An interview with Dr. Merry Li, OMD, L.Ac.
TD: Thank you very much for speaking with me today. Can you please tell us how long you have been in practice?
Dr. Li: I graduated from Shanghai Traditional Chinese Medical School in 1989, and was practicing in China until 1991. I got my license here in California in 1992. Soon after that, I started my clinic in early 1993 in San Francisco, practiced there for about 10 years, then opened a clinic in Sunnyvale. Later on, I moved the San Francisco clinic to the present location in San Bruno.
TD: How did you become interested in traditional Chinese medicine?
Dr. Li: My family members are all Western medical doctors: my uncle, my mom, auntie – there are all kinds of doctors in our family, including dermatology, internal medicine, surgeons, and my Mom is a gynecologist. At one time, she was very, very sick. She couldn’t even have a baby, and she was trying all different ways to treat her condition. She tried western medicine for 5 years, and she couldn’t get pregnant. She also had arthritis, an autoimmune disorder. Then she found a very good herbal doctor in China who saved her life. After seeing the doctor for 2 or 3 months, she got pregnant, with me, I’m her first baby.
Since then, my mom really liked natural Chinese herbal medicine. She had always influenced me with this when I was growing up. She pushed me to go to the traditional medical university in Shanghai. I was there for 5 years, and I really enjoyed it. When I began the program, I started to appreciate Chinese medicine more and more, because it addressed the natural balance in the body. In college, we studied half Western medicine and half Chinese medicine, so we were able to recognize the difference. In China, you have to learn both, because Western medicine is still the basic foundation. We learn internal medicine, gynecology, we are able to watch surgeries. The 5-year program is very tight. Some of my classmates even chose to become Western medical doctors.
We sometimes still need to use western medicine, such as in cases of a bacterial infection or with surgery. But Chinese medicine is stronger for prevention. Even before the blood work shows a problem, we can already tell what is wrong with the person. And sometimes their blood work is fine and they don’t show any symptoms, but they don’t feel comfortable. After doing the Chinese diagnosis, we can tell what is wrong in the body. My teacher is able to describe to the patient exactly the symptoms they must be having according to the traditional Chinese diagnosis. That really impressed me. We need to treat the disease before it gets to the point that the blood work shows a significant change.
TD: How did you become interested in treating skin disorders?
In Chinese medicine, there are both internal and external treatments. External treatments include skin problems, pain, and arthritis. After I graduated from college, we had to choose a very good hospital for our residency. At that time, the external medicine department in the hospital had spots available, so I decided to go to that department. I was also interested in skin diseases, because I saw a lot of people with rashes. Since the skin is the largest organ of the body, you can easily see if there is something wrong. You can see and feel if the body’s toxins are pushed up to the skin.
The standard treatment for rashes is steroid cream. I tried to use steroids in the beginning. It didn’t work well. If you stop using steroid cream, the flare-ups are even worse. So, that made me think that it’s better to treat from the inside. But I still went to the Western dermatology department in order to learn diagnostic skills, and I became very strong in Western medical diagnosis. We still use Western medical theory to diagnose diseases such as eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis. However, very few herbalists have much knowledge about skin problems. They can prescribe herbs for some of the symptoms, but it may not effectively address the deeper problem, and may not accurately address the disorder. When I decided to specialize in skin disorders, I became a resident in the dermatology department in the hospital, and I was there for half a year. It helped me quite a bit to learn both Chinese and Western medicine.
TD: Can skin disorders be an expression of a deeper internal problem?
Dr. Li: Yes, In Chinese medical theory, the skin is related to the lungs, so we emphasize detoxifying the lungs, and the liver is also important for detoxification.
TD: Why are the medicines that I get from my MD not very effective for my skin problem?
Dr. Li: So far, Western medicine only focuses on external treatment for skin problems, as with steroid cream. Western M.D.s try to calm the skin inflammation or infection, but they don’t realize that it is coming from inside the body. It’s not like a bacterial infection from outside the body, it’s inflammation which comes from inside the body. But if the condition is very severe, they might use Prednisone pills to bring the inflammation down, but when you go off the prednisone, it comes back again. It doesn’t treat the root, but it suppresses the problem. Herbal medicine treats the actual cause of the skin inflammation. We have to treat the root in order to expel the actual cause of the skin flare-up. That’s the difference. And also the beautiful part is, usually when the person stops taking the herbal medicine when the skin clears up, it will not flare up in a certain time period. But if you have a bad diet, or increased stress, it’s possible that it could come back in the future. But at least within a certain period of time, you should not see any flare-up. However, you do not necessarily have to take the herbs indefinitely.
TD: Do you have any other specialties, besides dermatology?
Yes, I also specialize in gynecology. Since my Mom is a gynecologist, I know how the herbs work, and I’m very interested in herbal treatments for women’s health. One of my teachers is very knowledgeable and specializes in women’s health. Actually, I learned a lot from her. And being a woman myself, as well as having a family history, I have a very strong interest in treating women with Chinese herbal medicine. I have taken the Chinese herbs to support my own health for many years, and my Mom did as well. So, I am very familiar with how effective they are.
TD: Can you please explain the basis on which Chinese medicine works, in general.
