Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), system of medicine at least 23 centuries old that aims to prevent or heal disease by maintaining or restoring yinyang balance. China has one of the world’s oldest medical systems. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies date back at least 2,200 years, although the earliest known written record of Chinese medicine is the Huangdi neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic) from the 3rd century BCE. That opus provided the theoretical concepts for TCM that remain the basis of its practice today. In essence, traditional Chinese healers seek to restore a dynamic balance between two complementary forces, yin (passive) and yang (active), which pervade the human body as they do the universe as a whole. According to TCM, a person is healthy when harmony exists between these two forces; illness, on the other hand, results from a breakdown in the equilibrium of yin and yang.
The Practice Of Traditional Medicine
To restore harmony, the Chinese healer may use any of a staggeringly large array of traditional remedies. The patient may be treated with acupuncture or acupressure, moxibustion (moxa treatment), or cupping (in which hot glass cups are placed on the patient to draw blood to the skin). The Chinese healer may prescribe a brew prepared with one (or some combination) of thousands of medicinal plants or dried animal parts (e.g., snakes, scorpions, insects, deer antlers) in the Chinese pharmaceutical armamentarium.
The role of qi and meridians
An essential aspect of TCM is an understanding of the body’s qi (life force; literally, “vital breath”), which flows through invisible meridians (channels) of the body. This energy network connects organs, tissues, veins, nerves, cells, atoms, and consciousness itself. Generally speaking, there are 12 major meridians, each of which connects to one of the 12 major organs in TCM theory. Meridians are also related to a variety of phenomena, including circadian rhythms, seasons, and planetary movements, to create additional invisible networks.
In acupuncture thin needles are inserted into specific points along the meridians. The needles stimulate the meridians and readjust the flow of qi to balance the body’s yin and yang. In place of needles, massage (acupressure) can also be used to stimulate the acupuncture points. Acupuncture is sometimes accompanied by moxibustion, the burning of small cones of an herb (typically Artemisia moxa) at acupuncture points. Not only can the meridian network be used to alleviate symptoms; it can also endow TCM with the ability to change consciousness in those who receive treatment.
A TCM practitioner uses smell, hearing, voice vibration, touch, and pulse diagnosis to discover the source of an unbalanced health condition, which organ it is related to, and which meridians are affected. In addition, the practitioner typically makes use of what is known as the five agents, or five phases (wuxing). By observing natural law in action, ancient healers recognized five basic elements in the world—wood (mu), fire (huo), earth (tu), metal (jin), and water (shui)—and found that these elements have myriad correspondences, both visible and invisible. This framework helps skilled TCM practitioners to identify unbalanced relationships. For instance, one key correspondence relates to time of day. If an individual always gets a headache at 4 PM, this signals that Bladder qi is unbalanced, since the Bladder (of the TCM Kidney/Bladder organ pair) is in charge of maintaining the body’s functions at that time. Using the five-element theory, the practitioner can create a healing plan that might contain such components as acupuncture, herbs, lifestyle changes, and foods for healing. It might also include Chinese psychology, which shows how the energy of unbalanced emotions can affect proper organ function.
TCM makes use of herbs and herbal formulas to strengthen organ function and support good health. An understanding of the essence of various herbal components gives the TCM practitioner a way to create a healing effect that reaches beyond the chemical composition and physical properties of the herbs. The practitioner chooses the herbal formula whose essence, or signature energy vibration, correctly stimulates or adjusts the body’s own energy vibration.
Various Western scientific disciplines have conducted studies to learn how Chinese medicine works, but it is difficult to use a Western yardstick to measure Eastern medicine. For example, many studies on acupuncture involve research that attempts to prove that this modality can eliminate or reduce pain or alleviate certain conditions. However, this elementary approach ignores the deeper insight and experience of Chinese medicine that the human body has unlimited healing power and that the complementary energies of health and disease reflect the yinyang principle within the human body.
Genetics research and drug development
The yinyang principle can be applied to a genetic disease such as inherited breast cancer and its associated genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. According to this principle of natural law, if either of these genes is activated, somewhere in another part of the genetic code there also exists a gene to fix the action of the cancer gene, because there is an opposite energy to the one that produced the disease. There must be complementary programs running—one for developing the disease and one for healing it.
Nearly 200 modern medicines have been developed either directly or indirectly from the 7,300 species of plants used as medicines in China. For example, ephedrine, an alkaloid used in treating asthma, was first isolated from the Chinese herb mahuang. Today, scientists continue to identify compounds in Chinese herbal remedies that may be useful in the development of new therapeutic agents applicable in Western medicine. For example, an alkaloid called huperzine A was isolated from the moss Huperzia serrata, which is widely used in China to make the herbal medicine qian ceng ta. Studies suggest that this agent may compare favourably with manufactured anticholinesterase drugs such as donepezil, which are used to treat Alzheimer disease.
Meditation and health
The meditation exercises tai chi (taijiquan) and qigong (“discipline of the vital breath”) are examples of other integral features of traditional Chinese healing that have been incorporated into health and fitness programs to complement modern medicine. Tai chi is characterized by deliberately slow, continuous, circular, well-balanced, and rhythmic movements that were originally practiced as a martial art. Qigong, which was known in ancient China as “the method to repel illness and prolong life,” contains elements of meditation, relaxation training, martial-arts techniques, and breathing exercises that are intended to cultivate qi and transmit it to all the bodily organs. Today, many people worldwide regularly perform these exercises to promote health and may indeed derive health benefits from the exercise and relaxation.