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How Can I Get Started With Traditional Chinese Medicine?

In the 19th century, when large numbers of Chinese laborers arrived in the United States, the immigrant community also included TCM physicians and herbal merchants. Ah Fong Chuck became the first licensed practitioner of TCM in the United States in 1901 when he was awarded a medical license in Idaho. With the advent of World War II and the interruption of the herb supply from China, these practices disappeared or retreated into Chinatowns nationwide. In the 1970s, President Nixon reopened communication with China and the practice of TCM began to gain visibility once again throughout the United States. Now, a clear interest in acupuncture, herbs, and qigong can be found among many North American people. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the NIH is sponsoring many research programs studying the applicability of TCM to common western ailments (see Table 3.4). Their Web site (nccam.nih.gov) is a great place to start an investigation of what kind of TCM might be right for you.

Table 3.4 Studies Funded by the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health

Medical Condition

TCM Treatment

Unipolar depression




Premenstrual syndrome

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Common warts

Chinese herbal therapy

Balance disorders

T'ai Chi

Menopausal hot flashes

Chinese herbal therapy

Postoperative oral surgery pain


Breech version


Chronic sinusitis in HIV infection

Traditional Chinese Medicine



Intractable reflex sympathetic Dystrophy



Diet is a primary area where TCM can provide us with some practical guidelines. North Americans seem to have diets of extremes, with fluctuation between overindulgence in food and starvation diets. It is often an all-or-none attitude that has neglected the principle of balance. Limiting the diet to a few fruits and vegetables may be as harmful as a steady diet of hamburgers. In TCM it is believed that illness can be avoided by eating a varied diet as much as possible. For example, avoiding a cold or hot imbalance is accomplished by eating a minimum of seven different fruits and vegetables each day.

For mild, temporary illnesses one might use a number of diet remedies. The cold type of the common cold and flu previously described as characterized by low-grade fever, no sweating, headache, muscle aches, stuffy nose, and a cough with clear white phlegm is treated with warming foods such as garlic, ginger, chives, pepper, pumpkin, apple, onion, and lamb. The hot type of the common cold and flu with its symptoms of high fever, sweating, headache, dry or sore throat, thirst, nasal congestion, and sticky or yellow mucus responds to cooling foods such as watermelon, eggplant, banana, plums, tomato, and tofu.

The cold type of low back pain characterized by coldness and severe pain in the lower back that gradually worsens over time, is not relieved by lying down, and is aggravated by rainy days is treated with hot foods including garlic, chicken, apple, yam, celery, onion, peach, and mustard greens. The hot type of back pain that includes symptoms such as soreness of the lower back that is relieved by lying down, weakness of the legs, and frequent relapses is treated with cooling foods such as peanuts, sesame, soybeans, beef, pineapple, and grapes.

Breathing and Relaxation

Like many other forms of alternative therapies, TCM regards breath as an important function of life. Restrictions in breathing lead to dysfunction and disease. Forming healthy breathing habits can counter stress and help balance body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

Throughout the day one may find hundreds of opportunities to integrate some deep breathing, relaxation, self-massage, and gentle movement techniques into usual activities. For example, you could try any one of these techniques:

  • You are sitting at a stoplight. Take a deep breath.

  • You are just about to fall asleep or have just awakened. Breathe deeply and allow your whole body to become completely relaxed.

  • You are in the shower washing your hair. As you apply shampoo, massage your scalp vigorously; rub your ears, relax, take several deep breaths.

  • As you apply lotion or oil to your body following your bath, do so with the intent of relaxing each muscle group as you gently massage your entire body.

  • You are watching television. During each commercial break, massage your hands, feet, and ears. Breathe deeply and relax.

  • You are vacuuming the house. Relax your shoulders, breathe deeply, and coordinate your movements with your breathing.

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