Thirty years ago, traditional medicine, with its strong reliance on the healing power of plants, was considered pretty much obsolete by most Canadians.

How things change! Traditional medicine systems from around the world now flourish here. The gap between traditional and mainstream medicine is narrowing, with MDs running clinical trials of traditional remedies and reputable traditional practitioners modifying their practices in the light of new scientific evidence.

A current issue of great concern to practitioners, consumers, and government is the need to set and enforce standards of quality for both practitioners and the products marketed as traditional medicines.

Thirty years ago, traditional medicine, with its strong reliance on the healing power of plants, was considered pretty much obsolete by most Canadians.

How things change! Traditional medicine systems from around the world now flourish here. The gap between traditional and mainstream medicine is narrowing, with MDs running clinical trials of traditional remedies and reputable traditional practitioners modifying their practices in the light of new scientific evidence.

A current issue of great concern to practitioners, consumers, and government is the need to set and enforce standards of quality for both practitioners and the products marketed as traditional medicines.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Mary Wu

Founder & President, Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Toronto, Ontario

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a comprehensive and distinct medical paradigm. The fundamental theory of TCM is deeply rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy. TCM has its fundamental theory, unique diagnostic methods, and a variety of treatment modalities including acupuncture, tuina massage, and herbal medicine. As a matter of fact, herbal medicine constitutes the major part of TCM.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a comprehensive and distinct medical paradigm. The fundamental theory of TCM is deeply rooted in ancient Chinese philosophy. TCM has its fundamental theory, unique diagnostic methods, and a variety of treatment modalities including acupuncture, tuina massage, and herbal medicine. As a matter of fact, herbal medicine constitutes the major part of TCM.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Chinese herbs are powerful plants used to promote and maintain health and to prevent and treat disease. The herbs are used based on their flavour (i.e. pungent, sweet, bitter, sour, and salty) and natural properties (i.e. cold or hot, cool or warm, rising or falling, floating or sinking). The herbs' flavour and natural properties are used to rectify imbalances, strengthen weakness, improve energy, release toxins, and to regulate the function of internal organs.
Chinese herbs are powerful plants used to promote and maintain health and to prevent and treat disease. The herbs are used based on their flavour (i.e. pungent, sweet, bitter, sour, and salty) and natural properties (i.e. cold or hot, cool or warm, rising or falling, floating or sinking). The herbs' flavour and natural properties are used to rectify imbalances, strengthen weakness, improve energy, release toxins, and to regulate the function of internal organs.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Chinese herbal medicine can treat acute diseases like flu and colds, as well as chronic diseases such as allergies, gynaecological disorders (PMS, infertility, endometriosis, hormonal imbalances, menopause, and osteoporosis), autoimmune diseases, chronic viral diseases, and degenerative diseases caused by aging. Research has indicated that Chinese herbal medicine can strengthen and regulate the immune system, enhance the body's resistance to disease, improve blood circulation, and regulate the function of internal organs such as the heart, liver, lung, spleen, and kidneys. In particular, Chinese herbal medicine is especially good for promoting the body's ability to heal and recuperate.
Chinese herbal medicine can treat acute diseases like flu and colds, as well as chronic diseases such as allergies, gynaecological disorders (PMS, infertility, endometriosis, hormonal imbalances, menopause, and osteoporosis), autoimmune diseases, chronic viral diseases, and degenerative diseases caused by aging. Research has indicated that Chinese herbal medicine can strengthen and regulate the immune system, enhance the body's resistance to disease, improve blood circulation, and regulate the function of internal organs such as the heart, liver, lung, spleen, and kidneys. In particular, Chinese herbal medicine is especially good for promoting the body's ability to heal and recuperate.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

The most common and effective method of taking TCM herbs is as a decoction. Herbs prescribed by TCM doctors are boiled for a certain period of time and then strained and drunk 2-3 times per day. However, there are also pills, tinctures, and powdered extracts on the market.
The most common and effective method of taking TCM herbs is as a decoction. Herbs prescribed by TCM doctors are boiled for a certain period of time and then strained and drunk 2-3 times per day. However, there are also pills, tinctures, and powdered extracts on the market.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

It treats both. TCM is so comprehensive, complicated, and sophisticated. It does harmonize the body and balance its energy. And it is also used to treat disease.

