Not feeling well? Then try some medicine tailored just for you

Traditional Chinese medicine is now one of the UK’s most popular alternative treatments. Our correspondent explains the philosophy behind it and how it can be practised safely

It is a healing system that is reputed to be 3,000 years old but which holds undoubted appeal for modern living. With more than 1,000 clinics employing 3,000 practitioners, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is now one of the most popular alternative treatment approaches in the UK. Advocates claim that it works for a vast number of conditions including migraines, skin diseases, hormonal problems, sexual dysfunction and infertility, stress and depression. In fact, they say, virtually the only conditions it cannot treat are acute, life- threatening ones or something requiring surgery.
In the simplest terms, the theory behind TCM is that illness is caused by an imbalance in the body between the two opposite yet complementary energies of yin and yang, or a blockage along one of the meridians or pathways associated with various organs through which flows the vital energy of qi (pronounced “chee”).
“The philosophy of TCM is important and states that yang is external, representing heat, hyperactivity, light and dryness, while yin is internal and is associated with night, quietness, dampness and cold,” says Dr Ming Cheng, head of the TCM degree programme at Middlesex University. “To be healthy, yin and yang must be balanced.” According to the Ancient Chinese, the body also has an internal climate and, as drought causes plants to wilt, so inner dryness is thought to cause chapped skin and so on. Each of the body’s organs is linked directly to a particular element: fire for the heart, earth for the spleen, water for the kidneys, metal for the lungs and wood for the liver. By interacting in a number of ways, they, too, affect the health — for instance, the kidneys (water) nourish the liver (wood).
“Everything from the way a patient carries himself to his posture and even the way he talks will offer valuable indicators to his state of wellbeing,” says Cheng. “Undoubtedly his tongue will be examined: size, shape, moisture, colour and coating are all believed to be an external reflection of the state of someone’s internal organs.”
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Only once all these factors have been considered and a far more detailed analysis of a patient’s history than required in Western medicine has been made — patients are asked about their medical history and emotional state as well as any physical symptoms — can a diagnosis be reached. Problems are then corrected through a combination of herbal remedies containing a bewildering array of ingredients — more than 6,000 medicinal substances are listed, 300 of which are in everyday use — which are usually boiled into a tea or sometimes applied topically. Acupuncture (or acupressure) is also considered vital in clearing blockages and helping to balance the body’s yin and yang — imbalances which manifest themselves as illness or pain can be treated by placing a thin, disposable needle into one of more than 2,000 specific points on the body.
“TCM is an approach that is always tailored for the individual and combines several different elements in treatment,” says Dr Jidong Wu, a spokesperson for the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ATCM). “What works for one person’s illness may not be right for another’s.”

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Even in China, where the industry is worth an estimated £15.2 billion, the merits of TCM are being questioned. Last year an eminent doctor, Professor Zhang Gongyao, caused uproar by describing the traditional approach as “untrustworthy” and “pseudo-science” and launching an online petition to have TCM replaced with Western medicine in hospitals.
“TCM doesn’t match the key elements of what we call science,” he says. “There’s no reasonable logic to it, no solid evidence for it and it has no consistent effects.”
The number of TCM doctors in China is falling too, down to 219,000 from 480,000 in 1949. To rub salt into the wounds of those who hold it in high regard, a survey by the national newspaper China Youth Daily recently found that 72 per cent would choose Western medicine ahead of TCM.
Ironically, as faith in TCM remedies appears to be temporarily on the wane in China, it is thriving in the West. Several European drugs companies are trying to deploy the ancient techniques of TCM to develop pioneering products in both medical and cosmetic arenas.
One small London-based pharmaceutical company, ChiMed, which specialises in TCM-related research and employs China’s first Harvard scholar, Wei Guo So, is already conducting advanced trials on a drug made from Chinese herbs to help people with neck and head cancer and has signed separate deals with the drug giants Procter and Gamble and Merck. Plans for a TCM development centre in Cambridge are also being drawn up by investment agencies.
McIntyre believes that making the industry accountable for itself will mean further huge strides forward. “TCM can offer many things to many people, but at present there are loopholes that allow for bad practice,” he says. “When there is official regulation, the few bogus practitioners will be eliminated and the public will feel confident that a TCM practitioner is answerable to an official body.”

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Source - Times