Traditional Chinese Medicine, sometimes called TCM, or just Chinese Medicine, is a complete medical system that has diagnosed, treated, and prevented illness for over 2300 years. Imagine, for a moment, that the medicine of Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, circa 600 B.C.E., had undergone continuous evolution from the time of Socrates, through the Roman empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, right up through the Scientific and Computer ages. Imagine that during this time a highly educated, literate upper class of physicians had compiled a massive written system in which thousands of case studies and both theoretical and practical texts served as the means for communicating with each other on the subtleties of preserving life and preventing disease and untimely death. Imagine a huge population to observe and learn from, in which literacy is prized, medicine is state sponsored, and the course of disease studied, empirically, in the most sophisticated literate pre-modern system. Now you have imagined traditional Chinese Medicine.
Chinese medicine is a complete system of treating and promoting health through the use of medicines ( herb, mineral, and animal products), Acupuncture, Spinal and Joint Manipulation, Massage, Dietary and Nutritional Therapies, Meditation, Tai Qi, and Counseling.
Chinese Medicine is based on the philosophical constructs of ancient Chinese philosphy, namely Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. While modern bio-medicine views disease as an enemy to be conquered and defeated, rooted out with surgery, or poisoned with drug therapys, Chinese medicine is based on therapies that strengthen the body’s ability to fight disease on its own. It is based on the observation that unblocking the human life-force or Qi in Chinese language, will enable the body to heal itself.
What is Qi? Qi is the life-force that moves through and animates the bodymind, it is, for example, what enables the lungs to breathe and the viscera to digest. Qi exists in all animate and inanimate objects, in fact, in all of the natural world. It is, in a sense, identical to the powerful electromagnetic particles, waves, and forces that constitute and motivate all of creation according to modern physics. In terms of the human body and Chinese medicine, Qi is what propels life, it is the force behind breathing, digesting, excreting, and sleeping. It is what gets us up in the morning and what enables us to sleep at night. It is the force within the constant movement of the emotions, it is what keeps us warm and upright. Qi has qualities, and it can be described.
Think of what it feels like to stand at the top of a pristine mountain in the Swiss Alps overlooking a massive pine forest and crystal clear glacier lake. That is the Qi of that place. Now think of how you might feel in the center of midtown New York City during rush hour on a Friday afternoon.
That feeling you have describes the Qi of that location. In the human body, Qi circulates like warm moist air through specific networks of channels in the body that connect viscera to skin and muscles to blood, for example. It is along these networks that the acupuncture “points” or more accurately described, “springs” are located. It is this Qi, too, that in various forms within the body, protect us from attack by external pathogens, it is the relative strength of one’s qi that explains why one person comes down with the flu in December and another, under identical circumstances, does not. It is the quality of one’s Qi that determines whether we break down under stress or thrive under. Most importantly, the quality and strength of one’s Qi can be improved through Acupuncture, skilled application of Herbal Medicines, physical and mental health cultivation, and the consumption of healthy amounts of clean food and water. Conversely, Qi is damaged by unhealthy living, whether of an excess or deficient nature. Insufficient food or not enough, excessive worry or not caring at all. Chinese medicine prescribes a middle path.
Chinese medicine views the human body as a garden. Every human being is seen as a unique terrain with its own particular eco-system. The doctor is a gardener working hand-in-hand with the patient on the soil, using acupuncture and herbs like irrigation and compost, building a plant that is healthy and able to fight disease. This is the opposite of the Western medical view in which the body is a sum of mechanical parts, to be replaced or treated at most exact micro level. There are times when surgical and drug intervention is necessary. But in America today there is a renaissance of interest in the natural methods that were jettisoned along with many other good things as the country turned Science into its modern religion with doctors dressed in white coats speaking Latin as the new priests. As our nation of immigrants turned their backs on “grandmother wisdom” and ethnic and family traditions, suddenly the media and people with Ph.d.’s became the new authorities telling us how to think, live, and die. As a result, there are tens of thousands of unnecessary surgical procedures each year in this country, while millions of people are being administered drugs, without being informed of their toxic side effects. According to one recent scientific study, our country spent over two million dollars last year in doctor-caused illness, one of the leading causes of death is from the side effects of drugs. Large number of people could be helped, gently, safely, and elegantly with Chinese Medicine, if they only knew.
Chinese medicine can be used to effectively and safely treat most of the common diseases of modern life without side effects. It excels at the treatment of the degenerative diseases that characterize our sedentary, but long lived lifestyles in the west. And, unlike Western medicine, it is an antidote to stress and has the same beneficial effects as meditation and yoga on the body. Chinese medicine successfully treats internal medicine disease, gynecology or Women’s Health, respiratory disease, digestive disorders, infectious disease, dermatalogical complaints, and both acute and chronic pain conditions. . It is effective in pediatrics as well as gerontology.