Dr. Li: In general, Chinese medicine is based on Yin/Yang balance. So, if something is wrong, there must be something too high or something too low, to create the imbalance. In treatment, we always lift the lower aspect, and control the higher one. There are many diseases, including skin problems, which are autoimmune disorders. Yin/Yang balance is very important in terms of the immune system. In Western medicine, immunosuppressants are the treatment of choice for autoimmune disorders. Chinese medicine tries to balance, not suppress, the immune system, and that’s the beautiful part. And also, we diagnose each person individually, and work to expel environmental toxins. We expel dampness, and support the liver and kidneys to improve the immune system, and clear the heat in the lungs.
Herbal medicine is very unique, and treats what Western medicine cannot reach. As for women’s health, yin/yang balance is also very important. When women go from being children and move into adulthood, and then to menopause, it’s all about hormone changes. A lot of herbs are very good at balancing this. Western medicine cannot correct these imbalances. Western medicine only uses artificial hormones, so it doesn’t actually balance the body. Body hormones change dynamically. It really depends on your mood, which can cause hormone changes. Herbal medicine harmonizes, so the body balances by itself. That aspect is very unique to Chinese herbal medicine.
TD: Is that why your formulas are so effective? Because they create a balance in the body?
Dr. Li: Yes, that’s right. I developed these special formulas according to my clinical experience in how they create balance in the body. Because I’ve been using these formulas for more than 10 years, I have seen that they are very effective, I can see the positive results.
TD: If I start taking your formulas now, how long before I see a positive result?
Dr. Li: That depends on the individual. Just like any holistic treatment, besides taking the herbal medicine, you also need to follow a certain diet, and have very healthy life habits. If you always lack sleep, or have a lot of stress, that can definitely delay the result. Generally speaking, if people take the herbal medicines for 1 to 2 weeks, they can see the result, depending on what kind of disease. For severe cases, it might take a little bit longer. Herbal medicines are not a drugs. Herbs take some time to balance the body’s systems.
TD: Are there any side effects?
Dr. Li: In general some herbs have side effects, if you take them over a long period time. But, in the U.S., we do not use any herbal medicine that might be harmful to your liver or kidneys. And also, the FDA has control, so it is relatively safe. The final product has to meet FDA’s standard safety requirement.
TD: Do these herbs interfere with any medication I am currently taking?
Dr. Li: Not really, because we use very gentle herbal medicine, and also the dosage is very conservative, compared to the traditional Chinese way of cooking the raw herbs to make a strong tea or herbal soup. So, that’s why it might take a little bit longer to work, but it’s very safe. You can take these formulas with any medication, or with any supplement.
TD: It seems that the dosage is very high, that I would be taking a lot of pills at once, 6 or 8 pills at one time. Why do I have to take so many?
Dr. Li: Again, they are not drugs. They are herbs, which come from flowers, roots, or even vegetables. So, you have to take enough to create some changes in the body. Compared to a traditional serving where you have to boil the raw herbs and drink a large bowl of herbal soup, this dosage is still lower. Compared with Western medicine, it seems like a lot of pills, but compared with herbal medicine, it is low. But if the dose is too low, it will not be effective, so you need to take the recommended dosage. It is not concentrated like a chemical drug. Western medicine is a chemical; you just need a little bit for it to change your body, but Western drugs also sometimes come with side effects.
TD: Can you please describe how you would diagnose a patient according to Chinese medicine?
Dr. Li: If patients are able to come into the clinic, we need to look at the tongue. That’s very important, because the tongue shape, color, coating, reflect what’s happening inside the body. Even if different people have the same problem, like eczema or psoriasis, their tongues may appear slightly different, because their body is different. So, it would be a definite an advantage if I could see them in person. But the formulas we use are universal formulas. For some people, their body might change a little bit, but 90% of people can use our formulas, and it would work very well for them. For maybe 10% of patients, we might need to prescribe other herbs, or maybe change the dosage, whatever is most suitable in each individual case.
In Chinese diagnosis, we also feel the pulse. The pulse will show what is going on in the body and the location of the problem. The pulse quality tells us something about the body’s condition. Also the appearance of the rash: the color, the shape, will tell me something about the body’s system. For online patients, it is best to attach some pictures, or even send me a picture of their tongue, that would help a lot to be able to decide how to proceed with their treatment.
TD: What advice would you give to a person who has a skin problem, if they are very self-conscious about it?
Dr. Li: Nobody is in complete health. Skin disorders are easily seen, since they are on the outside. Actually, it’s a good sign, it lets you know that something is wrong inside your body. It’s better than not knowing what is going on inside your body, and then later it may develop into another disease, such as cancer. So, my advice is not to worry too much about it, because stress actually contributes to the skin problem. Some people have stress from work or family, and a lot of people actually have stress from their skin disorder.
Usually I recommend that first of all they eat a very healthy diet. People who have skin disorders can be at high risk for allergies to certain foods. Also, some foods may cause more inflammation, which can aggravate skin disorders. I advise a diet that limits exposure to those foods that cause allergic reactions and inflammation. Some examples of allergy-causing foods include shellfish, gluten, and dairy products. To decrease inflammation, it is important to avoid foods such as alcohol, spicy food, nuts, red meat and tropical fruits – foods that create more heat within the body.
Also, we advise people regarding healthy life habits: getting enough sleep, meditation, yoga, those would all help. Sometimes, lifestyle changes may heal half of the skin problem. I would also like to mention that other people may be concerned that a skin disorder is contagious, but actually most skin disorders are not contagious.
TD: Thank you very much Dr. Li for sharing your healing knowledge. For more information about Dr. Li’s herbal formulas, please visit www.merryclinic.com