What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine? A T+L Wellness Primer

Traditional Chinese Medicine covers an array of ancient healing practices that can offer a wealth of benefits. For many, TCM is a way of life. Here’s how to incorporate it into yours.

TCM Primer : Cupping, Kamalaya

Cupping. Courtesy of Kamalaya Retreat Koh Samui

By David Ngo

Feb 28, 2022


FROM ACUPUNCTURE TO CUPPING, Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, is becoming increasingly prevalent far from its country of origin. When speaking about TCM, medical experts caution against making too many broad generalizations, because the term covers a staggering number of practices and techniques, most of which have developed over the course of millennia. A number of these practices are increasingly accepted as beneficial by practitioners of Western medicine, especially as studies continue to roll out showing exactly how they impact the human body. For those planning their next wellness retreat or just curious about Traditional Chinese Medicine, T+L SEA asked the experts explain what it is, tell us about some treatments, clear up some of the misconceptions and offer practical advice on how TCM can boost our overall wellness.

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) exactly?

TCM Primer : Cupping, Kamalaya Samui
Cupping. Courtesy of Kamalaya Retreat Koh Samui

“Traditional Chinese Medicine is a medical system that has evolved, and has been practiced, for more than 3,000 years in the part of the world that is now China,” Karina Stewart, Master of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine at Kamalaya Wellness Retreat

As with any system older than most human civilizations, it’s changed quite a bit in that time, although certain principles have remained the same. At its core, TCM focuses on the flow of qi, or life force energy, throughout the human body. Qi flows along a series of channels known as meridians. “It is a medical system that is deeply rooted in the Taoist philosophy, which takes as a central pillar nature as hero and teacher,” Stewart says.  

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t exactly living our optimal lives—especially lately—which is why our minds and bodies can get thrown out of alignment. To combat this, TCM specialists use a whole arsenal of different techniques. Much of TCM also centers on combinations of herbal remedies and dietary advice designed to help keep our bodies in balance.

TCM Primer : Moxibustion at Six Senses Krabey in Cambodia
Moxibustion at Six Senses Krabey in Cambodia. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

Some examples of common TCM treatments:

  • Acupuncture: the practice of inserting thin, sterilized needles into pressure points along the body—most commonly to ease pain but also to help treat problems as wide-ranging as insomnia, addiction, infertility and more. There are 2,000+ points so the combinations are endless depending on your doctor’s prescription
  • Moxibustion: burning mugwort over select areas of the body, sometimes above acupuncture needles
  • Cupping: glass orbs are heated and applied to the body to induce suction and draw out toxins
  • Tui na massage: rhythmic compression massage akin to shiatsu

What can we treat with TCM?

TCM Primer : Acupuncture
Acupuncture. Photo by chinaview/Getty Images/Canva

The short answer: just about everything. Many doctors do not see TCM as an alternative to Western medicine, but rather as a beneficial series of practices that can be used either independently or as a supplement to other treatments. TCM can be used to help all sorts of ailments, from the common cold to serious chronic conditions. 

“With TCM, a wide range of imbalance of our body, including chronic fatigue, stress, weight management, chronic pain, insomnia, allergies, hormone imbalance, digestive, metabolic or immune disorders, can be corrected and restored, reharmonizing our inner energy,” says Dr. Li Ning, a specialist at Sangha Retreat by Octave Institute

Acupuncture in particular has gained much broader acceptance in Western medical communities, thanks to powerful results in patients from all over the world. “Migraines are one of the common ailments which is treated by acupuncture,” Li says. “The benefits of acupuncture help individuals to tonify vital qi, expelling ‘outside wind’ and blood stasis pathogens, which will relieve chronic pain and improve overall wellbeing.”

How can I apply TCM to my daily life?

Courtesy of SANGHA Retreat (2)

Like any medical practice, the best way to learn more about TCM is to consult the experts. Whether you’re looking to alter your daily diet to ward off ailments or incorporate cupping or acupuncture into your wellness routine, it’s important to reach out to the pros first. Still, there are a few simple techniques that Stewart says just about anyone can take advantage of right away.

Start with minor adjustments to what and how you eat and drink. “TCM strongly recommends not to eat or drink anything that is cold, and so ensuring that what we drink is at least lukewarm, if not warmer, would be one way,” Stewart says.

Turmeric milk. Courtesy of Kamalaya Retreat Koh Samui

“The same goes for our food. So rather than eating a cold salad or cold soup, to consume things that are warm in order to preserve the body’s ability to digest and metabolize so that the body doesn’t have to work as hard to keep homeostasis with our body temperature. It can be wasteful of our energy and vitality to work on counteracting body temperature.”

Another way to help your body do its job more effectively is to pay close attention to circadian rhythms. “Go to bed early, before 10 o’clock, when we release cortisol and get our second wind, and wake up early,” Stewart says. “The same eight hours of sleep, if you go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and wake up at 5:30 a.m., are more restorative than if you go to bed at 10:30 p.m. and wake up at 6:30 a.m.”

Where can I try TCM?

Outrageous Spa Experiences : Sangha Retreat by Octave Institute
Courtesy of Sangha Retreat by Octave Institute

In Asia, well, everywhere. 

Singapore requires all TCM practitioners to be licensed by the government, which requires a degree from one of two universities in the Lion City or nine in China. Visit the Ministry of Health’s site for details and to find a doctor.

Many luxury resorts across the region have TCM doctors on staff. Here are two to consider if you’re looking for a wellness retreat that was founded with Traditional Chinese Medicine as a guiding principle: 

Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa Retreat, in Koh Samui, Thailand; 75-minute initial Traditional Chinese Medicine consultation and treatment from Bt5,600.

Sangha Retreat by Octave Institute, in Suzhou, China; acupuncture sessions from US$92 for 30 minutes.

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