Korean traditional medicine

Traditional Korean Medicine and Hanyak: 10 Things You Need to Know

Ki is the vital energy of life fundamental for circulation, metabolism, and changes in the body. This flow of this energy is crucial for sustaining life.”

Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM) or Hanbang, is a fundamental component of Korean culture. Medicinal herbs and acupuncture have been used in Korea to treat and prevent sickness and injury for thousands of years. Although many people in the West are skeptical of Eastern medicine, it should be known that it has been rigorously tested and improved upon for millennia. In fact, TKM is, in conjunction with Western medicine, accepted as a mainstream form of healing in Korea today.

While the philosophy and practices of traditional Korean medicine are very different from Western medicine, the two are used in tandem in modern Korea. Korea has the highest percentage (15%) of Traditional Medicine doctors in hospitals and clinics in East Asia, followed by mainland China (13%), and the Taiwan region (9%). One of the reasons that the concentration is so high in Korea is that traditional medicine is legally institutionalized and its medical services are covered by National Health Insurance.

Many Koreans living abroad still abide by many of the tenets of Eastern medicine such as consuming ginseng and receiving acupuncture treatments, and the Western world is slowly catching onto some fascinating health benefits previously unknown to them. As the modern world begins to open its eyes to the benefits of holistically preventing disease and treating diseases, we see increasing interest in the wisdom of our Korean ancestors.

1. The Power of Ki

A common expression we have in Korea is saying someone’s “ki” (chi, energy) is strong or weak, especially when describing someone who is very strong-minded, assertive, commanding or someone who is the opposite. The expression of “ki ga mak hyuh” – ki is stuck or blocked – is used to express being dumfounded; to be at a loss for words when something is unbelievable either in a bad or good way.

The Chinese character is 氣 (chi, ki, 기), which comprise numerous words commonly used in the Korean vocabulary, such as 기분(feeling), 기절(faint), 기운(strength, energy), 용기(courage), etc. Ki is the vital energy of life fundamental for the circulation, metabolism, and changes of body, and the flow of this energy is crucial for sustaining life. When something goes wrong and there is ki deficiency or the flow of ki is blocked or abnormal, a wide range of pathological responses occur.

Ki is influenced by many factors such as over-exertion, food, infection, and even excessive thoughts or emotion, and so a healthy, active, and balanced lifestyle, as always, is the key to the normal maintenance and flow of ki. It is important to lower, gather and store the ki in the danjun (elixir field). Ki is stored and produced in the danjun which then circulates the whole body through the organs and through the twelve meridians.

Meditation, deep breathing, yoga and various ki exercises can help us relax and focus on increasing our ki potential.

2. The Fundamentals of Acupuncture in Modern Life

Acupuncture is especially effective for acute pains due to muscle sprains or pulls when treated right away. For chronic pains & conditions, continual treatment is needed. The biggest appeal of acupuncture is that it is non-invasive compared to medication or surgery.

Koreans are pretty familiar with acupuncture as a treatment to stimulate the flow of ki throughout the body and easily associate acupuncture as treatment for musculoskeletal symptoms such as muscle pain, tightness, cramps, and sprains. These are by far the most common patients we see. Indigestion is another example. However, acupuncture is also effective for many internal diseases and chronic conditions.

There are various types of acupuncture. Applying needles directly to the affected region of pain or muscles (muscle meridian) is an obvious option. Then there are various acupuncture techniques to treat and balance the “five jang six bu” (the different organs), the meridians and individual acupoints. The twelve meridians are expressed on the body surface as acupoints but are connected to the organs internally. Thus, when problems occur with the organs, problems arise in the meridians and acupoints.

3. The Role of Hanyak in Traditional Korean Medicine

Herbal medicine can be traced back thousands of years in Korea and China, with the oldest existing text in Korea, “Life Saving Local Botanical Prescriptions”, dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty (13th century). It has been established and developed through empirical studies, and the foundations are based on properties of each single herbal component and the combined effects of the composite formulation of the decoction (tangyak).

Hanyak is very effective in bringing the body back to equilibrium to regain function. However, herbal medicine is medicine because it has strong biological activities, which can be toxic and cause adverse effects if not used properly, similar to Western medicine. That would be the difference between food and medicine.

