What is TCM? An Interview with Dr. Gabby Pavelko

What is TCM? An Interview with Dr. Gabby Pavelko

First, tell us a little about yourself and how you came to join Team Rootless as Dr. Gabby & Chief of Staff.

Joining Rootless earlier this year was truly a culmination of my purpose and passion for plant-based medicine and helping people heal themselves. I am a builder and like to get into industries when we are still building the plane and flying it at the same time. I enjoy innovating and problem solving, working with inspiring people who are dedicated to their mission and vision, and discovering new ways of looking at the world that are good for people, the planet, and can still make a profit.

For me, working with seaweed and the small but mighty Rootless team is where I can see myself for a good, long time. Seaweed is not only the hope that all of us need for the doom and gloom that is climate change, but it also is unmatched as it has so many benefits for our health that no one is really talking about yet. Similar to TCM, seaweed has been around and has been a staple in Asian households for a long, long time, and it is believed to contribute to a long, healthy life when consumed regularly. Even though both TCM and seaweed have been around for centuries, we are only starting to see them start to gain traction in the US, and I am hopeful that both can help us live longer and enjoy life more.

Overview of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Q: For those unfamiliar with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), could you provide a brief overview of what it is?

A:  TCM is an ancient form of medicine that still exists today and is practiced worldwide.  It considers a person’s medical and family history, but also takes into consideration their lifestyle and dietary habits as key indicators for health and well-being.  TCM treats a person’s body, mind, and spirit holistically.  It is probably most known in the Western world for acupuncture, which involves using thin needles as a treatment, but there are many other modalities also included in TCM that will be discussed further in a later blog.  There are also different styles of acupuncture depending on where they originate from, for example Japanese or Korean.  There are also some different protocols that have become well-known like scalp acupuncture for stroke patients or NADA auricular acupuncture for patients struggling with addiction.  Like Western medicine, someone can seek TCM treatment for practically anything (colds, allergies, PMS, fertility, cancer, mental health, neuropathy, etc.), but it has become known in the US as an alternative medicine and mostly for its effective treatment for chronic pain.

Q: Can you tell us about the historical origins of TCM and how it has evolved over time?

A:  This is an interesting question, because it is not only about medicine but also about politics, globalization, and zeitgeist throughout history.  A great book on the extensive history of TCM is Medicine in China: A History of Ideas by Paul U. Unschuld.  He follows TCM from the “earliest traces of therapeutic activities” during the Shang Empire which “arose approximately during the eighteenth through sixteenth century B.C.” through twentieth century China.  Throughout that span of time, TCM was influenced by the power dynamics between groups of people and different schools of thought such as Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Indian Medicine, and even Communism.  I find it pretty incredible that before expensive diagnostic equipment existed or dissections were even discovered, TCM had an incredible map of the body systems and understanding of how to heal, based on traditions passed down from prior generations.  It is due to this tradition of passing down this knowledge and translating ancient texts into languages all over the world, that TCM is still being studied and practiced today.

The original materia medica text dates back to ~200 AD, and it was the earliest record of TCM herbal remedies made from plants, animals, and minerals.  The materia medica has been referenced, revised, and updated throughout time, and the textbook being used today in TCM schools is Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica by Dan Bensky, et. al.  Like other ancient medicine practices, TCM views food as medicine, and in Chinese culture even today, families eat many of the herbal remedies daily as part of their balanced diet.  Today’s herbal formulas come in a variety of forms including raw herbs that you cook into a tea and drink, powders, pills, and even tinctures and topicals.

TCM made its way to the Western world as early as the seventeenth century when early European travelers brought back stories from East Asia of witnessing acupuncture and herbs, but it was pretty much on the fringe as Western medicine advanced with modern technology.  In the 1970’s, an American New York Times journalist named James Reston visited China (with former President Nixon) and had to seek medical treatment while there for an emergency appendix operation.  His writing about his experience with acupuncture for the pain from his operation is credited with its increase in availability in the US.  Today, more people are learning about TCM as it is becoming more widely available and integrated with other medical modalities such as in fertility clinics, pain management centers, hospitals, etc.  There has also been a growing skepticism with modern Western medicine that has given rise to TCM and other forms of native and indigenous medicine that have stood the test of time.

Q: What are the philosophical foundations of TCM? Are there specific beliefs or principles that guide the practice?

A:  TCM seeks to treat the root cause of the issue rather than the symptoms, and it is generally a preventative practice.  The belief is that if you see a TCM doctor regularly, then you will be less likely to need serious medical treatment.  You can also see a TCM doctor to treat symptom related diseases, however they will diagnose and treat you differently than a medical doctor would in Western Medicine.  For example, it is common for people to see a TCM doctor once or a few times a week for a few months rather than only once a year.  In states like California, TCM doctors are considered primary care physicians.  This will be discussed more below, but TCM doctors receive extensive training in Western Medicine and are trained to work well with other doctors and medical professionals to ensure a patient is receiving the best holistic care.


