Category Archives: Health

Making Small Talk about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Small talk. That little exchange of pleasantries. An introvert’s nightmare. What do you say? How do you to keep the conversation going?

Here in England, the English love to talk about the weather as it is so changeable here. It’s a great filler topic.Blog 15 Making Small Talk in TCM 1 If you are in the company of the Chinese, however, small talk evolves around food and health. Specifically,  heaty and cooling foods. The Chinese believe in the balance of yin and yang (light and dark) in life. This also applies to food, which can give yin or yang energy. I’d  have a cup of chrysanthemum tea, and someone will say, “That’s cooling. It’s winter, you should be drinking something more heaty.” Then the conversation goes in the direction of what drinks classify as being ‘heaty’. Or during the seasonal durian party in Singapore, someone will the comment about how heaty the fruit is. A huge discussion follows, on the ways to ‘cool’ our bodies down after eating durian .

I stretched this ‘heaty’ concept when I created one of the characters in my story. Ah-Fu was described as having a lot of fire in him. I also mentioned consulting physicians and prescription of herbs. Later on in the book, Yipor, the village elder, used ginger to heal her bad leg. These medicinal concepts tie in with my visit to London’s Chelsea Physic Garden, where I saw plants that heal, nourish and sustain. I will continue this theme of health, particularly as we head into the season of colds and flu. Just like most people, I am not a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) expert, but let’s pretend we are in a social environment and making conversation. Invariably, in this cold winter days, you will know someone whose got the bug or who’s been off sick, or who’s tried countless remedies without avail. Well, here are two things I’d talk about.

Colds and Ginger

Ginger is a ‘heaty’ food, so it’s good to have in the winter to offset the cold. Of course this won’t mean anything to you if you are not familiar with TCM. Let’s put it a different way. Scientifically, ginger is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. This explains the why Yipor treated her swollen leg in ginger. When your ankle swells up due to a sprain, wrapping your ankle with a few pieces of ginger will remove the swelling.

Blog 15 Making Small Talk in TCM 2In the same way, if you have indigestion, having some ginger (in tea or in a meal) will take down the bloating feeling. Same for when you have a cold, or a sore throat. Its spiciness warms you up, and offers relief on your throat. In a childish way, I imagine this is a battle ground. The fiery ginger is blasting off the bacteria in my sore throat. As they die off one by one, I feel the pain go away.

In the shops, you can even buy lemon and ginger tea. Whichever way you look at it, keep some form of ginger in your house. It’s a must-have for the winter months.

Coughs and Heat

Coughs are never pleasant. If you have it, you are exhausted by the involuntary recurring spasms. If you are near someone with a cough, the repetitive sound is wearing. Walk into any chemist and you will find a plethora of cough mixtures: for chesty cough, tickly cough, dry coughs etc. Maybe you haven’t found one that works for you, or you find them expensive during the cold season. If you are open to suggestions, here are my thoughts.

Blog 15 Making Small Talk in TCM 3Cold edibles exacerbate coughs. So if you feel a cough coming, ie literally the first couple of times you start coughing, stay away immediately from cold drinks and food. I don’t just mean refrigerated items. Anything that is colder than 37oC is cold to your body. So when I say ‘cold’, I also include room temperature items like bread. After all, room temperature is about 20oC. If you are peckish, have something warm, like toast. Chilled sandwiches or a pot of yoghurt will bring on the cough. Stay away from them!

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If you need a drink, make sure it’s hot, not water from the tap or from a bottle. I know it sounds bonkers, but just try it for a day, half a day or even a couple of hours. Then switch back to your chilled or room temperature foods. See if your chest tightens, your throat gets ticklish or you start coughing again. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

If you are not used to this type of talk, it will sound like someone is giving gratuitous, unwanted advice, but honestly, it’s just small, friendly talk.

**If my article has intrigued you and you want to know more about TCM, Shennong gives a introduction. Eu Yan Sang is another good website to check out.

This article was first published 15 Nov 2018. Updated 30 Jan 2021. Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is a middle-grade fiction touching on Yipor, Ah Fu and their ailments. It is published by Aurelia Leo.

