What is traditional Chinese medicine? How does it work? What’s the main difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine? And how effective is traditional Chinese medicine for women’s health? We delve into this and more below.
What is traditional Chinese medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient system of treatment that combines philosophical and physical methods to treat disease and illness. Through a combination of physical and conceptual practices, traditional Chinese medicine incorporates the mind, body and spirit as a whole to achieve a physiological balance of yin and yang.
How old is traditional Chinese medicine?
As one of the world’s oldest medical systems, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has a long and rich history of usage, and has changed little over the centuries. While some regard Chinese medicine to have first emerged in the shamanistic era of the Shang Dynasty Period (1600 to 1046 BC), there are others who claim to be able to trace its origins back as far as 5,000 years. Founded on the concept of holistically treating the body and appreciating the body’s natural ability to return to its balanced state of health, the ancient Chinese practice is now widely used throughout Asia and increasingly throughout the rest of the world.
How does traditional Chinese medicine work?
TCM is based on the belief that one’s “Qi” (“vital life force”) must flow freely and unobstructed through a network of invisible channels or “meridians” in order to maintain good health, both physically and mentally.
Correspondingly, it is believed that any blockage or imbalance of Qi in the body could very well lead to illness. As such, maintaining a healthy balance of yin–yang and Qi is fundamental to TCM practice, and can be achieved via the incorporation of various self-care practices such as healthy eating, meditation and acupuncture.
The principal goal of TCM is to restore balance in the body by treating the root cause, not just the symptoms. Though quite slow in action, TCM takes into account not just the ailment itself, but the body as a whole, from the physical to the emotional and psychological. TCM practitioners will also take into consideration lifestyle and environmental factors before administering proper treatment.
What does traditional Chinese medicine treat?
TCM treats a variety of issues ranging from chronic illnesses to acute problems. Some use cases for TCM include:
- Pain (such as joint pain or migraines)
- Stress, anxiety and depression
As TCM takes a holistic approach to treatment, it recognises the body’s self-repairing mechanism and uses natural healing methods to help encourage the body’s intrinsic self-healing ability.
What about traditional Chinese medicine for women’s health?
A woman’s body experiences many different hormonal changes throughout her life, beginning at puberty and carrying on to old age. This ever-changing hormonal environment is sensitively associated with our emotions, nutrition and general lifestyle. TCM, along with an adequate diet and exercise routine, can restore hormonal and emotional balance during all of these stages by promoting the body’s innate self-healing system.
Some examples of traditional Chinese medicine for women’s health include:
- Pregnancy-related symptoms
- Menstrual disorders
- Menopause-related symptoms
Read more: What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
What techniques are used in traditional Chinese medicine?
Traditional Chinese Medicine incorporates several methods designed to rebalance the body and maintain health. Through these methods, TCM targets the body’s acupuncture points to dispel illness.
Acupuncture involves inserting metallic needles into the surface of the skin that is manipulated through gentle movements. This method restores the balance between yin and yang, enabling the flow of “Qi” throughout the body. Acupuncture is commonly used to treat chronic pain, menstrual cramps and morning sickness.
Tui na massage
During a Tui Na massage, the practitioner will apply pressure techniques that vary in force and speed. Some techniques are more ‘yin’; gentle, passive, and meditative. The ‘yang’ approach is more active, dynamic, and physical, creating a more intense sensation. A Tui Na massage can be used to treat arthritis, stress and digestive conditions.
Moxibustion is performed by burning the Moxa plant close to the body, giving off a strong smell and smoke to facilitate healing. Practitioners use moxibustion treatment to expel dampness from the body, infertility and breech pregnancy.
Cupping & scraping
Cupping is a type of massage that involves placing glass “cups” on the body to create suction. Scraping or “gua sha” uses a massage tool to scrape along the skin to release toxins. Both methods result in redness and mild bruising around the treatment area and are used for blood disorders such as anaemia, skin problems like cystic acne and eczema as well as high blood pressure.
Chinese herbal medicine
Chinese herbs range from leaves, roots, stems, flowers and seeds to be administered in various ingestible forms such as a traditional tea or powder. People take Chinese herbs to combat everyday illnesses as well as long-term disease. These can range from the common cold and diarrhoea to diabetes, cancer treatment and menopause.
Traditional Chinese medicine vs. Western medicine
There’s much interest on the topic of traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine. Both approaches offer unique benefits and disadvantages, and integrating the two can be useful in treatment. But first…
How effective is Chinese herbal medicine?
