Why Ancient Chinese Medicine Works Today

Peace is easily maintained;
Trouble is easily overcome before it starts.
The brittle is easily shattered;
The small is easily scattered.
Deal with it before it happens.
Set things in order before there is confusion.

– Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) includes all healing traditions emerging from East and Southeast Asia that have their origins in China. Some of these include the traditions of Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and Korea. Traditional Chinese medicine incorporates herbal therapy, acupuncture, dietary therapy, and exercises in breathing and movement (tai chi and qi gong) as a complete medical system treating a wide range of conditions.

The Chinese healing art of acupuncture is one that can be dated back at least two thousand years. Some authorities maintain that acupuncture has been practiced in China for over four thousand years. Though its exact age is vague, what is certain is that up until the recent twentieth century, much of the population of the world was uninformed about acupuncture, its origins and its capacity to promote and maintain good health. The Huang Di Nei Jing, the "Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon," dates from around 200 B.C., but certainly contains much older material. This text describes the governing principles of Traditional Chinese medicine still in use today, and contains detailed observations of Nature and her natural laws, discussing how these laws govern all living things including diseases, their origins and therapy.

Traditional Chinese medicine is based on the concept of yin and yang. According to this theory, everything holds two opposite forces: yin (negative) and yang (positive). The balanced body achieves harmony, which in turn gives it strength to fight against disease and disharmony. TCM aims to understand and then treat the many ways in which the balance and harmony between yin and yang may be undermined and the ways in which a person's qi (energy/life force or vitality) may be weakened or blocked.

Qi Around the World

According to TCM, qi is said to be that which differentiates the dead from the living, the animating spark, the vital force of the body, and the force of the seasons, the planet and the universe. From non-solid gaseous ethers to gross dense matter, all is composed of and defined by its qi. Qi is matter on the verge of becoming energy and energy on the verge of becoming matter.

Many cultures have developed similar concepts of energy circulating within the body and universe. Prana is a concept of energy central to the understanding of Indian Ayurvedic medicine, which seeks to harmonize pranic energies within the body. Pythagoras of ancient Greece, the father of Hellenic medicine, spoke of healing energy called pneuma. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, described the natural healing force of nature, which he labeled physis. The father of homeopathic medicine, Dr. Hahnemann, spoke of bioenergetic energy called "vital force." Mesmer's "animal magnetism," Bergson's elan vital, Burr's L(Life)-Fields, and Nordstrom's "biologically closed circuits" are all labels for this energy within the body.

In many traditions of medicine and healing, these circuits of energy link together all the systems and organs of the body. The meridians are highways of energy that are connected internally and externally by many web-like minor roads. If we could see this invisible energy network, we would see an amazing three-dimensional energy body interfacing with our biochemical body. Twelve major meridians and eight "extraordinary" meridians form an energetic road map with "acupoints" at various junctions and rotaries on the surface of the body. Each of the twelve primary meridians serves as an energy conduit for a particular organ from which the meridian takes its name. Disharmonies in an organ may cause disease in the meridian.

Acupoints are specific sites along the energy meridians where the energy can be manipulated. They are located on the surface of the body, at junctions or highway intersections with other meridians, and they facilitate the flow of energy. The TCM doctor is trained to diagnose where there is deficiency or excess energy and then select prescriptions of herbs and acupoints to open up a traffic jam, or slow speeding traffic down through the application of external surface pressure, heat, electrical stimulation or needle insertion.

The Mind and Body Are One

The Chinese do not view the organs of the body in isolation, but rather see each organ as an energy field in relationship to other organs, which affects the psyche as well. This holistic perspective serves to guide the astute practitioner to consider the whole of the patient and not merely his or her symptoms.

For example, the function of the small intestine is to "separate pure from impure" in the body and in the psyche as well. When under-functioning, we may dwell on the negative or impurities in the mind instead of eliminating them and keeping a positive focus. A dysfunction in the organ/meridian field could manifest in the body and the mind; the ancient Chinese made no distinction between the two. The organ/meridian fields resemble a living rhythmic pulsation with energy increasing and decreasing function in a wavelike flow. Qi flows through the circuitry of the organ meridian fields in a sequence. Within every 24-hour time span, each organ meridian field has a wave of energy that lasts for two hours and then fades.

Though superbly systematized by the communist Chinese government, modern TCM in China downplays or even suppresses many of the original Buddhist and Taoist influences upon Chinese medicine and how it views mind and spirit. Both Western and Communist thinking tend to separate mind from body and spiritual from material. Descartes said, "There are two substances, mind and matter. They can't influence each other because they exist in different realities." He also proposed "that animals are machines and humans, machines with minds, and that mind cannot interact with matter." Only in the last few decades have these chains been lifted from scientific inquiry, yet these principles are still deeply ingrained in conventional medicine.

The Storm of Emotions

Chinese medicine recognizes that emotions play a part in both illness and health. To the ancient Chinese 4000 years ago, it was clear that certain mental or emotional states produced physiological effects that contributed to illness. As stated in the classic Nei Ching, a central classic of Chinese medicine, illness may be caused by six pernicious influences: wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, and fire, as well as the seven emotions: joy, anger, sadness, grief, pensiveness, fear, and fright, in excess or deficiency. The differences between sadness and grief, fear and fright, appear to be of degree; sometimes these pairs are combined as one emotion. It is only when the emotion is excessive or deficient over a long period of time, or when it is suddenly and powerfully invoked, that it can disrupt normal flow of energy and bodily substances.

The seven emotions are thought to correlate with the five Yin organs: joy with heart, anger with the liver, sadness and grief with the lungs, pensiveness and over thinking with the spleen, and fear or fright with the kidneys. The two organs considered most susceptible to emotional disturbance are the heart and the liver.

A major function of the heart is to store the shen (spirit). Disharmonious emotions can lead easily to disturbances of the shen, resulting in insomnia or muddled thinking, inappropriate crying or laughing, and in extreme cases, fits, hysteria and insanity. Pain sensations are caused by a disturbance or blockage of energy streams which are connected to the condition of the spirit.

The liver harmonizes the emotions through its sprinkling-of-qi function. Thus, "liver qi" going in the wrong direction can be a result of excessive anger or the source of it. Disharmonies of liver qi and anger accompany one another. Stagnation of liver qi may be associated with any emotional frustration, or with inappropriate and extreme mood changes, and can also lead to depression. Likewise, depression can lead to stagnation of liver Qi.

Strong emotions cause strong "electro-magnetic storms" or disruption in the body's energy flow. If experienced often enough, this can create an imbalance within the organ/meridian functioning of the body/mind. Although this can become a chronic disposition, it can be treated by herbal medicine and acupuncture.

Prevention is the Cure

The Chinese medicine tradition as a whole places great emphasis on lifestyle management in order to prevent disease before it occurs. It recognizes that health is more than just the absence of disease; it is our unique capacity to maintain and enhance our well-being and happiness.

"The fine doctor acts even before there is anything wrong."
– Huangdi Neijing, The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon, Chapter 2, Suwen, 200BC.

This classic quote from 2,200 years ago underlines the emphasis placed on prevention. Care with regular tai chi or qigong, meditation, preventative self-medication, maintaining a healthy diet, and living in harmony with ourselves emotionally and with our society and the laws of nature are what creates and sustains health. When imbalance in the body is created, the tools of traditional Chinese medicine are available to help restore that balance into good health.

Geoff D'Arcy is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist. He is the medical director of the D'Arcy Wellness Clinic in Natick, MA and the president of D'Arcy Naturals World Herbs. For more information and articles please visit http://www.darcynat.com or call 508-652-1975.