Tibetan Medicine Frequently Asked Questions

Tibetan Medicine Frequently Asked Questions

What is Tibetan Medicine?

Tibetan Medicine is one of the disciplines of traditional Asian medicine. It has been practiced continuously throughout the Himalayas and in South and East Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe for centuries. In the late 20th century, Tibetan Medicine began to be practiced in Europe and the Americas. The Tibetan doctors that pioneered its practice in the West were Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, and Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche.

Tibetan medicine’s origins date back to the 4th century. Its main developmental phase occurred from the 8th to 12th century, by which time its foundational texts, the Gyud-Zhi (the Four Medical Texts), were compiled. Tibetan Medicine is an integration of Tibetan, Indian (Ayurvedic), Hellenic (Greek) and Persian (Unani) medical knowledge with some additional influences from China.

What does Sowa Rigpa mean?


How does Tibetan medicine differ from biomedicine (allopathic/Western medicine)?

Tibetan medicine takes an ecological view of human physiology and disease pathology. It presents a medical, social/behavioral and spiritual model for holistic health and recognizes the interdependence of our mind and our body. Tibetan medicine begins by creating a clear definition of health by answering the questions:

When the human body is in a healthy state, what principles allow the organs, systems and substances of our body to first form and then function in a sustainable balanced manner?

What environmental, behavioral, mind-related and physiological factors can affect those principles causing a loss of homeostasis and resulting in dysfunction, thereby allowing symptomatic illness and disease to develop?

How can that disease process be reversed and homeostasis restored by changes in behavior and diet, and by utilizing herbal medicines and physical therapies that allow the body to return to normal healthy function?

Biomedical treatments, such as pharmaceuticals, or surgery, most often act to increase, alter, limit or eliminate (block) specific physiological functions. Tibetan medical treatments’ are nontoxic and their goal is to restore normal physiological homeostasis and function and treat illness and disease by reversing the process of causation of a given illness or disease.

What are Tibetan herbal medicines composed of?

Properly produced Tibetan herbal medicines are non-toxic. They are composed of natural materials (plant-based medicines i.e., herbs, roots, bark, seeds, flowers, etc., minerals, etc.) most of which are wildcrafted in the Himalayas and the surrounding region. The work required to handpick them, often at high altitudes, in an ecologically sustainable manner, process them and compound them into the centuries-old formulas of Tibetan medicine is labor-intensive.

Do Tibetan medicines have side effects?

Tibetan medicine recognizes all of the effects of the natural ingredients used in its herbal formulas. These ingredients are processed and combined in specific proportions to eliminate any adverse effects (AKA side effects). Tibetan herbal medicine formulas can contain from 3 to over 100 ingredients. No more than approximately 2% of patients generally experience unusual individual effects based on sensitivity to either dosage or specific ingredients. In these cases, a qualified Tibetan doctor can make the necessary adjustments to eliminate any such issues that may arise.

Do Tibetan medicine doctors treat all kinds of diseases or do they have specializations?

All practitioners of Tibetan medicine are general practitioners and therefore treat any presenting illness, including acute, chronic and degenerative diseases. A Tibetan medicine doctor‘s prior experience treating a given biomedically (allopathic/Western medical) diagnosed disease is not necessarily relevant because Tibetan medicine’s diagnostic approach and system of classifying disease pathology are wholly different from that of biomedicine. Therefore, in each patient’s case, a Tibetan medicine doctor needs to make an individualized (differential) diagnosis.

What illnesses are best treated by Tibetan medicine?

As with all fully developed medical systems, Tibetan medicine has the potential to treat a wide variety of acute, chronic and/or degenerative diseases. It excels in its ability to make an individualized (differential) diagnosis of each patient as well as in treating patients with comorbidity, that is, more than one illness or disease occurring at the same time and multimorbidity, that is, more than two illnesses or diseases occurring at the same time. Tibetan medicine also generally helps improve overall immune function, digestion, metabolism and assimilation and blood quality, all of which are the basis of good health.

How long does Tibetan Medicine usually take to show its effect and/or cure an illness?

The course of treatment will depend upon the severity of the presenting health condition and whether an illness is chronic or acute. The speed and effectiveness of a given treatment are also affected by the extent to which a patient follows directions regarding necessary changes in diet and behavior/lifestyle and takes any herbal medicines that is prescribed regularly. Based upon these factors, a Tibetan medicine treatment can require from several days to some months to fully restore a person to proper health. Regular checkups are generally required.

How does a Tibetan medical doctor carry out a consultation?

Generally, Tibetan medicine doctors first observe a patient, taking into account their personal and physical attributes. They will then speak to the patient and enquire about their condition, its symptoms and development, as well as about their medical history and pertinent aspects of their personal history.

Second, a Tibetan medicine doctor will perform an in-office urinalysis to confirm factors such as the nature of the illness, the presence of infection and the localization of the condition, among many other diagnostic conclusions.