Q: Could you elaborate on the core tenets of TCM, such as Qi, Yin and Yang, and the Five Elements?

A:  In TCM, qi is the basis of what gives us life, and it flows like blood through your body.  There are different types of qi, but unlike blood, it does not just stay in veins and arteries - it powers the function of all of your organs and gives you immunity against getting sick.  Qi can be found in channels or meridians that run throughout your body, and there are 12 that are associated with each of the TCM organs (lung, spleen, heart, pericardium, kidney, liver, large intestine, stomach, small intestine, urinary bladder, san jiao, and gallbladder).  There is also qi in the 8 extraordinary meridians or channels that can be used in treatments as well (Du, Ren, Chong, Dai, Yang Wei, Yin Wei, Yang Qiao, and Yin Qiao).

There are multiple ways to diagnose patients in TCM, and they can include taking a patient’s pulse, looking at their tongue, observing or palpating a patient, and/or asking them questions.  One of these diagnostic methods is called the 8 Principles.  Using opposites like yin and yang, cold and hot, deficiency and excess, and interior and exterior, a TCM doctor can establish a pattern and build a treatment plan that is individualized for that patient.  When a condition is cold, deficient, and interior, it is generally considered yin and when it is hot, excess, and exterior, it is generally considered yang.  This helps to understand that things can either be yin or yang, can change from yin to yang, and yin is dependent on yang.  For example, early in life, boys tend to be yang (warm, energetic, loud) while girls are yin (colder, quieter) and as they get older, men become more yin (cold, frail) and women more yang (hot flashes for example).  Further explanation can be found in the next section on balance.

The five elements are another diagnostic method in TCM, and include wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.  Each element can be used to classify organs, emotions, seasons, colors, and tastes, and further help the TCM doctor treat their patient more specifically.  For example, the liver and gallbladder are associated with wood, the emotion of anger, the spring season, the color green, and the sour flavor.  If a patient comes in feeling really angry and irritable and is craving sour flavors, the TCM doctor may treat their liver, if their pulse and tongue as well as the other diagnostic methods also match this pattern.

I also love teaching people about the TCM organ clock where each organ has a 2-hour time window throughout the day.  For example, liver’s time is 1-3AM, so if you are regularly waking up at this time, you may be stressed, dealing with anger, or would benefit from a liver detox.

Q: How does the concept of balance play a role in the practice of TCM?

A:  Homeostasis or balance is a key belief in TCM, and bringing your body, mind, and spirit into homeostasis can help you feel better.  In general, when you are not feeling well, something is out of balance.  TCM helps your body heal itself by calling attention to this imbalance.  For example, you may hear TCM practitioners recommend to eat a mix of cold and hot foods, or say that your liver is in excess while your spleen is deficient.  This does not necessarily mean there is anything wrong with your liver or spleen, however, they are out of relative balance which is resulting in symptoms that will go away if the cause of imbalance is resolved.  To revisit the yin and yang principles, if you are feeling hot, you likely have an excess of yang and a relative deficiency of yin.  To treat this simply, you would tonify yin and treat the patient using cold or cool herbs to find balance while sedating the yang.

Q: Are there any guiding principles in TCM for diet and lifestyle choices?

A: As discussed above, TCM ‘s ideal is finding balance with all areas of your life to achieve homeostasis.  Exercising or eating too much or too little is not recommended, but regular movement and exercise with intention is recommended.  Food should be minimally processed if possible, and you should maintain a balance of eating warm and cold/raw foods.  For example, foods like ginger and cinnamon are warming, while mint and seaweed are cooling.  If it is cold outside, or you are feeling a cold coming on, you should eat warm soups or stews.  Seaweed as a food is considered cold and salty in nature, and can therefore nourish a person’s yin.  It is generally combined with foods like yam and black sesame seeds to balance yin and yang.  Eating seaweed regularly in TCM is recommended to reduce swelling or inflammation (phlegm), increase energy, support thyroid function and maintain hormonal balance, and even reduce the risk of cancer.  A great book to read to learn more is Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford.

An easy way to protect yourself from getting sick in TCM is to stay out of the wind or to cover your neck with a scarf when you are in windy and cold weather.

Q: What are you most excited about as you continue this TCM & seaweed journey at Rootless?

A:  Learning from and working with an incredible team (of mostly women!) to create an ecosystem that recognizes not only the incredible benefits of seaweed that improves peoples’ lives, but does it in a regenerative and sustainable way. Seaweed is the only plant that is rootless, meaning it does not take anything from the Earth; it only gives back. What I love most about this is that while we are innovating and leading the way with research - we just recently completed the first ever study where women ate seaweed every day and experienced a noticeable difference in their menopause symptoms like energy, metabolism, bloating, and dryness - we are also supporting those that have been wild harvesting and working with seaweed for generations. I am also excited to be sharing my passion and knowledge of TCM with more people with the hope that we can eat our food as medicine and find balance. By shifting our focus from just getting our food from land to redefining food as medicine, we have a lot of work to do, and we are just getting started.


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