The Good Life: Basic Principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine

For the benefit of our new patients, as well as to provide a refresher for our longer-term patients, we periodically return to the basics of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in this newsletter. With that in mind …

Most, if not all healing ultimately comes from within. The ancient Chinese believed that illness and disease meant that one was in disharmony with their environment. Despite advances in modern medicine, true “cures” are infrequent. Healing, on the other hand, is a process which requires involvement of both patient and practitioner. A concerned practitioner brings to bear empathy and their special knowledge and expertise. But these are seldom helpful without the patient’s desire and commitment to improve. As long ago as the first century BCE the ancient Chinese identified and documented several generally recognized components of good health.
  1. Determine And Treat The Cause Or Causes. Symptom suppression does not work, at least not long term. For example, we have many examples of pharmaceutical management of disease such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and others that do nothing to treat the underlying cause of the disease or illness. The patient’s symptoms return as soon as they cease taking the medication, even after many years.

  2. Traditional Chinese Medicine Emphasizes Causal Treatment. This approach attempts to relieve symptoms while at the same time supplementing and strengthening the body in order to avoid recurrence. This is not to say that traditional Chinese medicine holds an answer for everyone or every illness or that it is the optimal approach in all circumstances. But it is fundamentally grounded in the philosophy and theory of prevention, and its therapeutic modalities – acupuncture, tui na, Chinese herbal medicine, and Chinese dietary therapy – start from the premise of supporting the body to refresh and/or strengthen its natural healing mechanisms.

  3. Body, Mind, and Spirit Are Integrated Components of Optimal Health. Body, mind and spirit are interdependent. We tend to think of health primarily related to our bodies. But a healthy mind and spirit are also basic components of overall health. In Chinese medicine, the term “spirit” references one’s emotional outlook. A healthy person is one whose spirit reflects a deep, stable, abiding calm (anchored shen – 神) that results in the ability to be flexible and adapt to life’s changing circumstances. Contrast this to the person whose highly agitated responses to external stimuli trigger a hormonal–chemical shock to their cells, or the person whose underlying anxieties generate a constant drip of hormones that, over time, grind-away at the body to produce illness and disease.

    The mind initiates thought in the various lobes and centers of the brain (an organ). If source qi (远气) and post-heaven qi) are properly nourished and cultivated, then the brain will be healthy, the shen will be anchored, and the mind will consistently make choices that achieve and maintain optimal health. The achievements of healthy and successful people are seldom the result of pure luck. Rather health and success are more typically the result of a calm, sound mind – one which consistently supports productive thought and healthy choices.

  4. Optimal Health is not Static and Should not be Taken For Granted. It is not a foregone conclusion that good health is a constant. Health reflects the underlying principle of all phenomena; improvement and growth or decline and death. Your health status incrementally improves or declines each moment of every day, depending on the choices that you make. Moreover, choices and results tend to be cumulative. Consistently healthy choices generate positive results which tend to accumulate more quickly over time. Conversely, decline of health status and function accelerate when we consistently make poor choices.

  5. You Hold the Key. People sometimes think that acupuncture (or other alternative/complimentary health services) offers magical techniques or some secret insight to healing. If there is any such secret of the ancient Chinese it is that they lived according to basic rules of good health, including:
  • Doctrine of the Mean. The legendary Taoist philosopher, Lao Tze and the eminent Chinese scholar, Confucius, both emphasized the “middle way.” Extremes in any behavior – eating, sex, exercise, work – contribute to poor health.

  • The Seven Affects Are the Most Common Cause of Disease. The Seven Affects are the emotional states (anger, fear, grief, etc.) which, when intense or prolonged, contribute to chemical changes in the body that can result in illness. The ancient Chinese believed that emotional disturbances have a strong effect on health. But the amount of stress is less important than how we react to stressors.

  • Movement is Essential. In Chinese medicine, movement of qi and blood are essential to avoid impedance, inhibition, and blockages of free flow. You should therefore incorporate regular, moderate physical activity in your life in order to avoid obstruction to the free flow of qi and blood. In general, the Chinese favor forms of exercise that generate qi and blood to accumulate energy and draw it inward (t’ai qi, qi gong, etc.) over intense forms of exercise that tend to diffuse energy (e.g., frequent marathons or triathalons).

  • Nourishment is the First Step to Good Health. The Chinese character for qi (气) represents a cooking rice pot and steam. Thus, proper nourishment is fundamental to healthy qi. The ancient Chinese sages said that illness and disease should first be treated with diet, then acupuncture, and then Chinese herbs. This follows the principle of alleviating illness and disease with the least intensive intervention first. This continuum is also the least expensive approach and invites the patient to initiate the first phase of treatment before receiving more intensive therapeutic interventions. Your acupuncturist can recommend foods for you based on specific energies, properties, and effects. For more on the important relationship between proper nourishment and optimal health from the Chinese medicine perspective, please click here.

  • Nourish the Spirit. This refers to regular meditation – incorporating relaxation, breath, and concentration - in order to achieve tranquility so as to directly transform negative states of mind.

  • Attend to the Cycles and Rhythms of Nature. The ancient Chinese physician-scholars observed the circular, repetitive cycle of the universe and recommended that people adjust their lives according to the climate, seasons, and time of day. Modern heating and cooling systems and 24-7 stimuli are just two examples of how we have become out of touch with the cycles of nature.

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