TCM treats diseases diagnosed using Western methods according to pattern differentiation. According to TCM, a disease may present various patterns that indicate the cause, nature, and location of the disease. TCM doctors prescribe herbal medicine accordingly. For example, migraine headache patients may present with a cold pattern, a heat pattern, an energy and blood deficiency pattern, or a Qi (the body's vital energy) and blood stagnation pattern. Even though these patterns are all characteristic of headaches, the treatments will be completely different. A cold headache has to be treated with hot herbs, while a hot headache must be treated using cold herbs. The energy and blood have to be tonified for a patient with a deficiency. The Qi and blood have to be invigorated and stagnation has to be removed for a patient whose headache is due to Qi and blood stagnation. The result of TCM herbal treatment depends largely on precise diagnosis and correct pattern differentiation.

TCM also prevents disease and Read More

It treats both. TCM is so comprehensive, complicated, and sophisticated. It does harmonize the body and balance its energy. And it is also used to treat disease.

TCM treats diseases diagnosed using Western methods according to pattern differentiation. According to TCM, a disease may present various patterns that indicate the cause, nature, and location of the disease. TCM doctors prescribe herbal medicine accordingly. For example, migraine headache patients may present with a cold pattern, a heat pattern, an energy and blood deficiency pattern, or a Qi (the body's vital energy) and blood stagnation pattern. Even though these patterns are all characteristic of headaches, the treatments will be completely different. A cold headache has to be treated with hot herbs, while a hot headache must be treated using cold herbs. The energy and blood have to be tonified for a patient with a deficiency. The Qi and blood have to be invigorated and stagnation has to be removed for a patient whose headache is due to Qi and blood stagnation. The result of TCM herbal treatment depends largely on precise diagnosis and correct pattern differentiation.

TCM also prevents disease and promotes health by maintaining the body's balance before pathological imbalances occur.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

The main differences are due to the fact that TCM herbs are used based on traditional Chinese medical theory. The theory, again, is to balance the body in a way the body needs and to enhance the body's own healing power. The herbs promote health by strengthening the body's vital energy, which is essential to our health and our ability to resist disease. In TCM this energy is called Qi [chi]. TCM herbs can also eliminate toxic products and cleanse the body. So to restore balance, we use herbs to promote the body's vital energy, promote health, and prevent disease while eliminating toxins, waste, and pathogenic factors from the body.

TCM talks about Yin and Yang, which can be simply described as water and fire. Think of Yin as water, cool, nourishing, and moistening, and think of Yang as fire, hot, bright, and exciting. Yin is considered the substance of the body, and Yang represents its functional activities. Yin and Yang are opposite to each other, but they also depend on each other, so in the body they have to be balanced. If the balance is broken, we get sick. Now, it may not be immediately obvious that we are sick and, in that case, Chinese medicine can restore bala Read More

The main differences are due to the fact that TCM herbs are used based on traditional Chinese medical theory. The theory, again, is to balance the body in a way the body needs and to enhance the body's own healing power. The herbs promote health by strengthening the body's vital energy, which is essential to our health and our ability to resist disease. In TCM this energy is called Qi [chi]. TCM herbs can also eliminate toxic products and cleanse the body. So to restore balance, we use herbs to promote the body's vital energy, promote health, and prevent disease while eliminating toxins, waste, and pathogenic factors from the body.

TCM talks about Yin and Yang, which can be simply described as water and fire. Think of Yin as water, cool, nourishing, and moistening, and think of Yang as fire, hot, bright, and exciting. Yin is considered the substance of the body, and Yang represents its functional activities. Yin and Yang are opposite to each other, but they also depend on each other, so in the body they have to be balanced. If the balance is broken, we get sick. Now, it may not be immediately obvious that we are sick and, in that case, Chinese medicine can restore balance to prevent further imbalance from developing - in other words, it can prevent disease. In an actual disease situation, the imbalance is more obvious and more severe and Chinese medicine can treat it, again, by restoring balance.