Killers and Healers – Oxymorons of Nature

You’ve heard of fire being a good servant and a bad master, there is the good side and bad side. This is the same with some plants. On one hand, they are poisonous, on the other hand, they heal. How does that work?
If you work in the medicine industry, you would be familiar with the famous quote from Paracelsus, the Swiss physician and alchemist : The dose makes the poison. For all these plants, it’s all about the amounts in the body. There is a therapeutic window where they cure, and above that, they became toxic.
Here are a few examples.

Snowdrops and daffodils

These popular flowers signify the arrival of spring. You’ve probably come across cut daffodil buds with long stems in the supermarket. They are usually at the entrance, by the cut flowers, and not far from the vegetable aisles. If bought and eaten by mistake, they will give you diarrhoea and vomiting.

Both plants contain a chemical called galantamine. Galantamine interferes with the nerve pathway responsible for muscle contraction. When a key enzyme is this pathway is blocked, it affects various muscle pathways, resulting in convulsions, vomiting and breathing difficulties.

It is this very feature that is exploited in chemical warfare like the organophosphate nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury. Both galantamine and those organophosphates compete for the same enzyme. The difference is that the former is temporary, whilst the latter binds to the enzyme permanently. Galantamine, by competing for the same enzyme, prevents organophosphates from taking out all that enzyme in the body.

Galantamine can also be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. If you want more details @compoundchem gives very good explanation.

Yew Tree

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Taxol (Paclitaxel) from the yew tree gained a lot of interest among organic chemists owing to its complicated structure. In the body, it blocks cell division. Today Taxol is a chemotherapy drug for several cancer types including breast and ovarian.

This is actually a poisonous plant. It was in the news recently for killing cattle in a field and even people. The poison remains even when the plant is destroyed. In humans, 50 needles of the yew tree will result in a fatal heart attack. The chemical causing this is not paclitaxel itself, but it is in the same family of molecules present in the tree. They affect the muscle contractions in the heart.

Foxgloves

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Like the yew tree, they contain a chemical that affect the muscle contractions in the heart. Ingestion of these compounds cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and irregular heartbeat.

Its active molecule, digoxin, is used to manage heart conditions, such as irregular heartbeats and heart failure. Check out @compoundchem to read further on how it works.

Belladonna

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Another poisonous plant is the infamous Belladonna, aka Deathly Nightshade. Contact or ingestion causes a range of symptoms ranging from dry mouth to hallucinations and death. This website gives a very description of its properties. Similar to galantamine, it works on the nervous system, on the smooth (involuntary) muscles. Literally translated, belladonna means beautiful lady. Ladies used to use this to dilate their pupils to look attractive. Today, this property is utilised, in the correct dose, in ophthalmology (atropine). Belladonna’s other chemical Scopolamine is used for motion sickness and nausea .

My middle-grade book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, describes the search of a cure for a disease from a little known tree. It is inspired by two tropical trees, the cannonball tree and the buah keluak tree. One is known for its healing properties, and the other, its poisonous fruit. Secrets of the Great Fire Tree is published by Aurelia Leo

Are there any poisonous plants or healing plants you know? Drop it in the comments below!

First published 1 May 2019. Updated 16 May 2020

Healing Lessons in London

I’ve come across physics the subject, and physician the healer, but the first time I encounter the word ‘physic’ was a couple of months ago when I visited a little treasure in London.

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The Chelsea Physic Garden is located in Sloane Square. This place exists because of the generosity of Sir Hans Sloane, who made his fortune with chocolate milk. There was a little tribute to him in the garden.

This garden was built on an aspiration of achieving good health using plants. As you go around, you will find various sections you can relate to. I joined the free guided tour conducted by volunteers. They follow a general script to give you an overview of the place, which is useful for a plant pleb like me.

Garden of Edible Plants

This is a fascinating section. Amongst many things you can see here, our guide describe how tea physically came to UK, cultivation of black tomatoes and showed us the plants various alcohols came from.

Garden of Useful Plants

This included Technology, Perfumery, Hygiene and Cosmetics. Here are some pictures of the signs to give you a flavour of the place.

