Curious about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)? We chatted with Alison Unterreiner, licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.) and herbalist in the State of New York, about how TCM can complement Western medicine and what to expect when working with a TCM doctor. Alison completed her Masters of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, the largest school of Eastern Medicine in the country, and works with her patients on conditions including chronic pain, fertility support, stress and anxiety disorders, endocrinology disorders, autoimmune diseases, digestive disorders and facial rejuvenation.
Q: How did you become a TCM doctor?
I originally got into Eastern medicine due to health issues of my own. I had been on birth control and going off of it resulted in amenorrhea, or lack of a period, for a year. I went to all kinds of doctors and everyone suggested progesterone to induce a period. To me, it just instinctually felt wrong, like they weren’t addressing the root issue. I had brain scans to check for pituitary tumors, I had ultrasounds done to check for ovarian cysts or fibroids, had bloodwork done to make sure my hormones were all in order. My entire female reproductive system was working according to their tests, except I was not getting my period. No one could tell me why. This is where Eastern medicine shines – when Western medicine can’t provide you with a reason, Eastern medicine has diagnoses. Looking back I realize that a lot of the things I was going through were very symptomatic of what happens to your body after you’re on birth control, but I was also suffering from something that’s quite common, especially for New Yorkers, called ‘liver qi stagnation’. The liver is responsible for the free flowing of “qi” or energy and when there is a dysfunction, it will cause all types of blockages in the body which can manifest in different ways. Acupuncture and herbs were the only thing that helped me. Professionally, through a long winding road of searching for what my next step was, I ended up discovering that Traditional Chinese Medicine felt right to me as a real partnership between doctor and patient.
Q: So what is liver qi stagnation?
In Chinese medicine the organs are seen as being in constant interplay with each other and each organ has a particular set of roles. The liver’s job is to ensure the smooth flow of ‘qi’, or life energy, in the body. It’s prone to stagnation as a result of stress, anger, and/or anxiety. When this happens you can get many symptoms that you may not think are related, but from an Eastern perspective form the traditional diagnosis of “liver qi stagnation”. An example of symptoms that don’t initially seem related are insomnia, loss of period, and headaches.
In TCM there is an expression, ‘many diagnoses one treatment, one treatment many diagnoses’. For example, I have a diabetic patient that originally came to me with an AIC result of 13. The AIC test gives a long term view of how much sugar you have in your body - between 5.7 and 6.4 is pre-diabetic and above 6.5 is considered diabetic. He was at a 13 despite all the medications he was on, but with a liver qi stagnation formula we got his number down below 7. I have another patient with a completely different situation, who came to me with dizziness and migraines. I gave her the same formula and she saw improvement as well. In Chinese medicine the same issue can express differently in different people, and one treatment can apply to what would be viewed as multiple different diagnoses in Western medicine that come down to the same type of imbalance from an Eastern point of view. Each treatment is very individual, which is why Chinese medicine works – it’s tailored to you specifically.
Q: What should you expect when you see a TCM doctor?
Your first appointment involves a lot of talking. You go in and do a full medical history and discuss any physical symptoms you have, your mental and emotional state of mind - struggles you may be having. This will give the practitioner a sense of your constitution - or what you are prone to - and where the issue might lie. We are looking for things such as whether you’re more yin or yang, have more deficiency or excess, more hot or more cold. The yin-yang concept can be broken down into the concept of relativity - cools vs. warm, excess vs. deficient, etc. and from there we try to determine what is causing that - is this how you were born? Are you consuming foods that would exacerbate it? Are you living in such a way that it will make this condition better or worse? The key point is that it’s all relative – TCM really comes down to restoring balance. The practitioner will examine your pulse and ask to see your tongue, which can reflect imbalances in digestion, heat regulation, fluid balance, and other metabolic processes. Once they get to the underlying root cause, that’s when a personalized treatment for where you are at that time can be formulated.
Ideally, it’s a complete lifestyle approach. We talk to patients a lot about lifestyle and diet. From a Chinese point of view, food is medicine, and foods, like herbs, have a temperature. For example, raw food is considered ‘cooling’, which is more difficult to digest. A diet heavy on raw salads may feel healthy to most, but for someone with a ‘cold constitution’ they’re introducing all this cooling food into an already compromised digestive system and can end up with a lot of gas and bloating. Ginger tea after raw or cold meals is something I often recommend for patients to aid digestion.
Q: What’s the relevance of your mental-emotional state to the diagnosis?
While uncommon in the West, Eastern medicine takes into account people’s emotional state, which encompasses where they are in their lives and how they’re feeling. Many times when people are feeling stuck emotionally, they find themselves getting stuck physically. The psycho-emotional aspect is viewed as very important – when you think about it, your brain controls everything, all the physiological functions that go on, so why wouldn’t emotions, which obviously involve your mind, affect how your body functions? I see so many fertility patients that have a hard time with the process, a hard time with accepting that this is a difficult issue for them, which makes getting pregnant even harder. And as soon as they let go, that’s when they find themselves getting pregnant. Of course this isn’t true for every single patient, but I see this psycho-emotional correlation a lot. A TCM consultation can also be very therapeutic for people just because it’s an opportunity to talk openly but in confidence with someone about your life.