Traditional Chinese medicine moves into the mainstream

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      Karen Lam admits that when she decided to pursue a career in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in the early 1990s, the news raised eyebrows with some family members. Having established a successful practice, however, the Vancouver doctor of TCM says that those around her have not only accepted her profession but embraced it—a reaction that largely reflects the attitude of the Canadian public toward the ancient medical approach.

      “When I first told my family, they were very unsure about things,” Lam says in a phone interview. “They said, ‘Are you sure you want to spend the rest of your life working in an herbal store in Chinatown?’ But they’ve come to understand that there’s a whole philosophy to health and healing behind TCM, which is a modality that was developed more than 2,000 years ago. More and more people are seeking that kind of holistic approach—one that looks at the bigger picture.”

      There’s no denying that TCM—which is based on the idea that the body consists of meridians, or pathways, through which qi, or energy, flows—is moving increasingly into the mainstream.

      MPs Jason Kenney and Alice Wong recently announced that the federal government will provide funding to establish pan-Canadian entrance examinations for internationally trained acupuncturists and TCM practitioners. This means that once they’ve passed the exams and are licensed, those health professionals will be able to move freely between the provinces and territories without having to be recertified. The government did this in partnership with the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of British Columbia, the province’s regulatory body.

      “TCM is a very natural way of healing,” says Gary Ho, a member of the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine of Vancouver’s program-advisory committee and the CEO of Tzu Chi Canada, a charitable organization that promotes volunteerism and community service. “There is also a lot of emphasis on the preventive side, on staying healthy.”

      On the Labour Day weekend, Tzu Chi and Telus TaiwanFest will be collaborating on a massive public offering of TCM. More than 100 practitioners will be on hand to give free consultations to anyone who’s interested. The event also features public talks on Chinese medicine as well as cooking demonstrations, all geared to informing people about the principles and benefits of the millenniums-old medical practice.

      This is the third year Telus TaiwanFest will be featuring TCM as part of its program, which also includes music, kids’ activities, and a street banquet along Granville, among other things. The first year saw 600 people consult a TCM doctor on-site; last year the number was 1,000, according to Michael Chung, a Vancouver TCM doctor with a degree in pharmacy who’s also a research associate at the B.C. Cancer Agency.

      “I’ve worked at the festival for the past two years, and so I’ve had the opportunity to ask people why they were coming to learn about TCM,” Chung says in a phone interview. “They say they’ve tried everything else and haven’t gotten good results or they’ve heard good things about TCM from friends. The festival is the perfect platform to introduce people to Chinese medicine. It gives them the chance to talk to a doctor for 10 or 20 minutes. We’re a bridge from the TCM community to the general public.”

      He says he’s especially excited about sessions at this year’s event in which people will learn how to make herbal-tea bags to deal with insomnia, menopause, or allergies.

      “Traditional Chinese medicine uses what you already have, what you have within yourself, to heal,” Chung says. “You don’t have to wait till you get sick to see a doctor. You can learn things to treat and take care of yourself before entering that kind of state. That’s a very important message we always like to bring to patients: you are responsible for your own health, and there are a lot of things you can do to support it.”

      Another practitioner who’ll be at the festival is Jennifer Gao, a doctor of TCM who studied and practised in her home city of Guangzhou, China, before moving to Vancouver in 2004. Gao, whose parents are both TCM doctors, went on to set up her own clinic, AromaOasis Healing Centre, on Vancouver’s West Side.

      “What’s beautiful about TCM is that it looks at the whole package; it doesn’t separate the parts,” Gao says in a phone interview. “Western medicine blames the disease or the symptoms, while TCM looks for patterns. Because everybody is different, treatment is personalized. You don’t come in and walk out with a pill.

      “TCM helps maintain health and helps your qi,” she adds. “It looks at the whole system. Health problems are linked to internal organs, but you need to know about people’s emotional issues too. I also want to talk to people, to understand what’s going on in their personal lives, if they’re willing to be open. Everything has to be taken into account.”

      Acupuncture and herbal remedies are the most common treatments TCM practitioners like Gao employ, but there are many others, such as massage. Diet and lifestyle are also evaluated in order to keep the qi flowing and the meridians balanced. Gao says she treats a range of ailments, including digestive issues, coughs and colds, and gynecological problems.

      Those and other physical complaints arise when the body’s meridians are blocked, explains TCM doctor Lorne Brown, medical director of Acubalance Wellness Centre.

      “Where qi flows freely and smoothly, there is health,” he says on the line from his West Side office. “Where qi doesn’t flow freely and smoothly, there is pain and disease.”

      Brown specializes in using Chinese medicine to treat infertility, though the clinic also deals with weight loss, menopause, male health issues, and more. Like other doctors of TCM, Brown says Chinese medicine is especially useful in addressing the most widespread health concern in North America: stress.

      “In Chinese medicine, when you’re under stress, it changes the flow of qi,” Brown says. “When you’re stressed, you start to breathe differently, you get high blood pressure, you can get stomach distress, you don’t digest so well, you get migraines: these are all signs in Chinese medicine that the flow of qi is disrupted.

