When I used to hear the phrase ‘alternative medicine,’ my first reaction was to be very distrustful. Mostly, I assumed that anything labeled alternative medicine was just untested and ineffective, and therefore not ‘real’ medicine. Now that I’ve done some research though, specifically into Chinese traditional medicine, I realize that my reaction was not only cynical, but flat-out wrong.
Medicine in the Western world
The thing that I used to define as ‘real’ medicine is in fact Western medicine. A brief history of medicine in the west shows that it descended from a specific set of medical practices first developed in ancient Egypt. In fact, ancient Egyptians were among the first to have recognizable practices of what we consider to be medicine, including surgeries, dentistry, and a relatively deep understanding of human anatomy. This idea of health care migrated to ancient Greece, primarily via Hippocrates, whose name is immortalized in the Hippocratic oath that all western doctors take. The Greek and Egyptian philosophies of medicine are still evident today, especially in the way that we deal with anatomy and diagnosing patients.
Of course, this is only one interpretation of medicine. While it is based on science and reason and has achieved amazing things, it has also failed to come up with a cure for the common cold. Western medicine can be seen as a specific methodology of dealing with the human body, and it’s not the only way of doing it.
Chinese Medicine: a long and unbroken history
In my research into the history of alternative medicine, I found that most of the cures deemed to be truly effective were Chinese in origin. It seemed worthwhile to research the history of medicine in China if I was going to understand why so many people are such great supporters of alternative medicine.
Chinese medical history begins some 3500 years ago with the first records of medical illnesses from the Shang dynasty. These medical records show that priests were diagnosing patients long ago, although most of their interpretations of disease were some form of ancestral or magical curse. Around 200 BC, though, that all changed when a book called ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon.’ This book, structured as a conversation between the legendary Yellow Emperor and his ministers, gives detailed descriptions of various diseases and their treatments. It eschews the old ideas of mystical spirits and curses causing diseases and instead develops theories involving a balanced lifestyle, a good environment, and positive behaviors as the key to a healthy life.
Many of these theories involve forces of nature such as yin and yang, qi, and the five phases theory. Each of these is important because they are presented as rational and comprehensible forces that can be maintained or returned to balance. This forms the basis of traditional Chinese medicine today, and a version of this 2000+ year old book is still in use at most private practices of traditional medicine.
Traditional treatments run the gamut from acupuncture, to herbal treatments, to massage therapy. Each is based on ideas of balancing the body’s natural functions and restoring any improperly balanced functions to their normal state. These are achieved through various means and within different frameworks, but the general idea is one of balance.
Chinese Medicine as Alternative Medicine.
In the US and elsewhere, Chinese medicine is viewed through the lens of being an alternative to the standards of Western medicine. It is sometimes viewed as unscientific or unproven by Western doctors. The truth of the matter, and one that I only discovered through a good amount of research, is that Chinese medicine is based on an equally storied set of ideas as Western medicine. While it is true that not many clinical studies of traditional Chinese remedies have been carried out, there is some pretty stunning evidence that many of the remedies are equally or more effective than Western treatments.
As an example, let’s look at Astragalus root. It’s been used for a very long time in Chinese medicine to prevent colds and help with general health. Only recently has it been studied in the west, but the results have shown that it may boost the immune system significantly as well as help with blood pressure. It’s an extremely important root in China and its effects are well known, but it’s only now catching on in the US as alternative medicine. Of course, as with anything involving your health, you’ll want to consult with your doctor before starting any alternative kinds of treatments, as there may be potential side effects and interactions.
So in the end, my research showed me that alternative medicine is actually based on well-established practices that not only work well on their own, but can also be a supplement to more traditional western medicine. My hope is that alternative medicine becomes more accepted in the mainstream and part of regularly prescribed behaviors. This way, we can truly understand it as something other than the ‘other’ medicine.