Traditional Chinese Medicine

Why Chinese medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the oldest, professional, continually practiced, literate medicine in the world. This medical systems literature stretches back almost 2500 years. It is estimated that currently a quarter of the world’s population makes use of it.

Chinese medicine has been used to nearly all of the common diseases we know of today (See ‘What can it treat?’). It can often help in instances where conventional medicine cannot, and may also be used as an adjunctive therapy (one used alongside conventional medicine).

Whereas Western medicine looks closely at a symptom and tries to find an underlying cause, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at the body as a whole. Each sign and symptom is looked at in relationship to all other presenting signs and symptoms in order to establish what is called a "pattern of disharmony". Treatment is aimed at restoring harmony and bringing the body into balance.

The basic theory of Chinese medicine is based around the theories of Qi, Yin and Yang – words that may or may not be familiar to you.

What is Qi? (pronounced ‘chee’):

Qi is commonly interpreted as the life force that flows through the body. In TCM we believe that there are distinct channels or meridians, that course through the body – imagine the way roads are presented on a road map – and the qi is said to flow along these channels.

Yin & Yang:

Commonly used words nowadays though their meaning is not always apparent. Imagine that qi has two distinct halves. In the picture below, let’s assume that the whole picture represents the qi in our bodies. Now imagine that the dark side of this image (the taiji symbol) represents Yin and the light side represents Yang.

In theory if we have this 50-50 balance, then there should be no illness. In reality the levels of these two substances constantly fluctuates, which is fine. Illness is said to occur when there is a constant imbalance in either one. The diagram below illustrates this. (Yang is said to be warming, hence the red colour has been used below)

Normal level

Too much yang

Not enough yang

So how does this affect you?

Yang is a warming substance. Just as when water is heated it simmers and starts to move, the same happens when the qi and blood are warmed by yang. Not enough of this warming yang will not only lead to feelings of chilliness but can also lead to various disorders such as back ache, menstrual pain, lack of energy, weight gain.

On the other hand, too much of this warming substance will start to cause heat in the body. In this country the prospect of having a hot body might seem quite appealing, however this heat is what we refer to as pathological heat – it will cause a pathology/illness. Disharmonies typical of too much heat are mouth ulcers, bad breath, excess hunger, red face, high blood pressure, headaches/migraines.

Yin is a cooling, lubricating substance. Blood is said to be a yin substance, as are body fluids. A deficiency of yin, the cooling substance, will actually start to give rise to some signs of heat as the yin/yang balance has been disturbed – nothing cooling to restrain the heating quality of yang.

As blood is a yin substance and blood is lost during the menstrual cycle – and through childbirth – it is often the case that women are more prone to yin deficiency than men. Indeed, the signs and symptoms of yin deficiency are mostly the same as menopausal signs and symptoms – hot flushes, getting hot in the evening, disturbed sleep etc. However, just as in nature where heat evaporates water, within the body an excess of yang will consume yin, thus the any excess heat generated in men, will lead to a deficiency of yin.

Many different things affect the balance of yin and yang in your body. A thorough consultation with a qualified therapist will help reveal which factors have influenced your current imbalance and help formulate a future plan of action – i.e not repeating the same things over again and arriving at the same disharmony!

Other causes of disease/disharmony:

In Chinese Medicine we also regard certain factors as being external pathogens. This basically means that there are certain things in the environment around us that can influence our health. Not surprisingly, in this damp country of ours, damp is seen as one of the worst culprits. The theory is that we absorb a certain amount of the atmosphere around us – here, the dampness – which then in turn can lodge in the body causing pain (rheumatoid arthritis a classic example) or other disharmony. This damp problem can be exacerbated by the consumption of foods which also have a dampening effect.

Now this is where it gets really interesting. Cold and raw foods, dairy produce and excess sweet flavour are said to cause damp. Now the dairy produce might not be a surprise to you, however the ‘cold and raw’ tends to be a surprise to some. The explanation is that the body requires warm, lightly cooked food, which is then easily digested. If raw or cold foods are consumed, then the yang (warming substance) in the body is used to warm up and ‘cook’ the foods, thus consuming your yang. A deficiency of yang means that the body will be unable to burn off any of this environmental/food damp and thus the body starts to accumulate it. This is why a diet of salad and raw foods through the winter will actually serve to cause weight gain rather than loss, as well as a lack of energy and a tendency to feel the cold more. (see the dietary therapy page for more details).

Cold is another external pathogen we are vulnerable to. The lower back, and abdomen are particularly vulnerable and for this reason I tend to advise people to always keep this area well covered. Cold has a contracting, constricting quality. Once this has ‘invaded’ an area, the qi and blood are constricted and as their flow is now impeded, pain starts to manifest. This pain can be quite excruciating too. The trend for ladies wearing crop tops in cold weather and the fact that the uterus is another area particularly vulnerable, can give rise to a sudden onset of very painful menstrual cramps. The fashion of little/nothing in bed can also lead to cold invading the shoulders – the classic frozen shoulder.

The above information is just scratching the surface, however I am sure you can see how awareness of even some of the basic factors can help you start to make decisions that will avoid certain conditions, or even recognise that you may have a particular syndrome which Chinese medicine can help you with.

The emotions:

In Chinese medicine we also recognise that the emotions can be a cause of disease – excess of any one particular emotion can create an imbalance. Each organ has an emotion associated with it, excess of this emotion can weaken that organ. For example, excess/unresolved grief can weaken the lungs, whilst excess worry can weaken the spleen. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can not only ‘nourish up’ that particular organ, but can also help you to resolve the emotional issues that are affecting you.

Other factors…

Other factors that can create disharmony in the body are…

-  mental work (excess)

-  physical work (excess)

-  Sex (excess, and occasionally lack of)

-  Parasites and poisons

-  Physical trauma

-  Poor diet