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An Intro to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a complete medical system that has been used to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses for more than 2,000 years. Its basic concept is that a vital force of life, called Qi, surges through the body, and any imbalance to Qi can cause disease and illness. TCM practitioners use treatments that are specific to the individual, such as acupuncture, cupping, or moxibustion, to restore this balance. In this blog, we will explore the great practitioners of TCM, along with Qi and the meridians of the body, and TCM’s use in herbal medicine, food, genetics research, and drug development. 

A Look At Traditional Chinese Medicine

China has one of the world’s oldest medical systems with acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies dating back at least 2,200 years. The earliest known written record of Chinese medicine is the Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic) from the 3rd century BCE, which provided the theoretical concepts for TCM that remain the basis of its practice today.

In essence, TCM healers seek to restore a dynamic balance between two complementary forces, Yin (passive) and Yang (active), which pervade the human body as they do the universe as a whole. According to TCM, a person is healthy when harmony exists between these two forces; illness, on the other hand, results from a breakdown in the equilibrium of Yin and Yang.

Treatments to regain a Yin and Yang balance may include:

  • Acupuncture, which involves the insertion of very thin needles through the skin at strategic points on the body.
  • Moxibustion, which consists of burning dried mugwort on particular points on the body.
  • Cupping, which is a form of alternative medicine in which a local suction is created on the skin with the application of heated cups.
  • Massage, which can help to regulate the flow of energy and blood, increase blood circulation, and relieve body pain and stress.
  • Herbal remedies, which can strengthen organ function and support good health.
  • Movement and concentration exercises, such as tai chi, which include specifically-designed movements to help an individual regain balance.

Cupping, Acupuncture, Moxibustion, Tai Chi Pictured: Cupping; top left (The Thirty), Acupuncture; top right (Forbes), Moxibustion; bottom left (American institute of Alternative Medicine), Tai Chi; bottom right (Britannica)

The Great Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine

The hard work and dedication of various practitioners in ancient China have made an impact on not just Traditional Chinese Medicine, but also Western Medicine. A few great practitioners of TCM to take note of are:

Zhang Zhongjing

Zhang Zhongjing

Pictured: Zhang Zhongjing   Source: The Wandering Cloud ACM

Zhang Zhongjing (150-219 CE), the most famous of China’s physicians, lived during the Eastern Han dynasty and was known for his remarkable medical skill and significant contribution to Traditional Chinese Medicine. He wrote a medical masterpiece entitled Shanghan Lun (Treatise on Cold Damage Diseases). Zhang Zhongjing’s theory and prescriptions, such as moxibustion, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, are still of great medical value and are the standard reference work for TCM.

Hua Tuo

Hua Tuo

Pictured: Hua Tuo    Source: The Epoch Times

Another famous physician of Traditional Chinese Medicine was Hua Tuo (145-208 CE). Hua Tuo developed the use of anesthesia in surgery and further advanced the Chinese’s knowledge of anatomy. He was also the first person to use narcotic drugs in the world, preceding the West by about 1600 to 1700 years.1

Wang Shuhe 

Wang Shuhe

Pictured: Wang Shuhe   Source: The Coltons Point Times

Wang Shuhe (180-270 CE) was a Chinese physician who wrote the Maijing (The Pulse Classics), which is an influential work describing the pulse and its importance in the diagnosis of disease. Wang Shuhe’s contributions to medical science were not limited to sphygmology, though; he also made outstanding contributions to the collation of ancient literature. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi, and the Meridians

A main aspect of TCM is an understanding of the body’s Qi, which is known as life force and literally translates to “vital breath.” Qi is universal and embraces all manifestations of energy, from the most material aspects of energy, such as the earth beneath your feet, to the most immaterial aspects, such as light and emotion.

Life, it’s said in the Chinese medical classics, is a gathering of Qi. A healthy and happy human being is a dynamic but harmonious mixture of all the aspects of Qi that make up who we are. Qi is in a state of continuous flux, transforming endlessly from one aspect of Qi into another. It’s neither created nor is it ever destroyed; it simply changes in its manifestation.2

Qi flows through invisible meridians, or channels, of the body that connects organs, tissues, veins, nerves, cells, atoms, and consciousness itself. There are 12 major meridians with each connecting to one of the 12 major organs in TCM theory. The meridians are also related to circadian rhythms, seasons, and planetary movements, which create additional invisible networks.

The Meridians

Pictured: The Meridians    Source: Dr. Huong

In acupuncture, for example, very thin needles are inserted into specific areas along the meridians. The needles stimulate the meridians and readjust the flow of Qi to balance the body’s Yin and Yang. While the meridian network can be used to alleviate symptoms, it’s also said that TCM can endow individuals with the ability to change consciousness after treatments.

