Connie Qian, Board Certified acupuncturist and herbalist in New York State, gives us an overview of the common conditions Chinese herbal medicine can help alleviate and which herbs can be beneficial for women's health. Connie decided to pursue her passion for eastern medicine after a career in investment banking, though she has been immersed in acupuncture and herbal medicine since childhood. Her professional career includes clinical experience working with stroke recovery patients at NYU Lutheran, treating students and faculty at Columbia University Medical Center, and working learning from master acupuncturists in the realm of hormone regulation and women’s health. She currently practices at ACQWellness in NYC.
Q: More and more people are pursuing traditional herbal alternatives and turning where they can away from pharmaceutical drugs – what kind of types of conditions can herbal medicine be effective in treating and what’s important to know?
It can help treat almost anything, other than of course something like a heart attack, very acute, critical conditions. In these cases, malignant tumor growths for example, Chinese medicine is never going to be as good as Western medicine. You can take herbs to help the healing process and detox from the Western treatments, but it’s not going to be as effective as chemo or radiation.
One of the many things that it is really great for however is skin conditions. Western medicine has such a hard time with dermatology. If you have hives or eczema, you’re almost certainly going to get prescribed steroids such as prednisone as sort of a generic remedy. The skin presents a picture of the overall integrated health of the body, and it’s hard for Western medicine today to determine the specific cause of a lot of rashes. Steroids will stop working at some point, or will thin out the skin too much, or there will be other side effects that are just as bad, if not worse, than the skin condition you’re trying to treat. Because of Chinese medicine’s ability to get at the underlying cause of the condition and not just treat the symptoms, dermatology is an area where more and more people are turning to herbal medicine and seeing improvement after trying all ‘conventional’ approaches without success.
We also see a lot of digestive cases who turn to herbs because again nothing seems to work for IBS or Crohn’s or colitis. And then just your run of the mill cold, Chinese herbal medicine for kicking out a cold is very effective because when you go over the counter here in the States, you just get something like Sudafed, but in TCM we dive deeper into the pattern of the complaint and really tailor a remedy. Is the root cause ‘wind cold’ or ‘wind heat’, for instance – these patterns have different symptoms and there are different herbs for each. Is the issue more nasal or in the throat or has it sunk deep down into the chest – there are different formulas to address it at different levels. And when we prescribe formulas we always take into account the constitution of the person. So if I have somebody come in who is robust, strong, energetic, young, I can give him stronger herbs, more drying herbs. If somebody is more frail, a senior citizen, a little drier, overall a little more depleted, there are more gentle herbs that we can use. These are factors that the Sudafed would not take into account.
Q: How did you become a TCM doctor?
I grew up immersed in TCM – my aunt, who came to live with us when I was 11 or 12, was a dual qualified doctor at Hangzhou Friendship Hospital. These hospitals are common in bigger cities in China – for each department, they offer Western treatment as well as Eastern medicine. If you had endometriosis and you went to the OB-GYN department for instance, they would do the sonogram, biopsy, everything they would do in the US, but the doctor would be trained in both practices so you would also have the option to receive Chinese treatment.
I got my period on the earlier side, along with severe cramping. My mom didn’t want me to take Advil or birth control at my age, so my aunt would give me a formula with dang gui (angelica sinensis), which is good for blood stasis and cramping. There would also be Chinese red dates, which are good for digestion. Because I was young the formulas were fairly simple – as I got older I saw her put prescriptions together for adults that were more complex. In my case, she would brew a tea that I would start taking 3-5 days before my period, and I wouldn’t get cramps. If it took it the day of, I would get some cramps that first day, but by the second day they would usually be gone. As a kid I would have preferred to do what everyone else was doing and take Western medicine, but it totally worked, so I became a believer.
Q: Are there any herbs or formulas of particular relevance to women’s health?
Astralagus and angelica, which is sometimes called the female ginseng, are often combined for women’s health. One tonifies qi and the other tonifies blood, so for a very heavy period where you are losing blood, losing qi, this can be a great pairing. Angelica not only tonifies the blood but stimulates circulatory function, so it’s helpful with menstrual issues generally. There are many layers though – angelica can be taken singularly for cramps, but it can be little bit warming on its own, so for example with a teenager that has a lot of energy and heat, you would probably want to buffer it with something else. This is one of the differences in theory between Western medicine and Chinese medicine – western medicine will isolate an extract or something that they deem to be beneficial and that’s it, but in TCM we almost always use combinations of herbs.
Q: What’s the best form to take herbal remedies in?
There are a few different options. When I was growing up it was just raw herbs or single herbs that you would bring over from China in tablet or tea pill form. Boiling the fresh herbs yourself and drinking it is great, but not many people have the time for that. Now you can get granules and tinctures – granules are the formulas in powdered form that you dissolve and drink, and with a tincture the raw herbs are boiled together and then suspended in alcohol. But ask any herbal medicine doctor and they’ll tell you the best form is the form that your patient will take consistently. If you’re traveling a lot you’re probably not going to want to bring a bottle of liquid where ever you go, or you may not have hot water available to make granules, so tea pills or capsules would be best. Formulas are just more effective if they are taken regularly - it doesn’t matter as much which delivery format it’s in.
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