the classic case of burnout. If yin “runs out”, the body overheats, leading to symptoms like afternoon fever, night sweats, and insomnia. The kidneys are the body’s natural reserves of cooling fluids and are depleted after long hours of work and standing for long periods. This is a recipe for bad sleep, manifesting primarily as difficulty staying asleep and night sweats.
  4. The final pattern of insomnia is due to too much stress. When there is constant exposure to stress it can agitate the nervous system leading to heat in the liver and heart. Irritability is often a sign of heat in the liver, or an agitated nervous system. In Chinese medicine, the Liver is the primary organ that works on the smooth flow of qi throughout the body, so this type of insomnia is identified as a type of liver qi stagnation.

Chinese medicine can have serious side effects, interact with drugs, or be unsafe for people with certain medical conditions. Therefore again, it is important to see a licensed practitioner to get the correct formula and to get to the root of your cause.

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