The Traditional Chinese Medicine View of Metabolism

Growing up, it always seemed there was at least one kid in the neighborhood with “slow metabolism.” Today we more often hear about metabolic syndrome. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has its own unique explanation of metabolic disorders. This article introduces a few basic concepts.

As with all other forms of life, human beings possess the ability to metabolize materials for energy and tissue growth, to reproduce, and to respond and adapt to environmental stimuli. The basic metabolic functions by which these are accomplished are breathing, eating and drinking. These provide us the nutrients which fuel our daily functions and which transform to become our body’s material form. And, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), every cellular and bodily metabolic process is dependent upon both ming-men fire and jing essence.

Just as important is physical activity (work or exercise). Activity is yang to the yin of nourishment. When activity is too little, form or material substance (yin) are not adequately consumed and transformed. From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective, this results in a pattern of Spleen encumbrance which then engenders dampness. Signs and symptoms of this pattern can include overweight or obesity, feelings of heaviness and lethargy, poor digestion, loose stool (or constipation), a variety of digestive complaints, certain phlegm conditions, etc. As an internal pathogen, dampness can progress to patterns of damp-heat, turbid-dampness, phlegm-dampness, and others. At the very least, dampness impedes the free flow of qi and blood. So we want to eat moderate amounts of healthy food as well as partake in regular physical activity.

Too much or very intense activity, physical or mental, can overheat our bodies, deplete our qi and/or consume our yin. This can lead to fatigue and burnout. So while activity and work are important, they should not be so much or intense that our body reserves become depleted.

Just as Western science measures metabolism in heat units (kilocalories), TCM views all metabolism as a series of warm transformations. Yang is motive and warming. The root of all yang is called the ming men fire (民们只获), or the fire of the gate of life. Ming-men fire serves as the catalyst in a reaction in which jing essence is the substrate. Jing essence (sometimes referred to as shen jing or kidney essence) refers to our energetic reserves. There are two types: former-heaven essence (先天之境) and latter-heaven essence (后天之境). Former-heaven essence is that which we are endowed with at birth from our parents. It largely depends on their own health status at conception (similar to our modern concept of genetics), but also takes into account mom’s and dad’s age, emotional state, relative fitness, and other factors. Latter-heaven essence, on the other hand, is strongly influenced by what and how much we eat and drink, as well as our ability to metabolize and assimilate nutrients from the foods and beverages that we consume.

The field of modern scientific genetics, while recognizing the strong influence of biologically inherited traits, does not suggest that one’s genetics solely determines one’s destiny. Similarly, the ancient Chinese recognized that lifestyle plays an extremely important role in determining our health status and quality of life. Very basically, when we go to sleep each night, if we have manufactured more qi and blood than we have consumed that day, the excess is transformed into acquired or latter heaven essence. Some of this is stored in the various zang fu (脏腑 - internal organs), but most is stored in the kidneys, our great storehouse of jing essence. Banking healthy reserves of jing essence affords us the capacity both to generate life (for example, sufficient and robust jing essences is central to healthy fertility) and for a long and healthy life.

We will introduce further concepts of digestion, metabolism, obesity, and other concepts of TCM dietary therapy in future articles posted at this site.

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