What is Chinese Medicine?
Chinese Medicine is a system of medicine that was developed through thousands of years of scientific observation, recording, and clinical practice. Chinese Medicine has a unique system of medical theory, diagnosis, and treatment methods. Some of the medical theory in Chinese Medicine overlaps with modern Western biomedicine, and some of it does not.
Today, there are some areas of medicine where Western medicine is far more advanced - primarily in emergency life-saving medicine and late-stage disease. However, there are still many areas of medicine where Chinese Medicine remains more advanced in the understanding and treatment of disease. This includes many chronic health problems, early-stage disease and many conditions that do not have treatments available in Western medicine.
Chinese Herbal Medicine is the most effective holistic internal medicine that's available today.
Chinese Medicine is Holistic
Chinese Medicine is a truly holistic medicine, which distinguishes it from Western medicine and naturopathic/functional medicine. What does holistic medicine mean? People frequently misunderstand the term holistic as a synonym for “natural,” but holistic means that in Chinese Medicine we look at the whole picture of a person’s health. Today, many health problems go unaddressed because people may go to many different specialists but none of their doctors are genuinely looking at the entire picture. Modern medicine has become so focused on the microscopic, that many conditions are not treated successfully - as a result of forgetting that the human body is an incredibly complex system of interwoven functions.
Conditions I treat with Chinese Herbal Medicine.
Gynecological / women's health complaints including - painful menstruation/dysmenorrhea, irregular periods, PMS symptoms, PCOS, endometriosis, fibroids, infertility / fertility support, chronic yeast infections, hormone imbalance
Digestive complaints including - bloating, constipation, diarrhea, IBS-D, IBS-C, acid reflux, GERD, bile reflux, SIBO, incontinence, chronic dysbiosis and parasites
Respiratory complaints including - acute and chronic sinusitis / sinus infection, asthma, bronchitis, shortness of breath, excessive phlegm and congestion
Cardiovascular complaints including - high cholesterol, high blood pressure, palpitations, irregular heart rhythms
Metabolic complaints including - fatty liver, high blood glucose / A1c
Male reproductive / urogenital system complaints including - erectile dysfunction, low libido, premature ejaculation, prostatitis, BPH / prostate swelling, symptoms of low testosterone, fertility support
Fatigue, adrenal fatigue
Feelings of anxiety
Feelings of depression
Chronic "fight or flight" stress response
Recovery from surgery, injury, or fractures/broken bones
Chinese Herbal Medicine is Systematic
One of the reasons that Chinese Herbal Medicine is so effective is that it is systematic and specific. In modern times, it can be hard to imagine how anyone can perform diagnosis without lab tests, imaging, and latin medical jargon. So how do we use Chinese Medicine to determine how to treat an individual? We do it the same way that people have been practicing Chinese Medicine and effectively treating disease for thousands of years.
We gather information about the patient’s condition through interview, observation, and palpation and then we analyze this data, compare it to the database of thousands of years of records - and match the data to the appropriate diagnosis and herbal treatment. The data that we use is based on an understanding of the subtle metrics of your body’s health. These finer details might be metrics that you, or your doctor might not think are important or relevant (but they are important). So our diagnostic process can seem mysterious or obscure. It’s not actually - it’s just unfamiliar.
We analyze the data of your presenting symptoms and entire health picture, not just your diagnosis. For example, 10 people with a migraine diagnosis may experience their migraines differently and have different underlying causes that are driving the migraines. So in order to effectively treat each person, we have to take the whole picture into account. We examine the tongue, feel the pulse, observe the appearance of the person, and ask about metrics in the body’s function like appetite, digestion, sleep, temperature, menstrual cycle. These metrics can seem like nonsense to the modern person, but in fact they are all important indicators of the state of health and disease in the body.
Chinese Herbal Medicine is Dynamic
Are you looking for something different than your standard doctor visit? Did naturopathic or functional medicine not work for you? If you’re looking for something different, good - because you found it! Chinese Medicine is quite different from both Western biomedicine and naturopathic and functional medicine - which are both extensions of modern Western medicine. And it’s important to understand the ways in which Chinese Medicine is different.
