How Does Chinese Medicine Work? Age-Old Secrets to Better Health and Fighting Disease
Differences Between Western and Chinese Medicine
Western and Chinese Medicine are both sciences in their own right — but they take very different perspectives on health and disease.
Chinese medicine focuses on the body and supporting its natural ability to heal. Western medicine focuses on disease and eliminating symptoms with surgery or pharmaceuticals.
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, suppose you walk into a room in your house only to find a lot of flies in that room. Western Medicine would likely apply some bug spray or set a few traps to control the flies.
A solution in classical Chinese Medicine would be to first examine what attracted the flies. Upon observation we notice 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 there is a crack in the window, so we fix the crack, too.
The Goal of Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine does not treat disease. It treats individuals whose imbalances manifest in adverse symptoms. The goal is simply to restore balance so the body can heal.
Illness is seen as an imbalance related to internal influences such as diet, exercise, rest and emotions. There can also be 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 simple. A healthy, nourishing diet, a lot of clean fresh air, adequate rest and regular exercise are usually all a body needs to stay healthy.
When we get more out of balance than our internal mechanisms can restore, we need other means to restore equilibrium. That’s where acupuncture and herbal medicine come into play.
Importance of Keeping the Body in Balance
Your body is designed, like any other living system, to stay healthy and in balance. All its mechanisms are programmed for survival. This is called homeostasis.
Although your body has many complex mechanisms to maintain balance, it constantly encounters things in the environment which can upset that balance. Extreme temperatures, physical or emotional stress, microbes and toxins can all throw the body out of balance. A healthy body is in balance and is usually able to resist disease.
Before looking at the causes of disease, it’s important to understand the relationship between your inherited anatomy, immune system, mind-body health and pathogenic factors that can disrupt health.
When mind and body are strong and pathogenic factors are weak, we can more easily resist outside harm. We are better able to ward off colds and 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.
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 adversely 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. The human body is one of those microcosms, so changes in the universe, such as weather, impacts humans.
The six external causes of disease (also known as the six evils) are causes of disharmony that relate to climatic conditions. Extremes of wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness and summer heat can have devastating effects on the planet. They can also seriously alter the balance within the body.
When the immune system is strong, it can fight off and withstand these external elements. But when extreme environmental factors like hurricanes, forest fires, floods and blizzards hit, they can 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 increase in the winter in Europe. This helps people resist infections like colds and flu. In Gambia the levels increase in the rainy season when Malaria is rampant. (1)
Chronic headache sufferers often report that weather changes can bring on an attack. Arthritis patients frequently report that cold and damp weather worsens their pains. And many studies have confirmed the relationship between asthma symptoms in children and fluctuations in humidity and temperature.
Let’s take a deeper look at each external factor and how it may impact the human body.
- Wind: The most prevalent and harmful of the six external factors is wind. Illness is often brought “on the wind.” Known as “the spearhead of one hundred diseases,” it combines with the other external forces to spread illness throughout the body. Symptoms commonly linked with wind include chills, fever, sneezing, nasal congestion, cough and headaches, as well as dizziness and vertigo. It may also present as a deviation of the eyes and mouth (like Bell’s palsy), mental confusion, one-sided paralysis/numbness or even stroke. If wind is not addressed early on and it’s allowed to penetrate the body, the body’s defenses can’t fight it off.
- Cold: Cold-related imbalances weaken the body’s immune system via colds, cough or upper respiratory allergies. Symptoms include shivering, aversion to cold, pain/stiffness in the neck and back, arthritis. It may also present as poor circulation, anemia and weak digestion. Wind and cold are often seen together. If allowed to penetrate the interior of the body, cold can manifest as digestive issues such as diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
- Heat: Conditions described as hot and inflammatory are heat related. They are 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, heat may appear as cold sweats, mental confusion, spasms, tremors and convulsions, and even coma.
- Dampness: Dampness symptoms are often chronic and worsen with changes in the weather. Symptoms may include swelling, fatigue, a sense of heaviness or fogginess, urinary tract infections, arthralgia and an increased production of phlegm. Phlegm production can affect the sinuses and upper respiratory passages as well as the lungs and bronchioles. Allowed to develop further, one might see chest oppression/discomfort, nausea/loss of appetite or jaundice. Dampness may also appear as the formation of cysts, tumors and lumps.
- Dryness: Just as dryness can damage vegetation, it 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. If allowed to progress further dryness can lead to dehydration, infrequent urination and constipation.
- Summer Heat: Overexposure to sunlight and hot weather can cause conditions such as heat stroke, dizziness, nausea, extreme thirst and exhaustion.
Adapting to Stay Healthy
Adapting your lifestyle to weather conditions is an important part of staying healthy. Some key habits to cultivate to protect yourself from external factors include:
- Avoid exposure to cold, damp or wind. After exercising, take 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, as well as getting the feet and legs cold and wet. The pelvic organs, especially the bladder and uterus in women, are highly vulnerable. Studies have shown 20% of women who put their feet into cold water for 30 minutes developed a urinary tract infection within three days. 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. They should also avoid cold foods and drinks.
- Cover your neck when conditions are windy. The back of the neck is considered a place where wind can invade the body.
- Accustom your body to the cold to build resistance and strengthen your 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, avoid shedding your warm clothes at the first sign of warmer weather. Again, allow your body to adjust slowly.
- Despite these precautions, we should not be afraid of the weather. Simply dress accordingly. It is healthy to get out into nature and experience its life-giving benefits.
Internal Causes of Disease
There are also internal factors that can cause disharmony in the body and lead to disease. These factors often relate to lifestyle habits, choices or emotional imbalances. Lifestyle choices that can lead to disease include:
- Imbalanced or unhealthy diet – This includes eating too much, too little or irregularly. It also includes 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, but not too much to damage health.
- Insufficient rest – Rest is important for the body to be able to recover from stressors and heal. These can be either external or internal stressors.
- 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.
Emotions can also cause illness when they become out of balance. Intense, chaotic and unregulated emotions are a major cause of disease. Too much anger is as unbalanced as too much joy. Each will manifest different physical symptoms. Here are a few examples of emotions and how they, in excess, may affect the body.
- Anger – affects the Liver,
- Joy – excessive joy (hysteria) affects the Heart, as does lack of joy,
- Grief – affects the Lungs,
- Worry – affects the Spleen, and
- Fear – affects the Kidneys.
The ability to calm or manage our emotions helps heal disease. Here’s our blog post on how to relieve stress and anxiety when you can’t get into the clinic.
Cultivating positive mental states, such as friendliness, generosity, compassion, humor and patience also supports our health. That said, emotions are natural responses and repressing them is just as harmful as excessive displays of emotion.
The cultivation of peaceful and harmonious mental states such as mindfulness, gratitude and contentment are highly valued in traditional Chinese culture. 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. They can also include things passed on from our parents at conception.
A person with a weak constitution may be affected more severely depending on the extent of the injury. Their injury is also 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, and
- Genetic disorders or inherited diseases.
Putting It All Together
The effective practice of Chinese medicine requires holding all these relationships in mind while considering one’s unique condition in the moment. The goal of each treatment is to relieve the existing conditions as well as the contributing factors.
There is no pre-set treatment plan. The treatment plan progresses as you progress. It changes in response to your body’s response to the treatment. The earlier an illness is treated, the shorter the treatment process, and the better the prognosis. 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...toward a healthy state of being.
Next, we will explore the treatment process and the phases we go through as the body heals.