Interview with Dr Wei Xiong Chen on Traditional Chinese Medicine
Ronnie Robinson talks to Dr Wei Xiong Chen
Dr Wei Xiong Chen is a third generation Doctor of Chinese medicine. He grew up in Guangzhou, China where his Grandfather, father, uncle and brother were worked with Traditional Chinese Medicine. From the age of seven he helped in the dispensary, making up herbal mixtures and, in turn, familiarising himself with the medical system which he brought to Scotland in 1987.
Perhaps you could tell me about your first awareness of Traditional Chinese Medicine?
My grandfather was a Chinese herbalist and my father, my uncle and my brother are all Chinese doctors. So when I was about seven or eight years old they influenced me. I would stand behind them when they saw their patients or they would ask me to help them to prepare herbs.
Do most people in China have some awareness of Chinese Herbs and herb cures they may use themselves, rather than going to the doctor?
Most Chinese people have some knowledge of Chinese Herbal Medicine: they have their own favourite recipes for remedies for common ailments like colds, flu etc. Most people know that ginger and garlic are very good for colds or stomach upsets. If you are prone to travel sickness, most people would know that ginger can help this problem. Some people might also know some acupoints, which can be pressed to help these conditions.
So most people are aware of the concept of acupoints and the Qi energy system?
They would have some knowledge, but not great detail.
So if somebody has a problem that is not too serious, would they first try some of these simple techniques before visiting the doctor?
Yes, if they know of some traditional things they would try those first. If that didn’t help, they would then go to the doctor to buy some herbs.
So you were involved in the culture of TCM from an early age, when did you start your official training?
When I finished secondary school and passed my exams, I attended Canton University of TCM and studied Traditional Chinese Medicine.
How long is the training in the university and what does it entail?
Five years. The first year we have to study western medicine by working with Anatomy, Physiology and Health, and then study TCM with Acupuncture, Chinese Herbalism and Tuina (Chinese Massage).
The system of Traditional Chinese Medicine is totally different from western medicine. Can you tell me what is the basic premise of TCM?
We have different ways of looking at conditions and disorders. The system is based on the idea of Yin and Yang. In a healthy body the Yin and Yang will be in balance. Once the Yin and Yang is in imbalance you have disorders or disharmony. The body’s energy, the Qi, must flow smoothly. When it doesn’t flow smoothly or when it blocks, it causes problems. I will give you an example:-
Liver stagnation is a common problem that can cause depression or anxiety or stress. When we treat depression we normally try to unblock the liver stagnation. In TCM the liver and emotions are closely related, the liver controls your mood. Once the liver energy is stagnated you feel depressed. You don’t want to be depressed but your body doesn’t listen to you.
In TCM when we treat patients we try to find out what caused the condition, to get to the root of the condition and then prescribe the appropriate, individual treatment.
In diagnosis, someone comes to you with a problem like depression or whatever; how would a typical consultation session go?
Initially I would ask the patient for some details that would give me a description of their symptoms. I would then take the patient’s pulse. Taking the pulse is one of the traditional methods of diagnosis.
Pulse diagnosis isn’t as simple as we may think, in Western culture?
When I take their pulse, Western people think I’m checking the speed. Apart from checking the speed we check to see if its deep or shallow, slow or fast, a thin pulse or thick pulse. There are many aspects of pulse diagnosis and each aspect provides different information. When the pulse is fast it means there is too much heat or excessive Yang in the body. If it is too deep, or too weak, it means that the body energy is low. Without telling me anything I can tell, from your pulse, how you feel.
You also look at the face?
We look at the face and the tongue. Tongue diagnosis is very important. Each part of the tongue relates to different organs. The front of the tongue relates to the heart and the lung. The sides relate to the gall bladder and liver, the middle relates to the stomach and spleen and the rear relates to blood.
So what should a healthy tongue look like?
It should be light red with a thin white coating. There shouldn’t be any teeth marks showing. Sometimes you can see teeth marks on a tongue, which is caused by the tongue becoming more extended than it should be, and then it touches the teeth. That is a sign of damage in the body. It might indicate a deficiency of the spleen.
When the problem is treated, the tongue would then retract?
Yes and the teeth marks would disappear. I would look for the teeth marks showing less as a sign of improvement in a spleen deficiency problem.
What is the purpose of the spleen in TCM?
In TCM we believe that the spleen carries the nutrition to the different parts of the body. It also stores the blood and relates to the stomach and digestion. Indigestion can cause a deficiency in the spleen. If you eat too many dairy products, which we refer to as ‘damp’ foods, this would make the stomach or the spleen have to overwork. This can also cause skin disorders such as eczema.
So dairy products are one of the most common causes of eczema?
How would you describe the concept of Qi energy?
