, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I’ve had a few medical issues since moving China. Back in the fall, the air quality was sub-par (putting it mildly!) and my lungs didn’t seem to understand how to function anymore.  The “Western” doctors here in Shanghai prescribed medications and told me to stay indoors with air purifiers running. What’s the fun in that? So, back in November, I turned to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). As they say, “when in Rome…”

Traditional Chinese Medicine originated in ancient China and involves acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, cupping and moxibustion (burning herbs over the skin).  It’s huge in China, but you might be interested to know that there are over 10,000 TCM practitioners in the US serving 1,000,000 Americans each year.  I thought I’d give it a try. Why not?

I chose a clinic based on a friend’s recommendation and nervously made my first appointment. The day arrived, and off I went. The clinic is very “Western” in nature and also offers traditional medicine and testing. However, they are best known for their Chinese medicine.

I met with two doctors, both TCM practitioners. Dr. W., the asthma/lung specialist, spoke only Chinese and the other helped translate. As I looked out the window from the 13th floor, I realized I could barely see buildings in the distance. It was that kind of day.

These tall buildings should be seen clearly from this distance. They were not. THAT kind of day.

Can't see Marriott

Dr. W. asked me some very specific questions, as though she already knew what my answers would be. Like – “You don’t wake at night wheezing, right?” “You are always cold and wear a scarf, right?” (I was not wearing a scarf that day, but I usually do.) “You’re always cold, right?” Yes. “You are very sensitive to smell, right?” Yes. On and on it went. Some questions were very personal, and I answered them directly. Then she checked my tongue. Very closely. She also listened to my lungs and they checked my pulses in my wrist. According to TCM, the appearance of the tongue is very telling. A “normal” tongue is pink or red in color. As expected, right? Some variations can be: red tongue tip scarlet tongue body, pale tongue and green tongue. Not sure what a green tongue signifies, but it cannot be good.  The wrist pulses can tell the practitioner about the health of your qi, blood and organs.

My diagnosis? My qi (energy flow) is severely imbalanced. My spleen is weak and I am “sensitive to toxins”. Specifically, air pollution. I’m not surprised. The doctor prescribed tea and acupuncture for me.

This is what a bad air day looks like on my iPhone:

Bad Pollution Day

The Chinese “medicine” tea comes in small white packets. My first prescription contained around 20 packets per day. My first day, I giddily opened the first packet and made the mistake of smelling the contents. Good God, the smell. Here in China, I am regularly assaulted by various stenches. But very, very few of those stinks can compare to my first Chinese medicine tea. I mixed the packets with some hot water, split the dose into 2 and attempted to drink. Needless to say, it did not go well. In fact, it came right back up. Immediately. Into the kitchen sink. Day after day, I’d chug my swill and day after day, barely any of it stayed in. My friend suggested I use a straw then a lemon wedge chaser (Thanks, Tricia!) and that helped a little. When I returned to the clinic, they gave me a new prescription and removed the most offensive ingredient – Kuxingren (Bitter Almond). I couldn’t tell if the tea was working, but I was willing to continue taking it. Some other ingredients in my “cocktail” were:

Ganjiang – Dried ginger root

Mimahuang – Honey ephedra

Gancao – Licorice

Chenpi – Sun-dried tangerine peel

Chuan xiong – Ligusticum

Fuling – Poria

Taoren – Peach kernel

Cuwu weizi – Schisandra

I know you’re thinking that these ingredients sound really good? Licorice tea? Peach kernel? I assure you. They are horrific.

Tea packets. At this point I was excited and positive about trying TCM tea!

Tea Packets

Then I put the powder into the glass. And smelled it. My attitude began to change.

Tea Powder

And finally…the “tea”. No. That’s not a Guinness. I wish it was.


A few days later, I began my acupuncture and cupping therapy. The acupuncturist met with me and reviewed my chart. I then reclined on the table, and the assistant shone bright lights on me to warm me up. The acupuncturist then set about poking me with small needles. Some in my face, my neck, my arms and legs and one right on top of my head. Some were completely painless, but one or two made me cringe. Once the needles were in place, it was quite relaxing. My sunny bed of nails. After around 20 minutes, the needles were removed and I was instructed to flip over onto my stomach. Then the cupping therapy began.

These are acupuncture needles:


I was more worried about this form of therapy, but there was really no pain at all. The acupuncturist lit a torch of some kind ( I could not see it) and created a vacuum inside small fishbowl-shaped glass cups. She then put these cups on my skin and twisted, creating suction. Sounds fun, right? Not so bad. The cups stayed on for about 15 minutes, then were removed carefully. I heard the acupuncturist “tsk’tsk-ing”. I asked the translator what that was all about, and she told me that my marks were very, very black. Which is a good thing, as it is supposed to draw toxins from deep inside the muscles to the surface, where the body can break them down. It was true that as time went on, my marks did get lighter and lighter.

These are the cups:


This is my back, post-cupping session. This was not after the first session, so my marks are not too “black”.


As time went on, the acupuncture became more and more painful for me.  I began to dread the entire process and didn’t think it was beneficial in any apparent way. I continued my treatment for 4 months, but the nerve pain and my inability to tolerate the teas forced my decision to quit. From what my friends tell me, if you have a specific concern – like an injury or chronic illness – acupuncture can be very successful. Since I’m just “sensitive to toxins”, it didn’t seem to do much for me.  Now I’m just drinking tea regularly – the real kind, not the offensive powder kind.  There are a lot of benefits to tea, and I’m planning on learning more about them.  But for the summer, I’m thinking of researching the benefits of iced tea. Of the Long Island variety.

LI Iced Tea