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TCM Rx for good cheer
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As it's the holiday season and time for drinking parties, we're taking a TCM look at spirits - not only how to treat hangovers (without alcohol), but also how to use Chinese spirits for good health, writes Zhang Qian.

Around holiday party time, it's traditional to warn about over-indulgence in drink. But let's talk about some of the good things that the nectar of the gods can do (in moderation), from promoting circulation to easing rheumatism.

We'll also tell you about maintaining the health of the liver, the organ that processes alcohol, poisons and toxins. And if you do imbibe too much cheer, TCM soups and teas (non-alcoholic) can help you feel better.

Wine is an ancient ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and many practitioners recommend 30-60 grams a day of yellow rice wine.

Alcohol has been used medicinally for more than 5,000 years. Using it as medicine was recorded 2,000 years ago in the "Huang Di Nei Jing," the first medical book in China and the foundation of TCM.

It was first used as medicine for external injuries, and is still used today. Herbal wine infusions in compresses are placed on sore spots to improve circulation; the wine is a solvent for the herbs and penetrates the skin.

Wine is also considered a "guiding drug" in TCM, one which enhances and reinforces other drugs, according to Dr Zhang Wei, director of the Hepatology Department of Longhua Hospital attached to the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

"Wine is a great menstruum (solvent)," says Dr Zhang. "Many herbs dissolve better in wine than in water. Wine itself can stimulate blood circulation, which can reinforce the effect of some herbal medicine. Besides, it is much easier to store herbal wine than herbal soup."

China has many kinds of spirits: baijiu or white spirits (clear, potent, distilled alcohol), brandy, yellow rice wine, millet wine, red wine, fruit wine and beer, among others.

Beer made from barley and hops is sometimes called "liquid bread" - it's high in calories and vitamins. But it is not recommended by most doctors as "excessive nutrition" is a common problem today.

Huangjiu, or yellow wine made from millet, rice or sticky rice, is a traditional Chinese wine. TCM theory calls for a little yellow wine every day to stimulate blood circulation, dispel cold (yin), soothe tendons, reinforce the effect of herbal medicine, and relieve diseases of the heart and blood vessels.

Warmed yellow wine is especially good in winter.

Having a little yellow wine during the menstrual period can also relieve discomfort, but too much wine causes excessive blood flow.

Red grape wine introduced from the West is an antioxidant that can relieve arteriosclerosis, and is believed to delay senility and prevent some cancers.

White spirits, high-proof distilled alcohol, are more damaging to the liver than the same quantity of wine. But they are also the best menstruum for preparing a tincture of TCM ingredients such as snake, ginseng, gou qi (wolf berries), jujubes, hairy antler, and other herbs.

"Having 30-60ml of wine every day can help promote appetite, stimulate blood circulation, and warm you up in cold weather," says Dr Zhang, who warns of damage to liver, stomach and intestines from too much alcohol.

One should never exceed 40 grams of pure alcohol a day, she says, and people with liver problems, high uric acid, poor digestive systems or serious diseases should not drink.

Although milk thistle extract is widely prescribed in the West to strengthen the liver, it is not part of TCM, which treats damaged and fatty liver in other ways. TCM treatments expel liver heat and toxins.

TCM treatments for hangovers, if taken over time, also can strengthen the liver of drinkers. Ready-made TCM medicines in capsule form can also help expel liver heat and toxins. They are known as "Hu Gan Ning Pian" (literally, "protect the liver pills") and can be purchased at TCM pharmacies.

(Shanghai Daily December 4, 2007)

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