Hanyak is prepared by boiling the herbal mixtures to extract the chemical substances into an aqueous extract which is brownish black and can be quite bitter depending on the main ingredients. Okay… some people need to plug their nose to gulp it down, whereas others can drink it pretty easily.

I don’t usually recommend herbal supplements to people because the best nutrition for the body is food, and I always stress the importance of eating a well-balanced natural diet, especially getting a good share of the foods in season. Only when this is difficult to achieve should we supplement our diet with the necessary nutrients. Getting too much of a certain nutrient can be negative…약은 약이므로 몸이 정상적이지 않을 때 사용함

4. When to Take Hanyak to Treat Illness

There is a wide variety of herbal medicines (hanyak) to treat various conditions of the body, where balance/homeostasis of the body is broken. Korean traditional medicine takes a holistic approach to the diagnosis and treatment of the body. We become ill when our body cannot maintain homeostasis and loses control of certain body functions. 

This happens when there is excess or deficiency of substances/elements in the body such as heat, cold, dampness, dryness, water, phlegm, etc. which can cause conditions such as blood stasis, food retention, kidney yang deficiency, wind-cold, liver ki stagnation, lung damp phlegm, affecting both the mind and body. This translates into the disease conditions of all kinds of illness such as from indigestion, migraines, hypertension, diabetes, to mental illness and cancer.

Hanyak works to treat these issues to restore the body’s ability to regain homeostasis and function. When symptoms persist, worsen, and start to affect your eating, sleeping, and bathroom habits (e.g., constipation, diarrhea, frequent urination), you should consult your traditional Korean medicine clinic or doctor to identify the current overall condition of your body and decide if hanyak treatment is needed.

As long as your body is in the range of a balanced equilibrium, you are in pretty good health. Once it falls out of that range, that is when lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, stress management, rest…) are necessary with the possible need of active intervention using hanyak.

5. The Korean Medicine Way to Stay Healthy Through Diet

In Korea, we have a division of Traditional Korean Medicine called “Four Constitutions” (Sasang), which categorizes people based on various phenotypes and temperament (these constitutions are further divided into 8, 16 types in the relevant schools/sects). Depending on the Sasang type, appropriate food and medicine are categorized.

Many Koreans are interested in this food categorization and often ask, “What type am I, and what kind of food is good for me?” Sasang is one school of traditional medicine that is unique to Korean medicine, whose theories can be taken into account for general, practical applications of diet. For example, the food category for the “Soeum type” who has a weak digestive system, includes chicken, mackerel, apples, oranges, spinach, lettuce, garlic. These foods would be “warmer” foods that are categorized based on their properties.

Again, these can be helpful suggestions, but I recommend patients to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with a lot of in-season fruits and vegetables. As a rule of thumb, eat what your body feels comfortable with, something that you can digest well and something that your body has a craving for…not talking about the sweets or big fat slice of pizza, but nutrients that can be lacking, like craving meat once in a while.

6. The Korean Medicine View of K-Beauty

Skin can be regarded as a mirror reflecting the status of the internal organs. Skin is negatively affected by stress and fatigue (close association with the liver), indigestion (stomach), constipation or diarrhea (large intestine), and menstrual irregularities (uterus, ovaries, liver). Therefore, to have healthy, glowing skin, these organs need to be in good condition in addition to robust circulation of “ki and blood”.

Supplemental to hanyak to treat the internal body, facial acupuncture is becoming increasingly popular to stimulate blood flow and production of collagen and elastin for the rejuvenation of the skin. Facial acupuncture is also helpful for the treatment of acne and other skin conditions. Serious skin disorders, such as atopic dermatitis, always require fundamental hanyak treatment.

7. The Korean Approach to the Beginning of Life

Traditional Korean medicine care starts with the preparation of the parent’s health to have a healthy baby. Gynecology has traditionally been a specialty in traditional medicine, related to the importance of being fertile to bear many children back in the days. With increasing infertility issues today, treatment of the mother’s overall health including the reproductive system is a big focus -> to achieve a “warm”, “clean” reproductive system with good circulation. 

