Monday, January 5, 2009

Case Study: Me!

Pre-cooked liquid decoction in individual dosage packs from Fat Turtle Herb Company

From the taste-of-your-own-medicine department, I bring you the success story of my current herbal formula. (Note: This post is a bit more technical than most and skips over explaining any TCM basics - if you have questions please leave a comment.) Starting a few weeks ago, I developed a rash on my stomach and legs - essentially the Liver and Gallbladder channels. In general I tend to express rashes when I have emotional stagnation. Emotional stagnation, in my case, leads to overconsumption of sugar, coffee, alcohol, and greasy, fatty foods.

The aforementioned goodies in small amounts will soften the Liver, but in large amounts will increase the amount of heat and dampness in the body. Then I went home for Christmas, where there was plenty of sugar and alcohol and fatty food and emotional stagnation.

I used the opportunity of a family outing for dim sum to get an exam and an herbal prescription from one of the herb stores in Oakland Chinatown (Hong Kong Trading, 449 9th St. at Broadway if you're interested). I poked my head in and asked "医生在吗?" (is the doctor here?) The guy at the counter pointed to the back, and I went and sat down at a desk. A few minutes later the same guy (the doctor, as it turns out) came back, sat down on the other side of the desk, and with a friendly smile started asking me questions in Chinese.

How I should have responded: "医生对不起,我只会说一点中文。可以我给你看?" (Doctor, my apologies, I only speak a little Chinese. Can I just show you?) - which is actually something I know how to say.

What I actually did: laughed nervously, said "uhh, I don't really speak Chinese," and lifted up my shirt to show him my rash. Sigh. He looked a little bit shocked, possibly because my accent when asking for the doctor was quite good, but also possibly because he didn't expect me to start acting like an undergrad on spring break in his herb store.

As a result of the language difficulties, we had a four-way translation - the doctor would ask questions in Cantonese to one of the other women who worked in the store, who would then ask Nini the same question in Vietnamese. Nini would then ask me the question in English, I would answer in English, and the whole thing goes in reverse. Fortunately experienced doctors are efficient when it comes to questioning and gather more from the tongue and pulse. The tongue he glanced at for a few seconds, but the pulse he took for a few minutes.

He told me to avoid beef, shellfish, spicy food, and deep fried food.

"What about alcohol?" Nini asked the lady. The woman translated for the doctor, who then shook his head and made a tsk-tsk noise. No no no, came the answer. "See?" said Nini.

"咖啡行不行" (how about coffee?) I asked the doctor directly, trying to preserve some tastiness in my life. Coffee's okay, just don't overdo it, he told me.

Then he proceeded to write an herbal formula in long, looping Chinese characters which I had no hope of deciphering even if I had the chance to examine them closely. Having been to a few herb-store doctors, I feel like that's part of the trade secrecy: even if someone were to steal your notebooks, they can't read your handwriting.

After writing the formula, he then went back to the counter and assembled it, with help from some other employees. Fortunately I was able to ID all the herbs and reverse-engineered it to pinyin, but then lost the page I wrote it all down on. However, I do remember some key herbs:

玄参 Xuan Shen
生地 Sheng Di
牡丹皮 Mu Dan Pi
土茯苓 Tu Fu Ling
金银花 Jin Yin Hua
丹参 Dan Shen
红藤 Hong Teng
郁金 Yu Jin
枳实 Zhi Shi
地肤子 Di Fu Zi
白鲜皮 Bai Xian Pi
泽泻 Ze Xie
柴胡 Chai Hu
甘草 Gan Cao

That's 14 herbs I can remember - there were actually 21 altogether. But you can see his idea: Blood Heat, Blood Stasis, Qi Stagnation.

I've been taking the formula for a few days now, and the rash has already subsided quite a bit. The redness is gone and it no longer itches. The formula actually doesn't taste that bad - it's more sweet than bitter, definitely cold energetically.

I've also noticed that it's harder than it seems to stick to a restricted diet. I know there are things I should avoid, but until a doctor told me I essentially have been eating whatever I want. I didn't want to take all these herbs and have it be for nothing! I don't think I'll be on this diet permanently, but it's still a bit of a hassle. Something to remember when asking patients to change their diets.

As you can see from the picture, I cooked the herbs all at once and packaged them using the Fat Turtle herb cooker. This is so convenient when taking a large formula or a long-term formula. Whenever it's time to take herbs, I just cut one open and drink it. Total time spent on herbs per day: 10 seconds. No refrigeration is required. Fat Turtle Herb Company can cook herbal formulas for you and your patients - click here to learn more or send an email to

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