Over the past several decades, Eastern alternative (also called complementary or integrated) medicine practices have continued to be adopted by conventional medical establishments in the U.S. and other Western nations. The Department of Complementary-Alternative Medicine at Medical University of South Carolina reports that according to a study of 3,200 physicians conducted by Health Products Research, more than 50 percent of physicians in the U.S. planned to begin or increase use of alternative medicines, including those rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), within the following year. (1)
More and more medical schools are now recognizing the importance of training students and staff in “mind-body” practices that emphasize disease prevention and holistic treatments. Although some physicians and patients tend to be skeptical about the effectiveness of many TCM practices, research continues to show that complementary modalities can make a big difference in many patients’ quality of life.
Several of the advantages that Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Eastern practices have to offer include a high level of patient compliance (often due to patients noticing improvements in their symptoms quickly), reduced stress levels, natural pain management, improved sleep, stronger immunity and decreased need for medications.
What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a type of holistic, natural health care system that dates back at least 2,000 years to the year 200 B.C. TCM is “holistic” and “natural” because it stimulates the body’s own healing mechanisms and takes into account all aspects of a patient’s life, rather than just several obvious signs or symptoms. TCM practitioners view the body as a complex network of interconnected parts (part of a larger concept known as Qi), rather than separate systems or organs.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments aim to correct imbalances in the body and primarily work in three major ways:
- Addressing a patient’s external factors and environment
- Helping patients relate to their internal emotions in a healthier way, including managing stress
- Improving someone’s lifestyle factors, including diet and exercise routine
Organs that are especially focused on during TCM treatments include the kidneys, heart, spleen, liver, lung, gallbladder, small intestine and large intestine. Depending on the specific type, the benefits of TCM therapies range considerably. Some of the health problems most commonly treated with Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies include:
- Chronic pain
- Liver disease
- Hormonal imbalances
- High blood pressure
- PMS or menopause symptoms
- Cancer recovery or chemotherapy
Different Traditional Chinese Medicine therapies include:
- Acupuncture: Helps lower pain, improve hormonal balance and combat stress
- Cupping therapy: Used for pain management, improving immunity and helping with digestion
- Herbal medicine: Used to control inflammation, fight free radical damage and boost liver function
- Nutrition: For preventing deficiencies, boosting energy and improving detoxification
- Exercise: Including Qi gong or tai chi for flexibility, strength and concentration
- Massage: Soft tissue manipulation for improving blood flow, one of which is called tui na
- Moxibustion: Burning an herb near the skin
Tenets and Beliefs of TCM
TCM was mostly practiced in Asia and not commonly known of or studied in the U.S. until around the 1970s. Since Eastern practices, such as yoga, meditation, tai chi and acupuncture, started to gain notoriety in the media during this time period, hundreds of studies have investigated the health effects of such modalities.
Traditional Chinese Medicine draws on the belief that Qi (which roughly translates to “vital energy” and is pronounced “chee”) is essential for overall health.
- Qi is said to circulate throughout the body along pathways called meridians, and proper Qi is needed to keep all systems in balance.
- Meridians are utilized in many TCM practices, including acupuncture and acupressure, which focus on treating specific meridian points throughout the body that can be located anywhere from the head to the soles of our feet.
- Meridians are believed to be connected to specific organ systems, and therefore focusing on certain meridians helps resolve specific symptoms. According to TCM, restoring Qi can be beneficial for preventing diseases from developing and treating existing inflammation, injuries, pain or illnesses.
Another concept that’s vital to Traditional Chinese Medicine is yin and yang, defined as opposing but complementary energies. You might be familiar with the yin-yang symbol (a circle that’s half white and half black with smaller circles inside), which is used to represent the concept of all of earth’s opposing forces, including hot and cold, winter and summer, energy and rest. It is believed that, like Qi, yin and yang negatively affect your health when they’re out of balance and one is more dominant than the other, so a primary goal of TCM treatment is to restore their equalizing relationship.
Chinese Herbal Medicines
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Chinese herbal medicine is a major part of Traditional Chinese Medicine … it has been used for centuries in China, where herbs are considered fundamental therapy for many acute and chronic conditions.” (2) Chinese herbal therapy has its roots in a traditional medicinal text called “Materia Medica.” Thousands of different herbs, minerals, teas, tinctures and other extracts are listed in this text and utilized by trained herbalists depending on a patient’s specific symptoms.
