Penny Hoh first found her way to TCM in her 20s, when a chronic cough left her feeling drained .
“The cough was so bad that I injured my back during one of my hacking episodes,” recalls the now 40-year-old Singapore-based bank manager. “I was constantly trying to cough out whatever it was that was tickling my throat… I could barely speak without going into a coughing fit.”
Three visits to the doctor and three courses of antibiotics later, her phlegm was no longer thick and green, but the cough persisted. In sheer desperation, Penny turned to TCM.
She was prescribed oral medication in the form of dried herbs which she boiled with water to make a drink. Within a week, her health had improved, and within two weeks, her symptoms had disappeared.
Like many others who turn to TCM because of stubborn symptoms, TCM is now a way of life for Penny, who takes nourishing soups monthly and weekly herbal drinks as part of a prescribed wellness regime that also includes getting adequate sleep and regular exercise.
“I find that I fall sick less frequently, and have fewer aches and pains since I started incorporating TCM into my life,” she says. “Overall, my health has improved.”
The Tao of You
Historically, the basic theories of TCM are rooted in ancient Taoist philosophy and date back more than 2,500 years. The ancient Chinese medical text, Huang Di Nei Jing (黄帝内经, Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon), is believed by experts to have originated sometime between the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) and the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 9 CE). The definitive “Compendium of Materia Medica”, a pharmacological reference book which describes thousands of medicinal substances, dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).
Besides herbs, common TCM treatments include acupuncture and therapies like cupping, or the use of suction cups to draw blood to a region of the body to promote healing, and tui na, a form of acupressure.
What makes TCM distinct is that it does not just treat symptoms but views the body as an integrated whole, where organs and systems are interconnected and interdependent, explains Mr Lee Jih Shun, a Eu Yan Sang TCM practitioner and Eu Yan Sang scholar.
Within the body are two forces, yin and yang. Yin , a cold, dark, quiet but nourishing force, and yang , a hot, bright, energetic and active force that breaks yin down into usable energy, must be in balance for good health. Energy (yang), for example, is necessary to digest food (yin). hen one dominates the other, whether due to one’s lifestyle or environment, signs of sub-health begin to emerge.
The Science of TCM
The approaches and treatments of TCM have gained traction among scientists and clinicians in recent years.
There has been growing interest in the use of lingzhi, a medicinal mushroom which is known as reishi in Japan, as an immunity booster and as an aid in the fight against cancer. Similarly, a growing number of doctors and dentists are gaining certification in acupuncture, using it to provide pain relief, among other things. In Singapore, they make up half the number of registered acupuncturists in the country.
The rigour and professionalism of both TCM practitioners and companies have helped widened the reach and appeal of TCM practices and products.
In Singapore, Eu Yan Sang’s Medical Board and its Scientific Advisory Board, set up to provide an informed and balanced view of integrative medicine, include Western-trained medical specialists and TCM physicians exchange ideas and information.
Research done in respected Chinese universities has also piqued the interest of scientists around the world.
At Yale University, for example, pharmacology professor Yung-Chi Cheng is looking at a four-herb combination known as PHY906 to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy.
In the U.S., the government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has a budget of over $120 million for research on the efficacy and safety of alternative medicines, including TCM.
“In this state, one isn’t sick but yet, he does not feel well,” Mr Lee explains. “Insomnia, for example, is commonly caused by too much yang or too little yin in the heart system.” Other common signs of sub-health include constipation and hair loss.
It is only by restoring balance, or allowing a person’s vital life force or Qi (气, pronounced "chi") to flow smoothly through the body, that one genuinely feels better.
A TCM practitioner’s job is to identify the imbalance – “like an investigator, we do it systematically” – and to help restore balance, Mr Lee explains.
“We don’t just alleviate the symptoms, but address the deeper issues causing them. By bringing the body back into balance, we have been able to help our patients resolve problems from coughs and pains to fertility issues and coping better with chemotherapy,” he adds.
The TCM practitioner starts by gathering data. He observes the patient’s disposition and listens to the patient’s history and complaints.
“Non-verbal elements such as demeanor, pattern of movement, quality of voice and complexion all help inform the practitioner of the patient’s condition,” Mr Lee says.
He will likely examine the patient’s tongue – its color, shape and movement tells him a lot about the patient’s internal condition.
“For instance, if someone has a spleen deficiency, there would be water retention and the tongue would swell up. This would then cause teeth marks on the side of the tongue as it presses against the inner surface of the lower teeth,” Mr Lee explains.
The practitioner will also take the patient’s pulse and temperature. He may ask questions to confirm his diagnosis and palpate – press gently – to check for any tender spots, pain or lumps.
Once a diagnosis has been made, the physician may prescribe herbs or physical treatments such as tui na, acupuncture or cupping.
Patients play a big part in their own wellbeing. “We advise them on lifestyle changes such as getting adequate sleep and rest to strengthen overall immunity, or to reduce salt intake to lessen water retention.”
For Penny, TCM has impacted various aspects of her daily life. Besides the wholesome soups and tonics she takes, she also goes for massages and tui na.
“I do feel that the TCM principle of clearing the meridians or energy channels help establish a balance of yin and yang,” she says. “Getting regular massages helps me detoxify and promotes smoother circulation in my body.”
What is important when exploring TCM is to do so with the right practitioner, says Mr Lee.
Leading TCM practitioners go through rigorous training, which includes theoretical knowledge as well as hands-on practice, at established institutions and universities.
A number of physicians employed by Eu Yan Sang, for example, have degrees from renowned universities. Additionally, our practitioners are expected to continue upgrading their skills and knowledge, participate in sharing sessions, and some even undergo internal exams. In Singapore, for example, practitioners are highly encouraged to participate in workshops and courses as part of their continuous education and training, prior to renewing their licenses every two years.
Beyond qualifications, one should also look for a practitioner one is comfortable with, since finding the right fit makes for a better health journey for both the patient and practitioner, says Mr Lee.
“We guide our patients’ TCM journeys and they, in turn, teach us about the human condition through their feedback and experiences. There is also a yin-yang relationship between a practitioner and his patients.”