Traditional Chinese Medicine: The Qi to Health
Balancing energy is the key to good health in TCM
Copyright © Denise Thunderhawk, LAc, 1998
Often, Western medicine’s attitude toward the human body comes across as “What you see is what you get.” Don’t like that tumor, cut it out. Got pain? Take two aspirin and call me in the morning. In contrast, Traditional Chinese Medicine’s conception of human health offers a rich source of insight into how the human body functions. Added to that, the perspectives on well-being and disease progression provided by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) don’t offer the kind of apparent precision that Western medicine uses to neatly slice up the biochemical world into little pieces. Instead, TCM encompasses a broad ecosystem of relationships between parts of the body as well as between the individual and the environment.
The foundation of TCM is built on a conglomeration of medical knowledge that has accumulated for thousands of years [empirical evidence]. Unlike western medicine, where treatments come and go and innovative therapies constantly replace older, outmoded techniques, TCM allows an eclectic collection of competing ideas to coexist (all with the same goal of healing the patient – the Chinese understand that many roads lead to the same destination).
According to Kevin Ergil, dean and director of the Pacific Institutes of Oriental Medicine in New York City, writing in Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Churchill Livingstone), “probably the most important aspect of Chinese Medicine throughout its history (is that) it is a medial tradition that never threw anything away…In the west an incomplete (medical) theory is reflected and disappears. In the history of Chinese medicine, theories, practices and concepts may fade, but they do not entirely disappear.
The twin TCM concepts of Yin and Yang express not only TCM’s basic conception of human health but also present a unique philosophical perspective on our environment and universe. Yin and Yang, the twin faces of the universe (Law of Unity of Opposites), are often depicted as analogous to two sides of a hill on a sunny day. The side of the hill in the sun represents Yang while the side in the shade expresses Yin.
In the human body, our outer sections are generally Yang while our insides are considered to be Yin. In relation to your trunk, your back is Yang while your abdomen is Yin. The bowels are Yang while the Heart, Spleen, Lung, Kidney and Liver are Yin. On the other hand, the Stomach, Intestine, Bladder and Gallbladder are Yang. In broader terms, Yin includes the earth and moon, the female aspect of people and objects, winter, dampness, darkness and cold. Yang is most heavily represented in the sun, summer, heat, aridity, the male aspect, aggression and light.
Qi is the Key to Health
Qi [pronounced “chee”] is the life force (translated from the Chinese character meaning “breath of life”) that, according to TCM, flows through the human body. Balancing this evergy is the key to good health. Western medicine takes a different view of human health. As Michael Castleman puts it in his book Nature’s Cures (Bantam), “Western medicine has been heavily influenced by Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest, which says that all life is in constant struggle and that only the most successful competitors survive and reproduce.” In this view, human health improves by conquering and eradicating enemy germs that make us sick.
From a TCM perspective, however, a doctor’s job in aiding a person’s healing process is to use diet, herbs and therapies like acupuncture or tui na (Asian bodywork) to redirect energy flow. When deciding how the flow of Qi should be redirected, a practitioner takes into account each person’s unique Yin and Yang elements.
In The Road to Immunity (Pocket Books), Kenneth Bock, MD, and Nellie Sabin point out that “This life force (Qi) is constantly circulation throughout our bodies, nourishing our organs and guarding our health. (It) can be weakened by any kind of overexertion, mental or physical.”
Keeping Qi – the “breath of life” – flowing properly requires a steady supply of nutritious foods, regular meals and a balanced, unstressed personal environment; in other words, a balance of the mind/body/spirit connection.
TCM Health Analysis
While conventional MDs use medical histories, lab tests and physical exams to diagnose their patients, TCM health practitioners generally take a more personal approach.
The first basic step in a TCM medical exam requires an inspection of a person’s emotional, physical, and spiritual attitude and observation of the tongue. The condition of various sections of the face corresponds to the condition of organs inside the body. Similarly, the condition of sections of the tongue correlates with the state of certain organs.
For a TCM practitioner, taking the pulse is a much more complex procedure than merely feeling for the heart rate. Everyone has 12 pulses, six on each wrist. Adding to the complexity, the practitioner must listen for 28 different characteristics that can signal how qi is behaving in the patient’s body. As Kevin Wegil notes, “The pulse allows the clinician to feel the quality of the Qi and Blood at different locations in the body.” Blood flow is considered to be closely linked to qi flow. After performing an exam, a TCM practitioner formulates an individualized regimen of lifestyle changes, herbs and acupuncture.
The TCM use of herbs in treating ailments was established by the ancient emperor Shen Nong thousands of years ago. Chinese herbs are classified according to their taste: salty, sour, sweet, bitter or acrid and as to their temperature: warming, cooling, cold, hot or neutral. Beyond these basic characteristics, TCM often describes herbal combinations in complex metaphorical terms, saying that some ingredients “rule” others at the same time as the body is cooled or warmed and certain organs experience increased or reduced flows of energy.
(Energy Times March 1998)
Foods For The Body’s Balance
Why do TCM practitioners always recommend eating warm foods instead of salads, raw vegetables, cold drinks and the like?
Western eating patterns – drinking ice water and cold sodas, eating cold salads, ice cream and other cold desserts – can lead to an imbalance in Stomach energy. That’s because the Stomach likes to receive warm foods and foods with warm essence, such as cinnamon or fennel. To make digestion as easy as possible on the Stomach, eat warm soups, teas, coffee and lightly cooked vegetables. When you do, you might also enjoy a marked improvement in overall health.
According to TCM theory, raw and cold foods allow cold, damp energies to enter the Stomach – a complex, sensitive system. This can cause annoying problems that are sometimes serious and difficult to resolve.
From the TCM perspective, eating an excess of cold foods can also contribute to weight problems because the cold energy will desensitize and damage the Stomach’s normal function (Cold is stagnating and congealing). When this happens, the Spleen (which shares an energetic relationship with the Stomach) can also be affected. It regulates Dampness in the body; a malfunction may cause retention of water and too much Dampness (think sticky mucous). This, not necessarily overeating, can cause weight problems.
Many people in Western cultures believe that cold foods and raw foods – especially vegetables – have more nutritional value than cooked foods. Vegetables lose only a little nutritional value when parboiled or cooked. An added plus: Cooked foods use less of the body’s valuable energy for digestion. Some people do suffer from excess heat in the stomach. Symptoms include a bitter taste, mouth odor, stomach distention, constipation, etc. Re-balancing the Stomach’s energy can involve eating colder foods and raw vegetables. Fried and barbecued foods should be avoided as much as possible since they lead to excess stomach heat. Still, as the symptoms begin to disappear, the individual should return to eating sensibly for the stomach with cooked and/or steamed foods.
(Dr. Nan Lu, Eastern Outlook, Natural Way, March 1998)