Mexico City, Spotlight, Thailand

Adventures in Chinese Medicine

Mauricio Quintana is my host in Mexico. I first met Mauricio through, of all things, our mutual interest in online gaming. For several years we chatted online. We share a love of travel, adventure and meditation. Our traveling ways sometimes baffle our more settled friends. Soon we had a strong sense of kinship.

But I didn’t expect to go hunting for blood powder for him.

Tinctures at Mauricio’s clinic in Mexico City.

Skepticism & Weight Loss

“Blood powder” is my incorrect term for yunnan baiyao, a powder that is not made from blood. In fact, no one’s sure exactly what’s in it (proprietary recipe), but it’s been used for about a century to staunch bleeding wounds in Asia.

Mauricio practices Traditional Chinese Medicine and lately the stuff has been hard to come by in his home town of Mexico City. So while I was in Thailand he emailed me to ask if I would go find him some. “It’s common throughout Asia,” he assured me.

It’s a little funny for me of all people to go hunting down Chinese Medicine ingredients. A year ago, I viewed Mau’s medical practice with skepticism. I have nothing against the use of medicinal herbs: they’re proven to work, and I’ve been trained in the use of quite a few of the Western ones. But many other aspects of Chinese Medicine—the use of needles and pressure points, the reference to “energy” in the body, and so forth—go beyond what has been observed with science. And science is the best source of information we have.

So, a year ago, I was reluctant to go Mau for help. My weight loss efforts, which had started off well as I tracked and cut calories, had ground to a halt. I was still 50 pounds overweight, a legacy of my unhappy marriage and my lengthy injury. On a whim, I asked Mau if he had recommendations for losing weight.

“Well yes, but you’re not going to like it.”

I was intrigued.

Mauricio described a 13 week program he does once a year which “removes toxins from the body, balances the metabolism, improves liver health, and leads to dramatic weight loss.”

Sign me up, right? Well… the program’s not easy. It includes a formidable regimen of herbal supplements, and tightly controlled dietary restrictions that change every two weeks. I’d be giving up such varied amenities as chocolate, sugar, gluten, red meat, alcohol, even legumes at different points in the program.

That shit is hard. I wanted to know if it would actually work. I began to ask some pretty detailed questions about claims like “removing toxins” and “balancing.”

I was amazed and impressed. There is a lot of language in Chinese Medicine that does not make immediate sense to a Westerner. Phrases like “energy deficiency in the spleen” are very literal translations of Chinese characters. However, they correspond to bodily processes that can be observed and studied. When you explain it as “the stress from worrying too much leads to troubled digestion” and throw me a study proving it, suddenly it makes a lot more sense.

In other words, Mauricio translated the arcane phrases of his tradition to the (equally arcane) jargon of Western medicine for me. He was extremely patient, thorough, and astute. It painted a picture for me of a medical system that knows what it’s talking about. That inclined me to give its treatments the benefit of the doubt.

Thus, I embarked on his 13-week program. I lost an average of 3 pounds per week, for a total of more than 30 pounds in just over 3 months.

That was nearly a year ago; the weight has stayed off.

My moleskin. Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao and directions in Thai to the herb store.

The Hunt

Having seen the power of his art, I was happy to follow up on his request for yunnan baiyao. Actually, I was excited: I hadn’t thought of checking out an herbalist or Chinese doctor while in Thailand, and it would be fun to see one of their shops.

Or, as it turned out, the only such shop.

I went to the Waroros day market, a sprawling bazaar inside of several old warehouses and a number of back streets. Armed with my faithful reproduction of the Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao, I was quickly directed to “the” place to get Chinese Medicine.

“We don’t have it.”

Is there somewhere else that might?





Sure kid, here are some directions to follow. Enjoy. 

The smiling herb lady waved to me as I set out on what would be a week-long goose chase across three day markets and a dozen pharmacists in every part of Chiang Mai.

The rogue priest will never let you down.

We Promise They’ll Have It

Each pharmacist greeted me with a smile and fluent English, followed by a frown when I announced what I was looking for. I’m still not sure whether the frown was because they didn’t stock it, or because they look down on Chinese Medicine like Western doctors do. I got the feeling it was the latter.

Even so, each pharmacist was quite confident they knew a different pharmacist who stocked it.

