How Does Chinese Medicine Work? A Pathway to Better Health and Fighting Disease (Part I)

Chinese medicine is a science and medicine in its own right, with its own stringency and strictness of diagnosis and treatment similar to Western medicine, with procedures and protocols based on centuries of observation of how the universe works The ways of understanding the body's relationship to health and disease are very different between Western Medicine and Chinese Medicine. Chinese medicine focuses on increasing health to unseat disease, and supporting the body's inherent qualities to regain health.

Much of Western science is the direct product of the reductionism of Grecian origin. The scientific approach assumes that one must break a thing down into its smallest component parts or behaviors in order to understand it. This way of looking a problem involves a deductive reasoning process. Western science attempts to assess its cause and effect relationships in a linear or sequential fashion in order to measure, quantify, describe and hopefully predict phenomena. The process of Western science looks something like this:Hypothesis/theory (guess) -> experiment (experience) -> Laws. (Quantitative).  Whereas the process of Eastern science looks like this: Natural phenomena (laws) -> experience (experiment) -> Thesis. (Qualitative).  Both yield highly accurate information about totally different aspects of reality.

Chinese medicine uses the method of inductive reasoning that is associative and synthesizes, recognizing the inter-relatedness of simultaneous events, to interpret and treat disease. The question in Chinese medicine is not, “what bug is causing this disease?” so much as “what weakness or interrelated conditions are causing this person to be susceptible to it?”.

To use an analogy, let’s suppose that we walk into a room in our house only to find lots of flies in that room. Western Medicine might apply some bug spray to control the flies. A solution in classical Chinese Medicine would be to examine what the flies are attracted to. Upon observation we notice that someone left a ham sandwich in the room, which the flies are feeding on. Treatment would focus on removing the ham sandwich, so the flies have nothing to eat. Then we would ask the question, how did the flies get into the room in the first place. We look around and see that there is a crack in the window, so we fix the crack.

The goal of Chinese medicine is simply to restore balance. Chinese medicine does not treat disease, it treats individuals whose imbalances manifest in certain symptoms as the body attempts to regain balance. Illness is seen as an imbalance between internal influences such as diet, exercise, rest, and emotions; and external factors such as weather, trauma, microbes or poisons. Health is not just the absence of symptoms, it is a state of being in balance.

The preferred ways of restoring balance and staying healthy are the simplest ones. A balanced healthy, nourishing diet, lots of clean fresh air, adequate rest and regular sensible exercise are all a healthy body needs to stay healthy. When we get further out of balance than our normal internal mechanisms can restore, outside means may need to be employed to restore that equilibrium. That's where acupuncture and herbal medicine come into play.

Causes of disease

Your body is designed, like any other living system, to stay healthy and in balance. All of its mechanisms are programmed for survival. This is called homeostasis. Although your body has many elegant mechanisms by which to maintain balance, it constantly encounters things in the environment which can upset that balance. Extremes of temperature, physical or emotional stresses, microbes and toxins, can throw the body out of balance. A healthy body is in balance and is able to resist disease.

Before looking at the causes of disease, it's important to understand the relationship between ones inherited constitution, immune system and harmonious functioning of the body and mind (ie, health), and pathogenic factors that can unseat health.

When the constitution is strong and pathogenic factors are relatively weak, we can more easily resist the harmful effects and not become ill. We are better able to remain unaffected by those around us who suffer from colds and can better handle emotional and physical stressors. Even if the pathogen is strong, a person with a strong constitution may be able to battle it vigorously with high fever, and rapid recovery. Note that a high fever indicates a the body is fighting the disease with vigor.

However, if our constitution is weak, exposure to even a mild pathogen may cause us to become ill. We may catch infectious disease more easily and may be more affected by emotional and physical stress. When we do become ill, the symptoms may be milder because we don't have the same strength to fight the disease. The illness may also last longer, and may be able to penetrate further into the body creating a more chronic condition.

External Causes of Disease

In Chinese medicine we consider everything in the universe to be interconnected. The macrocosm of the universe affects the microcosm of the earth including those that inhabit it. The human body is considered one of those microcosms, so it follows that changes in the universe, such as weather, would impact humans. 