For example, sometimes we may feel hot everywhere. We have high fever, a sore throat, burning sensations. Our pulse is rapid and our tongue is red. Everything shows evidence of excess Yang: there is too much fire in the body. In this case we're going to use cold-natured herbs to purge the fire, to restore balance. On the other hand, sometimes a patient may feel cold, tired, and have diarrhea. The pulse is low and the tongue is pale. In this case, we say there is too much Yin in the body. The body is too cold, so we use herbs that are hot in nature to balance the body.

There are times when our body's energy is weak. When we just don't have enough energy, we use herbs that can tonify the energy, such as ginseng (Panax species), a very well known Qi tonic. There are times the energy may be stuck, or obstructed. When the Qi energy is obstructed we may feel depressed, have pains and aches here and there, or feel oppression or pressure in the chest. Our pulse may be uneven. In that situation, there are herbs that could improve energy circulation.

So we use the natural properties of the herbs to balance the body's energy to promote health and to prevent and treat disease.

In Chinese medicine, herbs are very rarely used individually. They're always combined together, so the combination of the herbs - the prescription - is a sophisticated art. For a TCM doctor to be able to prescribe herbs precisely, safely, and effectively, he or she requires years and years of education and practice. A patient has to have an accurate diagnosis because if the diagnosis is incorrect, Chinese herbs can be used wrongly and may become harmful. If someone has fire burning in the body and you give the patient herbs that are hot in nature, what will happen? The patient will burn, be on fire. And if the patient is cold and you use cold herbs, you're going to freeze the patient.

Chinese herbal medicine has been benefiting over a quarter of the world's population for thousands of years. It is effective and safe because it is natural and it works with the body. It is much less invasive than the use of Western drugs.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Medicines used in TCM.

Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives


Although TCM is used by many people and integrated with conventional medicine in Canada among many individual Canadians, there is very little systemic integration of TCM with the Canadian medical care system. For example, I have been asked to treat patients in hospitals by patients themselves or by their parents, but the hospital has no TCM doctors on staff and there are no established procedures or policies in place for us. At legislation level, the Natural Health Product Directorate of Health Canada is responsible for the regulation of TCM products to ensure their safety, quality, and effectiveness. British Columbia is the only province that recognizes doctors of TCM and TCM herbalists by law.

Integration of TCM and Western medicine started in China over fifty years ago. There, it is the individual's own choice whether they want to use TCM, Western medicine, or both. There are two types of hospitals: general hospitals where doctors practice Western medicine only, and TCM hospitals where doctors practice both TCM and Western medicine.

The integration of TCM with Western medicine enhances the effect of Western medicine and reduces the cost of our health care s Read More

Although TCM is used by many people and integrated with conventional medicine in Canada among many individual Canadians, there is very little systemic integration of TCM with the Canadian medical care system. For example, I have been asked to treat patients in hospitals by patients themselves or by their parents, but the hospital has no TCM doctors on staff and there are no established procedures or policies in place for us. At legislation level, the Natural Health Product Directorate of Health Canada is responsible for the regulation of TCM products to ensure their safety, quality, and effectiveness. British Columbia is the only province that recognizes doctors of TCM and TCM herbalists by law.

Integration of TCM and Western medicine started in China over fifty years ago. There, it is the individual's own choice whether they want to use TCM, Western medicine, or both. There are two types of hospitals: general hospitals where doctors practice Western medicine only, and TCM hospitals where doctors practice both TCM and Western medicine.

The integration of TCM with Western medicine enhances the effect of Western medicine and reduces the cost of our health care system by improving people's health in general and by providing alternatives to those who choose TCM.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

TCM herbal medicine is prescribed based on the disease diagnosis and the accurate identification of patterns. Therefore, the effective and safe use of TCM herbs depends on the quality of the practitioner. In Canada, due to the lack of professional regulation and standardization of the practice outside B.C., it is the individual's responsibility to check the qualifications and credentials of their practitioner.

