How traditional Chinese medicine is being adopted by the West
Stick your tongue out, he gestured, before recoiling in horror. "Now let me feel your pulse." He took my hands and gasped. "Have you been drinking cold water?" he asked with a scathing look. The temperature was nudging 36°C, so surely I could be forgiven for indulging in a little cool drink? Clearly not.
I was living in China's north-west and my insomnia had reached a peak, causing me serious distress. "If you try anything health-wise in China, it has to be acupuncture," many people advised me. Given I was desperate, and I was in the land where Chinese medicine had been practised for thousands of years, I gave it a try.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the body carries qi, your “life force” or vital energy.Credit:Alamy
A week later, I found myself lying flat on my back with dozens of needles, much thicker than the ones I'd experienced in the West, inserted into various body parts. Not only that, I also had two heat lamps bearing down on me, along with the wafting smoke of what looked like a smouldering cigar. (It's called moxibustion, a form of Chinese therapy claimed to stimulate circulation.)
When a dozen pouches of blood-red liquidised herbs arrived at my front door, one sip of the potent, ashy tasting medicine had me dry retching. The smell seemed to ooze from my pores for days. I finished them – just – after a week and my insomnia eased up … for a while.
Fast-forward a few years and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is making a mark in the West. With a booming wellness market and many GPs looking to treat disease with a holistic approach, its popularity has surged. And although many physicians are sceptical about whether TCM is effective, research shows complementary medicine can make a big difference in a patient's quality of life.
How is it supposed to work? While Western medicine tends to focus on science, TCM is based on balance, harmony and energy. According to TCM, the body carries qi, your "life force" or vital energy.
The idea of yin and yang as two opposite, complimentary energies is one of the most fundamental concepts in TCM. When these are unbalanced, it's believed that your body becomes ill. For example, with diets, you need a balance of cool (yin) and hot (yang) foods.
In an unprecedented move, the newest version of the World Health Organisation's list, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which will come into effect in January 2022, will include TCM diagnoses for the first time in its history.
The WHO sets the norms and standards for medical treatment around the globe and articulates ethical and evidence-based policy options. It categorises thousands of diseases and influences how doctors treat them; how insurers cover those treatments; and what kind of research is done on which ailments.
Still, many Western-trained scientists are deeply concerned, claiming TCM is unscientific, unsupported by clinical trials and potentially dangerous. "I thought the WHO was committed to evidencebased medicine," sniffed UK epidemiologist Richard Peto.
As well, a 2012 audit of 15 traditional Chinese medicine preparations that had been seized by Australian customs discovered traces of endangered animals and toxic plants, as well as water buffalo, cow and goat DNA.
Yet at a time when the Australian Government has scratched health insurance rebates for natural therapies such as naturopathy, herbal medicine, iridology, yoga and pilates, TCM (including acupuncture) is not on the list. More health practitioners are starting to see the benefits of blending the two, saying integrated treatments will be more popular in the future.
I'm all for it, but is it too much to ask for some sweetener to be added to the herbal medicine?
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale May 5.
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