Exploring TCM: Dr & Herbs, Liverpool

Having a rare weekend free, and having the need to pop into town in order to buy secret things for my girlfriend’s upcoming birthday (July 22nd if you want to wish her a happy birthday, by the way), I chanced into St John’s Shopping Centre and came across the rather charming ‘Dr & Herbs’ Traditional Chinese Medicine outlet. Which I immediately dived into and immersed myself in, obviously.

I’d like to say up front, before I get into any real detail – the two people who seem to run the shop were helpful, kind and friendly. Unfortunately, they were also entirely wrong in a number of ways…

The first thing that struck me about the shop was the crude (and rather awfully-designed) posters in the window, listing various ailments and how TCM can help – the list was reasonably long, and didn’t include any more wild and dangerous ailments to treat, but I was able to grab shots of the claims for Thrush, StressEczema and Asthma.

Thrush: TCM treats this as a problem of damp in the body, usually internal damp caused by an infection or fungus; herbs are a very effective treatment.

While it’s true to say that thrush is caused by a fungus, it’s vague and bewildering to claim it a problem of ‘damp in the body’, and the bald assertion that herbs are a very effective treatment is an outright falsehood, unsupported by evidence.

Stress: According to TCM, Stress is due to too much dampness and heart heat from internal and external pressure. We can treat this by clearing the dampness as well as regulating your Qi (vital energy) through a natural process).

Here the issue is somewhat more fundamental – the notion of ‘stress’ is something favoured by pseudomedical practitioners because of its dual properties of vagueness and ubiquity. Many people believe they have stress; very few of them could quantify what they mean by the term. Fortunately, Dr & Herbs seem to know, and they’re pretty sure it’s to do with dampness – although, in fairness, dampness is their go-to diagnosis. That they can regulate this invented dampness – both internally- and externally-caused –  via the regulation of Qi is neither here nor there, given that Qi adds one more invented element to the pot. All in all, their claims to fighting stress don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Eczema : One type is caused by damp heat, where the skin weeps and there is a discharge with a sensation of heat and itchiness. Another cause is the heat in the blood where dryness, redness and itchiness are the symptoms, and the third kind is an allergy where the skin erupts. Treatment is given accordingly. The very success of Chinese herbs in the treatment of eczema is well known, although it should be stressed that they do not cure completely in every case, and normally the treatment may take from a few weeks to a few months depending on the individual case.

Once more we have the appeal to dampness – meaningless and pseudoscientific, bearing no relation to the actual causes of eczema, which include genetic and environmental factors. While it’s encouraging at least to see the practitioners don’t claim a guaranteed cure, claims to be able to treat eczema at all with so unproven a modality are incredibly problematic – as is the statement that any treatment could involve months of repeated sessions before a positive outcome is reached.

Asthma: There are many causes of asthma, an allergy to environmental pollutants such as dust or animal hair, or stress, anxiety or physical exertion, or hereditary factors. In TCM, three organs are said to cause this problem: the lungs, the spleen and the kidneys. The major cause is phlegm produced by a weakness of spleen and kidney, and a Chinese doctor can identify the cause and nature of the complaints according to the patient’s individual medical history.

The claims regarding asthma here are perhaps the most problematic of all. While the initial outline of the causes of asthma is broadly correct, reality is then very vehemently left behind with the notion that the condition is effected by the spleen and kidneys, with a weakness in these two organs being ‘the major cause’. This is palpable nonsense. That a TCM practitioner (I’m very wary to call them a doctor here) can identify the cause of the patient’s asthma seems incredibly unlikely, given the clear lack of understanding demonstrated in the preceding sentences.

The asthma claims were ones in particular I felt needed following up on, so I picked up one of the many leaflets on offer for free, in order to investigate further the claims being made. It’s fair to say things didn’t get any clearer or more evidence-based in the detailed consumer leaflet:

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, asthma can be divided into three main types: cold type, heat type and Yin-deficiency type.

Needless to say, these are not categories recognised by informed healthcare practitioners.

Cold type asthma is caused by the building up of excessive coldness and dampness in the lung and body systems… TCM doctors can diagnose it by checking tongue and pulses, which show whitish, moist and glossy moss on the tongue and tight pulse. The treatment of TCM is based on a principle to ventilate the lungs, expel pathogenic cold and eliminate phlegm.

As I understand it, there is no known mechanism whereby asthma can be diagnosed by reading the colour and surface texture of the tongue (even assuming ‘moss’ is more of a descriptive than literal term).

Heat type of asthma is caused by excessive heat and dampness accumulated in the lung and body systems… It can be diagnosed by having a red tongue with yellow, greasy fur, with an irregular and rapid pulse. The principle of treatment is to remove heat, dampness, phlegm and facilitating the flow of lung-Qi to relieve asthma.

Yet another appeal to mystical and mythical ‘dampness’, and another nod to the tongue as a diagnostic tool – both of which are pure fantasy. Fantasy, too, is the ‘flow of lung-Qi.

Yin deficiency type of asthma is caused by imbalance of Yin and Yang, specifically due to deficiency of Yin in the lung and spleen… It can be diagnosed by the following characteristics: a pale tongue with a little fur, deep, thready and weak pulse. The principle treatment is to strengthen the lungs and spleen, nourish Yin and improving inspiration.

Suffice to say, nothing of the above resembles any of the medical literature for asthma, and certainly should not be included in point-of-sale material given to presumed sufferers of a potentially-serious condition (if left untreated by effective, proven medicine).

Before ending my investigation into Dr & Herbs, I picked up a pack of two ear candles, which the traders assured me (entirely incorrectly) were both 100% safe and effective. I was persistently and wrongly informed that the candles would produce a vacuum of warm air which would heat up and loosen any wax in my ear and propel the wax upwards to the flame, leaving me relieved. Gently, I tried on a couple of occasions to highlight the fact that as heat rises, it would be the air above the flame which would become heated – not the air below. Unfortunately, my explanations and questions fell on deaf and ignorant (in the literal sense) ears, and so I made my purchase and left.

All of the above, as well as a detailed description of the harms of ear candling, is currently sitting with Trading Standards – I eagerly await their response.

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  1. #1 by Carla on July 14, 2012 - 19:09

    I’m glad someone is highlighting this. For too long ‘traditional’ techniques to ‘heal’ people have been profiting from people’s desperation and good faith. ‘Traditional’ does not (almost ever) translate to ‘effective’ or ‘clinically trialled’, and when it does, you can get it from your doctor…

  2. #2 by Declan McCafferty on July 14, 2012 - 21:44

    I eagerly await Trading Standards response too. That is an impressive list of enormous claims they have.

  3. #3 by Alan Henness on July 15, 2012 - 12:24


    An impressive list certainly, but, sadly, one all too frequently seen in TCM shops.

  4. #4 by halal pig on July 22, 2012 - 17:43

    Unbelievably, Glyndwr University, Wrexham, have a BSc (Hons) degree in acupuncture:


    Quote :

    This degree is accredited by the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and has been designed to respond to the growing demand for a high quality academic qualification in acupuncture in the field of complementary medicine.


  5. #5 by Brian on November 9, 2012 - 22:20

    Unfortunately another ignorant westerner who has what level of medical knowledge and training in TCM. I would advise you to read the list of side effects of any safe medicine prescribed by the doctors over here before you launch yet another misdirected campaign against things you know little or nothing about

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