Although there is still much to be understood about TCM, there is more evidence that proves the traditional methods are a safe and effective treatment method for a large number of conditions.
Nearly 200 types of Western medicine have been developed as a result of the 7,300 species of plants and herbs used in Chinese medicine. A common example is Ephedrine, an alkaloid used to treat patients suffering from asthma that was originally derived from the Chinese Ma Huang plant.
Today, scientists continue to source compounds and herbs traditionally used in Chinese medicine to enhance the development of new treatment in Western medicine. In fact, TCM has even been used as an adjunct treatment for Covid-19, and is reported to help to relieve symptoms and aid in recovery.
Additionally, acupuncture (a key component of TCM) has long been recognised by the World Health Organisation and the NHS as an effective form of treatment for chronic pain, as well as milder conditions such as nausea and migraines.
What is the difference between Chinese medicine and Western medicine?
At the heart of Western medicine is pathology; the study of the causes and effects of diseases. This foundation allows us to understand the nature of diseases, but can cause us to become overly focused on the disease rather than the patient. To put it simply, in Western medicine, two patients who suffer from the same illness would – more often than not – be administered identical treatments, irrespective of their individual circumstances.
From the TCM perspective, this is too simplistic.
Unlike Western medicine’s reactive “one-size-fits-all” approach to patient care, Chinese medicine believes in treating the mind, body and spirit as a whole, taking into consideration personal aspects like living conditions, emotional state, lifestyle habits, etc. To use the same example, two patients exhibiting the same symptoms would usually not receive the same course of treatment as they would be given a unique diagnosis.
Additionally, TCM methods tend to be less invasive, contributing to the slower speed of treatment compared to Western medication which offers rapid recovery but is prone to negative side effects.
Although both methods differ vastly from each other, the growing conversation between both sides means the sharing of methods and willingness to learn from one another. In turn, this improves the standard of treatment that we receive!
Traditional Chinese medicine and nutrition
TCM practitioners view food as preventative medicine, with each individual food item falling into the category of either yin or yang. To put it simply, the food you eat has the power to either nourish or diminish your body, meaning that proper nutrition in TCM is key to living a healthy, balanced life.
Using a traditional Chinese medicine food chart
In Chinese nutrition, a balanced diet is one that is free from chemicals and preservatives, and one that includes all five tastes; sour, salty, bitter, spicy and sweet. There are no banned foods according to TCM practices, but following a traditional Chinese medicine food chart can help you easily identify what kinds of food are hot (yin) or cold (yang) and the impact they have on specific parts of the body.
Learn more about Chinese nutrition and diet recommendations here.
Not sure how to structure your daily diet? Head to Pinterest and get inspired by their diverse range of traditional Chinese medicine food charts.
Traditional Chinese medicine ingredients
Where can I buy TCM ingredients in Hong Kong?
Now that you know a little bit about the history of TCM and its use cases, let us delve into how you can introduce this traditional practice into your own home.
In Hong Kong, we’re lucky to have access to a whole litany of TCM experts from Quality Chinese Medical Centre, the first-ever certified TCM clinic in Hong Kong to Cinci Leung, the founder of CheckCheckCin, a TCM-based multi-channel healthcare brand that provides takeaway tonics and herbal teas, all of which are accessible via its online store.
Here are some of our favourite shops to buy TCM ingredients in Hong Kong:
- CheckCheckCin: www.checkcheckcin.com
Shop L216, 2/F, Star Annex, Star House, 3 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui (multiple locations)
- Eu Yan Sang: shop.euyansang.com.hk
Shop 2, G/F, V Heun Building, 138 Queen’s Road Central, Central (multiple locations)
- Beijing Tong Ren Tang: cm.tongrentang.com
Shop 4, G/F, Ying Kong Mansion, 2-6 Yee Wo Street, Causeway Bay (multiple locations)
- Chin Men Co.
Shop C, G/F, 76 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan
- Tai Sang
G/F, Yu Chu Lam Building, Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan
If you’re looking for a licensed TCM practitioner in Hong Kong, check out this conclusive list, courtesy of the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong.
How do you use Chinese herbs and ingredients?
Once you have sourced all your ingredients, it’s time to prepare and use them! Authentic Chinese medicinal dishes are created according to how the body functions. Each kind of meat, grain, herb, or vegetable targets a specific area of the human body to enhance the body’s natural harmony and self-healing ability.
