Understanding TCM, Western and Indian Herbs

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Traditional Chinese Medicine, Aryurveda and other herbal traditions.

Understanding TCM

Understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the difference between Western or Indian medicine can be difficult. This post will help you better understand the herbal practices of each medicine and how they differ. Western medicine is new in comparison to Indian and Chinese medicine.

In fact, TCM has been around for thousands of years and originated in ancient China. The TCM practice has since evolved throughout the centuries. TCM practitioners use herbal medicines and mind and body practices. Some of these practices include acupuncture, acupressure and tai chi to treat and/or prevent health issues. Overall Traditional Chinese Medicine believes in the concept of finding balance in your body to achieve your best health.

According to TCM, the body is a smaller version of the world. This belief is a multi-dimensional body-mind-spirit system that is rooted in natural law. This means that TCM is based on how the seasons and planets affect our bodies. According to TCM, the body, like the world, has five elements. These elements are metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Health and wellness in the human body is the result of balancing your body and its energy system to align with the elements. In fact, each organ connects to a different element.


Herbal Medicine and Other Practices

Herbal formulas are only one of many TCM traditions that are used when one aspect of the body is not in balance. In the United States, many people use TCM as a complementary approach alongside Western medicine. Yet, TCM isn’t the only type of medicine to use herbs to heal. Many western herbalists use herbs too. There’s also the Indian practice, Ayurveda which also uses herbs to treat medical problems.

Chinese Herbs vs Western Herbal Medicine

There is some overlap between western herbs and Chinese herbs. For example, the herb, astragalus in the early 1980s. This Chinese herb is often used in both Western and Chinese medicine to enhance immune function. It’s been used in both medicines to treat the common cold and to maintain a healthy heart.

The major difference between the two practices is the philosophy between them.  Chinese herbalists use herbal formulas, keyword being formulas. The idea is for these herbal formulas to work together synergistically to treat various patterns of disease inside the body. According to TCM, these formulas also work together to treat the cause of the imbalance that is causing the person’s illness. In contrast, western herbalism treats symptoms with a single herb or remedy instead of a formula of herbs that work together.


The Difference in Medicine Diagnosis

Another difference between Western and Chinese medicine as a whole is how a patient is diagnosed. To make an accurate diagnosis in TCM, the practitioner focuses on the patient holistically. Whereas in Western medicine the focus is more on the patient’s weight, height and symptoms. In TCM, they will observe and ask the patients questions that are based on four pillars of diagnosis. These include:

Looking: The practitioner will observe the patient’s movements and mannerism, speech patterns and appearance of the tongue, eyes and ears.

Listening: They will listen to the sound and tenor of your voice and they listen out for what categories the patient’s voice falls into. These categories are shout, laugh, sing, weep and groan.

Touching: This is also called palpation. They feel the characteristics of the patient’s pulse at various points on the body.

Asking: Learning about the patient’s history, symptoms and concerns among other questions are important as well.

These four pillars of diagnosis provide an important view of the patient’s organs and systems. Before treatment is provided by a Chinese practitioner, they will use this method to focus on a diagnosis to correct imbalances and disharmonies.

TCM practitioners and proponents of the ancient Chinese practice believe that westerners don’t have a full understanding of this holistic form of medicine. Isolating the herbs to cure an ailment is not how Chinese medicine works. In Western culture, we tend to focus on the benefits of one herb or substance and don’t have the same type of synergistic concepts in our herbal remedies. The benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine herbal formulas come from the formulas–how herbs and extracts and their chemical constituents work in conjunction with one another to create the proper balance.

Ayurveda Medicine Versus Chinese Medicine

Ayurveda which is Traditional Indian Medicine (TIM) has some similarities as TCM, They both understand five elements. But, with TIM the elements they understand are ether, air, water, fire and earth. Both traditions are ancient in comparison to a relatively new Western medicine. Both practices use a lot of the same herbs. In addition, they focus more on the patient rather than the disease and a set of symptoms. The two differ from Western medicine. These practices are more instructional. Western medicine is more scientific. In fact, Ayurveda is known as “the instruction for life.” Even more so, both practices strive to promote health while enhancing the quality of a patient’s life through therapeutic strategies.













The diagnostic and therapeutic groupings in TCM and TIM are the main difference. In TCM, yin and yang along with the five elements and bodily organs have the strongest influence. In ayurvedic medicine, the element system can also be quite complex. But essentially it’s known as the three dosha system or tridosha system. The system includes Kapha (earth and water), Pitta (fire and water) and Vata (space and air). The doshas are biological energies found throughout the human body and mind.

According to TIM, the doshas govern physical and mental processes while providing a blueprint for health and fulfillment. Through this system of three, patients are classified into these dosha groups. Doshas are in constant change in response to our actions, emotions, thoughts and the foods we eat.  Foods, herbs and physical therapies are presented by how well they affect the three doshas. The three doshas are the basis of diagnosis, pathology and therapeutics in TIM.

The Herbs

Ayurvedic herbs are the main component of Ayurveda. Ayurvedic herbsare used to cleanse the body, boosts defense against diseases and keep the mind body and spirit in balance. As mentioned earlier, many herbs in TCM and TIM overlap.

The Takeaway

Western, Chinese and Indian medicine overlap in many ways. The main overlap comes from herb usage and the type of herbs used among herbalists. Yet the philosophy between Western medicine in comparison to Chinese and Indian medicine differ. Western medicine focuses on the symptoms of patients whereas Indian and Chinese medicine focuses on the patient holistically. Chinese and Indian medicine have similar ways of philosophy. But, Chinese medicine uses wood, fire, metal, earth and water alongside yin and yang to create balance in the body through herbs and therapeutic strategies. Indian Medicine uses the three doshas before presenting any herbs or therapeutic strategies.

Globally there are efforts being made to track and regulate herbal drugs and traditional medicines. Health authorities around the world have taken an interest in providing herbal medicines. They are striving to explore alternative healing practices and how they relate to science through careful research. The World Health Organization is active in creating sets of guidelines and standards for herbal medicine.


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