Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks






Chinese Medicine is the Ultimate Holistic Medicine

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine, medical professor at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the oldest, and the most widely widely-experienced medicine on the planet (it helps that more than 20% of humans are Chinese).  As they catch up to Chinese Medicine (while, of course, believing they are on the cutting edge), Americans are becoming aware of and open to "Holistic" medicine.  Patients are increasingly unsatisfied with biomedical treatment options, especially with pharmaceuticals that promise only symptomatic relief while producing even more unwanted symptoms (called side-effects).  Holistic Medicine seems to offer something different and potentially more healing.  But what is it?

"Holistic" means the belief that something is more than the sum of its parts.

Holistic Medicine, then, is any healing system that fundamentally believes a person to be more than the sum of their parts.  A Holistic Medicine provides a unified framework for diagnosis and treatment that includes every part of the patient's life.  This means that a holistic healthcare practitioner will be as comfortable with your emotions as with your tendons and ligaments.  Nothing is irrelevant.  Everything fits.  Western biomedical anatomy (what is in the body) and physiology (how the anatomy works) divide the body into many parts.  This makes it possible to be very specific about internal biological processes and is the basis for how a great many biomedical diseases are categorized and named.  However, this system does not necessarily have a unified understanding of all its parts, and this is reflected when it comes time for treatment.

TCM is not nearly as specific about anatomy (there was a cultural taboo against autopsy until the 1600's). It does not utilize microscopes and MRI's for its diagnosis.  It has different ideas about physiology and different methods of diagnosis. 

In some ways, TCM is more specific in its diagnoses than biomedicine.

Nonetheless, the practical beauty of TCM is that once a pattern diagnosis is made (and any disease can be diagnosed according to TCM principles), treatment options are clear, specific and effective.  In some ways, TCM is more specific in its diagnoses than biomedicine.

For example, an MD may diagnose a patient with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE).  Biomedical treatment often consists of corticosteroids such as prednisone.  A TCM practitioner would not ignore the SLE diagnosis, but would know that not every SLE patient is the same.  It would be easy to imagine at least 5 distinct TCM patterns for SLE patients.  A TCM practitioner must discover the more specific pattern diagnosis before treating the patient if they expect them to get well.

Diagnosis is Essential to Good Medicine

Doctors cannot treat without a diagnosis.  Diagnosis means, literally, "complete knowledge."  The TCM practitioner will conduct a thorough interview, history, and physical exam in order to get this complete knowledge of their patient.  They will ask you questions about everything from your bowel movements and menstruation to your typical emotional states.  They will be paying attention to your skin color, listening to the tone of your voice, noting your choice of words and rate of speech, and watching how much or how little you move, among other things.  All of these data are used to narrow down the diagnosis to a pattern or combination of patterns.

Diagnostic patterns are like constellations, where signs and symptoms are the stars.  Another allegory might be to think of a pattern as a puzzle, with symptoms being the puzzle pieces.  For an example, we can borrow a bit from the typology inherent in TCM. 

Diagnostic patterns are like constellations - signs and symptoms are the stars.


A Down to Earth Example

Let's imagine someone who is a bit overweight, somewhat slow and sing-songy in their speech, tends to worry a lot (perhaps is even obsessive), loves to eat sweets, gets tired after eating, and is easily overwhelmed. With this little information, a TCM practitioner is well on their way to a diagnosis. This person would be called an 'Earth' type in TCM 5 element theory. They tend to have problems with the Spleen System which is responsible for digestion and academic thought, among other things. This is not nearly as specific as a TCM diagnosis must become before treatment begins, but it gives you an idea.

Once a diagnosis is made that includes an understanding of the underlying causes, it is possible to think about treatment.  Before we can discuss this, we need to define a couple more terms.  In TCM, the symptom about which a patient complains (e.g. headache) is considered the branch, while the root of the condition is explained by the diagnosis.  The difference between TCM and biomedicine in treatment is that TCM can almost always treat the branch AND the root.  Biomedicine often must resort solely to branch (palliative or symptomatic) treatment, leaving the root problem to resolve on its own or linger indefinitely.  Some conditions that are treated in this superficial way by biomedicine, but can often be effectively resolved at a deep level by TCM are asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depression, and anxiety.

Herbal Formulas

One treatment method is the use of herb formulas.  These formulas contain from 2-15 herbs in very specific proportions and are based on centuries of clinical success.  Once the TCM practitioner makes a pattern diagnosis, they can choose one or several classical herbal formulas that address the problem. 

Because the pattern diagnosis and the herbal formulas are so specific, they rarely produce side-effects.


The Power of Personalization

Then, they can personalize the formula even further for that patient.  Because the pattern diagnosis and the herbal formulas are so specific, they rarely produce side-effects.  The presence of an uncomfortable effect of the herbal formula can be used by the practitioner to make their diagnosis even more accurate, and treatment more effective.  From this perspective, pharmaceutical-prescribing MD's seem like novice herbalists, and the rampant side-effects experienced by patients become unacceptable.  Some forward-thinking MD's (like Jay Goldstein) today are combining pharmaceuticals into 'cocktails' not unlike traditional chinese herbal formulas.  TCM herbalists today are continuing a 5000 year tradition by prescribing effective, personalized herbal medicines.

All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.
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