What is Chinese Medicine?
Introduction to Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine is a complete system of medicine with its own forms of diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and therapies. Chinese medicine views the body as an energetic system in dynamic balance. Qi, which can be translated as energy or life force, flows in a regular pattern through a system of channels — or meridians — to all parts of the body.
When the flow of Qi is unimpeded there is harmony, balance, and good health. When there are Qi blockages, too much or too little qi, there is an imbalance which can lead to disharmony and disease.
Chinese medicine helps restore the body to balance and works on an energetic level to affect all aspects of a person: mind/body/spirit. The beauty of Chinese medicine is that it can be used to correct imbalances that have become illness and pain, or even correct imbalances prior to the appearance of symptoms, preventing disease.
Chinese medicine treatments address imbalances using food therapy/diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies, Chinese exercise, and meditation along with Western therapies. Chinese medicine is the longest existing continuous medical system practiced in the world, with over 3000 years of history.
Chinese Medicine Philosophy
The primary goal of Chinese traditional medicine is to create wholeness and harmony within a person, allowing the mind/body/spirit to heal itself. Chinese philosophy states that there are two polar principles of life, yin and yang, and that they are dialectically opposed to each other. Imbalances of yin and yang within an individual may be reflected as illness, because the body is considered a microcosm of the world.
Chinese traditional medicine defines the physiological components of illness using the concepts Qi (Vital Energy), xue (Blood), jin-ye (Body Fluids), jing (Essence), and shen (Spirit), as well as Organ Systems. Organ Systems are domains within the body that govern particular body tissues, emotional states and activities.
For example, as is the Western kidneys, the Kidney System manages fluid metabolism. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney System is also responsible for reproduction, growth and regeneration. The bones, inner ear, marrow, teeth, and lumbar area are all part of the Kidney System. Frequent urination, low back pain, and the emotional state of fear may be associated with the Kidney System.
Each Organ System has functions that are unique.
Chinese traditional medicine theory postulates that it is the internal ability of the body to remain strong that is the key to health. In this theory, people are born with a certain amount of Original Qi, which is easily depleted as energy is used by the body and not replaced. It is not easy to increase the Original Qi, and a person must work hard during life just to retain it. Chinese exercise programs — along with proper eating and sleeping habits — are highly recommended for maintaining Original Qi . According to Chinese medical philosophy, if a person consistently lacks sleep, lacks proper nutrition, abuses drugs or alcohol, or has excessive or unsafe sex, they become deficient in Qi and other substances. When weakened, the person is more susceptible to infection by harmful external pathogens.
Roots of Disharmony: Causes of Disease in Chinese Medicine
Ancient Chinese Medicine did not recognize viruses or bacteria as triggers of disease or disorders. Of course, since Chinese medicine is a very pragmatic medicine, if the Chinese had know of viruses and bacteria it would have become part of the diagnostic system.
Instead, Chinese traditional medicine recognizes influences, which cause disharmony in yin/yang, the Essential Substances, the Organ Systems, and the Channels.
The Six Pernicious Influences — Heat, Cold, Wind, Dampness, Dryness and Summer Heat — are External climatic forces that can invade the body and create disharmony in the mind/body/spirit. For example, if you are exposed to excess Heat or Cold or Wind for a long time, or if you are exposed to such Influences when your body is already weak, you may develop an illness. This illness, triggered by External Influences, can migrate inward and become more serious — as a slight cold may become pneumonia. This happens when the External Pernicious Influences overpower the body’s natural protection against disease.
- Cold When hypothermia hits a skier or a mountain climber, muscle control fades, motion becomes slow and awkward, fatigue sets in, the body shuts down. That’s the same effect that the Cold Pernicious Influence has — it saps the body’s energy and makes movements cumbersome. The tongue becomes pale; the pulse is slow. A person may develop a fear of cold and feel like sleeping in a curled up position. Cold is yin and when it invades the body it chills all or part of it. If there’s pain, it’s eased by warmth.
When External Cold attacks the body, acute illness may develop, along with chills, fever and body aches. When the External Cold moves inward and becomes an Interior disharmony it is associated with a chronic condition that produces a pale face, lethargy and grogginess, a craving for heat, and sleeping for longer than usual periods of time.
- Heat disorders feel like you’ve been playing tennis for two hours in the blazing sun. You’re weary and at the same time, strangely cranked up. You can’t stop talking about the game, but your words stick in your mouth. You don’t feel like yourself again until you cool down and quench your thirst.
Heat disorders cause overactive yang functions or insufficient yin functions. They are generally associated with bodily heat, a red face, hyperactivity and talkativeness, fever, and thirst for cold liquids and a rapid pulse. Symptoms include carbuncles and boils, dry mouth and thirst. Confused speech and delirium arise when Heat attacks the Shen.
- Dampness: Think about what happens to your backyard when it rains for two days — it becomes soggy and water collects in stagnant pools. That is how Dampness affects the body. Damp pain is heavy and expansive. Dampness blocks the flow of life energy and causes a stuffy chest and abdomen. When External Dampness invades, it enters the Channels and causes stiff joints and heavy limbs. When Dampness invades the Spleen, it can cause upset stomach, nausea, a lack of appetite, a swollen abdomen and diarrhea. Interior Dampness — caused by either the penetration of External Dampness to the Interior or by a breakdown in the Spleen’s transformation of fluids — is associated with mucous, which in Chinese medicine is more than simply bodily secretions. It is produced when the Spleen or Kidney is beset with disharmony and can cause obstructions and produce tumors, coughing, and if it invades the Shen, can lead to erratic behavior and insanity. Once Dampness has taken root, it is hard to displace.
- Dryness is a frequent partner with Heat; just think about the cracked bottom of a dried up riverbed. But where Heat creates redness and warmth, Dryness creates evaporation and dehydration. External Dryness invading the body may create respiratory problems such as asthmatic breathing and a dry cough, acute pain and fever.
- Summer Heat feels like the humid, oppressive weather that creates the Dog Days of August. It attacks the body after exposure to extreme heat and causes a sudden high fever and total lethargy. It is always an External influence and often arises along with Dampness.
- Wind animates the body, stirring it from repose into motion just as wind moves the leaves of a tree. When Wind enters the body, it is usually joined to another influence such as Cold. If the body is infiltrated by Wind, the first symptoms usually appear on the skin, in the lungs, or on the face. Tics, twitches, fear of drafts, headaches and a stuffed-up nose are symptoms. When External Wind invades the body more deeply, it can cause seizures, ringing in the ears and dizziness.
Therapeutic Modalities Used in Chinese Traditional Medicine
The various therapeutic modalities of Chinese traditional medicine include dietary therapy; massage therapy, heat therapies, exercise, meditation, acupuncture, and herbal medicine. Heat therapies include the use of moxibustion, which is the burning of the common herb mugwort (artemesia vulgaris) over certain areas of the body to stimulate or warm these areas. Exercise therapy ranges from martial arts to more subtle forms of movement such as t’ai chi and qi gong. Acupuncture, perhaps the most well known form of Chinese traditional medicine in the United States, is the art of inserting fine sterile metal filiform needles into certain points in order to control the flow of energy in the meridians.