Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is based on traditions that’ve been around for thousands of years. The thinking behind TCM is this: Health issues are caused by imbalances or disruptions in the body’s vital energy, or qi, says Christina Morris, licensed acupuncturist, herbalist and owner of Element Healing Arts in Brooklyn, New York. “Qi flows through pathways in the body called meridians, which are associated with a particular organ. Energetic imbalances disrupt normal flow of qi, leading to disease, illness and disharmony. TCM manipulates the energy in these channels to restore balance, creating better health and wellness,” she says. Some TCM practices can seem weird — but they work! Just check out the following eight examples.
The anchor practice of TCM, acupuncture, has been around for thousands of years. Practitioners assess where your qi, or life force, is stagnant (or where you might feel pain) and insert thin, tiny needles to stimulate qi along the body’s many meridians, correcting energy imbalances, improving the flow of qi and stimulating blood flow around the affected area. “Stimulation of acupuncture points can increase circulation, decrease inflammation and alleviate pain, triggering the body’s natural painkillers and stimulating the body’s natural healing response,” says acupuncturist Christina Morris. Indeed, multiple studies have proven acupuncture can help facilitate healing for conditions ranging from chronic pain to reducing pain and nausea in cancer patients — even improving outcomes for women undergoing IVF.
Cupping uses glass or plastic cups (either stationary or sliding) on the skin to create a vacuum to draw blood to the surface of the skin, says Jeremy Pulsifer, doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine (DACM), clinical supervisor and faculty member at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, New York. It feels like a massage, but it leaves a series of circular bruises that can last a while. Useful for pain management, respiratory disorders and increased circulation, cupping is thought to speed the process of detoxification, discarding what the body doesn’t need, and decrease swelling and inflammation. As bizarre as it sounds, science confirms the positive effects of cupping: A 2016 study from Scientific Reports found it improved fibromyalgia pain, and a 2016 Iranian study found it relieved nausea after anesthesia.
Read more: What Are the Benefits of Cupping?
Moxibustion involves burning an herb called mugwort over certain acupuncture points and lines of energy pathways called meridians, says herbalist Christina Morris. In TCM, the heat of this herb is thought to nourish and strengthen qi, supporting its proper flow and circulation, decreasing pain, boosting organ function and promoting faster healing. A 2016 study published in Scientific Reports found this technique, along with acupuncture, to decrease fatigue. Another 2015 Chinese study found it to have a “superior effect” in both the short term and long term for neck pain caused by cervical spondylosis. One unusual thing about moxibustion, though, is it can smell like another (slightly less legal) herb: Morris jokes that new patients ask if they’re going to be lighting up.
4. Gua Sha
Doctor of Chinese medicine Jeremy Pulsifer says gua sha is a technique in which the skin is pressed and stroked (called scraping) with an object to create “sha,” temporary petechiae (or red/purplish color similar to light bruising) that come from the movement of blood cells from capillaries to surrounding tissue. “As weaker blood vessels are broken down, it leads to a process called angiogenesis, the formation and creation of stronger, more vigorous blood vessels,” Pulsifer says. “This allows greater oxygen perfusion to the affected areas, more nourishment to the tissues and a feeling of relaxation, pain relief and well-being.” A 2012 study from the American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that it helped alleviate pain in those with chronic neck and lower-back pain.
Read more: How to Give the Best Massage Ever
5. Tongue Diagnosis
A first visit to a TCM practitioner’s office will involve sticking out your tongue — but not to check out your throat. Herbalist Christina Morris says the tongue is like a map that reveals what’s going on inside your body. “The tip of the tongue corresponds to the heart and the lungs, the sides to the liver and the gallbladder, the middle of the tongue to the spleen and the stomach and the root of the tongue to the kidneys and urinary bladder. “Color, coating, spots, bumps and cracks in particular areas of the tongue can be indicative of imbalances in the body, representing present disease or future health issues that can arise.” By looking at your tongue, she can tell if you suffer from sleep disorders, anxiety, acid reflux, bloating, food stagnation, constipation, diarrhea, diabetes, asthma, COPD or hypertension.
Like the tongue, herbalist Christina Morris says specific points on the external part of the ear correspond to various organs and regions of the body. The practice, called auriculotherapy, involves using acupressure or acupuncture techniques on these parts of the ear to “activate” certain points that are thought to bring relief for various health issues. “The stimulation of the auricular points can be achieved through pressure with the fingers, pressure with metallic pellets, small magnets or seeds taped onto the points or through insertion of acupuncture needles,” Morris says. Though researchers are still examining the effectiveness of auriculotherapy’s ability to help with insomnia, for example, one 2010 review of 12 studies supported the use of auriculotherapy for pain management.
7. Chinese Herbs
Chava Quist, DACM, faculty at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and COO of Kamwo Meridian Herbs, says concoctions of plant materials, such as roots, leaves, bark and flowers, are used in TCM to treat various health conditions. Though many herbs overlap with items we find in our kitchen cabinet, such as xiao hui xiang (fennel seed), other herbs seem a little more “off the beaten path.”
For example, hai piao xiao (cuttlefish bone) is used to calm acid reflux because of the calcium carbonate, which lowers stomach acid. Chan tui (cicada molting) is used to soothe an irritated throat and many skin conditions because it’s made of chitin, which is antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory. However, proceed with caution before consuming any herb — they aren’t regulated, can interfere with prescription drugs, aggravate or cause heart issues and can be contaminated with toxins or heavy metals.
8. Qi Gong
At its root, qi gong blends “qi” (the life source energy) with “gong” (which means skill through practice). More practically, it’s a blend of exercise and meditation “using posture, movement, breathing technique, self-massage, sound and focused intent,” according to the National Qigong Association.
One 2017 study from the journal Medicines examined the effects of qi gong on Type 2 diabetes patients and found the preliminary data promising enough to warrant more extensive studies. And a 2015 review from the journal Medicine looked at 20 trials to gauge the efficacy and safety of qi gong in people with hypertension. Researchers found that qi gong helped lower blood pressure and was even more effective when combined with anti-hypertensive drugs (when compared with taking anti-hypertensive drugs alone).
What Do YOU Think?
What do you think of traditional Chinese medicine? Have you sipped on cuttlefish-bone tea or been to an acupuncturist? We’d love to hear about your experiences, so leave a note in the comments below!
Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a journalist, essayist, senior copywriter and rabblerouser who lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her work has been featured in Science of Us/New York magazine, The Week, DAME, US Weekly, CBS Watch!, Parents, Parenting, The New York Times and The New York Post.