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.
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
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.
Essential to Good Medicine
Doctors cannot treat without a
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
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.
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
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,
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
the TCM practitioner makes a pattern diagnosis, they can
choose one or several classical herbal formulas that address
Because the pattern diagnosis
and the herbal formulas are so specific, they rarely produce
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
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
herbalists today are continuing a 5000 year tradition
by prescribing effective, personalized herbal medicines.