Medicines and Poisons

The word physic  is related to healing.  This was my whole reason for coming here. My guide had an interest in medicinal plants which was fortuitous as it meant that she touched on more of that as we went round.

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Periwinkle

She talked about the healing principles around the world, and highlighted some key healing plants. Periwinkle is pretty decorative plants common in Singapore, but I learnt its extract is used to treat diabetes in Jamaica. Even more interesting is that the extract contains two natural products I have heard of in my career as a medicinal chemist. Vinblastine and vincristine are used to treat leukemia. Up to that point I have never associated this plant to the research I once worked on.

In the same area of cancer, I know of Taxol from the yew tree because it gained a lot of interest among organic chemists owing to its complicated structure. But I have never seen the actual plant until now. Taxol is known for its healing properties for breast and ovarian cancer.

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This is a poisonous plant. It was in the news recently for killing cattle in a field. But I quote Paracelsus, the Swiss physician and alchemist : The dose makes the poison. In fact, when you go round the medicinal section, you will see many such warning signs. What struck me on this visit was the common-sense faith in its visitors. The signs warn you about poisonous plants, and not to touch them. I have been to a different botanical garden where the section on poisonous plants was gated up, only available when there is a tour, which happened infrequently.

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Another poisonous plant highlighted was the infamous Belladonna, aka Deathly Nightshade. Literally translated, bella donna means beautiful lady. Ladies used to use this to dilate their pupils to look attractive. Today, this property is utilised, in the correct dose, in ophthalmetry.

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In the medicinal section, you can also gain the information without the guide. There are information stands for your perusal, which I did after the tour. I took my time to absorb the information available.

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I’m not a gardening expert, but having grown up in a culture of mysterious concoctions of Chinese medicinal herbs and then worked as a medicinal chemist in rational drug design, I wanted to find a link to both worlds. The Chelsea Physic Garden fulfils this. This interest inspired my middle grade book, where my main character embarked on a journey to find a cure from a rare tree. Some of my characters used herbs to cure their ailments. Secrets of the Great Fire Tree will be published by Aurelia Leo on 28 May 2019. It is available for pre-order and requests for advanced reader copies can be made on Netgalley.

First published 1 Nov 2018. Updated 16 May 2019.

Demystifying Chinese Medicine

I grew up in a culture of mysterious concoctions of Chinese medicinal herbs. If you’ve every passed by one of these shops in a Chinatown near you, or on your travels to the Far-East, you probably felt the same about these places. The Chinese medicine shop is a mysterious store. Strange things hang from above or laid out on the counter. Dark wooden drawers fill the room from floor to ceiling it. Even if they are modernised with glass cabinets, these medicine shops still retain that olde-worlde mystique.

You can simply walk in and state what ailments you seek to cure, and the pharmacist will dispense the appropriate herbs. But this is daunting for most people, and someone came up with the brilliant idea of pre-packaging these herbs for the more popular formulations. One can now walk into the local supermarkets and get tonic packets. After using these packets for years, I have decided to puzzle these out. What are they exactly? Are they all the same? If not what’s the difference? What exactly do they do?

Like always, I grabbed a few random packages off the supermarket shelf in Singapore.  When I got home I studied their contents. Two of them evidently had different contents to the other three. These other three were tonic soup to strengthen your body. The ingredients meant nothing to me. I am a plant pleb. Nevertheless, the scientist in me decided to tabulate my findings and see if there is a trend. Are there any common herbs? Here are the three packets and their contents.