Here are a couple of our favourite Chinese herbs and ingredients:
High in Vitamin A and Zeaxanthin (a carotenoid that protects the eyes from oxidation and light-induced damage) and internationally hailed as being a “superfood”, Goji berries can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried, and are commonly found in herbal teas, supplements and heaped on top of Instagram-worthy smoothie bowls. Long used in traditional medicine as an antioxidant to nourish the yin and blood of both the kidneys and the liver, Goji berries naturally enhance the immune system, and can help with sleep, weight loss, and overall wellbeing.
Here’s a recipe for Goji Berry and Ginger Tea, courtesy of the What to Cook Today blog.
- 1/4 cup goji berry
- 3 cups hot water
- 2cm fresh ginger (thinly sliced)
- 1/4 cup rock sugar
- Wash and drain goji berries in cold water
- Bring 3 cups of water to a rolling boil, turn off the heat and remove from stove
- Add goji berries, ginger, and rock sugar. Cover with the lid and let them steep for 1 hour for maximum flavour
Loaded with antioxidants and a natural antibiotic, this spicy rhizome has powerful medicinal properties that aid digestion, neutralise poisons in food and regulate blood sugar levels. Ginger teas and candies are commonly used as a treatment to counteract nausea, combat the common cold or flu, ease morning sickness and relieve menstrual cramps, all whilst promoting the movement of Qi and keeping our body’s Yin and Yang in balance.
Try out this recipe for Lemon and Ginger Tea, as seen in HWC Magazine
- 5cm ginger root knob peeled and chopped into 4 – 5 slices
- 1/2 lemon – cut into wedges
- boiled water for tea
- honey to taste – optional
- Boil water for tea.
- Place ginger and lemon slices in a tea-pot and cover with hot water and soak for about 10- 15 minutes.
- Pour your tranquil lemon ginger tea into teacups and serve with a little drizzle of honey if desired.
- You can keep adding more hot water to your ginger and lemon tea-pot and steep as desired. Depending on how fresh your ginger is, you may be able to steep up to 3-4 times and still have a lovely flavour and aroma.
- Relax and feel the heartwarming effects of the Tranquil Lemon Ginger Tea.
Translating literally to “human root”, Ginseng is probably the most famous ingredient associated with traditional Chinese medicine. As the shape is thought to resemble a human body, it symbolises the roots potent ability to boost immunity and replenish Qi. Customarily served in the form of tea, Ginseng’s anti-inflammatory properties are used as a treatment to counteract fatigue, prevent the flu and remedy erectile dysfunction in men. Interestingly, American Ginseng is listed as an ingredient in many soft drinks and cosmetic products.
A recipe for Chinese Ginseng Chicken Soup by Yang’s Nourishing Kitchen.
- 1 whole chicken (substitute with white chicken if silkie is not available)
- 2 medium ginseng roots
- 5cm ginger root, sliced
- 20 dry jujubes (Chinese red date)
- 2 tbsp goji berries
- 1 tsp sea salt or to taste
- 1/2 cup rice cooking wine
- water (for general cooking)
- Cut the whole chicken into small pieces by separating between the bones.
- Submerge the chicken in a pot of cold water, then bring the pot to a boil. Heating the water and chicken together will bring out the most impurity.
- Let the water boil for a couple of minutes. There should be foam and scum floating on the surface of the water. Turn off heat. Discard this batch of water.
- Rinse the chicken pieces to remove any scum that may be stuck on the chicken. If reusing the same pot to make soup, rinse the pot to remove any stuck-on scum as well.
- Fill a clean soup pot (I use a traditional clay pot) with 10 cups of clean water. Add the clean chicken pieces, sliced ginger, and 2 medium ginseng roots. Bring the soup pot to a boil and simmer with the lid on for 1 hour.
- Remove the ginseng roots from the soup, they should be softened now. Cut the ginseng roots into slices, then add them back into the soup pot. Add 20 clean jujubes (red dates), then simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Add 1/2 cup of rice cooking wine, 2 tbsp of goji berries into the soup pot. Season with sea salt to taste, about 1 tsp. The soup shouldn’t taste salty, and it should be slightly sweet. Simmer for another 15 minutes, remove from heat.
Jujube (Chinese Red Date)
As a highly popular ingredient in Chinese Medicine, the jujube or Chinese red date is often prescribed to target the stomach and spleen. As TCM regards that blood is formed through good digestion and absorption of food, if the stomach and spleen Qi are weakened, it will affect the blood supply and its function.
Easy Nourshing Red Date Tea recipe, also from the What to Cook Today blog
- 50 gr dried red dates (uncored)
- 800 ml water
- 1 tps sugar (optional)
- Rinse dates with water
- Take each date and use a pointy scissors or a small paring knife to create few slits around the edge on one end of the dates. This helps to release flavor to the tea
- Place the red dates in a saucepan. Pour in water. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat to low, cover with a lid and simmer for the next one hour
- Let it cool down and ready to drink. Sweeten to taste.