Who can benefit most from Chinese herbal medicines? (2)
- Chinese herbs focus on helping correct dysfunction of certain organs and unhealthy body patterns. The goal of herbal therapy is to bring the body back into a state of homeostasis (balance) and restore proper energy (also called Qi).
- Patients with many different symptoms can be treated with herbs, including those with frequent colds or the flu, fatigue, chronic respiratory issues, infertility, allergies, chronic pain, anxiety or depression, trouble sleeping, menopausal symptoms and even people recovering from cancer or chemotherapy.
- Some scenarios that make a patient a good candidate for herbal therapy include having more than one unexplained symptom, feeling fatigued on top of having other symptoms, not responding well to medications or experiencing side effects, feeling anxious or depressed, in addition to having other symptoms.
Common Chinese herbal medicines include astragalus root, reishi mushroom, goji berry, ginkgo biloba, ginseng and many others.
Here’s what you can expect during a Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal session: Following an exam with the herbalist, customized herbs (almost always more than one) are recommended. Sometimes herbs are used as a complement to another treatment, such as acupuncture. Chinese herbal therapy is usually not covered by insurance, but in some cases a referral from a physician can help lower the cost. Oftentimes an herbalist works closely with a physician to manage a patient’s treatment, especially if the herbal therapy can interact with the patient’s prescription medications.
Benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine
1. Lowers Inflammation and Might Offer Increased Cancer Protection
The Journal of Traditional & Complementary Medicine reports that Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, including herbal treatments and the use of medicinal mushrooms, can have positive “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-apoptotic and autophagic regulatory functions.” (3) This translates to lowered levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, thereby protecting cells, tissues and organs from long-term disease development. Inflammation is at the root of most diseases and tied to the majority of common health problems, including cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, cognitive impairment and diabetes.
TCM treatments, including acupuncture, acupressure and herbal treatments, can also help patients overcome a variety of harmful lifestyle habits related to inflammation, such as cigarette smoking, overeating, resisting chronic pain, chronic stress and alcohol-induced liver damage. Certain treatments are capable of lowering the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response, which helps patients manage the effects of chronic stress — which can include poor sleep and hormonal imbalances.
Several herbal remedies that have been found to help lower oxidative stress include: (4)
- Medicinal mushrooms, including reishi and cordyceps: promote stronger immunity, help fight fatigue, have anticancer properties, help balance hormones and control the body’s stress response
- Monascus adlay and Monascus purpureus: used to lower lung inflammation and damage
- Amla (Emblica officinalis Gaertn. of Euphorbiaceae family), aka gooseberries: lowers hepatotoxin-induced liver inflammation
- Virgate wormwood decoction (Yīn Chén Hāo tāng): also used to lower liver damage
- Green tea extract and its active components, catechins: help protect the brain, reduce fatigue and regulate appetite
- Crataegi Fructus (Shān Zhā): helps treat symptoms of hyperactive bladder
- Five Stranguries Powder (Wǔ Lén Sǎn): has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities
2. Reduces Chronic Pain and Headaches
Two of the most popular TCM treatments for managing pain are acupuncture and acupressure. Acupuncture is a practice that is more than 3,500 years old. It’s most often embraced by patients who are looking to alleviate chronic headaches, pain due to arthritis, neck or back pain, plus many other symptoms related to injuries or stress too.
Studies have found that acupuncture, especially when combined with other Traditional Chinese Medicine methods like tai chi and a healthy diet, can be valuable, non-pharmacological tools for patients suffering from frequent chronic tension headaches. (5) Research done at Memorial Sloan Kettering found that patients receiving acupuncture experienced less neck muscle aches and pain, osteoarthritis and chronic headaches compared to patients in the placebo control group. (6) Research published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine even showed that one month of acupressure treatment can be more effective in reducing chronic headaches than one month of taking muscle-relaxant medications. (7)
Research conducted at Toronto Western Hospital has found that tai chi contributes to chronic pain management in three major areas: “adaptive exercise, mind-body interaction, and meditation.” Trials examining the health benefits of tai chi have found that patients often experience improvements in several pain conditions: osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and low back pain. (8)
3. Balances Hormones and Improves Fertility
Research suggests that certain “adaptogen” Chinese herbal medicines contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can change the way that nerves transmit messages to the brain, improving various functions within the endocrine and central nervous systems. This helps naturally improve the body’s healing abilities and helps balance hormones — including cortisol, insulin, testosterone and estrogen.
