C h i n e s e C h e c k u p s
by Bronwen Gora
Body and Soul Section,The Sunday Telegraph, February 3,2003.
© Sunday Telegraph. Reproduced by Permission
There’s a whole lot more to Chinese medicine than weird smelling herbs and really scary needles.
Bronwen Gora reports on the traditions revolutionising our health.
I’d always considered Chinese medicine the most bizarre alternative therapy. All those aphrodisiacs made from ground-up reindeer antlers and tiger’s private parts were a bit off-putting. And drinking teas made from indistinguishable twigs and leaves seemed more than slightly ridiculous. How could something that you’d normally sweep off the driveway cure a cold?
But after years of people telling me they felt “so much better” after drinking Chinese herbal tea or swallowing some unpronounceable herb, I decided to check it out. Feeling a little on the seedy side after the holiday season, I thought they might be able to come up with something to make me feel better.
Silly me. What I ended up with was a better diet and a more alert mind thanks to balancing my “chi” or energy flow.
It now doesn’t seem so surprising that traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, is offered as a course in universities.
Or that acupuncture has moved into the mainstream – the only alternative therapy for which you can claim a Medicare rebate.
diet as therapy
Walking into Stephen Wayne-Smith’s inner-city Zen Living Natural Health Clinic inspires oriental-style calm. Wooden floors, soft lighting and a tinkling fountain defuse stress instantly.
Clients are ushered upstairs to a small treatment room and a massage table for a traditional Chinese diagnosis – a check
of the six pulses on your wrists (three on either side) that relate to different organs, a tongue examination and questions about your general wellbeing.
My tongue is white and coated with small red spots on the edges, the zone that indicates what’s happening in the liver. These red spots tell Wayne-Smith that my system is “damp” and that my liver’s imbalanced. My pulse, too, is deep, slow and slippery, which means I’m going to be more easily fatigued than normal and generally feel sluggish.
Simply put, my spleen has been damaged by eating too many damp-producing foods – and the Turkish pizza with egg, cheese and spicy sausage I’d eaten the night before obviously didn’t make me feel as good as I thought it did. About the only thing I have done right is go for a jog, as it promotes the flow of “chi” or energy around the body.
So, thanks to a dodgy diet, my stomach’s retaining water. And, as a result, my liver energy has risen and further depressed my spleen. These two are supposed to be in equilibrium according to TCM, so my system is in a state of “mutual insult” – basically my liver is not the happy creature it should be. Its chi (energy) is suppressed and I’m tired.
The good news is that this is all fairly common – especially following the excesses of the party season – and in general I’m pretty healthy. What’s more, the imbalance only takes a few days to fix. All I need to do is eliminate certain foods for now, and eat them in moderation later.
Dampness-producing foods to avoid are milk, cheese, olives, olive oil, cucumber, fruit, sugar, wheat, eggs, spinach, soybean and pork.
Wayne-Smith says liver-aggravating substances are greasy foods, alcohol, tobacco, coffee, spices (especially chilli), sugar and red meat.
Foods that will drain the damp are adzuki beans, pumpkin, sourdough, rye, garlic, alfalfa, tuna, chicken, celery, corn and Chinese barley. These foods build up the spleen and help to combat the tiredness and fatigue, the most common symptoms of dampness. Others that directly heal the liver are chicken and beef liver, celery, plum, kelp, nori and black sesame. And foods that will raise energy are basil, bay leaf, beetroot, rosemary, saffron, marjoram, spring onion, peach, ginger, garlic and leek.
“Exercise is critical as it spreads the flow of chi through the body and helps control the symptoms of liver imbalance – PMT, irritability and depression,” says Wayne-Smith. If I can put up with the taste, Wayne-Smith says aloe vera juice will work wonders on my system, as will a few tablets of the herb Si Ni San, which will harmonise the liver and spleen.
the herbal solution
Dr Chris Ma at Surry Hills Medical Centre says he can tell a lot from just looking at – and even smelling – you.
If your thyroid’s playing up you’ll have watery skin and slightly bulging eyes.
If you’re not eating well, he’ll look for grooves in your fingernails. A member of the Australian Traditional Medical Society, he specialises in acupuncture, Chinese herbs, remedial massage and treating hair loss – the Chinese way.
Dr Ma checked my pulses, tongue and asked questions about how I felt.
He found my tongue was dark, which meant my circulation was less than perfect. My pulse also showed my energy levels weren’t optimal, but they weren’t too bad either – which was a relief.
Dr Ma prescribed ginkgo biloba for more energy – one 750mg tablet three times daily – as well as ginseng for poor circulation.
Dr Ma has treated all kinds of everyday ailments with TCM, from sore backs to menopause. “Chinese medicine is very important in balancing the yin and yang across the body,” he says, adding that TCM is also helpful for those suffering from chronic fatigue. He has treated many with Ganoderma lucidum spore – a Chinese mushroom distilled into tablets and used as an immune booster.
Dr Ma claims the mushrooms are such good immunity boosters they even cured an eight-year-old client’s chronic tonsillitis. He used to have monthly bouts but hasn’t had a relapse in eight months, Dr Ma says.
But Dr Ma uses acupuncture most often. “Putting the needle into a specific point can unlock and stimulate the energy flow, relax muscle and adjust the function of the organs and balance the yin and yang. It can instantly fix some situations,” he says.
However, TCM isn’t a cure-all. “We don’t say we can treat everything,” Dr Ma says. “If a headache is serious, for instance, then maybe it’s better to see a GP because there could be an infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics.”
how does it work?
TCM is based on the idea that the body, mind and spirit must be kept in balance. This is done by working on the three treasures. The first is the essence or life force “jing”, the second is vital energy known as “qi” and the third is the spirit and mind or “shen”.
These are kept in balance by the right exercise, diet, rest and relaxation. To achieve this, TCM practitioners balance the yin and yang, the two forms of energy in your body. Nothing is either yin or yang – they must be in balance. If your yin is weak, for instance, you may feel uneasy and anxious. If your yang is too high, it can block energy pathways and show up as anger or impatience. TCM says eating the right food, in tune with the seasons, getting enough rest and exercise, and taking herbs can bring your body back into line.
• common cold Rest, water, and a Chinese herbal tea called Clear The Way. It contains the herbs sang ye and ju hua.
Eat easily digestible food such as porridge and soups. Boil up slices of ginger, shallots and two teaspoons of red sugar (found
in Chinese grocery stores) and drink it as a tea. Don’t use white sugar – in Chinese medicine white sugar cools the body and red sugar heats it up.
• sore throat Rest, water and a Chinese herbal lolly called Sanjin Watermelon Frost.
• headache Acupuncture or ask a Chinese doctor to show you some acupressure points on your temples. If it’s a serious headache though, go and see your doctor.
• cough A Chinese herb called jie yang. It can be taken as a tea, tablets or in a powdered form and boiled, like most Chinese herbs.
choosing a doctor
How do you know whether or not your Chinese doctor is a good one? You don’t,is the short answer. There are no government regulations governing TCM. But there are accredited TCM courses at places such as the University of Western Sydney and University of Technology, Sydney, so check where your doctor trained and make up your own mind. Some practitioners register with the Australian Traditional Medicine Society, which has certain guidelines. The ATMS has 195 TCM practitioners listed, but it is not a complete list of every one in Australia. President of the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Choong-Siew Yong, says, “Our position on TCM as well as other complementary therapies is that they should be subject to the same scientific scrutiny as Western medicine, so in terms of drugs and herbs they need to be investigated in the same way.” And at the moment, they’re not.