Traditional Chinese Medicine cures the “incurable”
Before we discuss neuropathy, let me prove that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) succeeds where western medicine fails in treating supposedly incurable chronic conditions.
When I turned twelve all hell broke loose in the hollow spaces behind my nose. It was as if a tap had been turned on, dribbling a never-ending stream of mucus down the back of my throat. I snorted and cleared my throat a hundred times an hour. I had a bad case of Post Nasal Drip. It got even worse in spring, with constant sneezing, so add Hay Fever to my maladies. My nose was my curse.
My father had the same condition. His throat-clearing shook the house all night. Clearly I had inherited his condition.
My mother hauled me to doctors. One prescribed an antihistamine which he promised would not make me drowsy. He was right: I didn’t make me sleepy. It made me hallucinate! The walls of my bedroom turned into pulsating orange membranes and little people appeared on my bookshelves.
An Ear, Nose & Throat specialist offered a surgical procedure, which he said had a fifty percent chance of success, and the best I could hope for was a thirty-to-fifty percent reduction in mucus. I declined the surgery and threw away the drugs.
Needless to say, I was annoying to be around. One university professor even put me in a separate room during exams. My Post Nasal Drip made me an outcast.
The worst tasting cure ever
Years later, I was living in Honolulu, where I met a brilliant and funny woman from Hong Kong. She hauled me to a little shop in Honolulu’s Chinatown, stuffed with strange elixirs and dried sea creatures and floor-to-ceiling chests of drawers. In the back sat a wizened old Chinese gentleman right out of Hollywood casting: skinny as a rake, with a stringy white goatee, wearing a gray button-down tunic and round spectacles. He pressed bony fingers into my wrist, examined my tongue, then scribbled out a list of Chinese characters, which he passed to an assistant. She threw open drawers, weighed out various roots and bark and fungus and leaves on a little brass scale, then bundled everything up and tossed some candied plums into the bag.
Under my Chinese friend Cathy’s supervision, I boiled the herbs down to a foul-looking brew. It was the worst thing I’d ever tasted. No, it was ten times worse than that; my tongue went into shock. And I had to drink it twice a day for five days.
Long and short of it: my Post Nasal Drip dried up completely without any further treatment. No drowsiness or other side effects. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Six months later it returned. Not as severe as before, but the throat clearing resumed. Back to Chinatown.
The old man again examined my pulse and tongue, gave me a similar but not identical collection of roots and herbs, and some stones thrown in for good measure. Didn’t improve the flavor.
My Post Nasal Drip went away for a full year!
During that year Cathy and I were married. No throat clearing at the wedding, but it came back shortly before a visit to her family in Hong Kong. My brother-in-law brought me to the family herbalist. Same routine. Different roots and bark, which tasted just as bad. This time I drank it daily for one whole week.
It cured me forever.
That was 1984. I’ve had no Post Nasal Drip ever since. No Hay Fever either. My condition, which western doctors said was incurable, which my father suffered from his whole life, was permanently healed by Traditional Chinese Medicine.
When our son turned twelve, he too started coughing and clearing his throat. We knew just what to do. It worked.
Reading my pulse
Decades later, when a neurologist declared that I had Peripheral Neuropathy, an incurable chronic condition, it was a déjà vu moment. Time to visit a Chinese herbalist.
Once again I faced an elderly Chinese gentleman in the back of a cramped little office. He examined my pulse and tongue, felt my fingertips, and asked a few questions about my numbness, though he wasn’t particularly interested in the details.
He explained that my body was running cold. He wasn’t talking about my temperature. In Chinese medicine, one’s body can be either too “cold” or yin, or too “hot” or yang. Mine was unbalanced toward the cold/yin side. I had to eat fewer “cold” foods, such as celery, carrots, watermelon, and tofu; and eat more “hot” foods like eggs, bamboo, mushrooms, and ginger.
Of course, my neuropathy was more than just a matter of hot/cold imbalance. My pulse told the full story.
Feeling my pulse had nothing to do with my heart rate. By placing his fingers simultaneously on three spots on my arm, the herbalist can determine the length, strength, depth, and quality of the pulses, and use that information to come up with a diagnosis. If a pulse strikes all three spots at once, it’s considered long; if it varies at the three spots, it’s short. Depth is determined by applying different pressure to each of the three spots, to measure how far down the pulse is strongest. Pulse quality can be a number of factors: is it ripply or rough, slippery or choppy? There are thousands of combinations of pulse length, strength, depth, and quality, and together these inform the Chinese medicine practitioner about where the troubles lie inside your body, just as clearly as if he’d taken a full body x-ray. Marks and colors on the tongue provide additional information.
Don’t scoff. After 5000 years of development, Chinese traditional medicine has built up a pretty reliable system of associating pulse readings to what ails a person. Modern western medicine, by contrast, has been around for 250 years. Western doctors still have a lot to discover.
Roots, bark, twigs, peels, and fungus
The herbalist’s assistant rummaged in jars and drawers and weighed out various roots, twigs, leaves, seeds, tree fungus, and dried fruit skins. This was not a prescription for peripheral neuropathy per se; it was a prescription for me. Traditional Chinese medicine, unlike western medicine, doesn’t target a specific condition. There is nothing in the prescription to specifically heal nerves or synapses or blood capillaries, or manage antibodies. Instead it promotes balance and reduces blockages in energy flow to specific parts of the body. The body heals itself. The herbs’ function is to enhance that power.
