Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Adventures in Korean Traditional Medicine

Recently Unni and I made a visit to a haniwon, or Korean traditional medicine clinic, on the recommendation of our friend Jongshil. Unni has recently been suffering from headaches, aching shoulders, and hair loss, while I am still engaged in my life-long battle with acne, dandruff and hand tremors (before you start with your own personal miracle cure for any of the above, let me advise you that in two decades of living with these problems I have heard helpful suggestions from all manner of people: professional dermatologists in three different countries, friends, coworkers, relatives, random people at bus stops who take one look at my skin and declare that they know exactly what will solve my problem; none of these cures has made any difference).

We visited Myungbo Kyunghui Haniwon, a small clinic near Mia Samgori station. According to Jongshil, this doctor treated another foreign woman for chronic knee joint pain and within a month she was completely healed. Unni had high hopes going in; I am not yet convinced of the efficacy of Korean traditional medicine, but I will try anything once.

In Korean medicine all humans are divided into four chejil, or body types: greater yang, lesser yang, greater yin, and lesser yin. Different body types have different needs and therefore must be treated in different ways, even if they have the same problem; treatment mostly involves eating certain foods and avoiding others. Thus our first item of business was determining our respective chejil (Jongshil had already examined our pulses and declared that both Unni and I were lesser yang, so I was eager to see if the professional concurred with her diagnosis).

First they had me put my face up to a machine that took extreme close-up photos of each eye, dilated and undilated. The technicians had some trouble getting the device in position because my big nose kept getting in the way. I never did learn what the eye thing was all about.

Next they strapped me to a device similar to a blood pressure gauge, except that it strapped onto my wrist instead of my upper arm. This measured my pulse and spit out a series of numbers. The strap left a series of circular marks on my wrist.

So far so good, but the next step is where things really seemed to detour into witchcraft. The doctor took my arm, held out a peculiar gold pendant, and dangled it over each of the marks in turn.

He explained that the indents on my wrist marked the centers of energy for various organs: liver, pancreas, kidneys, and stomach. In each person, some organs give off more energy than others. The pendant will wobble more strongly over the organs that give off more energy, and this helps to determine the imbalances that are causing problems. He said that in my case my pancreas and kidneys are extraordinarily energetic, and that means I will be more prone to diabetes and pancreas-related problems. By contrast the signal from my liver is relatively weak, and thus I should have little fear of ever developing hepatitis.

The doctor concluded that both Unni and I were of the lesser yang type, just as Jongshil had said. We were given lists of the foods which are healthful and harmful to lesser yang people. "Healthful foods" for lesser yang include barley, cucumber, melon, pork, raw oysters, clams, shrimp, crab, bananas, beer, strawberries, foods containing mercury, aloe, eggs, pineapple, starch syrup, shikye (sweet fermented rice drink), mint, alkaline beverages such as Pocari Sweat, and vitamine E. "Harmful foods" include glutinous rice, brown rice, millet, sorghum, potatoes, seaweed, curry, chicken, goat, roe deer, pheasant, rabbit, dog, sesame oil, apples, oranges, tomatoes, mangoes, ginseng, garlic, green onions, onions, mugwort, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, jujube, honey, acidic beverages, calcium pills, nurungji (scorched rice), mussels, genip (sesame leaf), sangwhang mushrooms, and vitamin B.

The idea is that if we eat a lot of the foods on the "healthful list" and avoid the "harmful" foods, we will see a gradual improvement in our various ailments. I was disappointed by many items on my list, particularly chicken, potatoes, garlic, and onions, which are not only delicious but hard to avoid here in Korea. There are also a lot of items on the "healthful" list that I'm not crazy about, although "beer" was the one silver lining on the whole list. Unni was appalled to learn that mugwort, honey and ginger are no good, since she specifically makes tea from these things whenever she's feeling ill.

Unni had some acupuncture done on her head, but the doctor said that I didn't need any. He said that if I simply stick to the special diet, I should see a gradual improvement over time. My skin problems should improve within a month or two, he said, but the hand tremor will take longer. Unni could not get over how nice the doctor's skin was, "like a woman's, only prettier," and she took that as a good sign. I admit that he did have extraordinarily creamy, young-looking skin for a man his age.

We also each bought a month's supply of hanyak (Korean medicine) to help speed the healing process along. These arrived by mail the next day, in identical little packets of brown fluid. Unni's and my medicine are supposedly different although the packages are unlabeled, so we keep our respective stashes in separate refrigerator compartments. We were instructed to drink one each morning and evening until the supply ran out. The hanyak cost 200,000 won for a month's supply, but the diagnosis and consultation were free. Unni's acupuncture cost about 7000 won.

We've been on our special diet for a month now, and just went back for a refill on the hanyak packets. I've noticed no real improvement in my face and scalp, although Unni swears my face looks better. However my hands do seem to be less shaky of late. It's something that comes and goes, so it's hard to be sure, but I haven't had a really bad tremor in weeks. Unni's still complaining of headaches and hair loss, but she did not expect to see results very soon and seems more willing to believe in this stuff than I am. We'll keep at it for a bit longer, but if there isn't a big difference in a couple of months, I'm going to get myself a tub of garlic fried chicken to celebrate the failure of yet another "miracle cure."


  1. thank you for sharing your experience. I am curious if you held out on your lesser yang diet. I just embarked on this journey myself and struggling with the diet plan as I do not eat most of the meat items on the cooling list....pork, beef etc.....

    1. I stuck with it for about 8 months, but I didn't see much improvement so I've basically quit now. Unni said it helped with her shoulder pain. The main problem I have with this sort of thing is that every haniwon doctor you go to will give you a slightly different list. Then, if you say it's not making a difference, they'll say it's because you should have followed their list instead of the one you were given. I found it all rather frustrating. The herbal tea they gave me did seem helpful.