In recent years, TCM has gained much popularity in the West. Our culture is leaning towards an integrative approach to health, while people desire to live a balanced lifestyle with an emphasis on preventative medicine. You might be familiar with wellness buzzwords like “Chi” and “meridians” by now, but what really is the concept behind TCM? Here is a brief 101 crash course on this holistic philosophy of health.
Where did Chinese Medicine come from?
The history of TCM dates back 2,500 - 5,000 years ago. The ancient medical text that is still considered today as the doctrine of Chinese Medicine - The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (黄帝内经), was written and compiled somewhere around 2600BC - 300BC. However, more recent discoveries challenge the origins and how widely-spread meridian theory was in the ancient world. In 1991, archaeologists discovered a well preserved, 5,000-year-old mummy in Central Europe with acupoints tattooed on the body. Detailed x-ray reveals arthritis in the hips, knees, and lumbar spine of this prehistoric man. Scientists were amazed that his ailment corresponded with the tattooed acupoints, which combined, formed a meaningful acupuncture treatment regime for his conditions. A more recent 2020 research discovered an anatomy atlas written over 2,000 years ago in the Han Dynasty, China. This is 500 years before the widely accepted history that the Greeks mapped the human anatomy 1,500 years ago. This discovery changes both the history of medicine and our understanding of the basis for acupuncture.
Even though the history and origins of meridian theory are still up for debate, it is safe to say that the Chinese had widely adopted and developed the practice into formal medical theory - later known collectively as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). With its rich history and wide reach, TCM has endured the test of time and has become widely practiced outside of Asia in recent years.
The fundamental philosophy of Chinese Medicine
TCM is deemed a mystical science by some skeptics. However, nothing about it is mysterious once one grasps the concept. It’s a profound medical system based on the metabolic relationships within the body, and it draws on Taoism philosophy that is rooted in the laws of nature. Most of the time, relating to metaphysics. It recognizes synergy amongst bodily functions, and that organ systems are interconnected. TCM uses a holistic approach to health and is based on a macro perspective of disease patterns.
In a nutshell, TCM is based on the philosophy of Chi and balance. Translated to modern-day language: Chi is active energy, a metaphor for metabolic processes taking place in a living being. TCM theory states that when Chi is in perfect balance, we enjoy good health. However, living in a constantly shifting world can easily generate imbalance.
Internal and external factors such as emotions, diet, weather, and pathogens can all create imbalances that eventually result in diseases. In order to maintain the balance, TCM further uses the concept of “Yin-Yang energetics” and “5-element theory” to illustrate this. These theories can be seen as ways to classify disease patterns.
Another crucial concept in TCM is the meridian system. This is the fundamental of acupuncture. The meridians are the pathways that Chi, blood, and bodily fluids pass through. These pathways are not merely the blood vessels or the nerve networks. Together, the meridians create a complete roadmap of the body, and explain how different organs and metabolic functions are interlinked. Interestingly, the same 2020 body atlas research was able to map each of the meridians described in the ancient text onto major structures of the human body, through very detailed dissection.
TCM doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all solution
A key concept of TCM theory is the belief that each individual’s body constitution is unique. TCM practitioners place great importance on making personalized diagnosis and treatment prescriptions. During a health intake, TCM practitioners and acupuncturists examine the tongue and read the pulse. These give us a snapshot of the status of internal organs and meridians. We use 5 pillars of examination: look, listen, touch, smell, ask; in order to get a comprehensive insight into the patient’s health. Modalities such as acupuncture, herbs, moxibustion, Guasha, cupping, Tuina, and diet changes can then be prescribed to improve the health of the patient.
Applying TCM theory to modern-day living
In TCM theory, health is an all-encompassing lifestyle supportive of overall balance. More emphasis is placed on prevention than treatment. To enjoy perfectly balanced health, TCM recommends 5 branches to put into practice. These are acupuncture, herbal medicine, diet, movement ( also called energetics), and manual therapy (passive movement including Tuina, Guasha, etc).