The six external causes of disease, also known as the six evils, are causes of disharmony that relate to climatic conditions. Just as extremes of wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, and summer heat can have devastating effects on the world in which we live, they can also seriously alter the balance within the body. As mentioned above, when the immune system is strong, it can easily fight off and withstand these external factors. But when exceptionally strong environmental factors like hurricanes, forest fires, floods and blizzards hit us, they can seriously compromise our immune system and create imbalances.

Recent discoveries show that roughly a quarter of our DNA changes in response to the seasons. For example, levels of inflammatory gene expression increases in the winter in Europe to help resist infections like colds and flu, while in Gambia they increase in the rainy season when Malaria is rampant. 1 Chronic headache sufferers often report that weather changes can bring on an attack, and arthritis patients frequently report that cold and damp weather worsens their pains. Numerous studies have confirmed the relationship between asthma symptoms in children and fluctuations in humidity and temperature.

Wind is the most prevalent of the six external factors, and you've heard us say more than once that illness is often brought “on the wind”. It is known as “the spearhead of one hundred diseases” because it combines with the other external forces to spread illness through out the body, and is therefore considered the most harmful. Symptoms commonly linked with wind include chills, fever, sneezing, nasal congestion, cough, headaches, aversion to wind, as well as dizziness and vertigo. If wind is allowed to penetrate the body (ie., not addressed early on or the body's defenses can't fight it off), we may see a deviation of the eyes and mouth (like bells palsy), mental confusion, one-sided paralysis/numbness, or even stroke. Chinese medicine warns not to expose the face to freezing wind, air conditioning or driving with a window open on a cold day, especially after dental procedures.

Cold related imbalances manifest as conditions that diminish the body's immune system, such as colds, cough, upper respiratory allergies. We frequently see shivering, an aversion to cold, pain/stiffness in the neck and back, arthritis, as well as poor circulation, anemia, and weak digestion. Wind and cold are often seen together. If allowed to penetrate into the interior of the body, we can see digestive issues such as diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Heat conditions are described as hot and inflammatory, exacerbated by hot weather and exposure to direct heat. Early Heat symptoms include fever, thirst, sweating, anxiety, skin rashes and headaches. Heat can damage the fluids and blood of our body if allowed to go deeper causing cold sweats, mental confusion, spasms, tremors and convulsions, and even coma.

Dampness symptoms are often chronic in nature and worsen with changes in the weather. These symptoms may include swelling, fatigue, a sense of heaviness or fogginess, urinary tract infections, arthralgia, and an increased production of phlegm. This phlegm production can affect the sinuses and upper respiratory passages, including the lungs and bronchioles. Allowed to develop further, one might see chest oppression/discomfort, nausea/loss of appetite, jaundice, as well as the formation of cysts, tumors, and lumps.

Dryness can damage vegetation, and creates similar imbalances within the body by drying out our fluids (remember we are 50 - 65% water). Dryness can cause disorders of the lungs, sinuses, large intestine, skin, digestion, and reproductive organs. Dry mouth, dry skin, dry cough, and dry nasal passages are all examples. Allowed to progress further dryness can lead to dehydration, infrequent urnination and constipation.

Summer Heat, or an overexposure to sunlight and hot weather, can cause conditions such as heat stroke, dizziness, nausea, extreme thirst, and exhaustion.

Adapting one's lifestyle to weather conditions is an important part of staying healthy. Some key habits to cultivate to protect ourselves from external factors include:

