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Traditional Chinese Medicine 101

If like us, you’ve walked past a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Clinic, saw containers of various dried herbs and highly detailed posters of the human back, you’ve probably wondered what it was all about.

In the name of the coming Chinese New Year and our interest in all things beauty and health, we delved into what the practice entails. Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM is one of the oldest systems of medicine - more than 3,500 years older than traditional Western medicine. TCM treats a number of issues and approaches treating ailments from a holistic perspective, looking at the body as a whole and aims to find disharmony between the organs. A variety of symptoms are treatable with Chinese remedies such as pain, IBS, colitis, infertility, neuropathy, arthritis, insomnia, stress and depression.

A belief central to TCM is that a vital energy, “Qi,” flows through the body and performs a variety of functions to maintain health. TCM practitioners believe that health problems results from blockage or an imbalance of Qi in certain areas, and that their role is to correct and rebalance this flow. Qi flows through the body via channels, or pathways, which are called meridians.

There are six modern therapeutic methods used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which include acupuncture, cupping, Chinese herbs, moxibustion, Tui Na massage, and TCM nutrition. Let’s take a look at the first three.

Acupuncture

The insertion of tiny, hair-thin needles into specific points on the body, acupuncture, stimulates your body's Qi, which then sends signals to the nervous and immune systems telling them how to inhibit pain and resolve disease processes. Acupuncturists feel that when stimulated, the point sends a signal to the brain to tell the immune system what to do to heal the body. Acupuncture has been proven effective for a number of things, including infertility in particular. The Western biomedical explanation of why acupuncture works focuses on the role of endorphins in the pain pathways of the central nervous system.

Cupping

“Where there’s stagnation, there will be pain. Remove the stagnation, and you remove the pain.” The old Chinese medical saying asserts that pain results from the congestion, stagnation, and blockage of Qi, or vital energy, vital fluids, lymph, phlegm, and blood. Cupping is the term applied to a technique that uses small glass cups or bamboo jars as suction devices that are placed on the skin to disperse and break up stagnation and congestion by drawing congested blood and energy onto the surface. Chinese cupping is, therefore, a method of breaking up the blockage, working to restore the body’s natural flow of energy. Like acupuncture, cupping follows the lines of the meridians. The procedure removes toxins and improves blood flow through the veins and arteries, and as such its detoxifying effect on skin and circulatory system is also reportedly significant, with a visible improvement in the complexion after several treatments. There are a number of both celebrity and sports cupping enthusiasts including Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham, tennis champ Andy Murray, and swimmer Michael Phelps. Cupping does not require licensure, but it’s strongly recommended that a licensed or certified practitioner perform the procedure.

Chinese Herbs

There are apparently over 6,000 Chinese herbs – which include some well-known ingredients such as liquorice, ginseng, and Chinese yam. The herbs in the elixirs made from Chinese herbs are rich in antioxidants, immune boosters, adaptogens and anti-inflammatories. TCM herbs are divided into four main types according to their properties: cool, cold, hot and warm. For instance, balancing herbs with warm or hot properties can be used to treat illnesses that are classified as cool or cold in nature, and so on. Chinese herbs are also classified into five types of tastes based on their different features and effects: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty. The herbs are also attributed to different meridians to treat different problems and illnesses efficiently. 

Here are a few beauty-focused examples from ShapeSingapore:

For fewer blemishes:

Consume bai he (bulbus lilii/lily bulb). TCM 101: Breakouts could result from an imbalance in female organs. How to prepare the herb: Cook 15-30g of the herb with 20-30g of green beans and some rock sugar. Have it 2-3 times a week.

For a rosy glow:

Consume zhang hong hua (safflower - flos carthami). TCM 101: This herb improves blood circulation and gives women a youthful pinkish glow. Drinking the tea also helps regulate cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure levels. How to prepare: Steep 3-6g of the herb in hot water. Have it once daily.

For lusher hair:

Consume nu zhen zi (fructus ligustri lucidi/glossy privet fruit). Traditional Chinese Medicine 101: This fruit helps keep hair dark and lustrous and may also ward cervical and breast cancers. How to prepare the fruit: Boil 10-15g of the fruit with 15g goji berries (wolfberries).

Like naturopathy, it may be best to think of TCM as complementary to Western medicine. US-based Simone Wan, L.Ac, M.S. and founder of new Traditional Chinese Medicine brand IN:TotalWellness, sums it up well for Forbes.com “My experience leads me to believe Western medicine is wonderful for emergency situations and TCM may be better for chronic conditions.” (Or, to get that sought-after rosy glow.)