Why I Started Taking Chinese Medicine Seriously


Growing up, I scrunched my nose when my mom opened the kitchen cabinet housing our supply of chinese medicine. Blackened twigs, pungent bark, shriveled roots, orange fungi, and miniature calabash gourd-shaped bottles of black beads. This trove of potions and powders looked medieval and mysterious. Enveloped during childhood by science books, I dismissed whatever didn’t have a scientific explanation, which included the seeming shamanism of Chinese medicine.

So what changed my mind? If it weren’t for Chinese medicine, my birth could’ve run into complications. The chances were slim, but you don’t want to mess around with the possibility of brain and internal organ damage.

Several years ago, my mom told me the story of my birth. I’d been hanging around in her womb for seven months, enjoying free food, oxygen, and even waste disposal. Life was good. The best position, or “presentation” if you’re an obstetrician, for a fetus to be in during childbirth is head first, crown outwards (vertex, cephalic). This orientation is associated with the least complications.

I, however, decided to go with a breech or head-up presentation. The obstetrician noticed this around the seven month period. Not a serious problem yet but not something to be cavalier about either. She gave my mom some two-part advice about how to correct my position.

The first was to spend some time everyday tilting her head down and bottom up. I am imagining her practicing a downward dog yoga position. The second was to fumigate the soles of her feet with dried wormwood.

Okay, this requires some explanation. Common wormwood or mugwort, not to be confused with grande wormwood or the herb that college students think is the shit in the alcoholic drink Absinth, is a perennial plant that has many uses in food and herbal medicine. In the middle ages, mugwort was a protective plant. Today it is sometimes a seasoning ingredient in cuisines ranging from Japanese to German. Don’t eat too much though. Its oil apparently contains a chemical that’s toxic in large doses.

My mom bought some dried mugwort rolled into cigar-like tubes, lit them up, and let the smoke shroud her big toes. Sounds like a bunch of hogwash right? So I did a bit of research and found this on Wikipedia:

In Traditional Chinese medicine there is a belief that moxibustion of mugwort is effective at increasing the cephalic positioning of fetuses who were in a breech position before the intervention. A Cochrane review in 2005 found that moxibustion may be beneficial in reducing the need for ECV, but stressed a need for well-designed randomised controlled trials to evaluate this usage. Since it also causes uterine contractions, it has been used to cause abortion. A study of 260 Chinese women at 33 weeks of pregnancy demonstrated cephalic version within two weeks in 75% of fetuses carried by patients who were treated with moxibustion, as opposed to 48% in the control group. It has also been shown that acupuncture plus moxibustion slows fetal heart rates while increasing fetal movement. Two recent studies of Italian patients produced conflicting results. In the first, involving 226 patients, there was cephalic presentation at delivery in 54% of women treated between 33 and 35 weeks with acupuncture and moxibustion, vs. 37% in the control group. The second was terminated prematurely because of poor compliance with treatment, but found no difference between moxibustion and control groups.

Oh, snap!