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Traditional Chinese Medicine vs Naturopathy

4 August 2011

When I talk to people about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), people often create an association in their minds with other forms of ‘alternative medicine’, particularly naturopathy, and ask me what the difference is.

It’s a great question, so let me take a minute to explain the main differences between the two.

Put very simply, it’s an issue of East versus West. Naturopathy is western natural medicine, using western diagnostic techniques, western herbs and western terminology when describing how the body and disease works. A naturopath is trained in modalities like western herbal medicine, massage, homeopathy, Bach flower remedies and western nutrition. Naturopathy uses herbs such as Echinacea and St John’s Wort.

Traditional Chinese medicine is, as you would expect, of eastern/oriental origin. TCM is based on ancient Chinese medical theory, and uses traditional Chinese diagnostic techniques and treatment methods. You’ve probably heard of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, but other techniques that fall under the TCM umbrella are cupping, moxibustion, tui na (Chinese remedial massage), Chinese dietary therapy and lifestyle advice, and movement therapies like Tai Chi and Qi Gong. Chinese herbs with names such as Shu Di Huang and Bai Shao are common in our prescriptions.

Normally a patient would choose between a naturopath and a TCM practitioner for the treatment of a particular condition. You may see a naturopath for one condition and a TCM practitioner for another, based on your understanding of the way each modality approaches that illness.

So which one should you choose? That’s for you to decide, but given that you’re reading this Chinese medicine post of mine, it’s fairly clear what my bias is.

As a practitioner, I am drawn to TCM for three main reasons.

1. The first is that our modern treatment techniques are based on literally millennia of tradition. Theory and practice have evolved over a very long time to meet the needs of today’s patients and their conditions.

2. The second reason is that TCM is completely holistic. The focus is not on an individual symptom but rather on solving the problem of the underlying health imbalance. Once solved, not only does your primary symptom disappear but so do many of your other, seemingly unrelated, health complaints. Everything is connected in Chinese medicine.

3. The third reason is that because TCM uses such different diagnostic techniques to Western medicine, we can often ‘see’ and explain patterns of ill health that other forms of medicine cannot. We look at things through a different lens, whereas many alternative therapies merely look through a different shade of the same Western medical lens.

However, as always, I would recommend that you make an informed decision about how to treat your condition. No matter which way you decide to go, I’m pleased that you’re considering alternative medicine at all. You should always ask for recommendations and professional referrals. Do your research online and talk to your practitioners before you visit them. Information is power!