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[Weekender] No more chicken? Getting pulse read in Korean medicine and matching dietary habits

The contents in this article are subjective and not intended as a professional recommendation. – Ed.

Believe it or not, I am to stay away from chicken.

Or at least that was the result of my recent trips to a traditional Korean medicine clinic.

While most Koreans are used to herbal medicine and acupuncture, finding out one’s body type based on constitutional typology and sticking to respective dietary recommendations requires slightly more devotion and well, faith.

With constitutional medicine treatment -- the categorization of human into four or eight body types with corresponding lifestyle and dietary guidelines -- steadily gaining popularity here, I decided to see what it was all about and get a first-hand experience.

My choice, purely out of proximity, was Saesidae Oriental Medicine Clinic located in Gangnam, southern Seoul, for two sessions last week.

Chinese medicinal herbs (123rf)
Chinese medicinal herbs (123rf)
I entered the clinic mainly with a mix of skepticism and curiosity, but also with slight hope that it may be the answer to my chronic struggle with indigestion, intermittent headaches and intense menstrual pain.

Once there, I was first given a list of general health related multiple choice questions, followed by stress and blood pressure measurements.

Then Dr. Lee Tae-il, a licensed oriental medicine doctor, examined the radial pulse on both wrists with the tip of three of his fingers to find the pulse formation, followed by acupuncture treatment.

Unlike the thin-needle acupuncture most commonly used in Korean traditional medicine, the doctor applied acupuncture needles that resembled a pen, made for constitutional medicine on the left wrist and ankle.

“The process of determining the patients’ body type by pulse is subjective, so we ask patients to come in for at least two sessions for accuracy. A lot of research is going on in the field of eight-constitutional medicine to develop machines for the precise examination of pulse formations,” Lee said.

After the first session, Dr. Lee gave a rough list of foods to avoid -- of which chicken, tomato, brown rice, onion, and hot beverages stood out, as I had mainly been consuming those foods at home based on the idea they are helpful for weight loss and digestion.

Refraining from giving detailed guidelines until the second session, the doctor recommended sticking to a so-called “western diet” with pork, beef, boiled eggs and salad.

Regardless of nationality, ethnicity, place of birth, environment or other factors that impact people’s lifestyle, this kind of constitutional medicine states that every human is divided into one of the eight body types that is decided at birth and does not change over the course of life.

The eight typology, with more categorization than the commonly known Sasang constitutional medicine of four types, surfaced in the oriental medicine scene at the first International Alternative Medicine Symposium held in Tokyo, Japan in 1965. The theory was introduced by Dr. Kwon Do-won through his research “A Study of Constitution - Acupuncture”.

The eight body types are divided by sorting solid organs-- liver, kidney, pancreas, lung, heart-- and hollow organs -- gallbladder, small intestine, stomach, large intestine, bladder-- from the strongest to weakest by checking radial pulse.

The eight types are: hepatonia, cholecystonia, pancreotonia, gastrotonia, pulmotonia, colonotonia, renotonia, and vesicotonia.

In the three-day period between the first and second session, I stuck to a diet made up of mostly toast, ham, cheese, boiled eggs, salmon and banana.

Though it may have been too early for noticeable differences, there was less bloating and swollen eyes in the morning, which the doctor owed to reduced irritation of the kidney.

After the second session of pulse checking, my body type came down to pancreotonia, which has a relatively strong functioning pancreas and weak kidney.

Pacreotonia types have a healthy digestive system, but are strongly advised to refrain from drinking alcohol and cold baths, according to Dr. Lee.

“Those with pancreotonia body type have a lot of heat in their stomach and pancreas, so when under stress their body creates excessive gastric juice, leading to cravings for food with strong-flavor whether it be sweet, spicy and salty,” he said.

“They also tend to get cranky when cravings are not fulfilled, which is why this body type is prone to rapid weight gain under stress. To avoid this, it is recommended they engage in physical activities, such as traveling to a new place, going to an art museum, among others, alongside protein-centered meals.”

Lee advised all body types to keep away from drinking coffee and alcohol. However, among the eight body types hepatonia can somewhat handle coffee, and renotonia and vesicotonia alcohol, he said.

“Eight constitutional medicine should not be approached to check one’s body type for fun. It is a method of curing illness or health problems by adopting a lifestyle that can improve and sustain one’s health, and avoid food that would have a negative impact on the patient,” he said. 

By Kim Bo-gyung