Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a complete system of medicine. It has been practiced for over 3000 years in China and Asia and over one-quarter of the world's population now uses one or more of its component therapies. After conventional western medicine it is the world’s second most used medical system. TCM treatment combines the use of medicinal herbs, acupuncture and therapeutic exercises such as Qi Gong.
As a separate system of medicine it is not possible to compare it with western medicine as it works on a totally different set of principles. Both systems can treat the same disease but their way of diagnosing, treating and even the outcomes they are looking for in treating the same diseases, such as hepatitis C, are completely different.
For example, in western medicine the object of treatment for hepatitis C is to eradicate the virus. But in Chinese medicine eradicating the virus is not the aim. Instead it focuses on strengthening the body, clearing away toxins, and regulating the circulation of energy and blood throughout the body so that you feel better and your liver is functioning better. The treatment can, almost as a by-product, slow down liver damage and reduce liver enzyme levels (ALT and AST). .
The Basis of Chinese Medicine
The fundamental basis of Chinese medicine is to encourage the flow of energy within our system, as this is understood to be the essence of good health. The Chinese call this energy Qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Good health relies on an abundant and smooth flow of energy or Qi. If your energy is deficient, overactive or blocked in some way then the goal is to restore harmony of energy through acupuncture, herbs, diet and Qi gong exercises.
For a practitioner, the focus is on diagnosing and understanding the disharmony of energy within a person’s individual system.
The thinking that underlies TCM is that the body, mind and spirit are all inter-dependent, and therefore affect each other on all levels. Because of this, disease in one part of the body or organ may affect many other parts of the body. The main focus of Chinese medicine is on how the body’s energy responds to disease, rather than the disease itself. Its function is to bring the body and your whole energy system back to a state of harmony.
The liver is seen as vitally important in Chinese medicine. This is because it has such an effect on other organs and systems in the body. The liver is thought to be responsible for the smooth flow of energy or Qi throughout the body, so even for people without hepatitis C, the health of the liver is given special importance by practitioners. People with hepatitis C may be prone to disturbances, weakness or stagnation in the smooth flow of this internal energy. This is often experienced as a pain in the liver area, headaches, mood swings, fatigue, foggy head and many other symptoms associated with hepatitis C.
The practitioner will diagnose the imbalances in your energy using various traditional techniques. These including feeling your Pulses (this is not the same as a western doctor who ‘takes’ your pulse), looking at your tongue, listening to the quality of your voice, looking at the colour of your complexion and asking you various specific questions.
They will then devise an individually tailored treatment plan, usually consisting of acupuncture and a Chinese herbal medicine prescription and possibly some Qi Gong exercises. In very broad terms, acupuncture is associated with balancing the energy levels within the body, whilst herbs are more like drugs or foods which are prescribed for specific physical effects. Exercises are prescribed to increase your energy, to make more oxygen available in your system and to bring about a calmer inner state.
TCM uses acupuncture extensively in the treatment of chronic hepatitis. The primary goal of acupuncture is to readjust the body’s energy. It is used to treat both specific symptoms and a general epidemiological pattern. Acupuncture treatments for HCV often address digestive functions, appetite, energy levels, stress, anxiety, depression, pain and skin complications. Acupuncture has also been used to lower elevated liver enzymes as part of a chronic hepatitis protocol using special acupuncture points.
Acupuncture involves inserting fine sterile metal needles into certain body or ear points to readjust the body’s Qi. It is relatively painless, often accompanied with a heavy sensation, warmth, or movement of energy at the point of insertion or along the energy channels. The effect lasts a few days and so regular treatments, or treatments in conjunction with herbs, are recommended.
Chinese herbs are complex pharmacological substances that contain powerful nutrients often absent in the normal diet or only necessary due to a deficiency caused by illness. There are over 12,000 types of herbs recognised by TCM, although only a few hundred of these are commonly used.
Chinese Medicine views hepatitis C as a hot toxic invader of the body. Its effect in the body is thought to be the creation of heat within the energy system leading to inflammation of the liver and disruption to its functioning, leading to a wide range of symptoms. Chinese herbs are used to clear this heat and toxicity and to nourish and strengthen the body.
The excess hot liver energy can disrupt the digestive system causing tiredness, poor appetite, bloating, gas, loose stools, nausea, bitter taste in the mouth and general aching. Herbs may then be prescribed to regulate liver and digestive function, and clear heat.
As hepatitis C progresses, the symptoms may be severe tiredness, getting hot and sweaty at night, insomnia, dry skin, brittle nails and hair, constipation and dark urine, thirst and dry mouth, hardening of the liver, liver pain, swelling of the feet and abdomen, headaches. Herbs may then be given to strengthen the cooling and nourishing functions of the liver and kidney, to soften the liver and clear toxins, and to clear the mind.
It is very important to see a reputable and experienced herbal practitioner, who has experience of treating people with hepatitis C and is able to prescribe the most appropriate herbs. It is also important to check that the supplier of herbs uses high quality ones from a reliable unadulterated source. This is because dangerous and toxic substances have been found in some herbs. The average high street Chinese herbal shop does not necessarily have access to quality controlled herbs. Standard formulas are not recommended unless they are specifically designed for hepatitis C, prescribed for you by an experienced practitioner and made up from high quality herbs. See Finding a TCM Practitioner
Diet and digestion are considered very important in TCM in order to create the best conditions for strengthening and nourishing the body. General guidance for hepatitis C would be:
- AVOID: alcohol, coffee, fried foods, fatty foods, excess sugar, dairy foods, wheat, shellfish, lamb, orange juice, peanuts, spicy foods, lean meat/especially pork and duck, margarine and any processed oils (i.e. non-cold pressed oils), red meats, drugs
- EAT: plenty of green leafy vegetables, marrow, pumpkin, mung beans, aduki beans, water melon, pineapple, lemons, carrots, beetroot, leeks, onions, garlic, dandelion leaf tea, sprouted seeds
Qi Gong has been practiced in China for over 3000 years as a way to better health. It developed as a system of practice over time as people found that certain gentle body movements together with ways of breathing and concentrating could significantly improve the functioning of the body and its systems. Practicing Qi Gong can increase your vital energy thus helping emotional and physical health. Many TCM practitioners are experienced in Qi Gong and may be able to instruct you in some specific self-help techniques or point you to a good teacher.