Diagnosis in Chinese Medicine
Over the millenia Chinese physicians developed a very effective and scientific (empirical) model for assessing health and disease. Practitioners assess a person’s health by feeling the quality of the pulses at each wrist, and by observing the color and form of the face, tongue, body, voice, and manner of expression. This information gleaned from looking, touching, listening, and smelling (The Four Pillars of Diagnosis) is integrated with an elaborate series of questions (asking, or The Ten Questions) about digestion, elimination, sleep, mood, body temp, pain sensations, menstrual cycle, relationships, work habits, living habits, and prior health history that, considered together, portray the specific expression of health and disease that manifest in a given individual at a specific moment in time.
This specific expression of illness in an individual is called the Pattern of Disharmony, called Bian Zheng in Chinese Medicine. Each specific Bian Zheng corresponds to a specific base therapeutic protocol of acupuncture, herbal formula, diet and or lifestyle modification that is, in turn, specially tailored to accommodate and improve the individual’s unique ecology and terrain.
Consider, for example, two people with the bio-med defined disease of Asthma. One, is a happy-go-lucky, overweight, red-faced, 45 year old man with an excessive appetite, a frequent craving for iced beverages, but with reasonable elimination, sleep and rather oily skin. His tongue is swollen and red with a greasy yellow coating. His pulse is bounding and slippery. His blood pressure is slightly high and his voice is louder than it needs to be for the room he is in. He laughs a lot during the interview and his body odor is quite strong. His asthma is worse after eating and is complicated by seasonal allergies to ragweed and pollen.
The other asthmatic is an anxious, nervous, underweight 31year old woman with dark rings under her sad-looking eyes, dry skin and hair, fatigue, poor appetite and a tendency towards constipation. Her tongue is shrunken and red with many cracks and is dry and without coating. Her pulse is fine, rapid, and weak, and her voice soft and uncertain. She has difficulty answering questions about herself and exhibits a somewhat flattened affect. Her menstrual periods are brief, painful, and lighter than normal. Her asthma, which began in childhood, is worse at nighttime, when she is restless and suffers occasional palpitations. She has a history of late bed-wetting.
While these two patients both have the same “disease” named Asthma by western medicine,
their diagnoses in Chinese medicine are quite different. In Chinese medicine they both have signs of “heat,” but one is combined with signs and symptoms of “dampness” and is a replete or full heat, while the second is a function of vacuity or empty heat with yin vacuity and lack of fluids. Both have additional complicating factors that will be addressed by their individual acupuncture treatment and herb formulas. So while both have what Chinese medicine calls wheezing and panting, each has a different pattern of disharmony (Bien Zheng) that is at the root of their disease called Asthma by modern bio-medicine, and “wheezing and panting” in the nomenclature of traditional Chinese medicine.
Treatment in Chinese Medicine
Each of these patients, then, will require a treatment that addresses not only their symptom of Asthma, but as their unique underlying pattern of imbalance that makes them susceptible to asthma. As a result, if each of these patients is treated successfully, not only will their asthma improve, but so will their general health. The first patient will become less overheated and phlegmatic and the second patient will become find herself less nervous and constipated. Her sleep will improve and her skin become moister. Her periods will also become fuller and less painful.
Patient number one’s tongue should become less greasy and red, while number two’s will become moister and develop of healthy coat.
As mentioned above, there are in Chinese medicine an existing repertoire of acupuncture and herb formulas and for each of these Bian Zheng or Patterns of Disharmony. The skill of the individual physician involves,
A) diagnosing the correct pattern in the first place
B) knowing which formulas suit that pattern
C) modifying that formula to suit the specific needs of the individual patient at a given moment in time.
Even the acupuncture treatment, herbal formula, and dietary advice given to a patient on day one of treatment will need to be adjusted as the patient makes progress or suffers setbacks. Moreover, disease has many layers. One moment the doctor must attack the “disease evil,” the next moment she must support the patient’s “righteous qi”, yin, or yang. The careful physician adjusts the treatment as the patient’s signs and symptoms change.
The ultimate and underlying goal of treatment in Chinese medicine is to unblock the stagnation of the life force, and to adjust and harmonize the Yin and Yang as it manifests in the physical body–moisture and dryness, cold and heat, tension and slackness, hardness and softness, strength and weakness. This is achieved by regulating the “Qi, Blood, and Fluids” in the energy networks connected to each of the internal organs. Weakness is strengthened, congestion and accumulation are unblocked and dispersed, agitation is calmed, heat cooled, coldness warmed, dryness moistened, and dampness drained.
In the case of the above two patients, for example, in both cases acupuncture and herbs would be used to stop wheezing and panting and clear heat from the body. However, in case A, we would also seek to drain dampness and dry phlegm, while in case B, we would work on strengthening the function of those organs most important for producing blood and nourishing the yin. At the same time we would attempt to immediately moisten dryness and calm the mind.