There are two well established and officially recognized organizations in North America where TCM practitioners must meet high educational requirements and pass strict examinations before becoming certified as a TCM Herbalist, Practitioner of TCM or Oriental Medicine, or a Doctor of TCM. You can find a qualified practitioner by searching for their names on the websites of these two organizations: College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of British Columbia (CTCMA, Canada) at http://www.ctcma.bc.ca/ National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM, USA) at Read More

TCM herbal medicine is prescribed based on the disease diagnosis and the accurate identification of patterns. Therefore, the effective and safe use of TCM herbs depends on the quality of the practitioner. In Canada, due to the lack of professional regulation and standardization of the practice outside B.C., it is the individual's responsibility to check the qualifications and credentials of their practitioner.

There are two well established and officially recognized organizations in North America where TCM practitioners must meet high educational requirements and pass strict examinations before becoming certified as a TCM Herbalist, Practitioner of TCM or Oriental Medicine, or a Doctor of TCM. You can find a qualified practitioner by searching for their names on the websites of these two organizations:

  • College of Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners and Acupuncturists of British Columbia (CTCMA, Canada) at http://www.ctcma.bc.ca/
  • National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM, USA) at http://www.nccaom.org/
Editor's note: In July, 2005, shortly after this interview was conducted, the Province of Ontario announced its intention to set up a regulatory system for Traditional Chinese Medicine.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

There are medical practitioners who believe in TCM because of their observations of their patients' experiences with TCM in Canada. A few medical doctors also practice TCM. Some medical practitioners are open-minded to TCM, but with reservations, while some are skeptical.

More and more people are experiencing the benefits of TCM. With the establishment of the profession and improved TCM education and services, over time more and more Western medical practitioners will accept TCM. They may also consider or study TCM as a second career or expand their services to include TCM after adequate training.

There are medical practitioners who believe in TCM because of their observations of their patients' experiences with TCM in Canada. A few medical doctors also practice TCM. Some medical practitioners are open-minded to TCM, but with reservations, while some are skeptical.

More and more people are experiencing the benefits of TCM. With the establishment of the profession and improved TCM education and services, over time more and more Western medical practitioners will accept TCM. They may also consider or study TCM as a second career or expand their services to include TCM after adequate training.


© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Regulation of Traditional Chinese Medicine in British Columbia has no doubt been a positive thing. It benefits Canadians. When TCM is officially recognized as a formal healthcare profession, the public will be more confident about TCM. The regulation of the profession means the establishment of standards and monitoring of the quality of practitioners and their services. The public will be better protected.

Regulation is also the essential first step toward the future integration of TCM into the Canadian medical care system.
Regulation of Traditional Chinese Medicine in British Columbia has no doubt been a positive thing. It benefits Canadians. When TCM is officially recognized as a formal healthcare profession, the public will be more confident about TCM. The regulation of the profession means the establishment of standards and monitoring of the quality of practitioners and their services. The public will be better protected.

Regulation is also the essential first step toward the future integration of TCM into the Canadian medical care system.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

With the increased interest in natural remedies for health and for disease, the use of TCM is increasing all around the world because it works. People who use TCM are not only Chinese. In fact, the increased use of TCM for health purposes and as a career choice is especially notable among women and people with higher education.

Talking about TCM reminds me of something Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, once said about personal computers: How did you live without it
You have options
It works
The more you use it the more you want it
Because it makes your life better.

With the increased interest in natural remedies for health and for disease, the use of TCM is increasing all around the world because it works. People who use TCM are not only Chinese. In fact, the increased use of TCM for health purposes and as a career choice is especially notable among women and people with higher education.

Talking about TCM reminds me of something Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, once said about personal computers:

How did you live without it
You have options
It works
The more you use it the more you want it
Because it makes your life better.

© 2005, Coalition of Canadian Healthcare Museums and Archives

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • familiarize himself with the vocabulary used in traditional medicine;
  • describe the main role of an herbalist;
  • compare the way each Canadians portrayed in this learning object collection uses plants to heal and/or maintain health.

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