An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is still in use today and has deep and rich roots that have grown for over a thousand years. In fact, the use of traditional medicine in the United States has gained more popularity in the past couple of years, as evidenced by Olympic athletes utilizing the technique of cupping at the recent Rio 2016 games and licensed acupuncture becoming legalized in 43 out of 50 states since 2008. Traditional Chinese medicine is not only an alternative treatment process for certain chronic illnesses, but it is also useful to understand because it provides more individualized treatment and more heavily emphasizes balance in the body, compared to Western medicine. Integrating Chinese medicine into Western medicine is a crucial focus within the healthcare field as well as in public health.

So what exactly is TCM? As the name suggests, the practice originated in ancient China and has evolved over time. It is centered around acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, herbal medicine, tui na, and qi gong. Acupuncture entails stimulating various pressure points throughout the body with needles. Moxibustion is the burning of herbs above the skin. Cupping is used to free stagnation by providing suction on the skin. Herbal medicine is the use of traditional herbs that have medicinal properties. Tui na is a type of massage, and qi gong uses exercises and breathing to help circulation in the body. The treatments in TCM are centered around balance within both the body and the environment around the body.

Even at Berkeley, TCM is gaining momentum. There is a clinic and school on Shattuck called the AIMC, which stands for Acupuncture and Integrative Medicine College. There is also a TCM Decal offered, which I am enrolled in. As an assignment, I visited the clinic and learned more about acupuncture and TCM diagnosis techniques. It was through the class that I got to understand the different TCM treatments and learned about using both TCM and Western medicine as a healthcare professional in the future.

I interviewed Dr. Nishanga Bliss, a professor at the AIMC as well as the author of Real Food All Year. Dr. Bliss talked about what got her interested in TCM, a basic diagnosis method that everyone can use, and also discussed health and nutrition advice for college students.

Dr. Bliss, growing up in the Bay Area, was exposed to and was always interested in Chinese culture. She began to have an interest in TCM after she worked at a women’s health clinic. “I saw that there was a lot missing around the health care, so I began looking into other systems of medicine that treated some of the missing pieces, and then I found Chinese medicine.” She has been practicing TCM ever since 1999 and has also worked at the Immune Enhancement Project in San Francisco for 10 years, which had a focus on HIV in the low-income community. She began teaching at the AIMC in 2008, where she teaches Oriental Medicine Theory, Diagnosis, Counseling and Psychology, and Practice Building in addition to supervising the clinic. According to Dr. Bliss, TCM is more focused on the person who has the disease rather than the disease itself, unlike Western medicine.

As a basic diagnosis technique, Dr. Bliss recommends looking at the tongue, which reflects the climate in the body. Different changes in lifestyle can affect the  color of the tongue or the coating on the tongue. A healthy tongue should have a pale pink color with a thin white coating. It’s a simple and convenient check-up that can be done while brushing the teeth.

With midterms and finals plaguing UC Berkeley students, stress is very common. Stress, in the TCM viewpoint, is a form of stagnation. In order to relieve stress, exercising or just moving around will help with that stagnation. Dr. Bliss recommends exercising and then meditating before studying instead of using caffeine to maintain focus and relaxation. The simplest way to meditate is to just relax and focus on breathing for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Another common health problem among students is cold and flu, especially during late autumn and winter. Dr. Bliss recommends, before the sickness settles in, to drink something hot and spicy to induce sweating, such as a ginger tea or cinnamon tea. “One of my favorites is to get a spicy Thai soup like a chicken curry coconut soup, which is also good for the immune system.” As a way of prevention, Dr. Bliss recommends eating kimchi in the fall, which has probiotics to support the immune system. She warns against sugar, which suppresses the immune system. Dairy, raw foods, and sugar should be minimized when one is sick with the cold or flu. She recommends eating warm foods and more vegetables. “We should eat foods that our grandmas once suggested.”

With midterms, finals, and loads of homework assignments, students often forget about their health, which is more important than anything, especially during stressful times. Hopefully, basic TCM techniques and advice can help with dealing with stress and sickness, as well as broaden the understanding of what it takes to live a healthy, balanced life as a student and a member of a community.