Eventually, these leads became circular, with Shop D referring me to Shop A and so forth. When I told a pharmacist that I had already tried the person they were referring me to, they were surprised. They all —without exception—then recommended I go to a certain shop in Waroros market.

After double-checking their directions, I confirmed that it was the very first shop I had gone to on Day 1. The shop that was out of stock.

I relayed this to one pharmacist, who laughed at me. “If they don’t have it then there is none in Chiang Mai,” he told me.

I was ready to give up. But something didn’t make sense. If yunnan baiyao is such a basic emergency treatment in Chinese Medicine, why would the only Chinese Medicine outlet in town not have it? Maybe I had talked to the wrong person, or asked for the wrong thing?

I dragged myself back to Waroros Market, approached the lady behind the counter (a different one than the first time) and showed her the Chinese characters for yunnan baiyao.

“Do you want pills or powder?”

Well played, Chiang Mai. Well played.

Mau blogs about Chinese Medicine at Mauricio Quintana and about life & philosophy at The Wandering Dragon.


13 thoughts on “Adventures in Chinese Medicine

  1. Fascinating. I love traditional forms of medicine, and while I am more familiar with western herbs, I have always been curious about Chinese medicine.
    Sounds like you had a fun little goose chase though ;)

  2. Ha, nice story! I had two sisters and my parents do the detox thing via a naturopathic doctor and they swear by it. Haven’t seen the need to do it myself as I’ve had been at 200 pounds about two years ago (which was linked to my banged up leg and gorging every friday game night with friends) and realized that it was getting out of hand and switched up my diet. Now am around 160 pounds and continually losing gradually with the goal being somewhere between 145-155. If I end up anywhere less I’d be worried about losing muscle mass and anorexia. For me, the biggest factor is discipline. Without that you are not going to have much luck.

    I like how you described the literal translation in context with western understanding. It helps shake off the cultural misinterpretations. So much is lost in translation sometimes. The more I am exposed to ‘alternative medicine’ the more I understand that it is simply medicine with different labels, at least for the most part. Especially with medicines that survived in a long lived culture, as the culture has grown and evolved with it. Making the medicine more ingrained and intuitive for the people within. It is really nice when you think about it – medicine ingrained into the common people’s society and language in such a way that it is difficult to separate the two. Now that’s strong medicine.

  3. Interesting story. Even though I don’t follow the regimen you did to lose excess weight, I already am on those very same diet restrictions. For me it wasn’t too hard because sugar and red meat were making me sick as it was, plus I don’t drink beer or wine any more because it does not mix well with the medications I take for my diabetes and to balance other things. It interests me to see how very close Western and Eastern medicine can be. No matter what, I don’t try anything new to lose weight or augment/change anything about my body without consulting my doctors first. I say doctors because I utilize several and consider them allies in my quest. Thank you for sharing. Please visit my blog when you get the time to skim through my words… You lost 80, but I think it will take me as long as your Great Adventure to lose over 100 pounds and keep it off.

    You’ve been an inspiration to me, friend, so keep the encouragement coming! And I’ll keep supporting you (no matter what anyways) in your endeavors to live the Heroic Life.

    • Actually my total weight loss has been about 60 pounds… of which 35 came from Mau’s program. The total time it took me to lose that much weight was about 1 year, losing an average of just over 1 pound per week. (Though my graph tells me it was more like 2-3 pounds some weeks and no loss at all, or occasional backslides, in others). You can definitely do it Val!

      • Hmmmm, nice! I’ve been seeking more options… I have been losing weight, but it has been going more slowly. My doctors have told me it is because women tend to lose weight on a slower time frame than men do, so I am looking at a two-year goal here. Hopefully 50 pounds per year. I have gotten frustrated, especially when it comes to the excess skin in my belly area, something I am trying to work on through belly dance and other exercise.

        You know my email. Please share with me any and all information on the medicinal procedures you used. It may or may not fit in with what I can do. I am on other medicines that could adversely interact with some herbal remedies, so I have to be extra careful. I am lucky to have some kick ass doctors who are open to holistic health alternatives, so, yay!

        Monday, Jan 23rd is my next appt with my nurse/trainer to check on my progress, here’s hoping I’ve done good. *anxious but happy*

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