Thursday, 7 November 2013

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Allergic Rhinitis (Part 1)

As you know, I've always been interested in the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But its beyond me to explain how TCM works in dealing with allergies. It is my pleasure to invite Ka Hang Leoungk, a TCM practitioner, to share more on this topic in this series of guest post. Read more on her credentials below. 

What is Acupuncture 

Acupuncture is one discipline under the umbrella of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) which includes Chinese herbal medicine, tuina (Chinese remedial massage) and nutrition. At its simplest, acupuncture is the insertion of sterile needles in a particular area or point on the body. To determine the areas needled, your acupuncturist would diagnose you through a physical consultation that includes questions on your current state and past medical history which helps him or her arrive at a diagnosis using TCM theory. It is this diagnosis using TCM that differentiates the school of traditional acupuncture from the more recent “western medical acupuncture” practiced by physiotherapists, osteopaths etc, which primarily focuses on using acupuncture for pain conditions. 

An Introduction to TCM 

TCM can seem paradoxically vague and complex to the layman, and that is partly due to the terms and definitions which can be translated into the English language but don’t necessarily correspond to its English counterpart. You may have heard about phrases like, “Anger causes Liver dysfunction” which can seem quite alarming. I know my non-TCM brain automatically associates Liver dysfunction with Hepatitis or cirrhosis. Or you may have picked up that “low back pain is due to poor Kidneys and problem with the Bladder”. Again, what does that mean? If I have low back problems am I eventually going to need dialysis and be incontinent?  

You may have noticed that I spelt Liver, Kidney and Bladder with capitals, as if I were describing John, May and Watson. And I could be. The best way to begin to understand TCM is to see the organs described as a character with functions and duties, likes and dislikes. Think of TCM as a Game of Thrones saga (without the backstabbing and dragons).  

TCM originated thousands of years ago in China and a lot of the theory was based on anatomical studies on cadavers along with observations of patterns and syndromes on living patients. A simple example: they noticed that if you were caught out in the rain and then had no dry change of clothing you would end up cold and wet, shivering even if you were by a fire. The ancient Chinese didn’t have the tools and understanding we have today to describe bacteria and viruses but they could observe and note down what they saw. If something happened enough times, the ancient doctors sought to give explanations, and as this happened in ancient China, a lot of the explanations were poetic and abstract, which sometimes makes it difficult for the western mind to understand. 

However, all the observations made by the ancient Chinese happened in the natural world, and the world is the same everywhere. The seasons may be different depending on which hemisphere you’re in but seasons will still change. Leaves may not go a beautiful golden red if you don’t leave in parts of north America but you still know if it’s autumn. Here in the UK where I live, summer doesn’t necessarily happen just because the calendar says it’s June, but when summer does eventually show up, you can definitely feel a change in the air. This is what the ancient Chinese and practitioners of TCM describe as yin and yang.  

The very simplistic definition of yin and yang is opposites, as in day and night, heavy and light, female and male. However in TCM, a better way to understand yin and yang is to think of changes and cycles. Just like the cold, dark days of winter cannot last forever because spring is always going to be around the corner, when it comes to our health there will be peaks and troughs. Yin and yang is the very opposite of the mentality that believes in yo-yo dieting or binges. A curry lover may love spicy-hot food but they can’t eat it every single day without it doing harm to their body. Eventually somewhere they will crave (or be ordered to) eat some fresh vegetables that are mildly flavoured. 

I tell my patients to imagine themselves as being on a x-y graph where the goal is to hover around zero-balance. Zero does sound so boring and unimaginative, after all who wants to be zero? I do! We will all inevitably fluctuate, perhaps up to +5 then down to -3 then back to +2 but either way our bodies are naturally trying to rebalance and recalibrate around the 0-mark. That is the ultimate yin-yang.  

Your body is like the government: there is the local government at city hall, then representatives of the county, then higher up is the state or province leading ultimately to the big shots. The president doesn’t generally interfere with the city hall’s recycling policy and the city hall officials tend to not really affect the workings of the province, but sometimes a decision from high up can have strong effects on the grassroots projects. 

In the same way, those five extra cookies you had at lunch shouldn’t really make a difference on your overall health, but overindulge at every meal every day for three years and your body will definitely feel it. This is where those organ names like Spleen, Kidney, Stomach etc enter the picture.  

Remarkably the ancient Chinese didn’t attribute body functions and characteristics to randomly picked names like Lotus, Dragon and Tree. They picked actual names of anatomical organs and appointed functions which sometimes actually corresponded with its respective anatomical functions, you can imagine the confusion this causes. So do bear in mind when reading anything TCM-related that we are talking about the TCM organ, the general practice is to capitalize the first letter.


More about Ka Hang Leoungk: Ka Hang practices traditional acupuncture at the renowned Hale Clinic near Regent’s Park in central London, and Neal’s Yard Remedies on King’s Road, Chelsea. She trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) from Middlesex University in the UK, and completed a Bachelor of Medicine from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. She is a Registered Acupuncturist, member of the British Acupuncture Council (MBAcC) and one of few practitioners in the UK to use the Balance Method style of acupuncture. She is also an Academic Associate of the British Medical Acupuncture Society (BMAS) You can find her on her websiteFacebook and Twitter.