      “Acupuncture is one way of calming down the sympathetic nervous system—that fight-or-flight response,” he adds. “We know from modern science that acupuncture helps.”

      Consider a study published in the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine last year that found acupuncture prevented chronic stress-induced increases in levels of the neuropeptide Y in rats. Researchers concluded that acupuncture “is effective in preventing one of the sympathetic pathways stimulated during chronic stress, and thus may be a useful adjunct therapy in stress-related disorders”.

      Another study published in 2012 stated that acupuncture improves heart-rate variability—the beat-to-beat fluctuations in the heart’s rhythm. Low HRV was found to be associated with an increased risk of mortality and is a marker for a wide range of diseases, according to the report in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing.

      Acupuncture is also being looked at as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder. A pilot study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in 2007 found that it provided benefits similar to those of group cognitive-behavioural therapy; the results of both treatments were superior to those of a control group that received neither.

      Scientific research supporting the safety and efficacy of TCM is crucial in getting practitioners of western medicine onboard, Brown says. And because hard data showing the benefits of certain treatments exist, TCM is increasingly becoming integrated with more conventional approaches to health.

      InspireHealth, for example, which provides what the clinic describes as “integrative” cancer care—meaning it combines conventional treatments with complementary therapies—offers acupuncture to support patients undergoing chemotherapy because of its ability to reduce pain, enhance immune-system functioning, and reduce stress. Even the B.C. Cancer Agency has researched acupuncture, and its website points to the benefits of the technique for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

      Lam, meanwhile, says that whether it’s combined with western medicine or used on its own, TCM is gaining ground in part because more than ever, people are seeking balance in their lives—and the healing methods of the traditional healing system can help restore it.

      “The reality is we’re becoming more and more stressed as people,” Lam says. “We’re all pushing ourselves to work harder, pushing ourselves at the gym, trying to keep up with technology, trying to be supportive to our friends and to be good people, maybe being a parent on top of that: that all builds stress. What happens is that flight-or-fight [response] kicks in, the body gets tense, the organs get all tight, and levels of cortisol [a stress hormone] go up.

      “Stress causes blockages to the healthy flow of qi,” she adds. “TCM not only recognizes the pattern of how stress is affecting the body but treats the physical and emotional symptoms brought out from this stress as well as the root cause of the problem. It helps to rebalance the qi in the vital organs, restore healing within the body, and relax and re-energize the mind.”

      Telus TaiwanFest takes place Saturday to Monday (August 31 to September 2) at the Vancouver Art Gallery Plaza and in the 500 to 800 blocks of Granville Street. More information can be found at


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      Aug 28, 2013 at 3:09pm

      You know what they call alternative medicine that's been proven to work? (peer review, double blind studies...)


      Aug 29, 2013 at 10:13pm

      So what moves into the mainstream is ignorance.

      Matthew V

      Aug 30, 2013 at 1:50pm

      You want traditional? How about TCM's "tradition" of relying most heavily on being validated via anecdotal evidence and fallacious post-hoc reasoning?


      Aug 30, 2013 at 2:27pm

      When I have a problem I go to TCM. Twice I did that. At 68 I feel better than I ever did before I went to TCM. Doing great today!


      Aug 30, 2013 at 9:35pm

      How about those rhinos and black bears eh? Love me some ground up phallic horn, and some bear gall bladders for... whatever the heck that nonsense is supposed to help with? Vigour? Because bears are vigourous?


      Aug 31, 2013 at 7:41am

      So when you get flesh eating disease it's not because of bacteria eating your skin but because some mystical energy is blocked due to a bad relationship or too much stress at work? who knew?!

      my biggest problem with TCM is right in the name: 'Traditional' as in 'we just do this because people before us did it rather than trying to improve it or better understand it (because then it might be proved wrong or not as good as we think).


      Sep 2, 2013 at 10:59pm

      It may be that much of western medicine is based on the findings of TCM. Folks like "Jesse" immediately get excited and like to point out things like Bear gall bladders etc. With a tsk, tsk and finger wag...
      But for example: did you know most people with primary biliary cirrhosis and other liver conditions are alive because of bear bile?
      Ursodiol is commonly used in western medicine to treat symptoms of PBC. It is a synthetic form of bear bile. The synthetic had to be created based on the original. So think about that.
      Did you think western Pancreatic Biliary Liver specialists just said, "Hey lets try bear bile!" Out of the blue?

      Hundreds of thousands of people like me are alive because of bear bile. Chances are, many people that take "westernized medications" do not realize the interesting history from which these western meds originated.
      So I urge you "Jesse" please educate yourself before you spread your naïve ignorance.


      Sep 12, 2013 at 12:46pm

      It doesn't really matter if it works sometimes, doesn't work other times - anything that is based on such falsehoods as meridians line and Qi is fundamentally flawed.
      Take the things that are proven to work and discard the things that a proven to be false.
      (btw: "proven" means scientifically, not through 2,000 years of anecdotes)