Traditional Chinese medicine, with its talk of energy pathways and use of plants and roots to heal all manner of illness, has—to a Westerner used to checkups and prescriptions—an air of magical thinking. But major medical centers in the U.S. and Europe are realizing what they’re missing. Drug researchers are combing ancient texts of traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, seeking cures for diseases; it’s netted breakthroughs, such as the chemotherapy drug Taxol and the antimalarial treatment artemisinin. Physicians wanting to offer patients better preventative care are incorporating TCM and calling their practices integrative or complementary medicine, which describes Eastern practices augmenting Western know-how.
In Eastern medicine, even the role of doctors is different. Here, you go to the doctor when you become ill. “Traditionally, in Chinese medicine, you saw the doctor when you were well, and it was his job to keep you well,” says Shari Auth, a certified doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
Practitioners like Auth are taking TCM from niche to the mainstream. Her practice in New York City, Wthn, makes it as easy to pop in for acupuncture as it is to get a lunchtime trim.
Major medical institutions, including Duke and the Mayo Clinic, have established these integrative medicine clinics that may prescribe both an antianxiety drug and a course of yoga.
One major thing that sets Eastern medicine apart is that it sees our bodies as connected with the universe. Chi (or qi) describes the life force that flows through the body via energy pathways. Blockages result in pain and illness, which can be relieved with bodywork. In our bodies, as well as in the universe, there is yin and yang, two opposing forces, where yin is cool and yang is hot. If you have inflammation, which is excess heat, fresh fruits and vegetables (yin foods) help restore balance. If you are cold, hot soup or spices (yang foods) do the trick.
Next year, the World Health Organization is set to recognize TCM alongside Western practices. And insurance companies are starting to cover alternative practices, which will help make it accessible to more people.
Now, no one should be tossing their beta-blockers. TCM detractors say there’s insufficient clinical evidence. And China has been accused of poaching and torturing animals in the name of medicine—including tigers, rhinoceroses, pangolins, and bears.
You don’t need to subscribe to all of TCM, but it provides a useful way to think about health. It’s not about sick versus not sick. It’s about creating a well-being model, says Justin Laube, M.D., at UCLA’s Center for East-West Medicine. “We all have the ability to prevent and self-heal,” he says. “We need guides.”
Start to view your health holistically and pay attention to all facets: sleep, diet, activity, social connections, mental health—even finding purpose and joy. It’s a lifelong task. “Tending to your health is like tending to a garden,” Laube says. “You plant seeds, water them, weed out the bad. By the time you’re older, you’ve got a flourishing, resilient garden.”
TCM regards bodywork as a tool for breaking up energy blockages. Stateside, it’s used on athletes, chronic-pain sufferers, and those with mental health issues. Even the military is starting to promote medical acupuncture, including training medics who can treat soldiers in the field for physical pain and trauma. Here are a few bodywork practices.
We all have that friend who swears by it. Might be time to give it a try.
This is the poster child of TCM. Needles are placed in the body to facilitate the flow of chi. Until recently, it’s had a niche vibe in the U.S. But the number of people doing acupuncture nearly doubled from 2012 to 2017 and continues to rise, according to a survey from the National Center for Health Statistics.
What is it used for? Many try it for a specific ailment— sports injury, bad back, chemo side effects, migraines—or for general well-being, pain relief, energy, and stress reduction. It’s even being employed in heroin-addiction programs, including Penn North Recovery in West Baltimore.
Does it hurt? Not really. The needles used are thin—40 of them could fit inside a hypodermic needle. You may feel a little discomfort at some points. If you’re needle-averse, remind yourself these are for healing, not pain; some points are even soothing
Does it work? Studies say yes. A major review from the University of York in the U.K. shows people who receive acupuncture for chronic pain along with standard medical care have significantly better outcomes. Some healing is credited to the interaction itself. The practitioner asks about your well-being, giving you space to discuss what is bothering you. And studies show that touch releases oxytocin, a feel-good chemical, which lowers cortisol to reduce stress. After the needles are placed, you lie quietly and may meditate, which is good for your head. But skip the pre-acupuncture java; an animal study in Scientific Reports suggests caffeine may lower sensitivity to treatment and inhibit pain relief.
The preferred recovery method for top-of-their-game athletes is like the opposite of a massage.
Michael Phelps introduced many of us to cupping when he showed up to the Summer Olympics in Rio with purple circles on his shoulder. Cups made of plastic or glass are applied along the back, shoulders, chest, or legs. The air is removed to create a suction. The practitioner moves the cups around to increase circulation, relieve muscle tension, and accelerate muscle recovery. The sensation can be intense on sensitive areas, so using a smaller cup or lowering the suction helps. It’s often done in the same session as acupuncture.
It’s like scraping away old paint—except it’s on your skin.
This form of bodywork involves scraping the skin, the same way you’d smooth air bubbles out of wallpaper. Traditionally it’s done with spoons, but modern practitioners use small wedges, often made out of quartz. Like cupping, the motion may increase blood flow, release knots in muscles, and relieve soreness. If it’s done vigorously, you may be left with purple “stripes” the next day, but they aren’t painful.