A Practical Guide to Chinese Medicine: Part 1: Why Chinese Medicine?

A Practical Guide to Chinese Medicine: Part 1:  Why Chinese Medicine?

This guide tells you the basics on Traditional Chinese Medicine: the theory, the structure, the principles, and the practice in a simple, easy to understand and patient-friendly way. This is part one of a series by expert George Cooper MA (Oxon), BSc Hons, PGDip Herb, MATCM. 

I first walked into a Chinese medicine clinic 23 years ago in Australia. I was ill, short of funds and stressed, which worsened the illness. The doctor impressed me; he taught me how to eat, gave me acupuncture and herbal medicines and even offered to help me start a window cleaning business to alleviate my money woes. Now that’s what I call holistic care!

I was so impressed that, despite being an Oxford sciences graduate with the ambition to be a tanned and irresistible marine biologist, I had to find out more. Now, after two decades of practice, Chinese medicine is the only career that I’ve known.

Chinese medicine is remarkable. In China all doctors have to learn some traditional medicine, then they have the choice to specialise. About a quarter of them make this choice, ministering to a quarter of the world’s population. So, if we factor in the rest of South East Asia, and the West, Chinese medicine makes up a significant proportion of all the medicine in the World.

This is not surprising given that its foundations run so deep – it stems from the World’s greatest continuous written culture. The earliest Chinese medical texts are thousands of years old, these have been rigorously and relentlessly tested and debated, and the medicine has evolved and matured all the while accruing a massive literature with libraries of hundreds of thousands of case studies, classic treatises and journal articles. The Chinese have also been wise with their medicine; they cherished it throughout the 20thcentury, and, rather than submitting it to the epic destruction of the Cultural Revolution, the Communists actually drew together the diverse threads of the medical traditions to form one coherent system which is now called Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM. They then broadened the scope of TCM by training many thousands of “Barefoot Doctors”.

Today the system of TCM presents as another strength of Chinese medicine – I was able to study TCM in London and Australia and then to fully understand the workings of a clinic in a Chinese hospital. TCM enables the theories and practice of Chinese medicine to be truly global.

The structure of TCM

TCM is highly structured – it has a core theory which underpins diagnosis which then underpins treatment. The same diagnosis can be used to draw up treatment plans using any of five different modalities: acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy, exercise therapy and massage.

The core theory is based on several universal concepts including yin yang, common causes of disease, organ function and meridian theory. All of which are supported by the idea of “Vital Substances”, the most famous of which is Qi, as well as Blood and constitutional strength.

Overall TCM theory has simplicity at its core, which is a strength rather than a weakness; it enables it to be a generally applicable medicine. For example TCM is very practical about its understanding of the causes of disease, such as the impact of climate, emotions and diet and then of new modern causes such as pharmaceutical medicines, environmental poisons and radiation. It is also adaptable to different cultures as the diagnosis assesses inherently human traits such as types of lifestyle, and the impact on health of different aspects of emotion – anger, sadness, grief and worry. So the needs of a Middle Eastern shepherd through to a stressed New York stockbroker can be easily interpreted through TCM.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and cancer

In health no-one has a greater need for personal holistic care than someone coping with cancer. Or someone looking to prevent cancer. And this is where Chinese medicine with its elegant diagnosis and many treatment options comes into its own. At any one time a plan can be enabled to reconcile a number of needs – to manage the emotions and symptoms of cancer diagnosis, treatment or palliative care, to build or modulate immunity or to use empirical anti-cancer herbs such as Astragalus or Ganoderma as part of a multidimensional tumour treatment. Within the Chinese medicine approaches of acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy and exercise therapy there are many opportunities to help. 

Go to: A guide to Astragalus with cancer

This series of articles will cover the key strengths of the different approaches within Chinese medicine in depth. The main benefits of Chinese medicine treatment include:

Acupuncture – pain control, enhancing immunity, improving lung function, treating xerostoma, treating nausea and vomiting, post surgical recovery and psychological and emotional support

Herbal medicine – the typical Chinese herbal dispensary has 300-400 herbs selected from a material medica of around 5000, so their functions are truly diverse. Major benefits include immune strengthening and modulation, digestive strengthening and regulation of nausea, managing side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery and protecting and enhancing kidney, liver and lung function.

Dietary therapy – since digestion underpins all health, dietary therapy can bring broad benefits, enhancing cancer related immunity, strengthening organ function and helping to clear infections.

Exercise therapy – think Qi Gong, Tai Chi and breathing exercises; such a regime is essential to deep healing.

Is Chinese Medicine evidence based?

Lots of studies have investigated aspects of Chinese medicine, and the body of evidence is growing. Each of the articles to come in this series will be referenced, and a significant number of CANCERactive articles to date refer to Chinese herbs and Chinese foods and food herbs with references.

But we also need to bear in mind not just how much of Chinese medicine is yet to be investigated scientifically, but also that much of it can’t be assessed using the scientific method because a good medical scientific study requires a large group of people undergoing the same treatment, whereas Chinese medicine is inherently tailored to the individual with a unique plan. It is the view of the TCM profession and those that seek TCM treatment that this is its strength, but each of us checking out TCM treatment need to decide how much we value this quality, in addition to its empirically proven benefits.

Is Chinese Medicine safe?

If you want to know how risky something is, ask an actuary. Suffice to say that my insurance to practice acupuncture and TCM herbal medicine is a fraction of a GP’s.

Choosing a TCM practitioner

If you decide that you want to start Chinese medicine treatment you will need to find a good practitioner - Chinese medicine is based on a very different culture, and, as is the case will all medicine, there is a huge variation in the quality of provision.

The usual principles apply when choosing a Chinese medicine practitioner. The sort of questions that I would ask are:

How many people do I know that have seen him/her already and what was their experience like?

Do I like him/her and find him/her easy to talk to?

Does he/she have good English?

Is the practitioner well qualified?

Go to: Traditional Chinese Medicine approaches to cancer, by Henry McGrath

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Part 2 of this series will focus on acupuncture in and around the treatment of cancer. In the meantime a good general primer is the book  'Traditional Chinese Medicine Approaches to Cancer' by Henry McGrath.

Article Author Details

George Cooper MA Oxon, BSc Hons, PGDip Herb, MATCM 

Practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine Member of the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture UK 
Author of Be Your Own Nutritionist 
twitter - @byonhealth 
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