I find that a lot of people are unsatisfied with Western medicine and naturopathic / functional medicine - mostly because it didn’t work for them. But people tend to be looking for something that works, that is natural, but still comes in the same format - one or two office visits and a convenient, tiny pill. Unfortunately, that is not something that exists in most cases.
Chinese Medicine is natural. It works. But it is not necessarily convenient.
Chinese Medicine is dynamic. We do not see you for one visit, give you a supplement or drug regimen, and tell you to come back in 6 months. This is very common in Western medicine and naturopathic/functional medicine. We are not looking to give you a protocol (drug or herb) to take for the rest of your life to suppress symptoms. We are working to unwind the pathology that is driving your condition, so that our ultimate goal is that you don’t need to take herbs anymore.
At your initial visit, I will write an herbal prescription. I will have you return in 1-2 weeks. We will assess how your body is responding to the herbs, and I will make adjustments to the prescription and I will see you again in 2 weeks. Throughout herbal treatment, I will see you every 2-4 weeks to assess your progress and adjust the course of treatment. This is the dynamic process, and it’s necessary because your body is dynamic. We alter the herbal formula over time for a number of reasons. As the herbs do their work, they change your body's condition. So what you needed a month ago may not be needed anymore. It is sometimes likened to peeling away layers of an onion. The Chinese word for formula is Fang (pronounced "phung"), which also means direction. In the process of unwinding the pathology driving your condition - we use herbs that move your body in the direction towards health, balance, and what we refer to as center. Through this dynamic process the specific direction can change over time, as the many dynamic factors in your life and health also change.
When you come in for your first appointment, and for follow up appointments you may not understand or be aware of what I am doing. Because I'm not reading lab results, drawing blood, speaking in latin medical terminology, or injecting you with anything - it may not seem like I am doing anything. This is simply because what we are doing is different, and it won't be familiar like other medicine you've experienced. After all, what you're after is something different - and something that will work for you.
At your follow up visits, you may notice positive changes within a few weeks, or it may take several months to notice a positive change, depending on your condition. At your first visit I will give you an estimate of how long I think you might need to continue herbal medicine treatment. It will be longer than you want it to be. Though I will do everything in my power to help you as soon as possible, this medicine is not a quick fix. If you're looking for quick and convenient, your best bet is Western medicine. But quick and convenient has its downsides, and that's what you're here to avoid.
Treatment Methods - Why Chinese Herbal Medicine?
The treatment methods in Chinese Medicine include therapeutic exercise (taiji, qigong), dietary therapy, bodywork techniques like Tuina and Shiatsu massage, acupuncture & moxibustion, and Chinese herbal medicine. All of these treatment methods have their place.
Lifestyle practices like therapeutic exercise and diet are like the turtle that wins (or loses) the long race. They have the biggest long-term effect, but take the longest to have an impact (positive or negative).
Acupuncture can be used to treat musculoskeletal complaints (see my Orthopedic Acupuncture page for more on how I practice acupuncture) and for some internal medicine complaints, depending on their severity, the techniques used, and how much acupuncture you receive.
Chinese Herbal Medicine is the strongest and most effective treatment method for addressing internal medicine conditions.
What do I mean by internal medicine conditions? I mean any condition that is not strictly a musculoskeletal or orthopedic condition. So for example - neck or back pain is generally going to be categorized as musculoskeletal/orthopedic. Gynecological complaints, digestive issues, sleep issues, allergies, and anxiety would be examples of internal medicine conditions - problems that involve your body’s complex internal chemistry and functions.
So why is Chinese Herbal Medicine more effective for internal medicine conditions than acupuncture? When we use acupuncture for internal medicine conditions, acupuncture is working with what your body already has, and helping to make your body’s healing response more efficient. Say you feel tired and you also feel very stressed. The stress response wastes lots of energy, so getting regular acupuncture can help make your body more efficient with its energy use. Imagine your total energy capacity is 10. You might have 2 parts here and 2 parts there, and acupuncture can help add them to get you to 4. But it cannot add more energy into your system, and it won’t add the 6 you need to get to 10. Herbs can add the extra 6. Herbs are potent, biochemical medicine that can add, subtract, multiply, and divide. Herbs provide botanical compounds that your body isn’t capable of producing. This is one reason that Chinese Herbal Medicine is fundamentally stronger.
