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The Nature of the East: The Fundamentals of Traditional Chinese Health Practices

How much do you know about Eastern medicine? Maybe you’ve taken a class in tai chi at your local gym. Perhaps you enjoy a nice cup of chamomile tea. Or maybe you know your Chinese goji berries from your Brazilian acai berries, and even how to pronounce them both correctly.

But Eastern medicine, which is more commonly known today as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is an elaborate and complicated system of beliefs and practices, and even those who are quite familiar with it may still have a lot to learn.

TCM in its various forms is increasingly influencing Western medicine and Western culture in general. TCM is everywhere. It’s aromatherapy. It’s meditation. It’s using echinacea to fight a cold. And by learning more about TCM, what it is, and how it works, you can discover how it might be useful to you and your health. 

Just in time for the Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, let’s also celebrate TCM. 

Say Qi!

TCM is based on the qi (pronounced chee), which is the life force that flows through the human body in various pathways or channels known as meridians. Think of it like the blood that pulses through your veins to give you life, except that qi is energy. The meridians connect the different body parts, such as cells, nerves, organs, tissues, and veins. (1)

Practitioners of TCM advocate fundamental harmony in health. Because it is the foundation of TCM, it’s important to understand how qi assists wellness and balance. (2)

There are 12 different meridians, each linked to a major organ system in the body. Meridians are also tied to consciousness, planetary movements, the seasons, and 24-hour cyclical changes in health and behavior known as circadian rhythms. (3

Sometimes, the qi becomes blocked and doesn’t flow properly through one or more of the meridians, or there may be too much or too little qi in a certain part of the body. When this happens, the body becomes imbalanced, and illness or disease may result. Therefore, one of the main focuses of TCM is to remove any blockages in the meridians so that the qi can flow freely and restore balance and ultimately good health. (4, 5)

This flow of energy is tied to the five elements (earth, fire, metal, water, and wood). In TCM, these five elements balance energy in the human body. A 2020 study showed that energy-based treatment connected to the five elements can help with initial problems in the body, not just the symptoms. (6)

In 13 randomized controlled trials involving 12 types of diseases and 4,695 patients, researchers looked at the five elements and the six qi (cold, dampness, dryness, fire, summer heat, and cold) of TCM and their capability for treatment intervention. Although not definitive, the study showed all of these trials were significantly effective compared to the control treatment. (7)

 

qi pathways (square)

 

Opposites Attract: Yin and Yang

Directly tied to the qi is the concept of yin and yang, which is also related to unity and balance in the human body. Yin and yang are opposite but complementary forces that represent such things as earth and heaven, winter and summer, warm and cold, male and female, death and life, night and day, etc. Yin and yang are applicable not just to the human body and its health, but also to the universe as a whole. (1, 8

Yin and yang are harmonious rather than aggressive opposites. That means that they are like two pieces of a puzzle or two symmetrical halves of a whole — like two partners working together for a common goal. In this case, that goal is to maintain balance in the human body and to ensure a person’s overall well-being and health. This is the basis of integrative medicine, which seeks to integrate the whole person for a more holistic approach to health. (2, 9)

In fact, the Chinese believe that you can’t have yin without a little yang. For example, everything that is good can also be evil. The trick is to keep yin and yang in balance so that one of the forces doesn’t overpower the other. They should essentially cancel each other to become neutral. When yin and yang are in harmony, you feel good, happy, and healthy. But imbalance can cause your body to be out of whack and sick. (1, 2

In TCM, there are three main reasons that the balance of the qi and yin and yang may be altered. These are: (2, 3)

  • External or environmental factors, such as heat, wind, the seasons, or toxins in the air. The ancient Chinese believed that the human body and mind are directly connected to nature and the universe, and therefore greatly affected by them. That is why the five elements directly influence the body’s organs and systems.
  • Your feelings or emotions, such as anxiety, excitement, or fear. Experiencing a strong emotion can affect your health for better or for worse.
  • Lifestyle choices, such as alcohol use, diet, or sleep patterns. Just like in Western medicine, TCM believes that it’s important not to overindulge or deprive your body of what it needs to stay healthy, such as nutritious food and proper rest. Adhering to an “everything in moderation” regimen can help you maintain equilibrium in your body. 

