Traditional Chinese Medicine (hereafter referred to as TCM) is a complete system of healing that includes herbs, massage, diet, exercise therapy and acupuncture. The main foundation for TCM is that all of creation is borne from two opposite principles, yin and yang, which are in constant motion to create balance within the body. Thus, disease occurs when either the yin or the yang is in a state of excess or deficiency.
One of the main components of the body is “Qi” which is the energy that allows us to do everything – thinking, feeling, working and moving. This qi, or life force energy, moves along a system of channels called meridians. There are twelve main channels of the Qi which are each connected with one particular area of the body. If the flow of the Qi becomes unbalanced, either through physical, emotional, or environmental factors, illness may occur.
The TCM practitioners are trained to see the body, mind, and spirit as one interconnected system. This is different to practitioners of Western medicine, who see each of these systems as being separate.
Acupuncture as a part of TCM
Simply put, acupuncture is when fine needles are inserted into the skin at specific points on the body in order to manipulate the flow of energy. Acupuncture is the therapy that is most associated with TCM but because it is such a broad area of study, please refer to the separate modality on acupuncture for more information.
The Five Element Theory in TCM
The five element theory states that everything in the universe is governed by five natural elements. These elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. In this theory, each of the elements is associated with a season, as well as particular organs and senses. The wood element is associated with spring, the liver and the gall bladder; the fire element is associated with early summer, the heart and small intestines; the earth element is associated with late summer, the stomach and the spleen; the metal element is associated with autumn, the lungs and the large intestine; and the water element is associated with winter, the kidneys and the bladder.
To find out what element a person is, the TCM practitioner will ask many detailed questions to gain clues as to the person’s imbalances.
The Eight Guiding Principles of TCM
As well as the five element theory, TCM also uses the eight guiding principles to help analyse and differentiate between the imbalances in the body. Even though there are eight guiding principles, they actually exist as four pairs of polar opposites.
- Cold/Heat – this principle is used to find out what the overall energy of the patient is. Conditions are characterised as being “cold” or “hot”, with cold conditions having symptoms such as a slow metabolism and chills, while hot conditions may have symptoms such as a fast metabolism, high fevers, and feelings of heat within the body.
- Interior/Exterior – this principle is used to describe the patient’s symptoms according to where the problem is located. Exterior conditions are usually short lasting and are caused by germs entering the body. Interior conditions result from germs that enter the inside of the body and affect the organs, brain, spinal cord and bones.
- Deficiency/Excess – this principle is used to describe the strength of an illness. A deficient condition is the lack of blood, energy, heat or fluid. An excess condition is where the body has too much of something. Deficient conditions are usually chronic while excess conditions are acute.
- Yin/Yang – these are the generalization of all of the above principles and conditions are categorized according to the dominance of the yin or the yang. In general, yin is cold and female, and represents the solid organs while yang energy is hot and male, and represents the hollow organs.
In TCM, the combination of the above principles determines the nature of the three constituents in the body. These constituents are energy, moisture, blood. Health problems are diagnosed using combinations of the eight guiding principles.
Diagnosis in TCM
There are three things that are carried out when reaching a diagnosis in TCM. These are:
- The Interview – this is the first step and the TCM practitioner will conduct an extensive interview with their client. As well as information about the things that are bothering them specifically, the practitioner will also ask about things such as the quality of sleeps, what dreams have been had, the client’s appetite, what the client’s preferred foods are, and the level of stress that the client is under. As well as asking questions, the practitioner will also observe, listen and use their sense of smell.
- The Pulse Diagnosis – the TCM practitioner will look for six different pulses in each wrist – three superficial and three deep. These pulses correspond to the internal organs. The practitioners will take note of the quality of the pulse in terms of frequency, rhythm, and volume.
- The Tongue Examination – as well as the pulse, the tongue is an important indicator of health in TCM. There is a system to describe the condition of the tongue, including colour, texture, shape, size and coating. Each part of the tongue corresponds to an organ – for example, the tip of the tongue relates to the heart and the lungs.
Chinese Herbs in TCM
In TCM, herbs are used just as much as acupuncture is in order to treat illness and energy imbalances. When selecting an herbal remedy, the five element theory, the eight guiding principles, and the tongue and pulse diagnoses are used. The herbs used come from plant, animal or mineral materials. Herbs may be made into a tea or come premixed or in a pill form. There are four basic qualities and properties in Chinese herbs. These are:
- Nature – an herb may be cooling, heating, moistening, relaxing or energizing.
- Taste – there are five tastes used to categorise herbs – sour, bitter, sweet, bland, spicy, or salty. Herbs with different tastes are used to treat different conditions.
- Affinity – this refers to the affinity that the herb has with an organ or an organ network.
- Primary action – this refers to the effect of the herb. Herbs may be used to dispel, astringe, purge or tonify.
Massage in TCM
In TCM, there is a form of massage called “tui na”, which literally means “push” and “pull”. Tui na massage works with the energy system or Qi within the body and it aims to stimulate or subdue the energy in order to bring the body back into balance. Because it based on the same meridian points as used in acupuncture, it is often called acupuncture without needles. It is believed that the massage regulates the nervous system so that the Qi flows correctly, the immunological Qi of the body is enhanced, and metabolic waste is flushed from the body.
Diet and Exercise in TCM
In TCM, the diet is one of the three origins – diet, heredity and environment – or sources of Qi in the body therefore the food that we eat directly influences the balance of Qi in the body, contributing to any excesses or deficiencies. The Chinese approach to diet is based on the five element theory and the eight guiding principles. Foods may be yin or yang, warming or cooling, or drying or moistening. The aim of the diet is to optimise digestion and increase the Qi, moisture, and blood in the body as well as to help the organ function.
As well as the diet, there is a form of exercise called Qi Gong. Qi Gong incorporates such things as posture, movement, breathing, meditation, visualization, and conscious intent in order to purify or cleanse Qi. There are two types of Qi Gong.
- Internal Qi Gong - this form of Qi Gong maintains health by regulating Qi and bringing the internal Qi into balance. It uses certain movements, breath work and visualisation to gather and circulate the Qi.
- External Qi Gong – this form of Qi Gong is the practice of transferring the practitioner’s Qi to another person for healing.