To learn more about Qi, the meridians, and acupuncture, click here

Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Five Element Theory

Philosophers have questioned the origins of life and the makeup of the universe since prehistory, the time before written records existed. According to some traditions, including TCM, everything in the universe comes from the five elements: wood, fire, earth, water, and metal.

“The five elements are used in pretty much every different style of TCM to some extent to diagnose and differentiate between different illnesses, dysfunctions, and people,” says Tiffany Cruikshank, licensed acupuncturist, experienced registered yoga teacher, and founder of Yoga Medicine.

The elements are all connected; wood feeds fire, fire makes earth, earth creates metal, metal holds water, and water nourishes wood. Each element both controls and is controlled by another element. One element may manifest heavier within us than others, which is where we are strongest, yet most vulnerable.

Each element has unique characteristics and becoming aware of your elemental dominance can help explain the physiology and pathology within your body. Here’s a breakdown of the five elemental types in TCM:

  • A “Wood Personality” is someone who is athletic, energetic, and adventurous. Wood personalities tend to be anxious and angry, and may suffer from orthopedic issues, migraines, or ADD.
  • A “Fire Personality” is someone who is passionate, creative, and authoritative. Fire personalities tend to be impulsive and irritable, and may suffer from insomnia, high blood pressure, chest pains, or headaches.
  • An “Earth Personality” is someone who is nurturing, generous, and caregiving. Earth personalities tend to be worrisome and pensive, and may suffer from abdominal issues or hormonal problems.
  • A “Metal Personality” is someone who is meticulous, honest, and responsible. Metal personalities tend to be melancholy and may suffer from constipation, lung and skin issues, or allergies.
  • A “Water Personality” is an old soul that is known to be wise, reflective, and private. Water personalities tend to be indecisive, fearful, and paranoid, and may suffer from back pain, knee pain, and kidney and bladder infections.

TCM's Five Element TheoryPictured: The Five Element Theory traits and characteristics    Source: Scottsdale Acupuncture

If you want to find out your element type, you can take this quiz

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Herbal Therapy

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, herbs and herbal formulas are used to strengthen organ function and support good health. TCM practitioners have an understanding of the essence of various herbal components to create a healing effect that goes beyond the chemical composition and physical properties of the herbs to correctly stimulate or adjust the body’s own energy vibration.

Many TCM herbal formulas have been in use for more than 2,200 years, and are composed of ingredients chosen to function in combination with each other. In Western Medicine, medications are commonly prescribed for a specific effect, while in TCM, each herb in a formula has a different purpose or role to help the body achieve harmony. 

For a plant to be included in TCM herbal therapy, each of its parts has to be identified for a different healing purpose. The following are a few of the most used Traditional Chinese Medicinal herbs, along with their benefits:

  • ‌‌‌‌Ginkgo Biloba: Promotes Brain Health and Improved Memory
  • ‌‌‌‌Ginseng (Ren Shen): Offers Immune Support and Improved Bone Strength
  • Turmeric: Possesses Anti-inflammatory, Anti-oxidant, and Digestive Health Properties
  • Astragalus (Huang Qi): Offers Immune Support and Brain Protection
  • Cinnamon: Regulates Blood Sugar and Promotes Dental HealthGinseng; top left. Astragalus; top right (, Turmeric‌‌‌‌; bottom left (Homestead and Chill), Ginkgo Biloba; bottom right

Pictured: Ginseng; top left (Me & Qi), Astragalus; top right (EBAY), Turmeric‌‌‌‌; bottom left (Homestead and Chill), Ginkgo Biloba; bottom right (Indiamart)

Herbs can have effects on the body as powerful as pharmaceutical drugs, which is why you should consult with your doctor before taking part in herbal therapy. Additionally, you should never abandon your regular medication or alter the dose without the knowledge and approval of your doctor.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Food

Much like herbs, TCM views the healing properties of foods in the same way; different foods carry different energies that can go directly to specific organs to help them heal. Food is divided into five natures, called “siQi”: cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot. The nature of food is not determined by its actual temperature, but rather by what effects it will have on an individual’s body after consumption. 

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, when a person continually eats one type of food, it creates an imbalance in their body and affects their immune system. Thus, one of the keys in Traditional Chinese Medicine is to keep our body “neutral.” Traditional Chinese Medicine also tells us that having food at a moderate temperature is ideal to avoid overstraining the digestive organs.3

TCM Food Chart

Pictured: Traditional Chinese Medicine Food Chart    Source: Pinterest

There’s a saying in TCM: “The five grains provide nourishment. The five vegetables provide filling. The five domestic animals provide enrichment. The five fruits provide support.” This means that a balanced diet, where foods are consumed in appropriate combinations according to their natures and flavors, serves to supplement the essence that the human body needs.4

Traditional Chinese Medicine, Genetic Research, and Drug Development

Considering the fact that Traditional Chinese Medicine is now an academic discipline in the field of medicine, there are modern developments that are worth taking note of, such as the use of TCM in genetics research.