A Balancing Act

In Western medicine, doctors and nutritionists encourage eating a balanced diet or maintaining balance in your life to stay healthy. And when something is bothering you or you feel slightly ill, you might say that you feel “a little off,” or somewhat imbalanced. The concept of maintaining balance and its connection to health and well-being is the very essence of Eastern medicine. (10)

The main objective of TCM, therefore, is to restore balance to the qi and yin and yang to keep the body, mind, and spirit in balance as well. Those who practice TCM believe in the body’s unlimited capabilities of healing itself by finding its own equilibrium again, and their job is to just help it. TCM treatments are therefore designed to stimulate the healing mechanisms within the body. (11)

For example, let’s say that someone has an inherited gene that causes a certain disease. Due to the concept of yin and yang and the existence of opposing forces, this person will also have in their body the gene that can fight the disease and prevent them from getting it. That person may be prone to getting the disease, but they also have within their genetic makeup the ability to heal themselves from the disease. This all corresponds with gene expression patterns, which are currently being studied for people of different health constitutions. (12)

That’s why it’s so important for TCM practitioners to keep the body in equilibrium, so that the disease-causing yin doesn’t overtake the curing yang. To remain well, people must achieve a balance between health and disease. (1

East Meets West

TCM has been around for more than 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest medicinal systems in the world. In fact, mentions of acupuncture and herbs have been found in classical Chinese texts, and the earliest known writings about the practice of Chinese medicine were produced as far back as 200 BCE. (1

It wasn’t until the 1800s that Chinese immigrants brought TCM to the United States and began regularly practicing it here. Then, in 1971, TCM came into the American public eye when New York Times reporter James Reston wrote about his emergency appendectomy and ensuing acupuncture while in China. Since that time, the 23-century-old discipline of TCM has increased in popularity. It’s now practiced around the world and has even entered the medical mainstream in many countries. (13)

Naturally, there are many differences between Eastern and Western medicine, one of the biggest of which is the focal point of the two. Western medicine focuses primarily on treating and curing an illness. On the other hand, Eastern medicine, at least traditionally, concentrated more on preventing someone from getting a disease in the first place, and on treatment plans only when needed. (14)

Whereas western doctors are given kudos for making a sick person better or trying to find a cure for the common cold, ancient Chinese physicians were expected to keep healthy people healthy. In the past, if a TCM practitioner couldn’t prevent a person from getting sick and was only able to treat a patient once he had developed obvious symptoms of a disease, he was considered a lousy doctor. 

According to the Huangdi neijing, an ancient Chinese text on traditional medicine: “To administer medicines to diseases which have already developed and to suppress revolts which have already developed is comparable to the behavior of those persons who begin to dig a well after they have become thirsty, and of those who begin to cast weapons after they have already engaged in battle. Would these actions not be too late?” (1, 15)

Today, TCM is increasingly used to help a variety of ailments. In Western medicine, two people with the same illness and the same symptoms would likely receive the same treatment and medications. Eastern medicine, however, involves solutions that are tailor-made for each person based on the particular qi, yin and yang, and the balance of them all. (3, 16)

TCM (square)

 

A Matter of Form

There are many different forms of TCM, and many of them overlap or intersect. People often use more than one form simultaneously — sometimes you may even get a blend that incorporates elements of multiple varieties of TCM at once. Here’s a rundown of some of the most commonly used and best-known types of TCM.

Acupuncture

One of the most widely used and popular forms of TCM today, acupuncture involves placing very thin needles in the skin. The needles are gently pushed into certain points in the body and through to the tissue underneath, usually along the meridians. (17)

According to Eastern medicine, acupuncture is meant to alter the flow of qi and put the body’s yin and yang back into balance. And by Western medical standards, the needles help alleviate pain by affecting the areas of the brain associated with pain and by encouraging the release of the body’s own painkillers. Some people believe that it may also help patients alter their consciousness. (4, 10)

Acupuncture is often used to treat people who have chronic low back pain, neck or knee pain, carpal tunnels, and tension headaches or migraines.

Researchers studied patients who suffered from chronic headache disorder, painful headaches, or even migraines every day. The patients were given multiple-hour sessions of acupuncture to see if it would lessen their pain. Following each session, every one of the patients said that their headache pain was significantly reduced. (18)

Acupuncture is also used to help reduce the side effects of conventional therapies. (4)

Cupping

Cupping involves taking small jars that have been heated and pressing them onto the skin. The jars, which can be made of glass, silicone, earthenware, or bamboo, create suction on the body and bring the blood to the skin’s surface, and TCM practitioners believe that helps activate the movement of the qi. 