During pregnancy, there are special herbal medicines/formulations to treat the mother for morning sickness, symptoms of miscarriages, or any regular medical problems that arise, since the health of the fetus depends on the health of the mother. Right before delivery, herbal extracts from deer antlers can be used to give the mother a boost of energy for that last haul.

korean traditional medicine hanyak

After birth, it is especially important to eliminate all the unwanted residuals (blood stasis, “uh hyul”) after expulsion of the placenta and lochia so that the uterus recovers to the original state. Hanyak (herbal medicine) is used specifically for this purpose right after birth. In Korea, post-partum care (almost a ritual known as sanhujori 산후조리 of the mother is crucial for her recovery while all the tissues and structures return to normal.

Koreans are known to eat seaweed soup and soft food and keep warm without exerting oneself for preferably three weeks after giving birth. If one is not careful during this period, older moms warn that new moms will be faced with aching joints and body pain from “post-partum wind” (sanhupoong 산후풍) later on in life.

As for the baby, the most important thing is to ensure that all the meconium is excreted before the baby feeds. The mother can start breastfeeding right away though since it usually takes a couple days for the colostrum to actually flow. 

8. Pediatric Korean Medicine

When it comes to children, we need to maximize their potential for growth with good nutrition, being active with exercise and not being burdened with too much stress. Not relying on too much medication too early on (minimizing the use of strong medication) is a good rule to follow. Allowing development of the immune system is important, and this involves going through the normal phases of common colds and illness to build up that system.

The traditional Korean medicine approach is to strengthen the body to fight and overcome the illness rather than circumvent/stunt the development/progress of the disease with medicines such as fever reducers (antipyretics), anti-inflammatories, antibiotics. The goal is to help the body fight off this “cold energy”, in the case of colds, and ease the symptoms as needed.

As herbal medicine is composed of extracts from plants, it is not as invasive or harsh as chemically synthesized drugs and thus more conducive to the body, and this is the reason why we advocate herbal medicine as therapeutics. When we use a lot of chemical drugs, children lose a good portion of the “good flora” in their digestive tract.

Children, as with adults, need to eat well and sleep well. Children who are inherently weak or have become weak are treated to strengthen their digestive system to increase their appetite and digestion. These days, what we eat is especially important to children. Processed food, fast food, unnatural ingredients… We are what we eat, and these kinds of food make children unhealthy, increase the internal “heat” and “dampness” and can lead to significant production of stress and anger.

9. Hanyak for Optimal Health and Growth in Children

There is no schedule/rule to when to use certain herbal medicines (hanyak) for children. Each child is different, and herbal medicines should be used only when there is a need. Normally, infants who get protection from their mother’s immune system through breastfeeding do not get that sick early on. Colds are the most common sickness encountered after children hit one year of age, in addition to rhinitis, atopic dermatitis, allergies, etc.

Treating and managing these illnesses are needed to allow the children to effectively use their energy for normal growth. In addition, children naturally have a lot of “heat” compared to adults, and excess of this heat affects many aspects of their health such as inflammation, skin disorders, obesity, and even conditions such as ADHD, which should be treated.

Besides needing treatment for the specific illness, children can receive help from herbal medicine for growth, especially during the growth spurt period and puberty. The goal is to eliminate the negative factors working against the potential for growth. These days, precocious puberty is a rising concern for many girls. Herbal medicine can also help to slow the progression of this imbalance.

10. Uniqueness of Asian Body Types

Any major differences in racial body types would mainly result from differences in the food, climate and environmental conditions, although genetics cannot be completely ignored. Caucasians lean more toward “yang”, and Asians, in comparison would be more “yin”. Yin and yang are all relative, however, and individual differences are important, so we can’t really define people as a group or race, but always focus on the individual’s condition.

In general, Asians have different diets, and Westerners eat more meat, fast food and sweets than the traditional vegetable-oriented Asian diet. However, as the diet is globally becoming more westernized, the pattern of disease has changed significantly from the past. Plentiful, rich, greasy, processed food along with stress and more desk jobs all affect our bodies. There are some basic differences in the build and diet of different races, but I would say this difference has been decreasing to the extent that they are becoming more similar due to similar lifestyles.


Jenny Choih is a Doctor of Traditional Korean Medicine KMD and lives in the US and Korea. She holds a BS and MS in Microbiology from Seoul National University and received her PhD in neurobiology from UC Berkeley before studying Traditional Korean Medicine at Kyunghee University. She is currently working at a biotech company in Seoul and enjoys watching documentaries and Chinese martial arts movies.

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