In an animal study conducted by the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Zhejiang University in China, it was shown that reishi mushroom supplementation helped lower symptoms of diabetes. (9) By reducing the body’s stress response, TCM therapies like acupuncture, tai chi and massage therapy can also be beneficial for treating hormonal imbalances.
Even in the West, massage therapy has been recommended for diabetes for over 100 years, and various studies have found it can help with other hormone-related conditions by inducing relaxation, raising energy levels, helping people become more active, reducing emotional eating, improving diet quality and improving sleep. (10) A 2001 study published in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine showed that acupuncture plays a positive role in hormonal balance and treating infertility. Acupuncture seems to work by modulating the central and peripheral nervous systems, the neuro-endocrine and endocrine systems, ovarian blood flow, and metabolism. It’s also been shown to help improve uterine blood flow and decrease effects of depression, anxiety and stress on the menstrual cycle. (11)
4. Improves Liver Health
Herbal medicine and nutrition are important aspects of TCM, since a poor diet can directly contribute to liver damage — and the liver is one of the focal organs in Eastern medicine. The Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation explains that TCM views the liver as “the organ responsible for the smooth flow of emotions as well as Qi and blood. It is the organ that is most affected by excess stress or emotions.” (12) TCM therefore draws a link between liver damage and illnesses like obesity, fatigue, indigestion, emotional stress, trouble sleeping and much more.
A diet and herbal treatment plan that follows Traditional Chinese Medicine guidelines is one that’s very similar to eating an alkaline diet, helping restore the body’s proper pH and preventing deficiencies of key minerals. Stress reduction, exercise, sleeping proper amounts and many herbal medicines are used to treat liver problems. Acupressure massage is also used to stimulate the liver, improve blood flow and relieve tension caused by stress.
Adaptogen herbs (including reishi mushrooms or cordyceps) are commonly recommended to improve liver function and help prevent liver disease. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms found that reishi induces hepatoprotective effects on acute liver injury because it contains antioxidant properties. (13)
Foods that can help improve liver health, fight liver disease and improve detoxification include raw and fresh vegetables (especially dark leafy greens), herbs and spices like garlic and ginger, healthy fats, and sweet potatoes. Alcohol, processed carbohydrates, sugary snacks or drinks, synthetic ingredients, fried foods, and refined oils or fats are all damaging to the liver and therefore usually reduced or eliminated when working with a TCM practitioner.
5. Protects Cognitive Health
By way of reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, Chinese herbs can help protect brain health and memory. Cognitive disorders, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, are linked to heightened inflammation, free radical damage, an inability to use glucose properly, vitamin deficiencies, stress and environmental toxins. Therefore, an alkaline diet, herbal supplements, exercise, proper nutrition and reducing stress may help control the body’s immune response and regulate hormones that protect the brain.
According to a 2007 report published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, “There has been a long history of research and medical practice in dementia in China, during which the ancient Chinese people have formed a whole theory and accumulated abundant experience in the treatment of dementia.” (14) In recent decades, it’s been shown through a growing number of clinical studies that certain herbal extracts — including glycyrrhiza, atractylodes, rhubarb, ginseng, fructus lycii, polygala, angelica and safflower — serve as expectorants and promoters for blood circulation.
Medicinal mushrooms have also been shown to help decrease the amount of toxins or heavy metals that can accumulate within the body, therefore promoting higher energy levels, better concentration, improved memory and better quality sleep (all important for a sharp mind and mood control). Coupled with other holistic treatments that promote well-being, they may help prevent and treat many common age-related cognitive disorders.
Overall, multiple studies suggest that various treatments prescribed in TCM may benefit cognitive health for a number of disorders like Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s disease. (15, 16, 17)
6. Helps Lower the Body’s Stress Response
Acupressure (a type of massage therapy that’s also called Tai chong in TCM) is beneficial not only for liver health, but also for reducing stress. Tai chong is believed to stimulate a key point on the liver channel meridian, located at the top of the foot, that is related to emotional trauma and negative “energies,” such as resentment, bitterness, worry, anxiety and depression. Releasing these negative feelings can help lower the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which has significant benefits: reduced blood pressure, improved sleep, more energy, less muscle tension and more.