Eastern medicine specialists frequently use cupping to improve blood flow, reduce pain and inflammation, and promote relaxation and well-being, plus as a form of deep-tissue massage. A study showed that cupping treatments can help relieve the pain, tenderness, stiffness, and fluid buildup associated with arthritis of the knees. (19)

Cupping can be used to help support a range of conditions, including: (6)

  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Blood disorders such as anemia
  • Fertility issues
  • High blood pressure
  • Rheumatic issues, including arthritis and fibromyalgia
  • Skin concerns, such as eczema or shingles
  • Varicose veins

Cupping has become more common among athletes, especially high-level ones. You may have noticed round and purple marks on the backs of Olympic swimmers, for instance. These are the remnants of cupping, which many athletes use to relieve muscle fatigue and soreness. The unsightly bruises — which are similar to hickeys — usually disappear within 10 days. (20, 21)

Herbal support

Herbs are another form of TCM that has crossed over successfully into the Western medical realm, and as many as one in five Americans regularly use herbs of some type. Herbal support exists in the form of teas, extracts, granules, powders, or within capsules. They also come in both customized and traditional formulas. (4, 22)

There are approximately 7,300 different plant species used in TCM. Sometimes, practitioners may also sprinkle in a bit of deer antlers, dried scorpions, snakeskin, or other animal parts to make a medicinal potpourri of plant and animal matter. (1)

An ancient Chinese document published in 1578 listed 1,892 drugs and about 11,000 medical prescriptions derived from the endless Chinese apothecary of herbs and animals. Close to 200 modern Western medications also directly or indirectly come from Chinese herbs. (1, 23)

Each ingredient in a Chinese herbal formula is carefully selected to rebalance a person’s metabolism and strengthen the organ function that corresponds to the 12 meridians. This is often done when a TCM practitioner chooses an herbal formula that is in sync with an individual’s unique symptoms and energetic vibrations. The idea is to go beyond the chemical and physical properties of the herbs to complement the body’s natural ability to heal itself. (8)

These herbs must also be compatible with multiple other ingredients so that when combined, all the elements can help the body achieve balance and harmony. The final concoction should have an energy that coincides with or can positively alter the energy within the body being treated. (1)

Massage

Chinese massage is called tui na, which translates to “push” and “squeeze” — the exact two actions a massage therapist uses when performing this type of massage on the body. It’s often used to stimulate the body’s meridians to increase the flow of qi, restore balance, and improve a person’s mental, physical, and spiritual wellness. It may also be used to increase circulation, relieve pain, and stimulate muscles. (8)

Tui na is most commonly used for back and neck pain or to promote general health by returning the body to its balanced state. In a randomized controlled 2016 study, the therapeutic effects of tui na combined with core stability exercises helped people with low back pain. Plus, a 2018 research study found that tui na massage is an effective and low-cost way to reduce discomfort in people who have chronic neck pain.  (24, 25)

A related and sometimes interchangeable process is acupressure, during which a therapist uses his hands, elbows, fingers, or feet to apply pressure to various points on the body, often along the body’s meridians. Acupressure is believed to help with arthritis, increase energy levels, and reduce nausea. (26)

Meditation

An ancient practice that has been made popular in western cultures, meditation involves sitting quietly and trying to calm your mind. In the ayurveda tradition, it’s about expansion of consciousness and connecting to your deep, inner self. In TCM, meditation also involves the mind-body connection for mindfulness to help with avoiding qi “stagnation.” (27, 28, 29)

By focusing on a particular word, image, or idea and closing out the many distracting and sometimes overwhelming thoughts that parade through the average human brain, meditation encourages inner peace, relaxation, and stress reduction. It also promotes emotional well-being and can even help people change their outlook or attitude about certain situations. Some people meditate to become more accepting, creative, open-minded, or patient. (30)

There are several types of meditation. Mantra meditation involves repeating a relaxing word or phrase to eliminate stressful thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is based on living in the moment, being self-aware, and avoiding judgment of yourself or your emotions. And guided meditation involves visualizing calming places or circumstances, including the associated sights, sounds, and smells. (31, 32)

Regardless of what form of meditation you use, most meditation includes the same elements, such as relaxed breathing, concentration, a calm setting, comfortable position, and a free and open mindset.

Because of its calming effects on both mind and body, meditation may be useful in many different conditions, including anxiety, chronic pain, depression, tension headaches, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and sleep problems. (33)

Moxibustion

In this form of TCM, dried herbs are burned on top of the skin. Usually, the leaves of the mugwort herb are ground up and formed into small cones called moxa, which are then ignited during moxibustion. This process is often used in conjunction with other forms of TCM, such as acupuncture, during which the moxa are placed and then burned at various acupuncture points on the body to promote the smooth flow of blood and qi. (8, 34)

Researchers in 2017 conducted a study on the effectiveness of moxibustion in fighting hypertension. The study showed that receiving moxibustion in addition to anti-hypertension drugs decreased patients’ blood pressure levels more than when using the drugs alone. (35)

Those who practice moxibustion believe that it helps improve mental and physical capacity and health, prevents hypertension, and reduces blood pressure. The success of the practice may be due to a variety of factors. For example, the effect of the heat on the body from the burning plant material. Or a calming effect from the aromas produced, the way incense or aromatherapy might work. (36)

Nutrition and diet

In both TCM and Western medicine, diet is known to affect health and well-being. Therefore, changes in diet may be used as both a treatment and a preventative health measure, because eating more or less of certain foods can make significant changes in the way someone feels or responds to a disease. (8)

In Western medicine, fad diets and trendy foods — from keto to calorie-counting, kale to quinoa — may come and go. And these different diets have various outcomes with different people. But in general, eating a range of healthy foods, including lean protein, vegetables, and whole grains, seems to never go out of style.

