Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology

East v west: What are the differences?

Updated Tuesday 9th August 2005

Britt Ekland enjoys a Chinese massage as she gets under the skin of the differences between eastern and western approaches to health

Britt Ekland Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Internationally acknowledged as one of the world’s most beautiful women, Britt Ekland considers her appearance and health vital to her success. With a strong interest in oriental medicine especially acupuncture and with a brother who works as a homeopathic practitioner she has never looked for advice by Western medicine.


Britt Ekland on roller blades Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Ever Wondered sent her out to explore the health scene in LA and look at the differences between Western and Eastern Medicine.

First stop for Britt isn’t in Chinatown, but LA’s West Side…

Britt: The Chinese herbal pharmacy, Herb King, is living proof of the crossover between east and west. It’s run by a western biologist, and caters mainly to non-Asians. There are almost as many things in here as there would be in a pharmacy.

Herbal Pharmacy Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Herbalist: Often there’s a language and cultural barrier that prevents people from coming into a shop similar to this. Here people get a Chinese medical diagnosis and are prescribed herbal prescriptions, which they then take home and make up into a tea.

Britt : When I take a prescription drug, I know it’s for a specific complaint, but what am I getting when I drink one of these herbal potions?

Herbalist: Chinese medicine uses the idea of the five elements which are; water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. We have all these elements within the system of our body. Chi, or energy, is the idea that energy manifests in all living beings. Sometimes the energy will get blocked, and therefore disease will occur. So we use the herbs in our pharmacopoeia to create the free flow of energy, and bring the energy into harmony, and therefore create health.

Britt: So, just how do they do the diagnosis?

Britt having her pulse taken Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Herbalist: To understand what’s going on in someone’s body is to compare it to what is happening in nature. There’s climates and seasons, various qualities of heat/cold/damp. To find out what kind of climate someone has going on inside their body, you look at their tongue, take their pulse, and ask detailed questions about their bodily functions.

If you would like to find out how you can promote a healthier lifestyle then have a look at course K301 Promoting Health: Skills, Perspectives and Practice

This is only the tip of the iceberg of traditional Chinese medicine. Britt has been recommended to go and see a Chi Gong Master…

Britt receiving Chinese massage Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Britt : Master Jo from China is a martial arts expert. He’s also one of the foremost practitioners of Chi Gong in the west. Chi Gong is an ancient Chinese tradition dating back thousands of years and Master Jo's skills have taken a lifetime to perfect.

He is currently working with Professor Shin Lin, a professor of cell biology, bio-chemistry, and bio-physics, at the University of California, who is researching whether it’s possible to measure Chi with western instruments. He’s hoping to be able to explain its effectiveness in traditional western medical terms. How does a professor of western medicine relate to a Chi master?

Prof. Shin Lin: Well with the University of California at Irvine as a centre of a Complimentary and Alternative Medicine studying this sort of stuff. Essentially we believe in Chi as a type of energy inside the human body, and when it’s flowing freely throughout the body and through the organs then we can tell that you’re healthy. But when something is wrong and there’s a blockage of the Chi (energy), then you would know that there are problems in particular areas.

Master Jo and Professor Lin Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission What the master does is, he projects his energy on to your body either directly with his hands on to the body or through the heat from his hands and that unblocks the problem areas and keeps things going.

Now, from a bio-medical point of view, we’re still trying to understand what that is. It certainly could be explained for instance, by increasing micro-circulation in the body.

Britt: Is there an instrument which can measure the Chi?

Prof. Shin Lin: We are currently finding this out. First of all there are numerous articles published in China, documenting the use of different instruments that record the Chi. Here at the University of California we have all the state of the art equipment so it is a matter of time before we will find out if there is a specific instrument that can record the Chi.

Britt’s next expert is Dr. Soram Singh Khalsa, a Sikh, and a leading advocate of complimentary health in America. He regularly shuttles between Eastern and Western methods of medicine to better our understanding.

Britt: What does healthy mean?