Chinese Medical Dietary and Lifestyle Therapy
Person A would be prescribed a diet (see Dietary Counseling) of very limited animal fat, high in grains that promote diuresis like barley and rice, and increased bitter green vegetables that help eliminate dampness and cool heat. Green tea would be substituted for cappucinos to eliminate dampness, while refined sugars would be limited to an occasional treat. Aerobic exercise would certainly be prescribed for this person as well, and Yogic breathing practices introduced to stimulate the qi and move the dampness.
Person B on the other hand, would be prescribed a diet of more moistening foods, like rice and lentils cooked with dried apricots, and vegetables and tofu cooked gently with olive oil. An essential fatty acid supplement like Flax seed oil would be suggested, and fruit consumption increased to clear heat and moisten dryness. Breathing and meditation or Tai Qi would be prescribed for this patient to nourish the yin and calm the mind.
BodyMind Medicine includes the Heart, Feelings, or Mind.
The Chinese medicine doctor would note patient B’s shyness and flattened affect and take this, as well as her restlessness at night, into account when formulating her acupuncture and herbal prescriptions. Gentle discussion might be relied upon to draw the patient out and see if there are any deeper emotional problems that will necessitate referral for counseling or psychotherapy.
Duration of treatment in Chinese Medicine depends on the severity and duration of the illness.
Simple injuries and illnesses can often resolve after 2 to 6 acupuncture treatments and a week or two of herbal therapy. Many illnesses and injuries are resolved in 6 to 14 treatments over the course of one to three months. More serious illnesses may require two or three courses of treatment, that is 12 or even 18 treatments over 3 to 9 months. It is sometimes said that in the case of chronic complaints, one month of treatment is needed for each year of disorder. One thing is clear, however. One should begin to see some improvement in symptoms, or at the least, increased sense of well-being after the first or second visit.
Herbal therapy can last from three days to a year or two, depending on the nature of the illness.
One can head off a cold or migraine headache by taking one or two doses of herbs. On the other hand, for example, in the case of uterine fibroids, one might take herbs for 6 months to a year or year and 1/2.
Frequency of treatment.
Acupuncture treatments are generally once or twice per week in the beginning, tapering off after 4-6 weeks. A typical course of treatment, whereby we finish one aspect of therapy and move to another, is 8 to 14 visits of acupuncture over a two to three month period.
Qi cultivating exercises, like Tai Qi, Yoga, Breathing and Meditation
are an integral part of Chinese medical treatment, especially for stress, tension, and emotionally or psychologically induced or affected disorders. Of course Qi cultivation is an integral part of achieving radiant health and longevity.
Healing is a process and not a pill. The greatest healing comes when the patient is actively involved in the cure. While the physician can act as a gardener to the body and soul, it is the patient herself that has the greatest power for gardening in the mind. It is said in Chinese Medicine that “the mind leads the qi.” This means that, just as polluted air and toxic foods can damage the qi, so too can toxic thoughts or a toxic mind.
One could eat all the great healthy food one wants, but if at the same time one were consumed by jealously, hatred, and greed, there is a good chance indigestion would result. Chronic indigestion will lead to an chronic inability to gain nutrition from food. The result will be weakness, dampness, and heat.
Chronic worry and a restless mind are great sources for disease. When the mind is not calm, the qi is overactive and overheats; when there is constant frustration, the qi stops moving and stagnates. In fact any emotion, in excess, will have specific affects on the qi, causing disease if left unabated over time.
Mental health in Chinese medicine means the experience and expression of emotions in a degree that is appropriate to the situation. If your loved one were, God forbid, to die, it would be natural to be sad and angry and even fearful. If ten years later, you were experiencing those feelings at the same level as when the beloved passed away, that would be the energetic groundwork for disease
Just as stretching, strengthening and aerobics are essential for a fit body, meditation is exercise for the mind. A consistent meditation practice of some kind can give us the strength and awareness to process our emotions healthfully, to be aware of our feelings when we feel them. Meditation practice gives us the inner calm that enables us to dance skillfully with life’s circumstances, from a long line at the bank when you are in a hurry, to the ultimate challenge, facing death.
Our society is very “Yang.” That means it is characterized by constant movement, activity, bright lights, 24 hour communications networks, a beeper or cell phone in every pocket. Everything is about speed, individualism, and instant gratification. This has its value, but it is also consonant with the types of stress-induced diseases that are prevelant. Years ago, I gave a lecture at Quallcomm. The H.R. person asked me to speak on treatment for headaches, as her computer anaylsis showed that was the most frequent reason why her employees were going to the doctor.
That is not a mystery.
According to Chinese medicine, we should balance this Yang nature of our culture with Yin activity. That is activity that is by nature quiescent, cool, and still. That which draws us inwards, like meditating on a wooden pier in the center of a small pond in the middle of a redwood grove on a full moon evening. While you may not have the chance to journey north, that pond in the grove is inside you, all you need is to set aside the time and space.
If you have any questions about Traditional Chinese Medicine, services we offer, or your own health conditions, I offer a free 15 minute consultation, in person, by phone or email. Just call 619.296.7591, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org