[Let’s ask a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine]  What are the difference between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine?

[Let’s ask a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine] What are the difference between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine?


Most people are probably aware that Singapore is known as a country with high medical standards even within Southeast Asia.

In Singapore, which excels in medical treatment, there are hospitals and clinics both for “Western medicine” and “traditional Chinese medicine.” From way back, many Singaporeans live following the principles of traditional Chinese medicine not only when they are sick, but also in their everyday meals.

This is an interview to Leong Kwai Yin, a Singaporean doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, in which we got answers to different topics regarding traditional Chinese medicine, such as the differences with Western medicine, which symptoms we should have checked by a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, what kind of treatments they apply, and more information on “kampo” or Chinese herbal medicine.

Interview a Singaporean doctor of traditional Chinese medicine

Please tell us about the differences between traditional Chinese medicine and Western medicine.

In short, the basic difference is that “Western medicine cures ‘diseases,’ while traditional Chinese medicine cures ‘people.’”
One example would be the “cure of cancer.” In Western medicine, when there is a tumor, the general way of thinking is that it should be surgically removed and that is it – it is over. On the other hand, in traditional Chinese medicine, it does not matter whether there is or there is not a tumor. Of course, having a tumor inside your body may cause inconvenience in your daily life. However, we rather focus on how to get rid of this inconvenience and “coexist with cancer” – “live together with cancer.”
We can say that Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine are different from the basis of their principles.

– How many doctors of traditional Chinese medicine are there in Singapore?

A national qualification system for doctors of traditional Chinese medicine was started in Singapore in 2004. Currently, there are more than 2000 Singaporeans that have this qualification. Besides Chinese, some of them can speak English or Japanese. Since there are also Japanese doctors of traditional Chinese medicine who carry out their medical practice in Singapore, even Japanese people can have a consultation without worrying about the language.

– What kind of specific treatments do doctors of traditional Chinese medicine practice?

There are three kinds of treatments that we apply: acupuncture and moxibustion, prescription of medicinal herbs and massages. The method applied is always the one that best metches the “root” of each patient’s symptoms and disease. For example, even for symptoms of a cold, we make a clear difference for “a cold that causes chills” or “a cold that causes heat and fever.” “Kakkonto” (an antifebrile infusion of kudzu, cinnamon, etc) is a herbal medicine well known in Japan, and it is effective for the type of cold that causes chills. The reason why it is popular in Japan is because the colds Japanese people catch are usually of this kind.
Recently, many people are having acupuncture or massages too. However, even for people who have stiff shoulders, sometimes herbal medicines work better than acupuncture or massages. Actually there are very effective and fast herbal medicines to treat stiff shoulders.
There are also people who come to doctors of traditional Chinese medicine to obtain prescriptions for medicinal herbs for diets or beauty.

Haze is currently a big problem in Singapore. What kinds of treatments are applied to patients suffering from the various symptoms caused by haze?

In traditional Chinese medicine, there are six causes for diseases: wind, cold, heat, humidity, dryness and fire. Taking this as a base, the kind of symptoms caused by haze are “dry” or, in other words, brought by dryness. As haze becomes worse, symptoms like itchiness of the eyes, a runny nose or a sore throat may appear, and all of these are thought to be caused by dryness. Basically, patients will be prescribed herbal medicines according to their symptoms.

– How many types of natural remedies, which are the basis for herbal medicine, are there?

There are approximately more than twenty thousand types of “natural remedies” used for herbal medicine, and they include minerals, animals, insects, grass, leaves, roots, branches, etc. For example, grass growing at the side of a path may look like weeds for someone who does not know much about it, but for a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, it may be a useful ingredient for a natural remedy. Also, there are plants that have different effects depending on which part is used, like for example “mulberry:” its leaves are effective for colds, the branches relieve joint pain, and the fruit is good for lack of sleep.
Since China is a country that has both coast and mountains, it is easy to find many things that can be used as natural remedies, and it seems like they import others from Persia and the Middle East. Natural remedies can also be found almost everywhere in South Asia, and are used in Singapore too.
Of course, medicines made by chemical reactions are not used at all. The “granulated Chinese medicines” sold at herbal medicine shops have been made into granules by a chemical process, but no pharmaceutical products have been added to them.

– Are there any “natural remedies” in the foods that we usually eat, even if we have not realized so?

“Grated yam (yam)” is effective in improving the functionality of the stomach, the intestines and the lungs, and “kelp” is good for phlegm. “Ginger” is an excellent natural remedy, used in about half of the existing herbal medicines, and “shiso (perilla,)” which is served with sashimi to preserve the raw fish from decay, is effective against colds.
Actually, many natural remedies are used in the Japanese-style meals that Japanese people usually eat. In that sense, we could say that Japanese food is extremely healthy.

– What is the difference between the medicines used in Western medicine and “herbal remedies” or “kampo”?

The medicines used in Western medicines are immediately effective in getting rid of pain or lowering a fever or blood pressure. However, one is relieved from the symptoms only when taking the medicine, and if one stops it, they tend to come back. In other words, these medicines “inhibit the symptoms,” but do not necessarily cure the disease.
Herbal medicine is said to take some time before one can see its effect, but if a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine does a correct examination of the “root” of the problem and prescribes herbal medicines, I believe they may work fast. On top of this, once one starts feeling well again, it is not necessary to keep on taking the medicines.
I myself take herbal medicines when I catch a cold. Usually, if I take a medicine that matches my symptoms and have a good nigh sleep, I get better.
Also, when the right amount is prescribed, herbal medicines can be given also to babies and small children. They are said to be safer than pharmaceutical medicines, so one feels at ease when using them.
It is also true that the bodies of Westerners and the one of people from the East are different, so there may be instances when the herbal remedies do not work on Westerners.

– We often hear that herbal remedies do not put a strain on the body. Do they have any side effects?

As the saying goes: “a third part of a medicine is poison,” so one may get side effects even from herbal remedies. Of course, doctors of traditional Chinese medicine make their prescriptions thinking about minimizing the possible side effects.

We think this was a good opportunity for people who did not know much about traditional Chinese medicine and herbal remedies to grasp an understanding of the principles of this kind of medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine is a very popular and familiar presence in Singapore – how about introducing it gradually in your lives?

Interviewed person

Secretary – General of Singapore Chinese Physicians’ Association
Doctor of traditional Chinese Medicine, Leong Kwai Yin
During week days, he works at the National Environment Association(NEA,) and carries out hisactivities as a traditional Chinese medicine doctor as charity work only on weekends.


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