Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) offers great support for better health. A basic understanding of its tenets allows you to make better use of this venerated healing system. Its holistic medical philosophy can help you balance your body and enjoy enhanced wellness.

Five Elemental Forces

As I began to discuss last week, the theory of yin and yang applies to the five elemental forces: wood, water, fire, metal and earth. Each of these represents a characteristic in nature and is thus associated with an organ within the body.

Wood is associated with the liver and gallbladder; water is associated with the kidneys and bladder; fire is associated with the heart and small intestines; metal is associated with the lungs and large intestines; and earth is associated with the spleen and stomach. This classification is in accordance with their different properties, functions and forms, describing the physiology and pathology of the human body and the correlation between man and his natural surrounding.

Among the five elements, TCM incorporates the relations of promotion and restriction. The element that promotes is called the mother, while the element that is promoted is termed the child. An example: Since fire produces earth (when a wood burns it creates ashes, or dirt,) it is called the mother of earth. On the other hand, earth is produced by wood, so earth is also called the child of wood.

Another TCM term is “restriction,” which describes the action of bringing something under control or restraint. Thus, the element restricting fire is water, and the element that is restricted by fire is metal. Thus, the TCM practitioner sees direct relationships between the heart (fire organ) and the kidneys (water organ), and the heart (fire organ) and the lungs (metal organ).

Like yin and yang, promotion and restriction are inter-dependent. Without promotion, there can be no birth and development; without restriction, excesses in life result in harm and damage.

Balancing the energies of one organ or correcting dysfunctions of a particular organ can relieve or strengthen the other. No organ is treated or viewed in isolation in TCM, but is considered as a part of a whole and in relation to other specific organs, based on the five element theory.

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Four Substances Of Life

The four basic substances of life are known in TCM as essence, qi, blood and body fluids. They are the material basis that maintains the normal activities of the human body.

Essence (Jing) is believed to be a fundamental material of the human body and the material basis for its various physiological functions. There are two types of essence: the congenital, or innate, essence and the acquired essence.

The congenital essence is received from one’s parents and is stored in the kidneys. It is also known as “the prenatal essence,” serving to promote the growth, development, maturity and reproduction of the body. As such, congenital essence is also called the “reproductive essence.”

The acquired essence is derived through the functions of the organs from the nutrients of food and drink. A better diet means better nutrition and stronger blood and hydration and muscle tone and overall feeling of vitality. In light of these concepts, TCM maintains that we are born of congenital essence but our day-to-day quality of life is derived from acquired essence.

Qi consists of the basic particles that constitute the universe and produce everything in the world through their movements and changes. In TCM, qi refers to many things, including air, life force and the motive force, or energy, (which is produced by the basic particles) required for various body processes. There are several forms of qi, including primary or congenital qi (yuan qi), pectoral qi (zong qi), nutrient qi (ying qi) and defensive qi (wei qi). After birth, pectoral qi, nutrient qi and defensive qi are all derived from the refined essence of food and are, therefore, known as the acquired qi. Taken as a whole, qi is the life force or vital essence of life.

Blood is a liquid circulating in the vessels and is a vital nutrient substance in the body. According to TCM, the fundamental substances required in blood come from the essence of food and drink produced by the spleen and stomach. The spleen and stomach are regarded in TCM as the sources of qi and blood.

Blood circulates in the vessels throughout the body; but in TCM there is a distinction between heart blood, liver blood and spleen blood. The heart dominates the blood and vessels, and the propelling force of heart qi is the basis of blood circulation. Spleen qi has the function of controlling blood and preventing bleeding. The liver promotes the free flow of qi, stores and cleans blood, and regulates its volume in circulation. The coordination of the three organs ensures the continuous blood circulation in the vessels throughout the body.

Body fluid is a collective term for all the normal fluid of the body. It is formed from food and drink after digestion and absorption by the spleen and stomach. According to TCM, the transportation, distribution and excretion of body fluids are dependent on the spleen’s function of transportation, the lung’s function of dispersing and regulating water passages, and the kidney’s function of controlling urination and separating clear and turbid fluids. Clear fluids recycle in the body and the so-called turbidity is removed via urination and sweating.

The Meridian System

In terms of traditional Chinese medicine, the meridians (jing) and collaterals (luo) are pathways or channels in human body through which qi and blood circulate. They form a specific network that communicates with the internal organs and limbs while connecting the upper to the lower and the exterior to the interior portions of the body.

Since they are distributed over the entire body, the meridians and collaterals link together the organs, skin, muscle and bones, bringing the body into an organic whole. Each organ has an originating meridian channel that connects to another organ and so on in a specific sequence. It is believed that qi is in “high tide” in each organ meridian for two hours per day, at set times. For instance, between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., the lung meridian is active. So those who suffer asthma, bronchitis and other lung diseases or illnesses will be up coughing during that time.

TCM practitioners memorize and study the meridian as a valuable tool in applying TCM knowledge. Knowing which meridians are blocked or in excess and which points along those channels are best needled or pressed to relieve the imbalance is important to the efficacy of TCM. All Chinese acupuncture and bodywork and qigong systems use the theory of meridian channels.

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Diagnosis And Treatment

Now that you have an understanding of the basic theories that constitute TCM, it is easier to see how practitioners diagnose a patient using a whole body system and not a single symptom method. In TCM, diagnosis and treatment of disease are based on several things, including:

The Four Examinations

1. Inspection

  • Observation of the vitality
  • Observation of the color
  • Observation of the appearance
  • Observation of the five sense organs
  • Observation of the tongue

2. Auscultation and Olfaction

  • Listening
  • Smelling

3. Inquiring

  • Chills and fever
  • Perspiration
  • Appetite, thirst and taste
  • Defecation and urination
  • Pain
  • Sleep
  • Menses

4. Palpation

  • Feeling the pulse
  • Palpation of different parts of the body

Determining The Principle Pattern

Once the above four areas are ascertained, the practitioner can discern a pattern of imbalance. There are dozens of patterns in TCM, but they each contain core elements that make them distinguishable from the others. In explaining this to people, I like to use the analogy of food in our cabinets.

If you open your cabinets or refrigerator and find the tuna, mayonnaise, celery, bread, lettuce and tomato sauce, what do you have? The simple answer is a tuna sandwich and a can of tomato sauce. The elements make up one clear pattern of imbalance (tuna sandwich) and the tomato sauce is a one-off event, perhaps unrelated.

With this in mind, in TCM the only way to truly balance the body and expel illness and disease is to have a proper diagnosis of the principle pattern of disharmony or imbalance. This is determined by balancing and weighing the following factors in terms of themselves and the body as a whole.

  • Yin/Yang
  • Deficiency/Excess
  • Organs/Meridians
  • Five Element Theory
  • Four Substances Theory
  • Meridian Systems

With a thorough diagnosis, a TCM practitioner can use these concepts to determine a pattern of imbalance and construct a treatment plan to rebalance the body. The plan of action to correct the imbalance lets the practitioner know which healing modalities to use. This is why sometimes, if the practitioner you see is skilled, you may receive acupuncture and be told to take some herbal medicines. Or you may have some tuina bodywork done and be taught a qigong exercise. Not every modality is best suited for every health concern, and only appropriate ones should be used.

Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.