The doctor will next feel the twelve pulses, six on the radial artery of each wrist, to allow them to clearly define an illness’ etiology, i.e., its relation to the Three Principles of Function (Lüng, Tripa, Bädkën, or combinations of these factors https://tibetanmedicine.com/theory), its origin, location, chronicity, hidden complications, etc.

To further confirm the diagnosis, a Tibetan medicine doctor will look at the color, shape and coatings of the tongue, as well as specific signs appearing in the sclera (white) of the eye, and may also test for sensitivity of pressure points on the body.

What does a Tibetan medicine treatment consist of?

  • Behavior/lifestyle modification – necessary changes in personal habits such as sleep, exercise, eating habits, etc.
  • Dietary modification – following specific instructions as to what foods to avoid and which to add to one’s diet as well as recommendations regarding how many meals per day are best to consume, and other factors relating to food and health.
  • Tibetan herbal medicine – If required, Tibetan herbal medicines will be prescribed. Supplements are taken between 1- 5 times per day. Herbal medicines utilize from 3 to 150 herbs per formula. Herbal medicine prescriptions should be re-evaluated and modified at each consultation diagnosis.
  • Physical therapies – When needed physical therapies like moxibustion, massage or acupuncture are recommended.
  • Spiritual and mind-related factors – Tibetan medicine asserts that the primary source of suffering originates in our mind, especially when it is undisciplined and confused by influences such as materialism, aggression, fear, ignorance, etc. As such, and where appropriate, a Tibetan medicine doctor may give instructions to address these issues or recommend therapy, meditation, or other practices that can relieve a person of undue mental stress.

Is Tibetan medicine evidence-based?

Evidence-Based Medicine is a biomedical movement that began in the 1990s. Its goal was to increase the research basis for biomedical treatments. Evidence-Based Medicine has since become a key tenet of the biomedical and medical insurance industries. The benefits of emphasizing research-based evidence over the clinical experience of physicians have certain distinct advantages and disadvantages. An enormous level of funding is required for evidence-based laboratory or clinical research to be performed at universities or science/medical institutions.

The funding available to develop adequate research protocols and perform studies regarding traditional Asian medicine – such as Tibetan medicine – is relatively small. Nevertheless, many studies have been done in the US and especially in China. The quality of those studies vary. As an alternative, disciplines such as Tibetan medicine have centuries of clinical practice, published traditional clinical and herbal pharmacological research and clinical commentaries written by practicing physicians. Hopefully, in the future, high-quality research will be done regarding Tibetan medicine that does not merely seek to confirm its efficacy, but, most importantly, can help advance clinical practice.

Can a Tibetan medicine consultation benefit a healthy person who is trying to maintain good health?

Yes. Health maintenance is the most significant form of healthcare. It can prevent the onset of many illnesses and diseases. Tibetan medical theory starts by clearly defining health and the principles upon which the proper functioning of the body’s organs, systems and substances are based. Because it understands the interdependence of mind and body, Tibetan medicine can address conditions that affect the mind as well as psychosomatic illnesses. Tibetan medicine can detect the cause of ill health by diagnosing symptoms that biomedicine may consider subclinical but are, in fact, the precursors to illness. Adjusting behavior and diet to correspond to factors such as physical constitution, age and health condition, as well as factors like the current season, lifestyle, etc. is primary to healthcare. One’s efforts in this regard can be aided by a Tibetan medicine consultation with a qualified physician.

Can Tibetan medicine be used in a complementary manner with biomedical treatments?

Yes. Many people choose to use natural medicine and biomedicine in a complementary manner.

How are Tibetan herbal medicines taken?

Tibetan herbal medicines come in the form of pills and powders. They are taken between one and five times per day at specific times at least one-half hour before or after meals. Pills are typically first chewed and powders swallowed with hot, warm, or room temperature water as directed. Tibetan medicines are not sweetened or artificially flavored and have a variety of tastes. The taste of the supplements is significant to their effect. If the taste is problematic for a patient, they can take the pills mixed with unsweetened jam, apple sauce, or diluted 100% fruit juice. If a pill is too hard to chew, you can crush it or soak it in warm water until it softens.

Do I have to change my diet while taking Tibetan Medicines?

Tibetan medicine maintains that mental outlook and behavior/lifestyle are primary to health. Next, the most important factors to consider are diet and environment. The first step in a Tibetan medicine treatment is making appropriate changes in one’s behavior/lifestyle; the second is adopting a proper diet. A good diet creates the basis for sustainable good health. A person can only take Tibetan herbal medicines and still achieve positive benefits. However, if one wishes to attain the most optimal and fastest results from a Tibetan medicine treatment, making needed adaptations to behavior and diet are key.

Does insurance cover Tibetan medicine consultations and treatments?

In the US, medical insurance generally does not have codes for or cover most forms of natural, alternative, or traditional Asian medicine. Some insurance plans have Flexible Spending Account (FSA) or Flex plan options that allow the insured to set aside funds for eligible medical expenses. This kind of insurance plan can often be applied to Tibetan medicine treatments.

Do I have to be a Buddhist to take Tibetan medicine?