Acupuncture: This is a key branch of TCM. A medical practice that uses fine needles to stimulate acupoints that are plotted on various meridians. Acupuncture can promote the body’s self-healing ability, increase blood circulation, ease pain, and balance hormones. It also has the ability to trigger the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system, thus effective in improving mood, digestion, and sleep. Acupuncture can also be a powerful preventative modality to boost the immune system, and correct any subtle imbalances before physical symptoms begin to surface as diseases.
Herbal Medicine: Many ancient cultures practiced herbology. Herbs are usually botanical-based and are frequently cooked into a concoction for their medicinal use. Herbology is historically an anecdotal-based practice. Through thousands of years of practice, TCM herbalists, through experiments and experiences, classified and recorded herbs into their flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy), natures (cold, cool, warm, hot), actions (descending, ascending, floating or sinking Chi) and associated meridians.
“What is most valuable through this practice is the flexibility for an experienced herbalist to be able to tailor-make the prescription based on the patient’s constitution and symptoms”, says herbalist and acupuncturist, Yang Xia R.TCMP. Sometimes, up to 20 herbs are combined in a complex herbal formula. He further adds that herbal prescription uses a holistic approach; compatible herbs create synergy, which can enhance overall efficacy while reducing side effects. Unfortunately, modern research to validate the pharmaceutical values of herbal medicine is very limited. It can be very difficult to patent natural-occurring herbs, hence making these expensive studies unprofitable for manufacturers.
Food Therapy: Our ancestors understood “food as thy medicine”. There is usually an overlap between herbal medicine and food therapy. Some herbs first originated as food; such examples are goji berries, jujube dates, cinnamon, and ginger. TCM food therapy generally recommends eating fresh, seasonal foods to help our body transition into the current season. Like herbs, food items are also classified according to their nature, actions, flavors, and associated meridians. Diets are customized to the individual body constitution. For example, a person who has a tendency to have cold extremities and poor circulation can be recommended to consume more warming foods such as pumpkin, scallion, beef, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, etc. Whereas, a person who is prone to acne and dry mouth can be told to stay away from those same foods.
Movement (and rest): In ancient Eastern philosophy, exercise is not about gaining speed or losing weight. Movement is about activating one’s Chi to improve circulation and metabolic functions, strengthen the mind-body connection, remove any emotional blockage, and to cultivate inner peace. This is achieved by mastering one’s breathing and movement through exercise and meditation. Some traditional examples are Taiji and Qigong. In modern-day translation, this is exercising with mindful breathing (that’s why your yoga teacher emphasizes breathing with your Chaturanga). Having said that, following your circadian rhythm and getting adequate rest is equally important.
Manual Therapy: This branch includes manual therapies such as Guasha, Tuina, and cupping. Guasha and cupping are modalities aimed to speed up circulation, break up adhesion, promote lymphatic drainage and anti-inflammatory responses, and release toxins from the body. Tuina is one of the most ancient forms of bodywork. It literally translates to “push-and-grasp”. In this practice, the therapist applies pressure along the meridians using various techniques consisting of twisting, pulling, turning, pushing, and kneading. The goal is to unblock those pathways, facilitate lymphatic flow or drainage, improve circulation, and stimulate the nervous system. Traditionally, the practice is often combined with muscular manipulation and joint mobilization to achieve osteopathic functions.
The most popular amongst the 5 branches is the practice of acupuncture. It has been integrated into the conventional medical system in the past decades. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized acupuncture as an effective treatment for 28 various diseases and an effective therapeutics for 55 additional various diseases. In fact, the UK has just drafted guidelines in August 2020 recommending the use of acupuncture as a first-line treatment for chronic pain. With continued research efforts, there is no doubt TCM and its recommended lifestyle can become a golden standard in living a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
We can translate ancient wisdom into our modern-day living by first becoming in-tune with our body. Understand that we all have different constitutions and the importance of the mind-body connection. There is no single magic potion or quick-fix. Long-term wellbeing requires conscientious efforts to live a balanced lifestyle that is active yet restful. Correct any subtle imbalance with various therapies such as acupuncture and food therapy to keep the Chi free-flowing.
*A version of this article was first published on MindBodyGreen