The Yin and Yang principle can be applied to a genetic disease such as inherited breast cancer and its associated genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. According to this principle of natural law, if either of these genes is activated, somewhere in another part of the genetic code there also exists a gene to fix this action. There must be complementary programs running — one for developing the disease and one for healing it.5

In addition to genetics research, nearly 200 modern medicines have been developed either directly or indirectly from the 7,300 species of plants used in TCM. For example, ephedrine, an alkaloid used to treat asthma, was first isolated from the Chinese herb Ma Huang. Another alkaloid known as huperzine A was isolated from a widely used ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine known as Huperzia serrata, which is a type of fir moss.

Ma Huang; top, Huperzia serrata, bottomPictured: Ma Huang; top (The Plant Attraction), Huperzia serrata, bottom (HSN)

In Conclusion

Even if you aren’t familiar with all of the fundamentals of Traditional Chinese Medicine, you’re probably familiar with some of its practices. Maybe you’ve had an acupuncture session, taken turmeric for arthritis pain, or signed up at the local tai chi studio. Either way, TCM’s popularity has remained consistent throughout the centuries for improving health and wellness when used alongside conventional medical therapies.

What is your TCM elemental type? Have you ever tried a TCM treatment? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

 

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hua_Tuo [1]

https://magazine.circledna.com/what-does-traditional-chinese-medicine-say-about-qi/ [2]

https://www.pingminghealth.com/article/581/warming-and-cooling-characteristics-of-common-foods/ [3]

https://qiblog.emperors.edu/2015/10/the-role-of-healthy-eating-in-traditional-chinese-medicine/ [4]

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3814386/ [5]

 

Qi is the Key: Acupuncture and the 12 Meridians

One of the most renowned ancient healing therapies is that of acupuncture and the flow of Qi energy along the meridians of the body. The foundation of present-day acupuncture dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) where The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion (1601) was the first medical treatise of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to note acupuncture as a healing method.2

Acupuncture didn’t gain awareness in the United States until centuries later after President Nixon learned about the practice during his visit to China in 1972. The modality was met with overwhelming skepticism by Western medical practitioners who suspected the healing benefit claims were conjured, inferior,3, or the result of a placebo effect.

Many years passed before acupuncture was accepted as medical therapy. It wasn’t until 1995 that acupuncture needles were categorized as medical instruments. In 1997, acupuncture needles were finally verified as healing utensils after being clinically proven to treat a wide range of maladies.4

Ancient Wisdom of Qi: The Three Energetic Levels

The theory of acupuncture accepts the idea that energy courses through the body in all areas. This energy, which is known as qi or chi (pronounced as “chee”), can be moved to a central point within the body to create health and balance while permitting the fulfillment of destiny. There are three energetic levels to qi. To properly understand acupuncture, it is necessary to have a grasp on Wei Qi, Ying Qi, and Yuan Qi.

  • Wei Qi is known as the Defensive Qi. Wei Qi is often misunderstood because agreement as to the location of its origination in the body varies. Leading sources such as the Ling Shu and the Su Wen mention the formation of Wei Qi as being centered around the spleen, which is in charge of defending the body.5 If Wei Qi is performing properly, then it protects the body from external pathogenic factors, such as wind, heat, and other causes of disease. According to Ancient Wisdom Healing Arts, Wei Qi is instinctual, unconscious, and has no cognitive aspect, but it represents the ability to adapt while acclimating to climates, situations, and threats.
  • Ying Qi, or Nutritive Qi, allows one to move forward and confront the day ahead. It also supports Wei Qi. Ying Qi supports progress by promoting survival, self-realizations, and the development of paradigms about life. Ying Qi is cognitive and can be learned.6 It is most active during sleep when the energy is being repaired and restored. Hence, resting is vital to its balance. Ying Qi strengthens the entire body and internal organs and is closely related to blood. Of note, Ying Qi is the qi that is stimulated when an acupuncture needle is applied to the body.7
  • Yuan Qi, or Constitutional Qi, is a combination of your Ancestral Qi (hereditary) and Cosmic Qi (environmental, spiritual, karmic) that is present during your conception. It is pre-destined and fate-oriented.8 This makes Yuan Qi very different from the qi that one develops over time, such as Wei Qi and Ying Qi, but it does directly support Ying Qi, which is the manifestation of fate.

