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The Chinese Herbal Medicine Approach to Inflammation: Solving the Turmeric Paradox

  • Alex Jacobs
    Alex Jacobs

    Alex Jacobs is a qualified Chinese Herbalist, Acupuncturist, Tui Na Massage Practitioner and Tai Chi & Qi Gong teacher. He is also the current president of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine. He was originally inspired to study Chinese medicine from experiences he had while studying Mandarin in Taiwan.

    He has studied with many masters and teachers in both the West and the East. Experiencing Chinese medicine as both patient and practitioner, he has a particular interest in ‘Yang Sheng’ or Chinese Medicine self-help. He believes that Chinese medicine can not only treat a wide range of illness, but it can also help us to take back control of our health and lead to greater empowerment in our lives.

    To help facilitate the learning of this knowledge, he founded the London Chinese Medicine Meetup group in 2012 and has runs monthly talks and events for the public. You can find out more at www.daomedicine.com.

  • 13:19 reading time (ish)
  • Ageing Chinese Herbal Medicine Immunity

Written by Alex Jacobs


Inflammation is the healing response of the body to tissue damage. The four characteristic signs and symptoms of inflammation are redness, pain, heat and swelling. These are familiar symptoms that we all know and most of us will have experienced to varying degrees within our lives. We have a knock and we know almost instinctively that its likely to get red, hot, swollen and painful.

Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) has a long tradition of treating these four symptoms of inflammation, but how can herbs possibly treat these very physical symptoms? And then there is ‘the turmeric paradox’…

Many of us will now be aware of the countless studies showing the powerful effects of turmeric and its active ingredient Curcumin on inflammation (1). However, Chinese medicine classifies turmeric as warming in nature. Have a cup of turmeric tea and see for yourself, it has a gently warming effect. It is part of the zingiberaceae family which also includes ginger. So if inflammation is defined as causing redness, swelling and heat, how can something warming reduce it? In this article, you are going to be let into the secrets of how practising Chinese herbalists actually think and how we can construct highly nuanced, tailored and effective approaches to treating inflammation with herbal medicine. With this knowledge, the turmeric paradox will be solved!

Before we get started with the Chinese medicine, let’s learn a little more about why we get those four symptoms with inflammation. In Tortora and Derrickson’s Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, they explain:

‘Inflammation is an attempt to dispose of microbes, toxins, or foreign material at the site of injury, to prevent their spread to other tissues, and to prepare the site for tissue repair in an attempt to restore tissue homeostasis.’ (2)

This definition in essence has two parts. The first is dealing with infection, a defensive response. The second relates to repairing the tissue and restoring homeostasis or balance. Even though there is much to say about how herbal medicine fights infection and the powerful anti-microbial actions of herbs, in this article we are going to focus on the second, repairing tissue and restoring balance.

So why these four symptoms? Redness and swelling are caused by vasodilation and increased permeability, which leads to greater blood flow into the affected area. Heat not only helps fight infection but it also increases the efficiency of tissue repair. Pain is an instruction to the brain to stop activity that harms the body and take care of the affected area.

Simply, the body is doing its best to facilitate blood flow in and out of the affected area in order to promote a healing response. Here is where we find the most significant point of convergence with Chinese medicine thinking, ‘FLOW’. There is a famous Chinese medical saying.

通則不痛,不通則痛 – tong ze bu tong, bu tong ze tong

It translates to ‘Where there is flow, there is no pain. Where there is no flow, there is pain.

It is a play on words because both the word for flow and the word for pain in Chinese are both pronounced ‘tong’ albeit with different tones.

One could say then that the Chinese medicine approach to inflammation is a detailed in-depth examination of all the different factors that cause flow to be disrupted in the body. In this article, we will look at how the climate influences flow through temperature and fluid balance. As we go, I will give you examples of everyday and culinary herbs that you can try and experience the effect for yourself.

Alex Jacobs

Alex Jacobs is a qualified Chinese Herbalist, Acupuncturist, Tui Na Massage Practitioner and Tai Chi & Qi Gong teacher. He is also the current president of the Register of Chinese Herbal... Read more

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