Example: Your immune system is capable of fighting most infections, but sometimes it can’t keep up and you end up with a persistent, chronic infection. Herbs can add anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral compounds which your body can’t produce, to help fight the infection directly. Additionally, herbs can add compounds that stimulate your body to produce more T-cells to help it fight infection more effectively.
Another important reason comes down to how people use medicine in America. If you lived in a culture steeped in Chinese Medicine, it would be normal to start getting treatment as soon as you felt a little irritable or as soon as your bowel movement wasn’t a perfect formed stool that comes at 7 am every morning. If you start treatment early, and get a lot of acupuncture, acupuncture can do amazing things for some internal medicine complaints. When most Americans seek treatment for an internal medicine problem, it’s often already too advanced for acupuncture to help. And certainly in the timeframe that they’re thinking, which is usually a handful of treatments. If you’re willing to get weekly acupuncture for a year, it can do a lot. But if you want the problem significantly reduced in a few months or less - you need Chinese Herbal Medicine.
Now, if you’re like 90% of Americans - you probably don’t want to take Chinese herbs. They taste bitter, sometimes downright gross. But if you want the most effective holistic internal medicine that’s available today - it’s Chinese Herbal Medicine.
Logistics of taking Chinese Herbal Medicine
There are a variety methods of taking herbal medicine - including teas, tinctures, and capsules. In Chinese Medicine we primarily use hot water extracted herbs in the form of decoctions. A decoction is cooked, simmered for 20-60 minutes where a tea is infused in boiling water. Both decoctions and teas are drunk, typically warm or hot.
Granules. The most common method of administering herbal medicine that I use is called a granule extract. This is a modern method where a decoction is prepared into a concentrated powder. You add water, and drink it "like a tea." Both decoctions and granule extracts both taste bad, but granule extracts save you from cooking an hour every day. Your family will also thank you for not filling the kitchen with intense herbal aromas. Granules are often referred to as "powder" but are very different than grinding raw herbs into a powder.
Draft / San preparation. The second most common method I use, where the raw herbs are ground to a fine powder, and added an insulated thermos with boiling water and steeped overnight. This is effectively a tea or infusion, but the steeping method yields a better extraction than a standard infusion. This method is chosen when we need to use herbs with higher volatile oil content than granule extraction can provide.
Capsules. The capsules which I use are granule extracts that have been encapsulated. Capsules are the least customizable option, because the formula composition is already fixed and there are only so many capsule formulas available. We are after a high degree of specificity in our formula prescription, in order to get the best results. With granules and draft / San preparations, we make custom formulas from a library of ~ 400 different herbs.
The capsule method can also be more challenging to achieve a high therapeutic dose. Capsule dosage can range from taking 6 capsules/day to 40 capsules/day to get a high therapeutic dose.
That said, some conditions are well suited to the available capsule formulas. It's very hard to beat the convenience of capsules, and for those who struggle with the taste of herbs, taking an appropriate capsule formula is more effective than taking no herbal medicine at all. For best results, I recommend being open to a capsule formula and a granule or draft / San if there is not an appropriate capsule available for you. Some people who dislike the taste of herbs use a home capsule maker to put their custom granule formula into capsules - which is another good option.
Where do you get your herbs? Your herbs will either be prepared at our clinic, or ordered from the closest large Chinese herbal pharmacy, which is located in Oregon. Herbs ordered typically arrive in 2-3 days.
Are Chinese Herbs Safe?