The 12 Meridians of Ancient Chinese Medicine

In TCM, the channels that connect key organs and regulate the flow of the fundamental substances throughout the body are called meridians (Jing Luo). Every organ is represented on the skin surface by a specific meridian. There are 12 principal meridians in the body that support unique aspects of the three qi types, always allowing motion between them:

  1. Stomach Meridian
  2. Spleen Meridian
  3. Small Intestine Meridian
  4. Heart Meridian
  5. Bladder Meridian
  6. Kidney Meridian
  7. Pericardium (Heart Governor) Meridian
  8. Triple Warmer Meridian
  9. Gallbladder Meridian
  10. Liver Meridian
  11. Lung Meridian
  12. Large Intestine Meridian

A diagram of the Body Meridians for flow of Qi in Acupuncture

There are two types of organs: hollow (Yang) and solid (Yin).

Yang Organs

Hollow organs expand and contract, therefore they are considered more active (Yang). These include the stomach, bladder, gall bladder, small intestine, and large intestine. Yang organ meridians run downward along the back of the body and the outer side of arms and legs.

Yin Organs

Solid organs are considered more passive (Yin). These include the liver, spleen, lungs (a misconception is that lungs are hollow – they are not), kidneys, and the heart. Being solid, they do not contract as actively as the hollow organs. Yin organ meridians run upward along the front of the body and on the inner side of arms and legs.

It is important to note that meridians are non-physical and do not follow the precise paths of blood flow or nerves. Additionally, the meridians are mirrored on the entirety of the body, thus, the meridians on the left side will be the same for the right.

So Why Acupuncture?

There are over 350 acupoints (also called acupressure points, acupuncture points) along the meridian pathways which are specific locations where qi can be accessed. Acupuncturists stimulate these acupoints to help a patient achieve harmony, balance, and specific relief. This stimulation is often performed by using needles (acupuncture) or touch (acupressure).

The idea of being poked with lots of needles is not immediately appealing, but the acupuncture needle is known as the “painless needle” for a reason.9 They are customarily made of stainless steel, with sizes ranging from 26 to 40 gauge and lengths from 0.5 inches to 2.5. In conjunction with their thinness, acupuncture needles are less likely to cut the tissue compared to traditional needles.10  

Acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain and stress, discomfort from disease, conditions such as toothaches, tonsillitis, common colds, allergies, induction of labor, infertility, and more. Acupuncture can also boost the immune system by heightening Wei Qi. According to Midland Acupuncture, acupuncture can help improve digestion, revamp mood, boost energy, and promote relaxation.

If you are apprehensive about visiting an acupuncturist, you can first try DIY acupressure. Before you begin, we always advise consulting with your doctor or medical professional for guidance, as this article is not intended to provide medical treatment or advice. If cleared, prep by setting aside several minutes to find a comfortable position (laying down or sitting up) and relax.

DIY Acupressure

Here a few tips that may aid in your discomfort:

  1. Shoulder pain and headaches can be eased by putting firm pressure on the web of the thumb and forefinger. Hold for five seconds and repeat three more times. Please note that it is not recommended to use this pressure point if you are pregnant.
  2. To ease lower back pain, grab your waist with both hands so that your thumbs wrap around behind your back. Firmly apply a circular motion for five seconds. Repeat three times.
  3. If you are having trouble with sinus pain, use your index finger or thumb to apply pressure to the area between your eyebrows. Use circular motions for five seconds. While utilizing the same gesture, you can also try massaging both of your temples.
  4. Stomach aches can be relieved by a pressure point on your wrist. It is 2 inches above the wrist joint, located on the palm side between two tendons. Press this area and hold for 3 minutes.

Licensed Professionals Know Best

By utilizing the service of a licensed acupuncturist, you’ll be assured that sterile needles are used and properly disposed. Additionally, the professionals are extensively trained to provide you with care based upon your maladies and pain.

Just like picking out a doctor, you should thoroughly research acupuncturists around you to find the best fit. Interviewing professionals to assess their credentials is an effective way to find your desired acupuncturist. Or you can ask people you trust for recommendations. When deciding to move forward with a licensed professional, make sure the acupuncturist can answer all your questions and put any worries you might have at ease.

References:

https://www.amcollege.edu/blog/history-of-acupuncture [1] [2] [5]]

https://www.amcollege.edu/blog/acupuncture-in-west [4]

https://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=28164 [6]

https://ancientwisdomhealingarts.com/classical-chinese-medicine/ [7] [8]

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/acupuncture-needle#:~:text=Commonly%20used%20acupuncture%20needles%20are,though%20it%20is%20very%20tiny. [9] [10]