By Dr. Agnes M. Costello
At a young age, my grandparents always referred to health as a balance between the ying and the yang, the hot and cold. Most importantly, they always stressed trying to first heal the body with natural products such as herbs or supplements. As a scientist and a pharmacist, I often struggle to integrate Traditional Chinese Medicine into Western Medicine.
I remember that my mom used to make me this dark herbal soup for my acne. Unfortunately, the herbal medication did not work for my acne, and I am now left with acne scars. However, I also remembered that my mom would make the best ginger tea that helped with my upset stomach. My grandma also used to make the best chicken soup with some Chinese herbs that tasted so good and would warm not just my body, but also my soul!
Did you know that some Chinese herbs have medicinal properties? However, if used excessively, they can have the potential to cause harm to the body. When I was working in the emergency room at an urban hospital, a Chinese lady was admitted to the hospital for excessive bleeding. She had a nosebleed that was uncontrollable, her gums were bleeding, and she had bruises all over her body. We ran lots of tests and found that her body was not able to regulate bleeding and clotting normally. She was not on any medications that could affect bleeding or clotting and there was no other abnormal finding. Speaking with her and her family, I found out that she had been drinking lots of Dong Quai tea for women’s health reasons. Dong Quai contains substances that may work like a blood thinner. When used excessively, it has been shown to cause bleeding. Once she stopped taking the Dong Quai tea, her condition slowly improved.
I have also heard from colleagues that lead poisoning has been reported in patients who have consumed a lot of Chinese medicinal herbs. The herbs are not toxic by nature, but they contain contaminants such as lead that can cause health problems.
I cannot stress how important it is to let your health care professionals know if you are taking any Chinese herbs or supplements. A lot of people don’t think of them as medications, but they are!
Another component of Traditional Chinese Medicine is Tai Chi. My parents loved Tai Chi. The benefits of Tai Chi have been shown in various studies. I personally have seen the benefits in my parents when they practiced Tai Chi, from improving on balance to moving stiff joints. Another bonus of practicing Tai Chi is being social. My parents would go out for tea or coffee with their Tai Chi friends afterwards. As we age, it is so important to stay active physically and socially. As my 98 year-old grandma would tell you, walking to the market and playing mahjong kept her healthy and her mind sharp.
There are pros and cons to everything, including Traditional Chinese Medicine. I would suggest that you always talk to your health care providers if you want to try a new herbal medicine or a new exercise. It is worth the conversation. Here is a nice link about Traditional Chinese Medicine.