Name in English

Name in Chinese Chicken Tonic Soup A Chicken Tonic Soup B

Brain-Enhancing Soup

Fruit (Goji Berries or wolfberries)

枸杞

x x

x

Polygonatum Odoratum  (Solomon seal)

玉竹

x

x

Discorea Opposita (Chinese Yam)

淮山

x x

x

Codonopsis Pilosula (Poor Man’s ginseng)

党参

x

x

Astragalus Mebranaceus

北芪

x

x

Angelica Sinensis

当归

x

x

Ligusticum Chuanxiong

川芎

x

Nelumbo Nucifera

莲子

x

Ginseng

人参

x

x

Liquorice

甘草

x

x

Agaricus blazei murrill mushroom

姬松茸

x

Lucid ganoderma

灵芝

x

Membranous milkvetch root

黄芪

x

White peony root

白芍

x

Phyllanthus ussuriensis rupr et maxim

密甘草

x

Indian bread fungus (Tuckahoe or poria coccus)

茯苓

x

At a glance, you can see that 70% chicken tonic soups contained the same ingredients, and the ‘Brain-Enhancing Soup’ had almost entire different herbs. However, out of the list of sixteen herbs, there were two herbs that were present in all three: Goji berries and Chinese Yam. This is a good starting point to learn about Chinese medicine.

This is what’s inside Chicken Tonic Soup A and Brain-Enhancing Soup. Can you identify the goji berries and Chinese yam?

Here’s what I found online.

Goji berries is easily available in supermarkets. Tesco sells 100g for £2. It’s rich in zinc, vitamin A and C, hence boosting your immunity. It is a good source of protein as contains all the eight essential amino acids. The red colour is an indication of richness in antioxidants. These are just some benefits. To read more, check out these two articles articles from Health-line and Medical News Today.

Chinese Yam is rich in vitamin B1 and C. It is also a good source of amino acids and important minerals such as zinc, iron and copper. One of its many uses is for treating coughs. Like goji berries, there is a lot more it can do. Here’s a link if you want to read more about health benefits of Chinese Yam.

Let’s delve more into one of the soup packets.

Brain-Enhancing Soup is my translation from the front label, but on the back label it states the soup function as “Enhances Immune system, Improves digestion and Revitalises body”. Inside the mysterious items are individually packaged.

Demystifyingchinesemedicine11 C

You can see them more clearly without the individual packets. Armed with the ingredients list at the back of the packet, I went online to identify the contents. I am confident I got five of them correct. In fact I was so confident I had identified the Astragalus (Membranous milkvetch root) that I labelled it in the photo, until I googled up white peony root and Phyllanthus ussuriensis rupr et maxim. All three of them looked the same to me – like dried up ginger. At this point, I noticed there were eight original individual packages, but on the ingredient label, nine herbs were listed. Obviously the packers couldn’t tell the difference either.

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As for the last item lucid ganoderma, all the pictures are of huge and complete fungi, none of which looked like what was in my packet. Below is a picture of one of them. I can make a guess from the colour, which one do you think it is?

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lucid ganoderma

My grandmother used to visit Chinese medicine shops to get ‘medicines’ and ‘tonics’ for us. In fact, when I was old enough, she’d send me to run these errands. Sometimes, if there was only one item, she’d tell me what she wanted. I’d repeat it parrot fashion until she was confident I would come back with the right herb. If she needed more, she’d write it on a piece of paper for me to show the man in the shop. I could not read it; to a five-year-old the swirling joined-up handwriting of Chinese characters was difficult to decipher. Yet the man always knew what she wanted and he knew exactly which drawer to open. He’d weigh the amount in the old-fashioned scales. I wanted to be as knowledgeable as my grandmother, or the Chinese medicine shop man. I dreamed that one day I’d swagger into the shop and ask for herbs X, Y and Z because I needed to treat ailment Q.

This interest inspired my middle grade book, Secrets of the Great Fire Tree, where my main character embarked on a journey to find a cure from a rare tree. I also mentioned consulting physicians and prescription of herbs in my story. Some of my characters used herbs to cure their ailments. Hopefully this article gives you some context of the world my characters live in.

Have you ever taken anything “good for you” without knowing exactly what you are consuming? Have you ever wondered what it is, or why it is medicinal? Tell me your experiences.

Secrets of the Great Fire Tree will be published by Aurelia Leo on 28 May 2019. It is available for pre-order and requests for advanced reader copies can be made on Netgalley.

*I am grateful to the man in the Chinese medicine shop in Singapore for his kind permission to take photos.

First published 15 Jan 2019. Updated 15 May 2019.