Acupuncture, Part III: Brewing Teas at Home

For the last in the series about the experience of receiving acupuncture in the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) setting, a brief look at how treatment carries over from the acupuncture clinic to your kitchen and home. You can choose to supplement acupuncture treatments with herbal “teas” — more properly calleddecoctions, but even the herbalists call them teas so we’ll continue using that term too. Of course, you can also opt to skip acupuncture entirely, and get a consultation for herbal therapies only. It will take longer to resolve any imbalances, but you might decide acupuncture is not for you. As we left the clinic in the second part of the series, the clinic’s herbalist had weighed and mixed batches of herbs for us to boil and drink at home.

A closer inspection at home reveals that the term “herbal” is not really descriptive either, since grains, fruit, bark, and even what appears to be chalk, has been included in some of our mixes. Dr. Wong has explained that it’s not enough to know that certain plants are beneficial for treating imbalances or illness, but also that the different parts of a plant (roots, stems, flower, fruit, leaves, inner or outer bark) are used for different illnesses. Even the time of day or the season for harvesting can affect a plant’s medicinal properties. Further processing — such as drying, fermenting, cooking, and glazing with honey — will alter healing properties even more. Whew! Well, all we have to know is how to boil the mixes and when to drink them.

Many cultures around the world have long traditions of using local herbs and other materials for healing. Perhaps what sets this therapy apart in China is a written record begun over 2000 years ago, and which now includes almost 6000 herbal “prescriptions” for various illnesses. But again, illness is perceived differently in TCM than in Western medicine — TCM focuses on the cause of illness (imbalances in the meridians) more than the manifest symptoms and condition (e.g., gout or migraines).

Boiling the teas requires a stainless steel or other non-reactive (i.e., not aluminum or copper) pot large enough to contain the herbs and at least 5-7 cups of water. You can also choose a ceramic teapot designed for this purpose (photo, left top). After several months of using the asparagus steamer (photo, left, bottom — hey, we believe in tools doing double duty whenever possible!) to boil our teas, we finally looked in to getting the special teapot. (Also, it’s asparagus season now, so we needed that steamer back.)

It was surprisingly affordable — this 8 cup size was less than $10, and there are both smaller and larger sizes, as well as unglazed models. The first thing we did after washing the pot was to test it for lead. A simple swab test kit is available at City Mill, but other hardware stores might carry it too. Be certain to check the unglazed areas (the lid and rim of our pot, for instance), as well as the interior. With my suspicious nature, I even checked it twice. All was copacetic.

To make our teas, we tip the contents of one bag into the pot, add the requisite amount of water and let everything re-hydrate for about 20 minutes. Then bring to a boil (we have to pay attention here because once it comes to a boil, the heat has to be turned right down) and let simmer until the liquid is reduced as noted in your instructions from the herbalist (this can take 60-90 minutes). Once the proper reduction is reached, we pour off the tea through a strainer (to catch any stray grains, seeds or twigs), then return the contents of the strainer to the pot, add more water (amount included in herbalist’s notes) and boil at full boil for 20 minutes again. The second pour is cooled to drink later or the next day.

These teas should be drunk on an empty stomach, and at least warm, if not hot. In TCM, cold liquids in general are frowned upon since it is thought they “cool the stomach’s fire” (i.e., that they make digestion and absorption of nutrients more difficult). This is especially true for my condition which is characterized as caused by damp — I”ve had to cut back on food and drinks that are physically cold (like ice cream and iced teas) or that have cool or cold chi properties (such as water chestnuts or bamboo). But, I admit, they’ve not been eliminated … I love ice cream. But I digress…

We find the aroma of the teas simmering very pleasant, but that may have to do with the particular mixes we get, too. Not only are T’s mixes very different from mine, but the combinations we get will change with almost every visit, too. The changes in the herbal mix reflect not only the progress we may or may not be making with the acupuncture, but also additional stresses or factors that may have come into play since the last clinic visit, or even changes in weather patterns! As the Islands moved from their wet to dry season, T’s mixture changed at one point because the strong winds to which his condition is susceptible had died down.

How do the teas taste? Like you would expect a medicinal decoction that’s supposed to be good for you to taste — like a medicine. Unfortunately for him, T’s original condition required the addition of bitter tastes to balance his chi, and so at first his teas were really quite hard to swallow (sorry for the pun). (Yes, even tastes — bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and spicy — affect the flow of chi in the meridians.) Our “prescriptions” always come with a handful of chan pui mui (a 5-spice flavored dried plum that is enjoyed as a snack in many parts of Asia as well as here in Hawaii) to counter the bitterness or other unpleasant flavors that may be in the teas. “Hold your nose, drink, then chew on a mui” was his routine for a while.

As his condition has improved, I’ve noticed that his teas now include some kind of honey-dipped root or bark (the dark flat pieces that look like slate in this photo) that go a long way to making the teas more palatable. My condition requires the addition of naturally sweet things, so I’ve been lucky to have some kind of sweetener like the honey bark or dried fruit as part of my teas. (But that doesn’t mean I pass up on the mui afterwards!) *wink*

If the mui is not enough to make the tea palatable, it’s important to discuss options with the herbalist. Sweetening the tea itself is not advised because, as with T’s original condition, the sweetener may acutally work against your health objectives. And because in TCM different sweeteners also have different properties (brown sugar is considered warming, while honey is neutral), it’s best to let your doctor or herbalist recommend alternatives to complement your condition.

So, not your everyday sort of “cuppa.” But it can grow to be a comfortable part of a week’s routine, and definitely merits satisfaction in the knowledge that it is a cup as unique as you are. Malama pono, Everyone!

And now that we’ve shared our experiences “under the needle” and by the cupful with you, we’d love to hear about your experiences with acupuncture or herbal remedies — Chinese, Ayurvedic, Kampo, or Grandma/Lola/Oma/Nana/Bubbie’s time-tested home-cure for colic! — we’re interested in them all!

See also
Acupuncture, Part I: An Overview
Acupuncture, Part II: The Clinic Visit

Some Web sources we have found helpful in learning about TCM and some of the current studies involving TCM and other alternative therapies include:
the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, and
the Institute on Traditonal Medicine (which touches on Kampo, Ayurveda, and has an interesting account of how TCM is integrated with modern practice in Italy, too.)