The ancient Chinese believed that yin and yang foods would restore the yin-yang balance in the body and keep a person healthy. These days, TCM practitioners still believe that food is medicine. They divide foods into five different categories, known as siqi — cold, cool, neutral, warm, or hot — based on a food’s medicinal effect on the body. (37, 7)

For example, people ill with a fever may need to eat one of the “cool” or “cold” foods, such as cheese, green tea, or salad, to cool their body down. On the other hand, individuals suffering from poor circulation or the chills might need to consume more of a “warm” or “hot” food, such as beef, fried foods, or ginger. Similarly, the Chinese choose foods based on seasonal effects on the body: one should eat onions and white beans in the rainy season, because that will help remove humidity from the body. (3, 7)

In TCM, practitioners also believe that the various taste categories of food (bitter, salty, sour, spicy, and sweet) have direct correlations to certain organs. In other words, the nutrition in each type of food is “assigned” to a different body organ: (7)

  • Bitter foods cool the body and remove excess moisture by entering the heart and small intestine
  • Salty foods go straight to the kidneys to clean, dissolve, or drain masses
  • Sour foods help eliminate sweating and coughing via the liver 
  • Spicy foods go to the lungs and large intestine to increase appetite
  • Sweet foods find the stomach and spleen to lubricate the body’s systems  

Therefore, to help stimulate as many organs as possible and promote better generalized health, TCM insists on eating a good mix of all the different flavor categories. Besides, your meal will taste better that way.

Traditional Chinese exercise

The traditional Chinese practices of tai chi and qi gong (which means “discipline of the vital breath” or “life force energy cultivation”) are used both as methods of TCM and, more and more, as forms of exercise in Westernized health and fitness programs. (1, 8)

An ancient form of martial art, tai chi uses gentle and rhythmic movements, various postures, and continuous, circular motions. It also involves mental concentration or meditation, breathing, and relaxation. Tai chi is often used to alleviate pain from fibromyalgia, reduce knee and joint pain from arthritis, relieve back pain, improve mood, and help people who have suffered from heart failure. (1, 4, 38)

Qi gong is very similar to tai chi and involves martial arts techniques, meditation, and breathing and relaxation exercises. Specifically designed to stimulate movement of the qi within the body’s organs, qi gong has long been considered by the Chinese as a “method to repel illness and prolong life.” Experts and patients in both Eastern and Western medicine swear by its usefulness. (1)

Tai chi and qi gong are also believed to help the elderly and those with Parkinson’s disease to better their balance and stability. According to a study conducted in Europe in 2019, patients with Parkinson’s disease who practiced tai chi and qi gong regularly for a month noticed a significant reduction in their symptoms. (39)

yin and yang

To Your Health!

TCM is usually considered a form of “complementary medicine,” meaning that many Western physicians accept its use as a complement or counterpart to conventional medicine. Most doctors don’t, however, recommend replacing or postponing your regular medical care with TCM or using TCM exclusively. Modern Eastern and Western medicine work best when used in tandem. (4, 9

TCM may be especially useful for those who have a difficult-to-diagnose condition, want to treat side effects from a medication, have had unsatisfactory results with a conventional medical treatment plan, or are trying to avoid getting sick. On the other hand, it could be unsafe for certain people to try TCM, such as children, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, those taking specific medications, and some people right before they have surgery. (10)

TCM is a far-reaching and multi-faceted medical system, and billions of people over thousands of years have used TCM in one form or another and would vouch for its efficacy. But everyone's body is unique. If you’re considering trying TCM for your own health, do your research to make sure that it’s right for you. And as with any medical treatment, check with your healthcare practitioner before beginning anything new.

Regardless of specific TCM practices, the concepts of balance and holistic care are important for everyone. Remember that your mind, body, and spirit are intrinsically connected. If you are stuck in a period of sickness or "feeling off," it may be time to tap into your inner qi. Look for ways to support foundational areas of health and bring more balance into your day-to-day. 

And at the start of this Chinese New Year, it's time to say "gong xi fa cai," or "wishing you great happiness and prosperity." May the year bring you many blessings, and perhaps the opportunity to try something new in your health journey.