  • Avoiding exposure to cold, damp or wind after exercising, taking a hot bath or shower. This is because the skin's pores are open and are more vulnerable to attack.
  • Avoid prolonged sitting on damp surfaces, and avoid getting the feet and legs cold and wet. The pelvic organs, especially the bladder and uterus in women, are especially vulnerable. Studies have shown that 20% of women who put their feet into cold water for 30 minutes developed a urinary tract infection within 3 days, while the control group did not develop a UTI at all. Cold can also congeal the blood flow and can cause pain and gynecological problems. Staying warm is especially important after childbirth.
  • Avoid wearing clothes that become wet or damp. This increases the risk of developing muscular aches and pains, as well as increasing arthritis symptoms.
  • Those with digestive issues should avoid cold, especially cold wind on the abdomen, and should avoid cold foods and drinks. You've heard this from us before.
  • You've also heard us say to cover your neck when conditions are windy. The back of the neck is considered a place where wind can invade the body.
  • Accustom the body to the cold to build resistance to cold and strengthen the immune system. Don't put on heavy warm clothes or turn the heat on as soon as the weather becomes a little cold. Let your body adjust gradually. In the spring, we should avoid shedding our warm clothes at the first sign of warmer weather. Again, we need to allow our body to adjust slowly.
  • In spite of these precautions, we should not be afraid of the weather, but should simply dress accordingly. It is healthy to get out into nature and experience it's life giving benefits.

Internal Causes of Disease

Internal causes of disease may be related to lifestyle habits and choices, or emotional imbalances. Lifestyle choices that can lead to disease include:

  • Imbalanced or unhealthy diet – This may be eating too much, too little or irregularly, eating when rushed or stressed, or making poor food choices. Our digestive system is the largest immune system in the body, and poor eating habits can damage it.
  • Lack of exercise or too much exercise – We want to maintain enough physical activity to promote health and not too much to damage health.
  • Insufficient rest – Rest is important for the body to be able to recover from stressors (be they external or internal) so that it can heal.
  • Overworking – Work that exhausts or injures a person mentally or physically is not sustainable. Balancing work and rest is important to maintain health. Working the night shift for prolonged periods of time has been shown to increase risk for various diseases like breast cancer, heart attack, stroke and ovarian cancer.

We've mentioned before that emotions can cause illness when they are not balanced. See our blog posts in February and December. Overly intense, chaotic and unregulated emotions are a major cause of disease. Too much anger is as unbalanced as too much joy, and each will manifest different physical symptoms. The emotions and how, in excess, they affect the body include:

  • Anger – affects the Liver
  • Joy – excessive joy (hysteria) affects the Heart, as does lack of joy.
  • Grief – affects the Lungs
  • Worry – affects the Spleen
  • Fear – affects the Kidneys

The ability to calm or manage our emotions and to cultivate positive mental states such as friendliness, generosity, compassion, humor and patience will support our health and help heal disease. That said, emotions are natural responses to things we encounter in life, and repressing them is just as harmful as excessive displays of emotion. The cultivation of peaceful and harmonious mental states such as mindfullness, gratitude and contentment is highly valued in traditional chinese culture because it nourishes our vital life force or essence.

Miscellaneous Causes of Disease

There are several other causes of disease that are neither external nor internal. These can range from the most severe traumatic injury, to minor sprains and cuts and those things that are passed on from our parents at conception. The person with a weak constitution may be impacted more severely depending on the extent of the injury, and the injury is more likely to become a long-term chronic issue. For example, a simple fracture may heal quickly in a healthy child, but may never heal in a frail elderly person. Some other examples of this category include:

  • Contagious microbes and viruses (which come into the body on the wind usually)
  • Injuries and bites
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals through ingestion, inhalation or contact with the skin
  • Parasites
  • Genetic disorders or inherited diseases

Putting it all together...

The effective practice of Chinese medicine requires holding all these relationships in mind while considering each individual's unique condition at the time. Each treatment is directed toward relieving the existing conditions at the time a patient comes for treatment, as well as the contributing factors which led you to that state. There is no preset treatment plan: treatment progresses as you progress, and it changes in response to your individual response to the treatment. The earlier the illness is treated, the shorter the treatment process, and the better the prognosis (more about that next month). Classical Chinese medicine texts warn that waiting until a disease becomes set in and chronic is like “starting to dig a well when you are already thirsty, or forging weapons once the battle is already upon you.”

By treating disease at its origin, Chinese medicine addresses the root of the problem and restores health by working with the body in the direction the body naturally wants to go... towards a healthy state of being.

Next month we will explore the treatment process, and the phases we go through as the body heals.

1. Deadman, Peter. Live Well, Live Long   

Posted in Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Nutrition