In TCM we think that the qi energy system is very important. The qi and the body’s immune system have a very close connection. When your qi is low, your immune system is low. When your kidney energy is low, your immune system is weak. We can’t just talk about qi on its own because qi works with blood. When the blood is weak or deficient it can affect the qi as well. If your qi is strong your blood circulation will be good. It can promote a good flow in the blood. If the blood is weak it can also affect the qi.
If there is a problem in the flow of qi, or if the qi is not strong, you would prescribe Chinese medicine?
If there were a problem with the qi flow the Chinese doctor would also prescribe a blood tonic.
What is in a blood tonic?
We would use things like White Peony, Chinese Angelica, Rehmannia Root or a Chinese Herbs called Chung Xiong. They are used to strengthen the blood, which would also help the qi.
The idea of treating the blood to help the qi, does it relate to the system of five elements?
Yes. If there is a heart problem, it can also affect the liver. We talk about a connection between the heart and the liver, the liver and lung and the liver and the spleen. We refer to the mother and son.
When the mother has a problem it can affect the son. The mother of the liver is the heart. When there is liver stagnation it will also affect the heart. Depression can be a result of liver stagnation, which could also cause palpitations in the heart. The son’s disorder is affecting the mother.
The heart is a fire element and the lung is metal. Metal can be melted by fire but the metal can also suffocate the fire.
So this whole system of the elements relates to all the problems?
Would a Chinese doctor advise patients to practice qigong, as an aid to improving their energy system?
Qigong can help to balance the energy system. It can help a lot of problems like arthritis, hypertension, depression and stress. Chinese doctors may suggest a patient should do some qigong in much the same way as a western doctor would advise a patient to take up some exercise. In nursing homes and homes for the elderly there are qigong classes.
Can you give me an example of where you might use herbs, as opposed to acupuncture?
We use herbs a lot for skin complaints. In treating eczema we would prescribe herbs that are taken internally, rather than just prescribing a cream which would be applied externally. Although the problem is showing on the outside, on the skin, it is coming from the inside. This is mainly due to what you eat, what you drink and even what you are breathing in. Once the body begins to disagree with some of the foods you eat or some of the drinks you drink, they are regarded as toxins to your body. When these toxins build up within the body, they eventually explode on the skin.
How prevalent are these skin disorders in China?
We do have skin problems in China but they are not as common as they are here and the patients don’t suffer for as long. We rarely see patients who have suffered for 20, 30 or 40 years like we do in western society. The main reason for this is that the patient would go to see the TCM doctor much earlier. He can then deal with the first stages of the problem, rather than trying to cure something, which has accumulated over many years. In western medicine you would treat the symptoms by prescribing steroids.
I am in my early 60’s and I don’t remember eczema being a problem with my childhood friends but now there seems to be a lot of sufferers. Is this because of the increase in artificial processing of foods?
Yes, you are right. 40, 50 years ago people didn’t have so many skin disorders. It is possible that, at that time, the diet could have been better. Today people are eating a lot of spicey foods like curries, chillies and dairy products. They are very bad for the skin.
I have a theory that the foods that are indigenous to a particular area are what is right for that area, but if you are eating a lot of foods that come from other parts, they may not be ideally suited.
This may be a factor but really, you should be able to eat anything – as long as it is not too much! There should be balance. Curry is not bad for you, but if you eat it all the time, it can cause problems. It might be okay for me but not okay for my children. When your body is healthy it can accept what you eat. If the body is not healthy even eating something like cooked vegetables can cause diarrhea. When your stomach is healthy you can eat raw vegetables with no problems.
My Qigong teacher has a theory: When you travel abroad, very often you can suffer stomach upsets. He suggests taking a supply of water from your home country and gradually mix it with the water of the country you are visiting.
He’s right. Water changes can cause a stomach problem. Comparing London with Scotland; London’s water is hard and Scottish water is very soft. When some people travel from one place to another the change can cause stomach problems. Some places have water, which has a hot quality and some places have a cold quality.
Many people suffer from allergies from things like washing powders, certain foods and drinks. How do you deal with allergies?
We look at the body and how it deals with those things. We don’t talk about allergies as such. We think of it as a deficiency in the body, which needs to be strengthened. We look at making the body stronger so it is more able to deal with things, which may cause problems.
So with problems like skin complaints you evaluate the situation and prescribe the appropriate herbs. Which herbs would you use most often and why do you use them?
We have to find out what caused the eczema. Two patients can have different types of eczema and we would have to use different herbs in each case. They must be individually prescribed. One patient may have eczema, which is red and burning. That would indicate that there is too much heat in the body.
And this would be caused by..?
Maybe by eating too much hot food, or drinking too much alcohol.
We would use cold herbs like Peony Root to cool the heat and detoxify the body. The excessive heat is caused by toxins.
You say that each person is different and that they are prescribed different herbs, which relate to their particular condition; every TCM doctor I know sells jars of cream for treating eczema and psoriasis.