The herbs that we use go through rigorous scientific testing to ensure correct botanical identity and active ingredients. They are screened for heavy metals, microbial contamination, and pesticide contamination. Granule extracts produced in China and Taiwan are held to the same high standards as pharmaceutical drug manufacturing, standards that are more highly regulated than anything seen in the US supplement market, which is largely unregulated. The suppliers that provide our granule extracts also provide herbs for modern hospitals in China and Taiwan. Our Chinese Herbs must pass the following tests to make it to us:
Organoleptic Visual Check
TLC Active Ingredient Check
Total Heavy Metal Test
Total Yeast and Mold Test
Loss on Drying Test
Acid-Insoluble Ash Test
Individual Heavy Metal Tests (Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic)
Aristolochic Acid Test
Microscopic Cellular Identity Check
HPLC Potency Level Test
Total Aerobic Microbial Count Test
Enterobacteria & Other Gram Negative Bacteria Test
Total Ash Content Test
Dilute EtOH Extract Test
Pesticide Test (over 100 pesticides tested)
Not only are the specific herbs we use safe, Chinese herbs are safe in general. Historically there have been some problems with herb safety and they fall into two main categories: abuse or improper use and adulteration. These issues are not unique to Chinese herbs, but Chinese herbs have more PR problems due to political perception and stigmas.
Abuse includes examples like a famous baseball player abusing Ephedra and dying of a heart attack. When used as a stimulant, and when all traditional and modern recommendations on use are ignored - this is not an unexpected outcome with Ephedra. Things like this are easily avoided with proper use and following instructions, but still make major news. Another example is a diet pill manufacturer who used an aristolochic acid containing Chinese herb in a diet pill, in dosages much higher than recommended by both traditional and modern safety parameters. Aristolochic acid is a known carcinogen, and the safe dosage and preparation has been known since 600 AD - but of course the diet pill company didn't care to read any ancient or modern science on the ingredients of their formula. Many problems have arisen from misuse and abuse of herbs, but they have nothing to do with the inherent safety of Chinese herbs - and are especially non-issues when prescribed by a qualified practitioner.
Adulteration has been a historical problem because the Chinese herb trade, like any trade, is a business. So there have been bad actors just like in any sector. A classic example would be people selling Cordceyps sinensis fruiting bodies - one of the most expensive herbs on the planet - and slipping small lead bars inside the fungus to get paid more (herbs are typically sold by weight). Things like this are very easily avoided by using reputable suppliers who do rigorous quality testing. So probably best not to use Amazon sellers or random herb websites.
Concerns about heavy metal and pesticide contamination are real, and that's why we use companies that test for these. A lot of people have the misconception that anything from China must be contaminated, because they just think about China as massive cities. China is a big place, and if you compare rural China to the midwestern US, the latter is not necessarily more pristine. Heck, your neighborhood probably sprays a lot more insecticide and herbicide on lawns and gardens than the regions we source herbs from.
After addressing the issues around contamination and abuse/misuse, there is another reason why Chinese herbal medicine is fundamentally safer than modern medicines. Each individual herb that we use contains hundreds of unique phytochemicals. Some of these compounds have similar actions, some of them have opposite physiologic actions that balance each other.
Pharmaceutical drugs are made by identifying an active ingredient in a plant, isolating it and concentrating it thousands of times over. This makes modern drugs very strong, and that's why they are valuable. But it also makes them more forceful, and fundamentally less safe. They don't work with your body to make something happen, they make it happen whether your body likes it or not. That's basically how we get side effects - the forceful and unilateral nature of drugs.
Herbs are fundamentally milder in action. Each herb has small amounts of many compounds, and our body is more able to take up what is helpful and excrete what is not needed. To make it even more safe, in Chinese Medicine we don't just use single herbs. Instead of using 100 grams of one herb that has a particular physiologic effect, we will use 10 grams of 10 different herbs that all support the same goal but with different phytochemicals that do it in slightly different ways. This multiplies the safety profile even more. At its core, Chinese herbal medicine uses less force than modern drug medicine, but through a deep understanding of human physiology, is able to elegantly apply a small amount of force in a way that causes a profound effect.
One way to think about the difference between Chinese herbal medicine and modern pharmaceutical medicine is like this: imagine that a large boulder blocks your path and needs to be moved. Using Chinese herbal medicine is like wedging a 2x4 between a smaller rock and the boulder and using a small amount of force, with leverage in the right place, to roll the boulder out of the way. Using a modern drug medication is like blowing the boulder up with a stick of dynamite - it's fast and effective, but the large amount of force applied via explosion can cause collateral damage. Some boulders require dynamite, many of them do not.
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