Healing with Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM can relieve migraines, pain, allergies—even your high blood pressure.

Healing with Traditional Chinese Medicine
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Thousands of years after its inception, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is once again being embraced by people looking for a gentler, less invasive—and, in some cases, more effective—alternative to Western medicine.

HOLISTIC APPROACH. Based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese philosophy, TCM sees the body as a small universe of interconnected systems, each fueled by a life force called qi (pronounced “chee”). When these systems fall out of balance, the symptoms of disease arise. Using acupuncture, herbs, massage, and other therapies, TCM practitioners manipulate qi to treat your symptoms and correct imbalances in body, mind, and spirit. TCM can be used to care for virtually any health complaint—from allergies and back pain to high blood pressure and digestive disorders—or as a complement to conventional medicine, with almost no side effects.

STUDIES ROLL IN. Science is now starting to back TCM’s efficacy, especially acupuncture: Several studies have shown that it can match or beat conventional pain-relieving methods. Last year, for example, researchers at Duke University found acupuncture was more effective than medication at relieving many types of chronic headaches—62 percent of those using acupuncture reported relief, compared to only 45 percent of people relying on pills. The California State Oriental Medical Association now estimates that more than 15 million Americans use acupuncture yearly.

GET STARTED. Before booking your first appointment, use our guide to find out what you can expect.

Herbal medicine
Practitioners often prescribe herbal formulas to complement acupuncture treatment.

BEST FOR: A weakened immune system, skin disorders, digestive complaints, metabolic and hormonal imbalances.

WHAT TO EXPECT: A practitioner will prescribe herbs (formulas are customized from 12 or more) based on your particular complaints. The prescriptions come as decoctions (made by brewing plant stems, bark, and leaves in hot water), capsules, or a powder (which is mixed with cold or warm water and tastes better than decoctions, says Marc Sklar, a licensed provider in San Diego).

HOW IT WORKS: Some of the most frequently used herbs include:
Astragalus. Preliminary studies show this common root can support a weakened immune system.
Dong quai. Another root, it’s said to be helpful in gynecological issues, hypertension, and kidney problems.
Asian ginseng. Some studies show that ginseng from China and Korea can effectively lower blood sugar.
Lycium. Also known as wolfberry or goji berry, lycium is known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and is used to boost energy and concentration.

SHE TRIED IT! Linda Partida, 42, of Windsor, Calif.—who was once prone to pneumonia and upper respiratory infections— says she relies regularly on three to four herbal formulas to boost her immune system and combat overwhelming fatigue. “Before, I didn’t have the energy to get through the day,” she says. “The herbs have helped me bring balance back to my body and my health.”

Thin, sterile needles are inserted in predetermined points on your body.

BEST FOR: All types of pain and dozens of complaints (such as migraines, anxiety, and allergies). Complementing Western medicine, acupuncture can also offset the side effects of chemotherapy, speed up recovery from surgery, or enhance fertility treatments.

WHAT TO EXPECT: During your first visit, your practitioner will ask questions about your physical condition and emotional wellbeing. Then you’ll lie down on a massage table (you can remain partially dressed) and the practitioner will tap needles into various points on your body. The process is painless, but you may feel a slight ache upon insertion. The needles remain in place for 20 to 40 minutes, during which time the practitioner leaves you alone in the room, dimming the lights and covering you with a blanket.

HOW IT WORKS: Scientists theorize that needles not only stimulate nerves at the insertion point, but also affect nerve pathways in the brain, causing the release of endorphins (neurotransmitters that act as natural painkillers). A 2008 study at Harvard University seems to support this idea: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed increased brain activity in study subjects undergoing acupuncture, as compared to those receiving a placebo treatment. Other studies show that acupuncture influences circulation, which may decrease pain sensations and aid in organ function. A large 2004 University of Maryland study concluded that acupuncture significantly reduced knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis.

BEST FOR: Boosting effectiveness of other treatments; calming digestive disorders.

SHE TRIED IT! Last summer, 40-year-old Brigitte Thompson used acupuncture to treat severe colitis symptoms she had been suffering from since childhood. To her amazement, it worked: After three weeks, the abdominal cramping and other symptoms began to fade. By winter, she was off three of the four medications she had been taking to deal with her condition and reduced the dosage on the fourth. “Acupuncture accomplished in six months what Western medication couldn’t do in the previous 28 years,” she says.