References > Chinese Herbs -- Nancy Young

Chinese Herbs
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Nancy Young

Having chronic health problems and having exhausted the available wisdom of Western medicine, I decided to try Chinese herbs. I'm nervous about alternative medicine, realizing that what is natural can as easily sicken me as cure me. I figured, however, that over several thousand years the Chinese must have gotten the kinks out of their pharmacology. Furthermore, they strike me as too pragmatic to be enamored of remedies that are "cool" but don't work. The final impetus came when a doctor at one of Boston's teaching hospitals confided that he wanted to do research on Chinese herbs.

My rational mind now satisfied that I had nothing to lose but money, I called the office of Dr. David Eisenberg, famous for accompanying Bill Moyers to China to investigate traditional medicine. His secretary said he could not recommend any practitioner, but she gave me the name and phone number of a young woman is knowledgeable about the subject, a graduate of the Shanghai School of traditional Chinese Medicine. In the slippery world of alternative medicine, references and credentials are something to hold onto.

I phoned Wenfei Xie at her office in Kenmore Square. Eventually we discovered that we lived two doors apart. It's ludicrous, but knowing she was a neighbor made me feel more comfortable. She said on the phone: Chinese medicine works to balance the system; disease results from unbalance; the herbs have no side effects; they are gentle and work gradually, I believed none of this, but, in the interest of science, I made a, appointment.

Wenfei's office is on the second floor in the busy, grimy Kenmore Square area of Boston. The building is old; the steam pipes hammer. The other offices seem occupied by psychiatric social workers. Their waiting areas are in the halls, furnished with orange vinyl chairs. Wenfei's office, in contrast, seems pleasingly old fashioned and clean. The dark oak shelves hold hundreds of neatly labeled Bell jars and plastic storage containers full of plant material. Scrolls and photos of China adorn the wall, along with a Sierra Club poster of the ocean. The main room has large bay windows and light spun curtains, a tranquil place

Wenfei interviewed me about my health history. She took my pulse on each wrist and examined my tongue. She saw patterns no one had found before. "The problem is your kidneys," she said. My kidneys! They were not organs I had had problems with. "No, no," she laughed, "your kidneys are a system that includes other organs," including, as luck would have it, almost all the problem ones. "And your heart she added. My heart! Doctors had told me my heart was strong "Your heart means the emotions and the spiritual life" Well, I conceded, probably that area hasn't been up to snuff.

Wenfei told me she needed to do acupuncture along with herbs at the beginning "to get things moving." She heated the needles with moxa an herb that is compressed and burns like a cigar. She explained that moxa enhances the needles' rebalancing effect on the meridians. I was stoical about all this, but let no one tell you acupuncture is painless. The hot needles made me yelp.
After half an hour she removed my needles. I got dressed and went into the outer office. Wenfei was placing five neatly stapled paper lunch bags into a plastic bag from a Chinatown market. She gave me typed instructions that called for making a tea twice daily. She warmed me that the tea would probably not taste good.

I read the instructions carefully. I was to boil the herbs in three and a half cups of water for about half an hour, until there was only about a cup of water left. The herbs were to be used twice, than discarded I could add honey to make the tea more palatable.

So far, so good. I ripped open a bag and poured out the contents Strips of bark, chunks of black tarry stuff, huge red berries dried plant comes, leaves, twigs, slices of stems clattered into the saucepan. In total there were about two cups of shrubbery in the pat, none of it familiar looking. On the other hand, there was nothing resembling eye of newt or toe of frog. This was traditional, all right. None of the sterility of the modem lab here, I thought. I proceeded. The stuff has a pungent vegetable odor that will permeate my house for the next three months. Finally the tea was brewed. I strained it. It was black and thick, as opaque as espresso Curiosity outstripping apprehension, I added honey and took a sip. The taste was distinctive, closest to licorice. After a month or so, I have grown accustomed to it, even look forward to it. It's satisfying and certainly the ultimate in "private stock." And my health? At the least, my symptoms have lessened, and Weaker assures me that my pulses and tongue am returning to normal.

Nancy Young is a free-lance writer and marketing specialist with
the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture