You may have recently developed an interest in traditional Chinese medicine, perhaps seeking a solution to a chronic medical condition that Western approaches have not been able to resolve to your satisfaction.
People often look for alternative treatments when they are unhappy with the progress they are making with an illness or state of being and other avenues have proved unhelpful.
So what is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)?
As you may have guessed, it’s a modality of health treatment that originated in China, and has a very long history. The first Chinese medical text found to date was written approximately 5,000 years ago.
In Chinese medicine the body (and health) are viewed differently to in Western medicine. The organs, tissues and systems within the body are seen as inter-dependent, though serving their own function, just as the person is inter-dependent with the environment where they live and the natural world. Illness and “dis-ease” are seen as relating to balance or imbalances in these tissues or organs.
Some important concepts in traditional Chinese medicine include: yin and yang, which is the idea of complementary but opposing forces active in the world and all life forms; “chi” or “qi”, described as “vital energy” or life force; the elements – fire, earth, metal, water and wood; states of being and tastes: excess/deficiency, interior/exterior, cold/hot, bitter, sweet, sour, spicy, salty; and meridians, considered to be pathways for the movement of qi throughout the body.
Diagnosis relies on an intimate knowledge of the principals of traditional Chinese medicine and also Chinese herbs, an important vehicle for treating ailments, although some animal products and minerals (stones) may also be used.
Other forms of treatment include acupuncture, massage, dietary changes, exercise (such as tai chi, qi gong, bagua plus others) and adjustments to your living environment.
Interestingly, acupuncture, which involves the insertion of very fine needs into the skin and muscles, is used to stimulate parts of the body where blockages of qi may be occurring, which is not necessarily at the point of injury or location of the illness or pain site. Releasing the blockage and aiding the flow of life force through the body allows it to return to a state of balance and heal itself.
Chinese herbal medicine is probably the easiest modality for a Western intellect to understand. The idea of taken a substance to relief a condition is not new. In Chinese medicine, though, it is usually either a liquid or little black pills derived from the fresh or dried herb, fruit, nut, seed or root of plants, rather than neat, white pills in a blister pack or bottle.
A deviation in thinking from the Western medical approach, however, is the reported therapeutic component of the herbal medicine. It’s the quality of the herb, not necessarily the active ingredient, as such, that reportedly give it the therapeutic benefit. It is also the synergistic effect of the actives within the herb(s) which has a therapeutic effect on human health. Traditional Chinese Medicine often combines several herbs within a formula that address imbalances within the body.
For example, in TCM it is thought that the temperature of the herb, its taste and the meridians it enters are the reason for its therapeutic effect. It may be considered a neutral, cool, cold or hot, or warm herb. The tastes may be sweet, sour, salty, bitter and acrid. The “temperatures” and tastes have differing impacts.
Salty herbs are recommended for softening and purging; sweet herbs are used to tonify qi; acrid herbs are used to disperse cold and shift stagnation; sour herbs have an astringent effect; and bitter herbs are used to combat dry damp and clear heat.
Herbal combinations are commonly used to create combined impacts and shift the body system. You may receive a mixture containing up to 15 different ingredients. You may also be guided to eat certain types of foods (warming, cooling), avoid certain environments (windy, damp) and other related instructions. Some practitioners even suggest wearing clothes of certain shades to help restore balance to the body whilst you are trying to address the condition.
Vanessa Blake is a freelance writer and health freak with a ridiculous general knowledge of nutrition and the body. No wonder she decided to study for a Diploma of Nutrition in 2003. She also loves yoga.