Creams can help to reduce the itchiness or runniness of the condition. This can provide temporary relief from the condition. However to treat the problem we have to look inside and see what is really required. Using the cream is a small aid to the real treatment. Using the cream and the medicine together can be more beneficial.
Many people have concerns about Chinese Herbs and where they come from. They are concerned about animal products and the pureness of the herbs. How do you deal with this?
We don’t use animal products in this country at all. There are plenty of other herbs that we can use. We do use animal products in China but we are not allowed to use them here. We buy our herbs from wholesalers in Hong Kong and main land China. Everything has been checked and is tightly controlled.
How do people know the herbs are safe?
Any kind of herbal medicine can be dangerous if taken wrongly. That’s why we don’t sell Chinese herbs over the counter. We only use them for our own prescription. We see the patients individually and make up the herbs according to their needs. If you use the right herbs for the right condition you won’t get any side-effects.
In my practice we normally use herbs for skin problems but we can also use acupuncture for skin complaints too. Acupuncture can be used to balance the body, to cool down the heat and restore the natural balance of the energy system. If someone doesn’t want to take the herbs because of the taste we would also use acupuncture.
They taste horrible! Why do Chinese herbs taste so foul?
They’re natural and the combination of maybe 10 – 15 different herbs creates something else which can make the taste even worse. We believe that the bitterer the medicine, the better the medicine.
Do the local Chinese people use TCM or do they prefer Western medicine now?
For small illnesses they would try their own family herbal remedies first, then the TCM doctor. If they had something more serious they would contact a western doctor.
In Western culture we often suffer from psychological problems like depression, we don’t often hear of TCM being used in conditions like this?
If the depression were related to psychological problems we would give the patient some counselling too. The more the patient trusts you the quicker they will improve.
Chinese Massage or Tuina. You would use it for back problems etc.?
We normally use acupuncture for back pains. Tuina can also be used for back pain or sciatica.
What is the most common type of back pain you would deal with?
How do you deal with slipped discs?
When the disc is out, and it touches the nerve, it will cause back pain or sciatica. If we only use acupuncture without working on the disc it will help to relieve the pain. However the pain will return because the nerve is still touched. I would use a special massage technique to push the disk back to its normal place. I would then use acupuncture to unblock the blockage. This would help in the repair of the damaged muscle. Taking painkillers to get rid of the pain isn’t ideal. It will take away the pain but the problem might be getting worse.
Another cause of back pain is low kidney energy. It can feel like a dull, aching pain. When you are overworking, standing too much or sometimes when the weather changes you can suffer from this kind of back pain. We believe in Chinese medicine that the kidneys control the back and the knees. To treat this kind of pain we have to strengthen the kidneys.
What are the most common causes of low kidney energy?
Overwork, stress and often, oversex. Too much sex is bad for the kidney energy. Losing the sperm too often makes the kidneys work too hard.
So all those people with big, black eyes… we know what they have been up to!
Yes (laughs). The black eyes can be very telling.
Are there any illnesses that westerners suffer from, that are not so prevalent in China?
We have some cases of depression but not as much as we see in the west.
What do you attribute this to?
Maybe the lifestyle is different with too many expectations. Our lifestyle is easier, we take everything easy.
What do you attribute the rapid growth in asthma problems to and how do you treat them?
Again we use a combination of herbs and acupuncture and we get very good results. In Chinese medicine asthma problems relate to the lungs, kidney and spleen. We use medicine to open the lungs, to strengthen the lungs, to strengthen the kidney energy and to strengthen the spleen. The cause could be eating too much dairy products or breathing polluted air.
What is you view on the causes of M.E.?
We think that most of the problems are caused by the stagnation of the liver energy and deficiency of kidney energy. This could be caused by too much stress, or pressure, which can cause an imbalance of Yin and Yang. This can also be caused by a post viral problem, maybe after having a cold or flu, which hasn’t cleared properly. The immune system can weaken which will cause more problems resulting in low energy and tiredness; it’s a vicious cycle.
So how would you treat M.E.?
We concentrate on strengthening the kidney energy and freeing the stagnation of the liver. You should then feel more energetic and brighter.
Do you see a situation developing where, instead of single practitioners of TCM, we see practices and hospitals with many practitioners working together?
That is what I am planning to do. I would like to set up a purely TCM medical hospital.
Finally, have you any advice for someone who is considering Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Yes. There are now many practitioners of TCM around, particularly in places like London, and there are a few who are not properly qualified. You must ensure they are registered with the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the UK or the British Acupuncture Council.
So its no good just having a certificate from China?
(Laughs) It depends on the certificate. It may be for attending a weekend seminar. Can you read Chinese and are you able to check out the validity of the certificate? Anyone coming over from China should be able to satisfy these British Associations of their competence to practice.
Images: Ronnie Robinson