While wearing masks, social distancing, and washing our hands regularly are some preventative measures we can take against COVID-19, some of us still wonder what else can be done to further protect ourselves.
During the early months of the pandemic, I recall getting WhatsApp chain messages forwarded to me by relatives on all kinds of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that could strengthen the immune system, with some even claiming they could cure the virus.
Although I grew up regularly taking TCM to aid minor illnesses, some of these messages still struck me with doubt. Many felt misleading, and if believed by the masses of uncles and aunties receiving them, could lead to worse outcomes.
Hence, I reached out to 3 TCM specialists and a nutritionist to clarify TCM’s role in fighting COVID-19:Dr Serena Liow Sook Mee of Serena Liow TCM & Acupuncture Centre;Dr Lim Ren Jye of Sunway TCM Centre;Janet Thong Sheau Jing of Tang Herbal;Celeste Lau Wai Hong of Sunway Medical Centre.
TCM Cannot Help With Serious COVID-19 Symptoms
“Chinese medicine is meant to treat the human body, not the disease,” Dr Serena shared with Vulcan Post.
She explained that TCM is usually individualised, and that they rely on syndrome differentiation to prescribe medicine to their patients, which is something the other two TCM specialists also agreed on.
Dictionary Time: Syndrome differentiation (Bian Zheng) in TCM is the usage of the procedures of observing, listening, questioning, and pulse analysis to guide the choice of treatment either by acupuncture and/or TCM herbal formulae (Fu Fang).National Library of Medicine
“For example, some people may have phlegmy cough, heaty cough, cold cough, etc., and we’ll diagnose the type of cough through syndrome differentiation,” Dr Serena explained.
Based on the evidence through research, TCM may help in alleviating COVID-19 symptoms by reducing the severity of the disease, shortening the duration of hospital stay for patients, improving recovery and reducing the mortality rate especially among patients who were warded in intensive care, according to Dr Ren Jye.
However, Dr Serena shared that it’s also important to note that TCM can only treat mild symptoms and not serious symptoms, like breathing difficulties.
“I always ask my patients to check if the oxygen in their blood has dropped first, and if it has, I’ll ask them to go to the hospital immediately,” she shared.
Addressing False Claims In Circulation
Because there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to TCM, anything that tells you otherwise should be taken with a pinch of salt.
As TCM is personalised to each individual and their current health condition, these TCM specialists will first ask you a series of questions before prescribing any medicine to you.
“We’ll get them to take pictures of their tongue to diagnose their condition like the colour of it and ask some questions like how often you cough, the colour of your phlegm, your lifestyle, how often you visit the toilet, and more,” Janet shared.
As for Dr Serena, she added that she’ll be asking their age, if they cough more during the day or night, if they have any mucus in their throats when they cough, if they feel thirsty often, the colour of their urine, etc.
“We have seen some consumers who purchase non-registered products or herbal formulas in raw materials to boil based on the false message chains or through friends and end up with side effects,” Dr Ren Jye shared with Vulcan Post.
He advised that the public shouldn’t be misled by false information like these, as treatment and prevention are two different things. Medicine meant for prevention shouldn’t be consumed as treatment, and vice versa.
“Even for the same condition, different people may need different formulas for a personalised treatment, and this might also need to be changed in a short period of time. The specific amount of each herbal therapy may need to be adjusted accordingly as well,” he added.
“It’s illegal for anyone to claim that TCM herbs can cure COVID-19,” Janet affirmed.
You Can Take TCM For Improved Immunity, But Don’t Bank On It 100%
Dr Ren Jye shared that Yu Ping Feng Shan, which is a Chinese herbal mixture containing Astragali Radix (Huangqi), Atractylodis Macrocephalae Rhizoma (Baizhu) and Saposhnikoviae Radix (Fangfeng), can form a protective screen to keep the cold, excessive heat, “wind” and illness away.
“Things like chrysanthemum or luo han guo, which aren’t too strong of a herb are okay to consume to improve your immune system and combat ‘heatiness’ during this hot season,” Dr Serena shared.
However, she also reinforced that no one should bank on these herbs for COVID-19 prevention and go to high-risk areas because you’re still susceptible to getting infected.
How Does Western Medicine View TCM’s Role In COVID-19?
“For the most part, there is no conflict between Western medicine and evidence-based TCM, as both practices share a similar belief that proper nutrition is essential for achieving optimal health,” Celeste shared with Vulcan Post.
However, she highlighted that when seeking TCM treatment, it is important that patients go to certified and qualified TCM providers.
Like TCM, nutritionists also personalise and manage a patient’s nutrition intake depending on the category of their infection.
“For those on a ventilator or critically-ill patients, studies that showed that higher protein and higher calorie intakes are necessary. Whereas COVID-19 patients who are in Category 1 & 2 with mild symptoms, it is important that they continue to eat well and healthily during the recovery period,” she shared.
When it comes to boosting your immune system, Celeste explained that healthy eating along with increased consumption of antioxidants like Vitamin E, Vitamin D and some micro minerals can help with that, as shown in evidence-based studies.
So while TCM can aid in building up one’s immune system and alleviating COVID-19 symptoms, it’s clear that it has no curing abilities for the virus.
Before passing along those chain messages that recommend ginger or lemon as cure-alls, for example, we should then do our due diligence in researching what they really do for the body, and avoid spreading more misinformation.You can read more COVID-19 related articles we’ve written here.
Featured Image Credit: Celeste from Sunway Medical Centre (right), Dr Serena from Serena Liow TCM & Acupuncture Centre (middle), and Dr Lim Ren Jye from Sunway TCM Centre (right)