For many people who have medical conditions, there are few things they dislike more than taking prescriptions. Whether it’s the nasty side effects, the risk of dependency, or just a desire to rely on more natural remedies, there are plenty of sound reasons to shy away from Western medicine. And one common alternative that many people turn to is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). But what is TCM? Is it a safe option, and what do you need to know if you’re considering TCM to correct what ails you?

What is traditional Chinese medicine?

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TCM has been around for more than 3,000 years with written records going as far back as the Han Dynasty, which was between 206 BCE and 220 CE. It’s centered around a focus on the circulation of your qi (pronounced “chee” and referencing air) and xue (pronounced “shui” and referencing blood). When your qi and xue are flowing properly, your body is said to be in harmony. But when they’re stagnant, this can lead to illness. As opposed to using synthetically derived medications (i.e. statins, blood thinners, etc.), TCM promotes the use of natural herbs and a balanced diet, along with holistic remedies such as acupuncture and cupping.

TCM has origins in Taoism, a philosophical principle that focuses on the Yin and Yang — two parts that need to be in harmony if you’re to achieve balance. TCM believes that your body’s organs work together. And if any part of your body is out of balance, that imbalance can manifest itself as what Western medicine would call illness or disease.

How is TCM different from Western medicine?

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The biggest differences between the two practices have to do with the approach to addressing an illness, as well as the treatment of it. In Western medicine, the disease is considered separate from the health of the patient and relies more on independent symptoms such as your vital signs to diagnose conditions and form a course of action. Additionally, patients in Western medicine are more likely to be given similar treatment methods based on case studies and clinical trials.

In contrast, TCM views illness as a part of your overall health and a sign that your body is not in balance — specifically your qi and xue. Rather than simply looking for vital signs or individual symptoms to create a diagnosis, a TCM practitioner will take a holistic approach and review your whole body. Likewise, when it’s time to create a treatment plan, options are individualized to the needs of the patient rather than following preset guidelines created in a clinical trial.

What are some common treatments with TCM?

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Like we mentioned earlier, TCM centers around natural remedies to treat the body. But not just in terms of what you ingest, but in your activities, too. So, in addition to recommending specific herbs or helping to adjust your diet, you might also be encouraged to try common therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and Chinese exercises such as Tai Chi and meditation. Popular herbs used in TCM include ginger, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, cinnamon, and red yeast rice. These treatments are designed to not only help you feel better but encourage your body to heal itself and restore balance.

So what can TCM treat?

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Because TCM has such a lengthy history, it has a well-documented background in treating a variety of health issues. Some common ailments include allergies, high blood pressure, eczema and other skin issues, obesity, fertility concerns and menopausal issues — just to name a few. While Western medicine is just beginning to seriously research the benefits of TCM, there is agreement that many of the basic TCM principles surrounding diet and lifestyle are smart concepts that everyone should follow.

Should I consider Western medicine or TCM?

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The reality is that there are clear benefits to both forms of medicine. But the total number of studies on TCM and their benefits in comparison to Western medical treatments are limited. So, most medical resources and associations will recommend that you see a Western medicine physician for serious conditions. However, there are plenty of people who opt to use both therapies.

If you decide to combine TCM and Western medicine, you should tell both practitioners of your plans. Likewise, just like with finding a board-certified Western medicine physician, you should look for a TCM practitioner who graduated from or completed a program at a school that is certified by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM).