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What Americans Could Learn From Traditional Chinese Medicine

United States Wellness
by Whitney Shindelar Jun 22, 2016

When I was living in China, I came across a large sampling of health advice: Cut your hair short when you’re pregnant. Don’t eat ice cream when you’re on a menstrual cycle. Always drink warm water. Women shouldn’t shower for thirty days after giving birth. Foot massages help to maintain your health by stimulating your internal organs. Acupuncture can help to relieve a variety of common ailments. Cupping releases toxins from the body.

And that’s only some of it.

These suggestions came so nonchalantly too — like when a concerned parent tells a child that if they go outside with wet hair they’ll catch a cold. Maybe they aren’t exactly based on anything scientific, but theories and superstitions are very much alive in different cultures around the world. When I acknowledged a culture’s superstitions respectfully while traveling, I felt like I was able to immerse myself even more. So when I was living in China, I did my best to take all these TCM beliefs in. And when I returned home to the United States, I actually came back with knowledge that I’ve been able to reflect on in my daily life.

First, the history:

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is similar to something you may have heard about in your yoga classes: Ayurveda, or ‘the science of life.’ Ayurveda dates back more than 1,200 years and is a medical practice that’s mostly utilized in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India. When these ancient texts were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese in 400 AD, many Chinese scholars traveled to India in order to further their medical knowledge. The practice of traditional medicine in China began long before humanity was using the written word, therefore, a specific date cannot be attributed to its origins. Nonetheless, it is widely accepted that there is a large overlap in the theories and practices of both Ayurveda and TCM.

Traditional Medicine can be found in almost every country in the world and is sometimes the only option for rural communities. As traditional medical treatments are often natural and herbal, they are more affordable than modern medicine and to some, more acceptable. Interestingly, there are numerous modern medical treatments that were originally derived from traditional medicine. And today, modern medicine still looks to traditional treatments in order to continue on a path of innovation and discovery.

As of 2014, the World Health Organization recognized that more and more countries are utilizing both traditional and modern medicine side by side and that health insurance companies are supporting this practice. In order for this integration to succeed in more countries, clinical studies, quality control, and regulation must be implemented with a level of professionalism that can be accepted by all cultures.

Our western society hasn’t reached that point quite yet, but here are some practices that we could all take into consideration — and most of them have already made their way into the mainstream.

“Always drink warm water.”

In the western world, we’re always getting served water with ice. It’s probably natural for you to wait for the water to get cold before you actually fill your glass up with it. So this ‘drink warm water’ thing might seem ultra-strange. According to TCM though, there’s valid reasoning behind it.

The enzymes present in our stomach, which aid in digestion, can only survive in a limited temperature range. When we consume cold food and beverages, our bodies must expend energy to increase the temperature of these items in order to maintain the balance of enzymes in our stomach. The overall digestion process is therefore slowed. If cold food is ingested on a regular basis, for long periods of time, some serious health challenges may arise. Unfortunately, whether this seems logical or not, there isn’t any scientific research to support TCM’s explanation.

“Acupuncture can help with pain relief.”

Acupuncture is practiced by placing very thin needles through the skin in specific areas around the body. TCM believes that the body is composed of meridians, or channels through which energy flows. Acupuncture points correspond with the area at which two meridians intersect and the insertion of the needle is believed to be able to release a blockage of energy.

This philosophy-based medicine is used to treat close to four dozen ailments, including arthritis, anxiety, and food allergies. But scientific evidence that proves the body is indeed composed of meridians doesn’t exist yet, nor can we detect a flow of energy. So acupuncture remains a controversial topic among scientists and doctors in Western societies. Furthermore, pain is an abstract, subjective symptom that is difficult to study scientifically. Studies have been able to show a decrease in pain symptoms and a general acceptance of acupuncture is increasing, but scientists are still unable to explain how acupuncture decreases pain symptoms.

“Foot massages can stimulate your internal organs.”

In Western societies, massages often bring to mind an environment and an experience that is both peaceful and relaxing. In China, reflexology is a part of daily life, it can be quite inexpensive, but it’s often far from relaxing. Rather than using sweeping motions and moderate pressure as a western masseuse might, reflexologists will apply firm pressure on specific points. There is evidence supporting the idea that areas of the feet, hands, and ears correspond to one’s internal organs and that when pressure is applied to those areas, blood flow increases to the organs. The benefits of reflexology, such as pain reduction and improved circulation, overlap with Acupuncture and other TCM practices.

“Cupping helps to release toxins from the body.”

Cupping is a common practice that uses a thick glass cup that has been warmed. Once warm, a burning cotton swab saturated with alcohol will remove the oxygen from the cup so that it suctions onto your back when applied with pressure. This suction will increase blood flow to that particular area and will pull that section of skin up into the cup slightly. Toxins are then able to be released from the body through these open pores. In addition to releasing toxins, this practice is believed to help balance the flow of energy throughout the body as multiple cups are placed for 5-10 minutes all over your back. Although it may not be a mainstream idea just yet, there are actually quite a few alternative medicine centers across the U.S. who practice this method.

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