Acupuncture and tai chi can also be very helpful for managing stress. Tai chi is a type of qigong exercise that’s considered a “mind-body” practice because it combines the principles of martial arts with controlled breathing and focused attention. The spiritual dimension of tai chi, focus on turning attention inward and quieting of the mind can help prevent cortisol levelsfrom rising and improve someone’s overall sense of well-being. Similar to yoga or meditation, a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that tai chi is an effective natural stress reliever that can have positive effects in patients dealing with anxiety or depression. (15)
7. Preserves Muscle Strength, Flexibility and Balance
Harvard Medical School reports that a regular tai chi practice can help address several core benefits of exercise: boosting muscle strength, maintaining flexibility, increasing and sustaining balance, and sometimes even providing an aerobic workout that’s important for your heart. Studies conducted by Harvard researchers have shown that 12 weeks of tai chi practice can help patients, especially those who are older or might have limited abilities, build a “healthy body, strong heart and sharp mind.” (16)
Massage therapy/acupressure are also beneficial for improving muscle recovery and helping prevent injuries. Massage practices rooted in TCM date back thousands of years, and ancient medical texts show that practitioners living in pre-dynasty China used massage to alleviate common aches and pains and improve the flow of Qi energy. Deep tissue massaging helps bring blood flow to muscles and strained tissue, lowers the body’s stress response (stress makes recovering from injuries tougher), decreases muscle tension, and might even help enhance athletic performance. Some massages rooted in TCM also utilize other mind-body practices like visualization, meditation and deep breathing to calm the nervous system.
Precautions Regarding TCM and Herbal Medicines
Who teaches Eastern medicines, and are they safe?
More effort than ever before is being made to regulate training and certifications of TCM practitioners. A 2010 report published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine states that “Consumer-driven development has resulted in an introduction of education programs for practitioner training, development of product and practitioner regulation systems, and generation of an increasing interest in research. Significant efforts have been made in validating the quality, effectiveness, and safety of TCM interventions evidenced by a growing number of published trials and systematic reviews.” (17)
Qualifications for different practitioners ranges from state to state and country to country. There are now more than 50 Eastern training programs offered at universities and accredited organizations throughout the U.S.
That being said, keep these points in mind regarding safety of TCM:
- Always do your research and visit a practitioner who is well-trained in whatever method you’re being treated with. Look for a facility that displays certifications, and in the case of acupuncture, make sure needles are new and sterile.
- The National Institute of Health considers acupuncture to be “generally considered safe when performed by an experienced, well-trained practitioner using sterile needles.” (18) The FDA regulates acupuncture needles as medical devices and requires that they be “sterile, nontoxic, and labeled for single use by qualified practitioners only.”
- Chinese herbs should be taken under supervision and not used by women who are pregnant or breast-feeding. Chinese herbal products manufactured outside of the U.S. can be mislabeled, contain dangerous additives, and sometimes have traces of heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and mercury. Look for high-quality, pure products made from trusted and certified retailers, or work directly with an herbalist.
- In general, TCM treatments are still usually recommended as complementary treatment methods, meaning it’s best to try them in addition to seeing a medical physician and following your doctor’s advice.
- You’re likely to get the best results overall from TCM when you incorporate different preventative and lifestyle habits, including eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, using beneficial supplements, and in some cases receiving physical therapy or taking medications for pain management.
To help you locate a qualified practitioner in your area, check listings from the following organizations:
- The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
- The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
- The Institute of Traditional Medicine
Final Thoughts on Traditional Chinese Medicine
- Traditional Chinese Medicine is a natural, holistic medicinal system that originated in ancient China thousands of years ago and is still practiced throughout the world today.
- TCM practitioners use herbal medicines, mind and body practices like tai chi, acupuncture, massage therapy, and nutrition to help patients of all kinds, including those with chronic pain, fatigue, headaches, infertility and hormonal imbalances.
- In the West, TCM is primarily considered to be a “complementary health approach,” which means it’s best utilized when working with a physician and addressing other aspects of health like diet and exercise.