HOW DOES TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE (TCM) ACTUALLY WORK?
Probably one of the most challenging aspects for patients to grasp is how Chinese Medicine actually works. Here we will try to go through some of the basic ideas to give you a better understanding of the processes behind Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
As many come from a scientific background I will start here.
In one study of acupuncture the scientists scanned the brain. Half of the subjects had needles placed in random (but safe) parts of the body. The other half had acupuncture needles placed in the proper acu-points.
When the scientists looked at the two brains they found something very interesting in the acupuncture group. It appeared each that each acu-point corresponded to a distinct of the brain and the theory is that with acupuncture you are re-programming the brain to heal or ‘balance’ a certain part of the body that corresponds to the point that had been stimulated.
For example needling the sleep point affects the part of the brain that effects sleep and thus how it helps a patient with insommnia.
As for herbs there have been varying levels of research completed. Pseudoephidrine a common pharmaceutical used for the treatment of colds and flus comes from a chinese herb. ( ma huang – 麻黄- Herba Ephedra). Gou ji berries ( gou qi zi - 枸杞子 - Fructus Lycium chinese) are another that have become more well known because of some recent english language research.
TCM has evolved for over 3500 years. TCM is an experiential medicine. This means that it has been learned and perfected by practice rather than theory. Slowly over time the medicinal value of herbs were learned, acupuncture meridians were mapped and the complex theories of the medicine were developed. Billions of people have used TCM. Comparatively, Western Medicine with its few hundred years of history is young and relatively untested.
What often confuses people is the language that TCM uses when describing the way that it works. Terms like ‘Qi’ and ‘Yin & Yang’ and ‘elemental fire’ etc can sound a bit esoteric and strange to a Western ear. What you have to remember is that this is a traditional medicine, developed over thousands of years and so the descriptions may sound a bit ‘old world’ but this does not mean that they are untrue. Scientists are working hard to try and explain Chinese Medicine with modern scientific terminology and there are already many studies where Chinese Medicine theories can be shown using Western science. This East-West translation will continue but in the meantime it is important that patients are not put-off by what sound like strange or mystical terms.
The fundamental difference in approach between Western and Chinese Medicine is the way that it looks at the body. Western science is focused on the microscopic view, looking in extreme detail at the chemical and structural makeup of the body. It treats disease by trying to isolate the microscopic processes involved and using synthesized drugs or mechanical surgery to affect these processes. It is a very direct medicine and can be very quick acting and effective but can also simply treat the symptoms and not the underlying causes of illness.
Chinese Medicine on the other hand looks at the body with a wider perspective, incorporating physical, emotional and psychological factors into one view of the whole body. Chinese Medicine also takes into account external factors such as lifestyle and environment. It then combines all this information to understand the individual pattern of illness in the patient and uses herbs, acupuncture, massage and lifestyle advice to reverse this pattern and bring the patient back to a state of good health. It can be fast acting or the process can require time, but the effects are long lasting and deal with the underlying causes of illness.
So which is the better medicine? Neither. Both are valuable. If I am in a car accident then I would want to be brought to a Western Medical hospital to treat any acute or life-threatening injuries. However, as part of my rehabilitation I would also like to use acupuncture to relieve my back pain and Chinese Herbs to calm any post-accident emotional anxiety. The great news is that Chinese Medicine can be safely used in combination with Western Medicine as long as you see a properly qualified physician. Here, we are constantly treating patients who are receiving Western Medical treatment.
WHAT ABOUT QI?
Central to the theories of Chinese Medicine is the concept of Qi (pronounced chee). But what actually is it? If we took microscopic tweezers and picked you apart atom by atom then we would be left with just a small heap of dust. What gives this dust life? Qi is the VITAL ENERGY that makes you a living, breathing creature as opposed to just a pile of inanimate atoms.
Qi is not just inside you. It’s everywhere. We take it from the air that we breathe and the food that we eat (this is why your diet is so important?). Every time that you feel happy you are receiving more Qi and when you are sad your Qi flow is reduced (this is how emotions affect health). Exercise in fresh air will get your Qi moving, laziness and bad posture will make it stagnate. In order to be healthy you need lots of good quality Qi to be flowing freely through all of your organs. If you have a blockage of Qi, or your Qi tank is low then you start to get ill. Acupuncture and Massage help to unblock the Qi. Chinese herbs provide a targeted source of premium quality Qi directly to your body. Qi Gong is an exercise used to harness and promote the flow of Qi. This discipline has been taken to an incredible level by Shaolin monks that are able to use the power of Qi to perform mind bending demonstrations.
Apart from Qi (of which there are many types), Chinese Medicine places equal importance on blood, body fluids, bodily functions and the health of your internal organs when diagnosing and treating a patient. The Traditional Chinese Physician also uses other theories such as 5 Element, Zang Fu and Yin and Yang in order to treat their patients.