As part of our Health & Wellness 2010 Series
“And while TCM can treat illness, say a common cold, it is more about going to the underlying issue, the weakened immune system that allowed you to get the cold.”
I experienced insomnia for over a year when I was living in the US. I tried common remedies (herbal relaxation teas) and more extreme solutions (a sleep therapist, sleeping pills, installing expensive black out curtains). And then I moved to Bangkok… insomnia prevailed. A friend suggested acupuncture, but I immediately rejected the idea as I often faint when it comes to needles. But after 6 more months of sleepless torture, I relented. Accupuncture was a last ditch effort – fear of needles seemed minor when compared to the size of the dark circles under my eyes and my perpetual crankiness. Something had to give…I had little hope it would actually work, but you know what, it did! Turns out the needles didn’t hurt at all, and after my first session I slept soundly for 7 whole hours – a miracle in those days. This was my initial exposure to one area of Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM. Today I know there is so much more to TCM than acupuncture and I continue to be amazed at its ability to complement and at times even surpass Western medicine.
What is TCM?
TCM is thousands of years old and its practice comprised of several areas including acupuncture, herbal supplements / dietary therapy, Tui Na and Shiatsu massage, bonesetting (similar to Western chiropractic), moxibustion, cupping, Quigong and Tai Chin body movement practices and more. At the risk of oversimplifying, TCM is at its core about the principle of balance, more specifically keeping the processes of the body in balance.
“TCM is about prevention and can correct imbalances before they turn into body disease” says Andre Tse, a TCM practitioner at Kamalaya Koh Samui. “And while TCM can treat illness, say a common cold, it is more about going to the underlying issue, the weakened immune system that allowed you to get the cold.” And for me, this is the amazing concept of TCM, it as a proactive way to take care of yourself – very different from the historical Western paradigm of treating symptoms and disease.
Yin & Yang
Balance in the body is, you guessed it, about managing yin and yang. Yin and yang are interconnected yet opposing forces in the body that must be balanced. Some (but not all) characteristics that define yin are female, nighttime, nourishing. Whereas some (but not all) characteristics that define yang are male, summer, heat. What does this all mean? Andre says, “Take the case of menopause. Blood is yin. So during menopause, when the yin is depleted, the yang rises up at and causes hot flashes.”
While this may sound a bit new-agey to some of you, consider that the current buzz word in Western medicine is also “balance” spinning out of the reality that the dominant focus in Western medicine today is treating a great many illnesses that are created by stress, bad diet and lack of self care.Andre Tse, a TCM practitioner at Kamalaya Koh Samui
What is a visit to a TCM doctor like?
In my first visit with a TCM practitioner he “read” my pulse. It was rather shocking…I had not filled out a medical questionnaire, but nonetheless he was able to tell me about every medical issue I have experienced in recent years. My insomnia was back, I had neck and shoulder issues, I was grinding my teeth in my sleep, headaches, unexplained rashes….the list went on. Andre tells me that “Depending on the level of skill, they could even tell you about childhood injuries.” The doctor I saw talked about energy flow and explained that my liver was blocked and so my chi was weak, thereby explaining my very faint pulse (like that of an old woman). I was skeptical, it was starting to sound a little like storytelling…until the doctor went on to explain the role of the liver. But I think Andre puts it best, “The liver is the general of the body, it controls the energy or ‘chi’.” And so with a great amount of explanatory detail (you can write me if you want to know all the details) I learned my liver, and to some degree my kidney, were responsible for my current state of affairs. I was too yang, too hot and so I needed to balance my energy. This would be done through a combination of things for me to do on my own (liver cleansing diet and an exercise program that would minimize yang, e.g. yoga or tai chi, regular massage) and things I would see the doctor for, like acupuncture and bonesetting treatments.
Does it Work?
I was still slightly dubious about TCM, until the program started to work. I now do yoga a minimum of 4x a week. In an effort to cleanse the liver, I switched from coffee to green tea, eliminated all sodas and most processed foods, added more leafy greens to my diet, etc. I am currently hunting a new TCM practitioner since the one I had previously was in Thailand, but I have seen an acupuncturist who is keeping my neck and shoulder issued in check (not all acupuncturists are TCM doctors). So far, so good.
Beyond my own specific issues, I have known people who have also had amazing experiences with TCM. A friend who was using infertility treatments and had experienced several failed IVF’s tried TCM – she has a 2 year old baby boy now. Another friend who got a flesh eating bacteria on some adventurous travels and needed a skin graft because the wound wouldn’t heal, saw a TCM practitioner in NYC’s Chinatown and after 6 months of failed conventional treatments the wound started to close with the application of an herbal poultice. And yet another friend used acupuncture for weight loss, and lost and has kept off 30lbs.
These are just people I personally know, but beyond that, centuries of evidence are compelling. Thus, more and more medical professionals and insurance companies are recognizing TCM has a vital role to play in wellness. A cutting edge US hospital is at the forefront of alternative medicine, Duke University Hospital, adding an integrative medicine facility. My insurance carrier, BUPA, covers both TCM and acupuncture. In China, TCM visit will cost you about $7-8 USD, making it widely accessible. Whereas in Singapore a visit will cost you about S$90 ($65 USD) and in some areas of the US, it can be $80 – 100 USD.
How Do I Find a TCM practitioner?
In most countries TCM practitioners and acupuncturists must be licensed to treat patients. In Singapore, the licensing board is the Ministry of Health. MOH conveniently has a search engine where you can search for a licensed practitioner in your neighbourhood.
A full TCM practitioner must study for 7 years in order to practice. And they often specialize in a handful of TCM disciplines (2-3) but not all, e.g. herbalist, acupuncturist and bonesetter. So make sure the practitioner has the disciplines you are interested in, ask him / her how long and where they studied. Make sure they have at least 4 years or 3500 hours of study, anything less than that and they may not understand the underlying theory necessary to treat most effectively. Also if you have a special need, look for additional certifications, e.g. fertility certification. Also, be mindful an acupuncturist is not necessarily a TCM practitioner. There are shorter less intensive programs one can study to become certified only in acupuncture.
But must importantly, make sure there is a good fit between you and the practitioner. Andre advises, “This is an energy practice after all, so make sure you feel comfortable, because a good rapport can aid your progress.”
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