Dr. Grace Chang – Integrating Naturopathy & TCM

DHP’s own Ashok Bhandari recently sat down with Dr. Grace Chang, ND, LAc, to chat with her about Naturopathic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, the integration of both of those medical systems, and their role in patient care. Dr. Grace Chang graduated from Bastyr University in 2016 with a Doctorate in Naturopathic medicine, and a master’s in acupuncture and East Asian herbal medicine. She’s currently the resident physician at Natural Medicine of Seattle, providing primary care, with an emphasis on digestive conditions, eczema and allergies, endocrinology, and sports medicine. She also provides individualized IV nutrient therapy. (Watch this interview as a video here, or listen to the podcast here).

Dr. Grace, welcome! Thanks for joining us. So first off, what got you into the field of medicine? What drew you to doing Naturopathic and Traditional Chinese Medicine?

For sure. So I feel you can’t answer that question without going from the very beginning. I spent the majority of my childhood in a restaurant so I learned at a very young age the relationship of food, nutrition, and medicine. The kitchen was our medicine cabinet. Anytime anyone in the family was starting to feel under the weather it was addressed by soup with spices, or ginger, or a tea with different herbs. So that was my relationship with medicine to begin with. And then, fast-forward to college, I was very focused on physical therapy. I wanted to go to physical therapy school. I love the hands-on that practitioners get to do with their patients but I also felt there was a limitation. You couldn’t talk about nutrition, you couldn’t talk about what was happening at home, or the medications they were taking. And so it just so happened that there was a Naturopath sending patients over to where I was working and got me into Naturopathic medicine. I shadowed him, and then I applied. I find Naturopathic medicine is a way of life, and I can dive deeper into that, but it’s just something that I can address the foundations with and how to treat a whole person.

So doing both, the Naturopathic medicine – which is kind of bringing in that nutrition and foundations of a healthy lifestyle – into the PT side that you were considering first, how does that combine with the Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese medicine I think it’s amazing because the entire theory rides on this idea of Chi – basically the body’s vital force. It’s not solid, it’s just something that flows within you and it’s the ability to heal, it’s the ability of how well you can interact with the world. And I think that’s one of the only types of medicine or one of a select few that addresses the body’s ability to heal itself as a tool. So Chi goes really well with Naturopathic medicine in a sense that it is addressing foundations of health and using acupuncture to kind of “redirect traffic.” You know, when things are stagnant or you’re in pain or something’s not moving, the system’s not flowing very well.

That’s very cool. So with the combination of doing Naturopathic medicine and TCM, have you noticed any trends? Is it increasing in popularity or acceptance? Are people wanting both, or just one or the other?

I am actually seeing a trend in both. I think, one, a big part is that insurances are actually opening and covering a lot of you know alternative modalities like acupuncture in chiropractic care but in combination, I think a lot of people want more they want answers they they’re not finding it in anti-biotic. why am I having reoccurring you know infections why am I having pain after surgery you know I think a pill is not enough and they want more. I’m finding that people are seeking naturopathic care and acupuncture in a sense that they they’re not thinking well even though conventionally they’re supposed to feel well at that point.

That’s great. So that actually leads into something I wanted to ask is that from the practice perspective, yeah you’re looking at the foundations of health in Naturopathic medicine, you’re looking at the flow of Qi and their nutrition in TCM. So how do the philosophy and the principles of each medicine present themselves in practice? Do they mesh? Do the principles come up?

At this point in my practice, I feel like both of them mesh very well and I can no longer distinguish between the two. If I’m doing an intake for a new patient I am asking about not only how they sleep, but also the mental emotional level, the level of stress, and when they are stressed where is that physically showing up. So I’m incorporating TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine questions into my intake. I also feel both modalities consider an imbalance when disease comes on; it’s because of an imbalance, and they’re trying to restore balance. So how do we do that? There’s a therapeutic order I think that both address. One: first do no harm, or two: using your own vital force to fight something off, but three: what else can we incorporate – herbs, or medication, or even surgery if that’s something that maybe they need. So both of them – both philosophies – marry very well on that.

That’s very interesting. That’s actually very cool because you brought up a lot of principles of Naturopathic medicine and it seems like they flow really nicely into the traditional world medicine as well. In practice what have been the most common conditions or complaints that seem to come to you because of your dual license?

I feel the biggest one that I’ve seen her is musculoskeletal concerns. Pain it the biggest thing. ‘Why am I still experiencing pain? I’ve popped a bunch of Advil and ibuprofen or, I just had a knee replacement why am I still having pain?’ So I think a big part is I’m seeing a lot of people coming in to restore structural integrity, and acupuncture is really good at that. There’s just so many studies of how it can help with chronic pain back pain you know tendinitis things like that. The second thing that I see a lot is actually is digestive concerns. Naturopathic can address a lot of the you know digestive disorders with herbs or you know probiotics or things like that and nutrition and counseling on that part but also the acupuncture they see and incorporate stress as a problem to digestion so by re-directing all of that it kind of helps open things up so I love that part and then a big part too is stress management I would say that’s the third most I see a lot of people who are very anxious and I also recognize that sometimes in order to address the physical you have to remove the mental emotional layer that may be enhancing the pain or masking it so unless that’s addressed, you can’t go deeper.

And that’s where it gets interesting for me too, to kind of look at this and pose a question. So for some of these conditions like digestive upset or pain, is there a simple way to just say okay here’s the conventional medical treatment let’s say ibuprofen or Advil or whatever, and then say okay take that away and give a Naturopathic treatment, or take that away and give a traditional Chinese herb. Is it that simple and straightforward?

