May 21, 2012
Traditional Chinese medicine is at least 2,500 years old. It views the human body as a system of energy flows. When these flows are balanced, the body is healthy. Practitioners take their patients' pulses and examine their tongues to diagnose energy imbalances. In Chinese medicine, pulses can be taken at three positions on each wrist, and at three depths at each position.
Illness is not defined by symptoms or the name of a disease like "HIV infection." Instead, a practitioner of Chinese medicine will talk about energy imbalances. The language can sound very strange, like "yin deficiency" or "liver heat rising." The Chinese words yin and yang refer to opposing energies that should be in balance, and Qi (pronounced "chee") can be roughly translated as energy or life force.
In traditional Chinese medicine, there are many ways to improve the balance of the body's energy flows. The most common techniques used in the western world are exercise techniques such as Qigong or Tai Chi, acupuncture, and herbalism. Fact Sheet 703 has more information on Chinese acupuncture.
Many practitioners of Chinese medicine specialize in either acupuncture or herbalism. Very few use both methods.
In general, an herbalist makes up a personalized mixture for each patient, based on that person's particular energy flows and imbalances. However, some practitioners of Chinese medicine have noticed a consistent "toxic heat" pattern of energy imbalances in people with advanced HIV disease. Due to Chinese medicine's emphasis on long life and immune enhancement, they feel that some herbal preparations will probably help anybody with HIV.
Chinese herbs are prescribed to correct energy imbalances. You might feel better, or symptoms might disappear, but the best way to know if it's time to stop or change the herbs you are taking is to consult with your herbalist.
It is always a good idea to let every practitioner on your health care team know about all of the therapies you are using. In some cases, a western medicine and Chinese herbs might have a similar effect and combining them would be too much. For example, it might not be a good idea to use Chinese herbs that help calm you down and sleeping pills at the same time.
Studies on treating HIV with Chinese herbs have had mixed results. However, these studies usually studied Chinese herbs as ARVs. More recently, herbs are being combined with ARVs. Some herbalists believe that the best use of herbs will be to help deal with the side effects of strong ARVs, and to generally strengthen the immune system.