Dr. Soram Singh Khalsa: The way I like to conceive health is that there’s a spectrum. At one end we have chronic degenerative diseases, cancer being the most extreme example of that. At the other end of the spectrum we have a positive active state of well-being and in the middle there is a grey zone. Unfortunately this grey zone was never taught in medical school. I was taught to identify disease, to detect disease, to diagnose disease and then to treat disease. But this middle zone got completely ignored and neglected and yet the middle zone is where most people in our society are. What’s going on in the middle zone are organs that are run down, or stressed. With Oriental medicine we can identify these weakened organs and through acupuncture and herbal treatments help those organs to heal and to get stronger.

Patient receiving Eastern Medical treatment Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Britt : Surely there are times when it’s incorrect to use Eastern medicine.

Dr. Soram Singh Khalsa: In a seriously ill person that needs intensive care, it would be inappropriate to use these as a primary source of treatment, but they can be used alongside western medicine. For example if a person breaks their leg. After the cast is put on they might come to a doctor for acupuncture to help with pain and to possibly reduce the swelling. In addition herbal medicines could be very useful in that type of situation.

If you would like to find out more about this subject, here are a few suggestions.

Books you can read

Integrative Medicine: Achieving Wellness through the Best of Eastern and Western Medicial Practices, Kathleen Phalen, Journey Editions, ISBN 1885203616

Directory of Organisations in Allied and Complementary Health Care, Delphine Medge, British Library Publishing, ISBN 07123085457

The alternative health and Medicine Encyclopedia, James Marti, Visible Ink press, ISBN 1578590205

Chi Self Massage: The Taoist Way of Rejuvenation, Mantak Chia, Healing Tao, ISBN 0935621016

Acupuncture, Edzard Ernst, Butterworth, ISBN 0750641630

Links You Can Surf

For more information on acupuncture

For information on Dr Soram Singh Khalsa

Also on this site : You can join George Elllison as he finds out that it takes more then fresh fruit to live a healthier lifestyle and Keith Floyd as he enjoys fresh food in Sunny Seville

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Predictive medicine Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Predictive medicine

In this free course, Predictive medicine, you will learn how advances in genetics could change the way in which diseases are diagnosed and managed. The advent of predictive medicine, based on more detailed DNA profiling of individual genotypes using technologies like gene chips, rather than screening for one gene at a time, may shift the relationship between doctor and patient. People will be seeking advice on how to manage their susceptibilities or genetic risks, rather than looking for treatment for an already existing disorder.

Free course
4 hrs
OU on the BBC: Alternative Medicine - The Expert View Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: Alternative Medicine - The Expert View

Experts in the field of CAM offer their personal views about some of the approaches used in CAM today.

CAM Around The World Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

CAM Around The World

How do attitudes and implementation of CAMs vary around the world? Our whistle-stop tour of the globe gives an insight

OU on the BBC: The Other Medicine - Programme 6: A Marriage Made In Heaven Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: The Other Medicine - Programme 6: A Marriage Made In Heaven

In the final programme in the BBC/OU series The Other Medicine, Anna Ford asks whether CAM and orthodox medicines can work together

Princes and placebos: A Brief History Creative commons image Icon Kuwait-Ra'ed Qutena under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Princes and placebos: A Brief History

Freelance journalist Jane Feinmann reviews the history of changing attitudes to alternative medicine.

OU on the BBC: The Other Medicine - Programme 1: Why is CAM so popular? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

OU on the BBC: The Other Medicine - Programme 1: Why is CAM so popular?

Anna Ford investigates what has led to the UK's embrace of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, in the first programme in the BBC/OU series The Other Medicine

The Parkinson's problem Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: OU article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

The Parkinson's problem

Biochemist Birgit Liss is investigating the causes of Parkinson's Disease in the hope of finding a cure.

Ageism debate: In the benefits office Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Brad Calkins | activity icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Ageism debate: In the benefits office

What would it take to make everyday life more age-friendly? Join the debate.

article icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

Pester power

How powerful is pester power? Do children really influence what food and products their parents will buy?