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April 26, 2011

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Healing from the Himalayas

TRADITIONAL Tibetan medicine is an ancient, unique and comprehensive school of healing that involves rare herbs growing on high plateaus and grasslands, as well as minerals and animals. Zhang Qian reports.

The dead worms with single blades of grass growing from their heads, the bright orange berries and red flowers that blossom on high plateaus and the white "lotus" flowers in rocks and snow - these are among the many treasures of Tibetan medicine, one of the world's oldest schools of healing.

The Tibet Autonomous Region, icy, arid and harsh, is not only rich in culture but also in herbs, minerals and medical theories that have relieved pain and illness for centuries in the unforgiving environment.

Like other traditional medicines, Tibetan medicine is as old as the Tibetan civilization itself and has unique characteristics, but it has also absorbed elements from both Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, as well as Greek, Persian and other traditional medicines.

Most people's impression of Tibetan medicine (Sowa Rigpa in the Tibetan language) involves use of rare herbs, many growing at more than 2,000 meters above sea level and some above the snow line.

There are around 3,000 recorded Tibetan medicines, mostly produced in Tibet. They include more than 2,000 types of herbal medicine, 200 animal medicines and 50 using minerals, including precious metals like gold and silver, as well as copper, iron, mercury and heavy metals.

The famous Tibetan medicine bracelets, often sold as souvenirs, contain copper, white metal and brass; they are made from combinations of five metals and are said to subtly influence and harmonize five elemental and planetary energies in the human body.

As for medicine with animal ingredients, there are efforts to protect endangered animals (snow leopards, antelope, musk ox, among others) and most mainstream practitioners focus on herbal medicine.

Among the most famous herbs are precious aweto (cordyceps, the caterpillar-worm), the famous tonic that accelerates healing and recovery from illness; rhodiola (hong jing tian, arctic root) that relieves fatigue, increases oxygen capacity of the lungs (good for altitude sickness) and boosts immunity; and snow lotus that relieves rheumatism and joint pain and strengthens reproductive system.

Other popular Tibetan herbs include caladium (with multicolored leaves), san qi (notoginseng root, related to Korean ginseng) and tian ma (gastrodia, tuberous root of orchid-like plant).

Certain patent Tibetan drugs, which are easier to come by, have become very popular. These include medicines for indigestion, cardiovascular problems and low immunity. Externally applied medicine plasters for wounds are very popular.

Fast acting

When Winnie Chen, a 27-year-old office worker in Shanghai, wrenched her lower back getting out of bed one morning, her grandmother recommended a Tibetan herbal plaster and it quickly improved.

"It smells a bit different from the usual plasters," says Chen. "I don't know how it works, but I'm amazed by the fast effect."

Listed ingredients include du yi wei (lamiophlomis rotata), gorse (whin), curcuma (active ingredient in turmeric), Chinese prickly ash and buffalo horn. Other "secret" ingredients are not listed.

Some Tibetan medicines are widely found to be more effective - or faster - than traditional Chinese medicine when they are used for people in lower altitudes accustomed to TCM, according to Professor Qian Hai with the Shanghai University of TCM. But he says the main reason is that the medication is "new" to their systems.

In addition, Tibetan herbs are especially hardy and strong because they can survive strong sunlight and ultraviolet rays, freezing temperatures, low oxygen and big differences between day and night temperatures. Less pollution and less human interference also contribute to effectiveness.

"Some Chinese people may argue that they cannot have resistance to Chinese medicine as they hardly dose themselves," says Qian. "But many herbs in Chinese medicine share the same properties as Chinese foods, so we cannot help becoming less sensitive to certain herbs in TCM. But as for the herbs grow on the plateau, which hardly get, it is very likely that our body can react quickly to the dose."

At first, Tibetan medicine consisted of simple remedies based on experience, such as drinking hot water for indigestion, applying wine lees on wounds and drinking butter tea for altitude sickness. But it evolved into a complex and comprehensive medical system around 600 AD during the reign of Songsten Gampo who contributed to the cultural exchanges among Tibetan and other cultures, especially the Han.

"As nomads, Tibetan people are quite good at collecting the useful aspects of other traditional medicines and making them part of their healing system," says Qian.

Though it has some similarities in theories and treatments with other medical systems, Tibetan medicine also has an independent system of its own, says Qian.

"If you look into Tibetan medicine, you will find many theories similar to those in Chinese medicine, but they are not exactly the same," he says.

For example, as with TCM, there is a theory about five basic elements composing the universe in Tibetan medicine. But the five Tibetan elements are earth, water, fire, wind and space, not earth, water, fire, wood and metal in TCM.

Balancing energies inside the human body is the key to health in both Tibetan and Chinese medicines, except that in Tibetan medicine there are three energies, namely loong, tripa and baekan with different functions to support daily human activities, rather than one (qi).

Most acupuncture points in Tibetan medicine are exactly the same as those in TCM, but therapies like moxibustion, bloodletting and cupping are used more frequently than acupuncture with needles.

Apart from the general four major methods of diagnosis in TCM - wang wen wen qie (observation, listening and smelling, asking, pulse-taking and palpation), Tibetan medicine attaches great importance to checking urine for diagnosis.

The first urine of the morning is collected and stirred in a silver bowl; a practitioner then makes a diagnoses by checking color, foam, smell and any blood or deposits.

"Warm," "neutral" and "cold" categories also apply in Tibetan medicine to characteristics of herbs, but the categories are more detailed. For example, the same herb may be more "cold" when it grows in places with less sunshine, while more "hot" when it receives more sun. Different parts of the same herb may have different functions and characteristics.