Good question. So again I think it goes back to meeting where the patient is at or where the disease is. If it gets to a point where, you know I don’t want someone to have sepsis, so it comes to that please take the antibiotic. But if it’s right in the beginning, they’re starting to have some symptoms, that can really be addressed with herbs, or Chinese medicine, or just staying at home and resting on it and removing all aspects that could be worsening things. And then you might actually be able to use your own vital force and fight it off. So I think there’s different steps and as a practitioner that’s my job to figure out where that person is and how can I efficiently rebalance them.

Interesting. So that’s funny because it seems like that came up a few times in your answers, essentially the therapeutic order. It’s kind of like, when they come in with the diagnosis or a conventional medical condition and you have the standard of care treatment, you’re kind of stuck at a therapeutic order in that sense. But when you’re able to put on your ND hat or your acupuncture hat, you can kind of move up and down that as you see fit.

And I find it is my responsibility to recognize also my limitations you know. If someone has suspected gallbladder stones, I need imaging for that. It’s my responsibility to send them out and have that visualized. So I think as a practitioner that is what I’m constantly keeping in mind, that yes, I have great tools in my toolbox but I also need to know the severity.

So beyond acupuncture or herbs, what are the most common treatments or interventions that you have done either from one medical style or the other, or with the combination of both?

So the biggest thing, especially during this season, I’m seeing a lot of sinusitis. Sometimes by the time they come to see a doctor it’s gotten really bad, it’s gotten to the ears or something else and so antibiotics are required to kind of call upon. But at the same time at that visit, before I give them that prescription, I’ll throw in a couple of needles into there to focus on draining the sinuses or I will provide the instructions on how to do a neti pot with Hydrastis. This is an herb that is antibacterial so they can flush it out as well on top of trying to get rid of it with antibiotics. And the biggest thing is how do we prevent this from happening again, especially if you have a history of getting sinus infections every season. Why is that, you know? So then we work on other things like how do we prepare you for the next time and how do we get your immune system stronger, and that can be addressed in so many ways; replenishing the flora, doing IV therapy; doing acupuncture, how is your stress… so many different things.

Cool. Okay, so I’m going to give you a chance here now to jump on your own little soapbox. Basically, I want to know your top three things to avoid for general health.

I would say my top three things are just over doing things so overindulging, overthinking and just plugging too much in into your day. Just to go into maybe a little more detail: overindulging, as in allowing yourself to eat a certain food or have fun and going out to eat. But, when you overdo something it can actually hurt your health it’s all comes down to balance. Overthinking: we’re thinking constantly throughout the day, multiple thoughts going 500 miles/minute. I think it’s easy to get lost in that and to get caught up in your mind, and your mind is the creation of your reality, right? Overthinking can cause a lot of stress in its own, so avoiding that. And then, plugging too much into your day: hustling and being busy doesn’t always mean success. So when you can work efficiently and get things done, being productive, even if it’s conquering a couple of projects a day, that is a good day’s work.

Good advice. Okay so the next is your top three daily tips for an optimal, everyday healthy balance.

So I would say to meditate but that’s a really hard for people and that can be overwhelming when you’re trying to physically take off time to meditate, so I would say stretch. You wake up in the morning and stretch and play some music. Or you’re going to stretch before going to bed. I think those are great ways to kind of stop what you’re doing focus on how your body feels. You’re stretching out and it feels great but it’s also allowing your mind to relax, and you’re in some ways meditating with your own body. Another thing I would say to just do is to walk it out. Again, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and be so zoned in and focused. You can get really frustrated, whether that’s talking to someone in a heated argument or working on a project with the team, it’s good to just step out, walk it out, and put those thoughts into a motion of action of some sort and then check back in. So I think that’s great. And then eat! Again, easy to forget that you need food, and whether that’s just a couple of handfuls of nuts or a spoonful of yogurt or something to keep your metabolism going and keep your body fueled; that’s very important. Eating doesn’t always mean a full meal. So those are my top three. 

Okay. And last one: your top three tips for overall health and wellness.

I would say everything, again, in moderation. Finding that balance and allowing yourself to have your needs met but also not overdoing things. #2 would be to move thoughts into action. It’s easy for thoughts to be congealed up in your mind, and unless you put those into actions they’ll just keep running through your head. In Chinese medicine we see pain as a stagnation of Chi or blood, so thoughts can also create stagnation. So all of these, either write them down – and that’s an action, or don’t think at all! And then lastly is just to check in with yourself. We are a well-oiled machine. We also have so many aspects to us that require attention sometimes. When you are stressed out, or you have an ache somewhere, it’s your body trying to tell you something. So just be mindful and aware of where you are at everyday. It will help you stay healthy.

That’s fantastic. “Check in with yourself.” That’s good advice. Well Dr. Grace, I want to say thank you for sitting down with me and sharing your knowledge and expertise, but before I let you go I know there’s going to be people that watch this and are interested in Naturopathic medicine or acupuncture, or the combination. Or, they just want to know more about your work and follow that. So where can they go, what can they do?

Yeah, so I’m a big fan of Instagram. You can find me @drgracechang, where I post a lot of motivational posts and also related to my work. And my website www.adoseofgrace.com. And also my work, we have a great group of practitioners that are working in Seattle and have a focus on different modalities and disorders, so that’s www.NaturalMedicineofSeattle.com.