I know, you’re what you’re thinking: “Weird!” But consider where pharmaceutical research originates. Eighteenth century European medical practitioners made the transition from European herbal medicine by quantifying the effects of various herbs, foods, and animal parts. As scientific research progressed, various elements were isolated from such natural sources, in order to distill or extract them in concentrated form. While many pharmaceuticals nowadays are synthesized in laboratories, much research still originates in studying components from the natural world.
There is logic in the western scientific method: by isolating those molecules and compounds from the original natural sources, doctors can administer precise potencies to target specific cells or organs within our bodies to obtain a measurable effect. Yet there are certain drawbacks to this approach. First, it treats our bodies as collections of objects—organs, tissue, fluids, bones—each with its own mechanical or chemical function, working in tandem with each other inside a larger machine. This is real, but it isn’t the full picture. Such a mechanical/biochemical view is limited, just like our senses of vision and touch are limited to three dimensions. Western medicine has trouble explaining, or even acknowledging, the fourth and maybe fifth dimensions of the body as something beyond mechanics and molecular structure. How can it explain the link between a pressure point on the sole of one’s foot with one’s liver or lungs, something which is long proven in Chinese medicine?
Another analogy might be the way emotions affect our health. If we’re sad or angry or depressed, we get sick easier, or our neuropathy symptoms flare up. Is it really just a biochemical effect of Serotonin, Norepinephrine, Dopamine, etc.? My wife, the clinical psychologist, has seen severely ill cancer patients improve and even reduce their reliance on drugs once their spirit has been healed. There is much more to our health than biomechanics and biochemistry.
Chinese medicine is sometimes accused of being “unscientific”, in that it doesn’t isolate molecular compounds which can be laboratory tested in precision doses. Today’s five leung (Chinese ounce) of soursop skin may be slightly more potent than last week’s harvest, but it doesn’t matter. It isn’t targeting a specific group of cells. The whole plant—or its leaves, wood, bark, roots, or fruit—with all its mysterious minerals and subnutrients, is treating the whole body. That’s why Chinese medicine works. That’s why Chinese medicine often works where western medicine fails.
Foo cha (bitter tea)
Time for a drink.
First: empty the contents into a ceramic pot. Do not use metal pots or utensils. Pour in five rice bowls full of water. Cover the pot, then simmer until it cooks down to one rice bowl of liquid. Mine takes around ninety minutes. Drink it hot.
Later the same day, prepare the second dose by adding three bowls of water to the herbs, and again cook it down to one bowl. Drink once again.
I have a special cooker just for Chinese medicine. But any ceramic pot can be used.
How does it taste?
Don’t ask. It isn’t something I would drink for pleasure. And I understand why most Chinese herbalists give you a handful of candied plums: it’s a nice sweet treat for your tongue after the punishment of a bowl of foo cha (bitter tea).
So…does it really work?
Absolutely. When my neuropathy symptoms were at their worst, I felt the relief flow into my fingers and toes every time I consumed a dose. Now that I’m 95% cured, I credit TCM as part of the solution.
Disclaimer: I don’t rely on Chinese traditional medicine alone. I take numerous natural supplements daily, based mostly on western traditional herbal medicine and naturopathic remedies. Chinese and western traditional approaches have some things in common and many things different. I believe they can work in tandem. However, I would be very hesitant to mix Traditional Chinese Medicine with prescription medication. For that and many other reasons, I don’t take pharmaceuticals of any kind. Not even over-the-counter painkillers, because I’m concerned about the interactions.
I don’t use Chinese medicine every day. It isn’t meant to work like that. Taking Chinese medicine is supposed to realign your body, like unbending a warped wooden plank by applying pressure. It straightens out for a while, then may bend back, though not as much as before. So I drink my bitter tea twice a day for five or seven days in a row, then stop. Two weeks later I visit the herbalist again for a new checkup and prescription. Sometimes it’s a month between treatments.
I can’t isolate which of my remedies is working best, whether the Chinese herbs or any particular supplement. But in combination, I’ve almost completely cured my neuropathy. As of today, it has been gone for good from my hands for over four months. A bit of numbness lingers in the extremities of my feet and hasn’t made much progress for nearly two months.
Time to visit the herbalist again and swallow some bitter medicine down to the tips of my toes.
Where can I buy such a tea?
Let me clarify: There is not a specific Peripheral Neuropathy tea or formula you can buy. A Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner will create a prescription that is for you alone, based on your specific body condition. Chances are that it will contain many of the same ingredients as mine, but it will be formulated specifically for you, not just for your neuropathy but also other things going on with your health.
You visit the TCM practitioner once, then go home and prepare the tea yourself and watch your symptoms. If needed, you go back a few weeks or even a few months later for a new treatment, revised to your new body condition.
There is a growing number of properly trained TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practitioners around the world, who are not necessarily Chinese themselves. Here are a few resources to search for properly trained practitioners:
USA: National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
Australia: Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association
UK: The Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture