With herbal tea shops dotting most street corners in Hong Kong, and whole districts dedicated to medicinal dispensaries, it’s impossible to spend time in this city without feeling the allure of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But with its use dating back centuries, where do you begin? Are there any risks? And is there a place for it in your current wellness plan?
I’ve reached out to Gianna Buonocore (a registered Chinese Medicine Practitioner of the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong) for more insights.
Q: What are the basic principles of TCM?
Traditional Chinese Medicine TCM has its origins in ancient China and includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, and diet therapy. It has been used continuously for thousands of years because it offers a workable theory to treat the human condition.
According to TCM, you are in good health when your body is in Yin – Yang balance. This means that you should have enough energy (Yang) to get through the day and after a restful sleep (Yin) feel refreshed and ready to go again. If your mind won’t shut off, you eat too much, suffer with repeated colds, always feel irritable or easily feel hot or cold; then your body is out of balance. When out of balance, you are more predisposed to illnesses such as hormonal imbalance, insomnia, pain conditions, digestive disorders and thyroid problems.
According to TCM, the human body contains vital substances – Qi (energy), blood, and body fluids, which nourish, moisturize and give “life” to the body. They flow through a series of channels, which connect the body to an organic whole. If there is a disruption in the flow of these substances; due to poor diet, infection, emotional stress, trauma etc., a deficiency or blockage occurs causing an imbalance in the body.
Q: What is the primary difference in philosophy between Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and more conventional medicine?
The human body is viewed differently in terms of Western and TCM. In Western Medicine the human body is viewed like different parts of a car. If the car breaks down, the doctor will look for the defective part and then repair or replace it. This approach has led to doctors specializing in different parts of the body –cardiologists, gynecologists, gastroenterologists and dermatologists. In contrast, in TCM, all parts of the car are interconnected and interrelated so that if one part has a problem then the whole car is under stress. This holistic approach emphasizes the connection of mind, body and spirit and our connection to the environment.
Q: How do you personally incorporate TCM in your modern practice?
Since no two people are the same, it follows that their treatments may be different even if they suffer with the same complaint. This is because their constitutions and accompanying symptoms are often different. For instance, one person may have trouble sleeping, sugar cravings, sluggish bowels, while the other may have cold hands and feet, a poor appetite, loose bowels and a weak pulse. In TCM, treatments are tailored to meet the specific needs of the person. This approach results in a better clinical outcome.
Q: Does acupuncture hurt?
Acupuncture does not hurt, however people report various sensations – tingling, warming, numbness, or discomfort. The needles are very fine and are inserted into specific parts of the body to release blockages or modify the experience of pain – headache, muscular pain, period pain and sinusitis.
Q: Do you use TCM as a standalone treatment, or do you find yourself combining TCM with other holistic healing modalities?
We usually use a combination of acupuncture, herbs and diet therapy [at IMI or Matilda]. If some patients are afraid of needles, we will prescribe concentrated herbal granules. Sometimes we combine TCM with other modalities such as osteopathy or psychotherapy depending on the problem. Nutraceuticals such as probiotics, fish oils and vitamins and minerals are helpful.
Q: The goal is always vibrant health, wellness and prevention, addressing minor issues where needed and bringing balance to the body. Is there a role for TCM in prevention and daily use?
TCM can be used on a regular basis to maintain health and beauty. Its widespread use is probably why China has a relatively high life-expectancy. Historically, a Chinese Medicine doctor was paid a retainer to keep their patients healthy but if a patient became sick, the doctor would not be paid until the patient’s health returned. For this reason we are trained to look for subtle changes in the body and treat them before they manifest into a disease.
Q: Beyond the medicinal and therapeutic side of TCM, is there crossover into diet and lifestyle recommendations from a TCM angle?
Moderation is the key to living a healthy lifestyle and this means balancing Yin and Yang. Too much inactivity (Yin) or too much exercise (Yang); too much sleep (Yin) or too much work (Yang); too much cold food (Yin) or too much hot food (Yang) can throw the body out of balance. Roasts and baked foods (Yang) are preferred in winter, while salads and fruits (Yin) are preferred in summer. Emotional balance is also important – worry, grief, anger and fear (Yang) should be balanced with meditation and self-reflection (Yin).
We often recommend certain foods and lifestyle changes depending on the person’s underlying problem. A hot pattern such as high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism may benefit from Yin type foods. Conversely a damp person with productive cough and bloating may benefit from Yang type foods.
Q: Is there a place for TCM in all disease processes? For diseases at the far end of the immune spectrum, like cancer, do you believe that TCM can play an important role?
TCM has a place in all disease processes. It is effective in preventing and treating common health problems such as insomnia, coughs and colds, menstrual pain, infertility, sinusitis and headache. For more serious health conditions such as cancer and arthritis, something can always be done. TCM can alleviate nausea and vomiting and fatigue associated with cancer; and pain and stiffness associated with arthritis. TCM can also be used to reduce pain medication and dependence on non-essential prescription drugs.
Q: What is actually in TCM medicine? (When I think TCM, I think ground up sea horses and chicken beaks… clear the air!)
TCM herbs may be derived from animal, plant or mineral. A typical formula can contain up to 20 different herbs but it rarely contains animal parts. They are more likely to contain the flower, root, leaf or rhizome of a plant. They can be sold as a powder, tablet or decoction. You may have heard of these herbs but we have never had them in our clinic; ginseng root – very expensive; seahorse and rhinoceros horn – claimed to be powerful aphrodisiacs.
Q: Are your TCM medicines safe and do they contain animal parts?
It is important to source herbal products from a reputable TCM shop or clinic. At our clinic [IMI and Matilda] we use concentrated Chinese Medicine Granules from a reputable herbal company that follows the GMP guidelines and tests for heavy metals, microbial and pesticide content. The granules are simply added to hot water and taken as a tea.
Q: Every street corner features an herbal shop with different teas, tinctures and dried ingredients. What do we need to know?
Chinese Herbal tea shops have been around since the 1950’s and serve ready-made herbal teas. Since the tea is made fresh daily it is considered to be more efficacious than other teas. One of the most notable and bitter herbal teas is “twenty four flavors tea”, which is helpful if you have too much heat in your body – e.g. mouth ulcers or pimples. There is also “influenza tea” for flu or “expelling damp tea” if you feel sluggish and bloated.
Chinese Medicine shops are also noted for their strong smells and sell a variety of dried animal and plant products. Inside, there will be a TCM practitioner who will prescribe a variety of herbs depending on your health condition. When you get home you need to boil them and take the decoction as directed.
Q: Any over-the-counter TCM remedies we should have on hand?
The two best over the counter TCM remedies, suitable for children are (1) Citrus and Crateagus Formula (Bao He Wan) for indigestion, bloating, overeating and abdominal pain, and (2) Lonicera and Forsythia Formula (Yin Qiao San) for the first signs of a common cold – fever, sore throat, headache etc.
Q: When deciding on a TCM practitioner or practice, what should we look for and what should we avoid?
There are about 8,000 TCM practitioners [in Hong Kong] and some are fluent in English. Ask around for a recommendation and then check they are a Registered Chinese Medicine Practitioner by searching their name on the website http://www.cmchk.org.hk. All practitioners should have their licenses displayed. Most, if not all, use disposable needles for acupuncture but it is worth asking anyway. Although herbs are effective, their safety cannot always be guaranteed, especially loose herbs.
Gianna Buonocore is a Hong Kong registered Chinese Medicine Practitioner of the Chinese Medicine Council of Hong Kong. Gianna treats a variety of health problems using acupuncture, cupping and moxibustion at the Integrated Medicine Institute and Matilda Medical Centre in Central. In the past she worked as a pharmacist in NZ and UK, and speaks English and Italian.
For further research on Traditional Chinese Medicine, check out The Foundations of Chinese Medicine.