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Chinese Herbal Medicine in the West

by Stefan Chmelik(more info)

listed in chinese oriental medicine, originally published in issue 18 - March 1997

Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) is a relative newcomer in the West compared to acupuncture, which has had a significant profile since Nixon's trip to China in the seventies.

However, the massive growth in popularity of this ancient therapy over the last ten years is unprecedented, even within the burgeoning alternative and complementary health sector.

When attempting to describe CHM as "alternative" we should consider a few points:

Chinese Medicine (including the other Oriental offshoots such as Japanese and Vietnamese Medicine) is the most widely practised system of medicine in the world.

More of the world's population relies on Chinese Medicine on a daily basis than on conventional/Western medicine.

CHM is truly empirical: it has an unbroken 3-4000 year tradition of continual use and development, with a wealth of documented experience over the centuries from expert doctors.

However, the practice of CHM in the West is very different from how it can be utilised in its country of origin. It has been necessary for Western practitioners to adapt traditional Chinese theory and practice to the Western environment.

There are several areas in particular that have been worked on:

1) Dosage in Western patients is generally much lower than used in China, sometimes by a factor of as much as ten. This is because Western patients do not have a history of using most of the herbs and also the Western digestion tends to be much weaker. It can take some time for a practitioner newly arrived from China to adapt to this.

2) The climate, environment and lifestyle factors are very different in the West. A lot of conditions in the UK are caused by cold-dampness, which is relatively rare in China where heat is a more common cause of illness. Therefore, a lot a the "cooling" herbs which would commonly be used in China are usually inappropriate for this climate.

3) An industrialised nation is more likely to exhibit illness on the mental-emotional level, whereas the majority of problems in China are caused by external factors. It has been necessary for practitioners in the West to "re-discover" some of the traditional knowledge which helps with this and was lost or suppressed under the Cultural Revolution.

4) Exotic animals have traditionally been prized as medicines in the Orient. This use is unacceptable to Western sensibilities, and all registered practitioners are bound by a Code of Conduct which forbids the use of any endangered species.

What can Chinese Herbal Medicine treat?

CHM has a significant contribution to make in most health areas, but there are several aspects which are particularly worth highlighting.

Immuno-compromised patients: there has been much success with people with Chronic Fatigue Syndromes, asthma, arthritis and allergies as well as people diagnosed as HIV positive and having AIDS.

Gynaecology: there is a very long history of treatment of most "women's diseases" using CHM, ranging from infertility, PMS, fibroids and menopausal symptoms.

Dermatology: most people will be aware of CHM's success record in treating often intractable skin disease, even in patients who have failed to respond to conventional treatment.

Paediatrics: herbs can be used very effectively for common conditions such as glue ear, asthma, eczema and hyperactivity, as well as developmental problems.

Drugs: Chinese Herbal Medicine can be used to replace or reduce the required dose of some conventional medication which a patient may be concerned about staying on for too long. This could include hypertensive medication, insulin, HRT, pain killers, anti-inflammatories, asthma drugs, sleeping pills and anti-depressants. Medication should never be altered unless you have consulted both your GP and a qualified practitioner.

Digestion: as herbs are taken in via the digestive organs, they seem to be especially effective in treating the epidemic of digestive problems experienced by many Westerners, including candidiasis, IBS and food intolerance.

Health and longevity: there are a number of Chinese herbs and formulas that have been shown to have effects on reducing cancer cell activity in the body and boosting the immune system.

Why it is important to see a registered practitioner

Along with all other alternative and complementary therapies, CHM is moving towards professional registration. However, at this point in time anyone can call themselves a herbalist, regardless of training.

Always verify that a practitioner is fully qualified in the therapies used for your treatment. The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine (RCHM) is working with government departments to raise standards and protect the public. The British Herbal Practitioners Alliance (BHPA), co-founded by the RCHM and The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, is active in Europe to stop legislation which would restrict practice. In the UK, the BHPA is in direct contact with the Medicines Control Agency over Registration, safety and training.

Fully qualified practitioners are members of a professional register, are fully insured and are bound by a Code of Ethics and Good Conduct. For a members list of the following registers send a cheque/PO for £2.00 to The RCHM, PO Box 400, Wembley, Middx, HA9 9NZ; The Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 78 Haverstock Hill, London NW3 2BE; or The Registrar, College of Oriental Medicine, Prospect House, Retford, Notts DN22 6NA.


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About Stefan Chmelik

Stefan Chmelik MRCHM MBAcC is Vice-President of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine.

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