Tibetan healing is powerful medicine

Around 3,000 types of Tibetan medicine have been recorded, including more than 2,000 herbal remedies, 300 animal remedies and 50 using minerals. Cordyceps or caterpillar fungus may be the most famous. In China, the most popular remedies tend to be patent medicines.

Mainstream practitioners today use herbal remedies, and do not use metals or endangered animals in prescriptions.

Here are some of the most popular Tibetan herbs.

Dong chong xia cao

Caterpillar fungus, aweto, cordyceps, "winter worm, summer grass"

Aweto, a world-famous tonic, is found in plateaus around 3,000-5,000 meters above sea level. Though it also grows in Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, those from the Tibet Autonomous Region are believed to be the most effective.

Aweto is a fungus growing from the dead larva of a white ghost moth. It has been used to treat cancer, boost immunity and generally increase energy and promote healing and recovery from illness. It is "neutral" in energy nourishes the lungs, helps eliminate phlegm and benefit the kidneys

It is usually cooked in herbal soup with chicken or pork; it can be decocted into herbal wine.

Function: Immunity

DIY: Herbal soup

? Cook a duck and 10gm of aweto in water.

? Eat frequently.

Xue lian

Snow lotus (saussurea involucrate)

The lotus (not really a lotus) grows at elevations 3,000-6,000 meters above sea level - in rocky, know-covered ground.

A powerful tonic, it is used to treat high blood pressure, headaches, inflammation and menstrual problems. Many Chinese kung fu novels describe the herb as a cure-all.

It is a "warm" (yang) herb that dispels cold, works as a male sex tonic, regulates menstruation, reinforces the blood and relieves rheumatism. It can be used externally for painful joints.

Function: Menstrual pain

DIY: Decoction

? Prepare 5g snow lotus, 2g gouqi and 2g saffron.

? Drink twice daily.

Hong jing tian

Rhodiola rosea, rose root, golden root arctic root

This member of the jade plant family grows in stony ground at high elevation; flowers are mostly yellow; some are red and purple.

The cut root smells faintly of rose is widely used to fight fatigue, improve circulation, oxygen-capacity of the blood (used for altitude sickness) and to elevate mood. It's used by athletes and Russian cosmonauts.

In Western medicine, it's considered an adaptogen and used in anti-aging treatments. In traditional medicine, it's a "cold" energy (yin) herb that nourishes the lungs, relieves pain and fatigue and boosts immunity and general well-being. It is often used in combination with other herbs treating a variety of conditions.

Function: Immunity

DIY: Herbal tea

? Chop processed herb into pieces; pour boiling water on around 5g.

? Drink 2-3 times daily.

Sha ji


Seabuckthorn with anti-oxidant-rich, orange-yellow berries grows on sandy, rocky and grassy land up to 3,700 meters above sea level. Oil made from the berries is a famous complexion treatment and used to help reduce cholesterol and prevent hardening of blood vessels.

It's said that when Genghis Khan's tired horses ate the berries, their coats and manes became thick and glossy. The berries are a "warm" herb that's often prescribed to activate blood circulation and treat lung inflammation, indigestion, and menstrual problems.

Berries can be made into a decoction or mashed and ground for external use to treat inflammation.

Function: Cardiovascular treatment

DIY: Herbal wine

? Soak 200g seabuckthorn in 1kg yellow wine or white spirit.

? Seal and store for two weeks.

? Add 200ml more alcohol.

? Drink 10mg once or twice a day.

Tian ma

Terminalia chebula

The orchid-like plant in mountain areas, grows along with a type of mushroom and another fungus. It's a "neutral" herb used to treat headache and dizziness, improve circulation and cardiovascular health.

Function: Headache and dizziness

DIY: Herbal soup

? Cook 60g with water for 30 minutes.

? Add three eggs and cook until done.

? Eat once every other day.

Zang hong hua

Orange-yellow saffron

It comes from the stigmas of purple crocus growing at 5,000 meters elevation. It is a "warm" herb widely used to activate blood circulation, treat cardiovascular problems and irregular menstruation.

It helps unblock energy channels and is used to relieve inflammation and pain from wounds. It helps relieve cold and numb limbs in winter.

It should not be taken by pregnant women,

Function: For irregular menstruation

DIY: Herbal tea

? Make tea with a teaspoon of dried saffron and boiling water.

? Filter and sweeten with honey.

? Drink often.

Shou zhang shen

Rhizome of conic gymnadia, orchid family

It literally means palm (hand) ginseng since the root looks like ginseng in the shape of a palm. Growing at 3,500 meters, it's a "neutral" herb widely used to reinforce energy and blood, benefit the spleen, lungs and kidneys, and treat chronic liver inflammation and soothe nerves.

It's widely used as a male sex tonic. It also is prescribed for coughing, shortness of breath, insomnia and diabetes.

Function: Coughing and shortness of breath

DIY: Decoction

? Prepare decoction with 60g rhizome, 120g lily root, 120g jujubes.

? Drink half a cup three times a day.

Bei mu

Fritillaria, lily family

The bulb is widely used to eliminate phlegm, relieve coughing and activate energy. It's mildly "cold" (yin) and is used to treat respiratory problems.

Function: Coughing

DIY: Decoction

? Cut a pear in half, hollow out the center and fill with fritillaria powder; put the pear back together with toothpicks.

? Steam for half an hour and eat.

? Pears are good for the lungs.


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