Not fancying the traditional route? No problem. Test out one of these alternative recipes instead.
Dragon Fruit and Goji Berry Smoothie recipe, by Jar of Lemons
- 2 cups frozen dragon fruit (cubed)
- 2 bananas
- 2 tbsp dried goji berries
- 1/4 cup milk of choice
- 1/2 cup frozen raspberries
- 1/2 cup vanilla yoghurt (optional)
- Blend all ingredients.
- Serve and enjoy!
Bon Appétit magazine’s Ginger Spritz recipe
- Thinly sliced peeled ginger
- 1 oz. Lillet
- 1 oz. cava
- Splash of ginger beer
- Place ginger slices against the inside of a rocks glass, fill with ice and add Lillet and cava.
- Top off with ginger beer and stir gently to combine.
Chinese medicine herbs and women’s health
Can Chinese medicine help with fertility?
For thousands of years, Chinese herbs have been used to improve fertility, decrease hormonal imbalance and prevent miscarriage. If you are having difficulty conceiving, it may be due to deficiency, excess, or stagnation of energy in the body.
What herbs increase fertility?
- Vitex (Chaste Tree Berry)
- Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
- Tribulus Terrestris
Read more: Fertility and Chinese herbs
Working with a licensed professional can ensure that you source high quality and pure herbs specific to your case. It is important to note that overly diluted or contaminated products that contain additives or chemicals can be ineffective and detrimental to your health.
Pregnancy and Traditional Chinese Medicine
The safe and easy to administer aspect of TCM alone make it an ideal form of treatment for use during pregnancy and childbirth, with many women looking to use it in a bid to avoid any potential nasty side effects often found with Western medicine.
For a smoother pregnancy experience, some choose to incorporate TCM throughout their journey to alleviate common pregnancy discomforts such as swollen feet and nausea.
Some common pregnancy discomforts and TCM remedies:
- Remedy: try this Black Wood Ear and Winter Melon Skin Soup to reduce water retention and promote blood circulation
- Remedy: burning Moxa around the abdomen can ease the pain, triggering the movement of energy to the area
- Remedy: done lightly, scraping or gua sha can alleviate swelling around the breast area without bruising
Nausea and vomiting
- Remedy: using acupuncture on pressure points on the wrist can relieve feelings of nausea and morning sickness
- Remedy: a gentle tui na massage can greatly reduce the intensity of the pain and allow for increased movement
*Cupping is not recommended for pregnant women.
Traditional Chinese medicine and confinement
What is Chinese confinement?
In Chinese culture, confinement or 坐月子 (zuo yue zi) – translating literally to “sitting the moon” – refers to a period of time that a new mother will remain confined to the house with her baby so that she can rest and heal. Typically lasting a month, sometimes longer, the period involves the prohibition of certain ordinary tasks such as working out, bathing, intercourse, household chores, amongst others.
The tradition is based off of the belief that, after giving birth, a woman’s body will become more fragile and more susceptible to illness. If yin (cold) comes into contact with the new mum during this crucial period, she is unlikely to properly heal, hence rules like no cold water or foods.
Confinement is a tradition deeply ingrained in Chinese society. The new mothers adopt a new routine different from day-to-day living for an entire month to aid recovery. As they’re restricted from doing any sort of household chores, some will even hire a confinement nanny to make TCM approved soups and recipes, care for the baby and ensure that both are well-supported throughout the month.
What is the purpose of confinement?
- Full rest and recuperation for both mother and baby
- Allow for the womens reproductive organs to recover
- Special “confinement foods” are made to provide nourishment and facilitate the production of breast milk
- To protect against common ailments associated with post-delivery
Read more: Chinese Confinement
How does TCM help mothers during Confinement?
During the confinement period, TCM is used to boost post-natal recovery and replenish blood, fluids and qi. Specially selected ingredients and herbs are also used to promote the supply of breast milk and iorn in the blood.
These include the following:
- Dang Gui – used to replenish blood supply
- Chuan Xiong – improve blood circulation around the body
- Dang Shen – increase bodily fluids and Qi
- Huang Qi – support the body’s immune system and strengthen the Spleen and Stomach for a stronger digestive system
TO WRAP UP
Through the use of acupuncture, lifestyle advice, and herbal formulas, Traditional Chinese Medicine can assist women through every stage of their life to ensure prolonged health and wellness.