Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), alongside Ayurveda, is one of the two oldest established paradigms of herbal medicine that people still practice. “It is the second-largest medical system in the world after Western medicine,” according to Alan Tillotson, Ph.D., R.H., a Chinese herbalist in private practice in Wilmington, Delaware, and a prominent member of The American Herbalists Guild.
The history of Chinese herbalism is one of persistent and ongoing processes of observation and refinement of ideas in the real world. Centuries of formulation of theories, and testing of these theories in practice, have resulted in the system we recognize as Traditional Chinese Medicine today.
Fundamentally, the ancient sages concluded that “like increases like”. In other words, an external factor, when introduced to the body, will create a similar reaction in the body of the person experiencing the change. For example, going out into the cold weather will make your body cold. Battling the wind will make your metabolism instable. Eating heavy food will make your body heavy. This seems obvious on the surface, and it is ultimately pretty easy to grasp intuitively, but putting together all the intricacies of every possible effect of every possible natural medicine on every possible person is a daunting task. This metaphor of energetics creates a system that is complex enough to represent the tremendous complexity of the human being, yet simple enough in concept to be useful.
Energetic evaluation of the body is based on experiencing the body with the human senses. Since everyone experiences the world in subtly different ways, it takes centuries, potentially, for a consensus to develop among practitioners about any given remedy. It creates a structure in which herbs can consistently be identified and understood. According to energetic systems, including TCM, the sum total of an herb is the important consideration.
For example, we may know from modern science that an herb has antibacterial activity. We want to give that herb to treat an acute bacterial infection. But we also know that the herb tends to increase body temperature — it is “hypermetabolic, or “hot”. If the patient has a fever, or is a person who is particularly prone to develop inflammation that is difficult to control, we would think twice about using that specific herb. It might kill the bacterium very nicely, and treat the infection, but the whole person would be worse off as a net total than before we started. Instead, we would seek out an herb that would kill the infection, but which had a “cooling” energy. This difference in approach can make a world of difference in clinical practice, and gives us an invaluable tool in managing a case for the best in the long term, and in treating the person as a whole human being. We don’t want to make people better in the short run, while we make them worse in the long run.
The properties of herbs are collated systematically according to their energetics — taste, temperature, effect before and after digestion and similar factors.
The TCM system of health care begins with a differentiation of the individual’s energetic situation, starting with the most basic divisions, and extending the process of differentiation to a great degree of individuality.
TCM is based on the principle of unconditional, unifying energy of all phenomena. Called “qi” (pronounced “chee”), it is ephemeral, active, constantly changing and warm. Qi is vital energy, the basis for all organic life, and for all inorganic substances, as well. It is the animating force that gives us our capacity to move, think, feel, and work. When one is young and energetic, one has abundant qi, but as one’s qi declines with age, one becomes subject to degenerative diseases and lowered vitality. This concept of qi is the basis for the success of TCM in the area of health maintenance and longevity.
Qi is all about movement, evolution and change. It’s ephemeral, so we perceive its effects, not its substance. It is associated with movement, odor, sound and form. It is connected with the intuitive, unlimited and spiritual qualities of life. The great symbol of qi is the sun, the most unlimited source of energy we experience in daily life.
In the Chinese view, the primary principle of health is recognizing and promoting the flow of qi and eliminating its blockage. All TCM techniques, whether herbs, diet, acupuncture, or others, are ultimately aimed at balancing qi.
Each person is a garden in which doctor and patient together cultivate health. Every being has a unique ecology to be planted, tilled and tended. Like a gardener uses compost, water and weeding to grow robust plants, TCM uses acupuncture, herbs and food, seeking to tenderly nurture and nudge the entire garden back into harmony, to recover and prolong good health.
TCM views people as worlds in miniature, so it seeks to improve our capacity to balance and replenish our own capabilities. TCM minimizes the erosion of our soil by enriching it, makes the most of the flow of nutrients by increasing circulation, and helps avert blocks that obstruct the movement of bodily fluids and energies. Therefore, TCM anticipates problems by upholding our interior landscape.
Contrast that worldview with that of contemporary medicine, which looks for “busted” parts to replace. Typically, modern conventional medicine intervenes only after a crisis arises, whereas TCM aims to correct depletion and stagnation at earlier stages, avoiding greater problems later on.
While Chinese medicine excels at enhancing recuperative power, immunity, and the capacity for pleasure, work, and creativity, it can remedy ailments as well.
According to Chinese cosmology, the whole of creation is born from the marriage of two opposite principles, Yin and Yang. Earth and Heaven, winter and summer, night and day, cold and hot, wet and dry, inner and outer, body and mind are reflections of this pairing of opposites. Creating and maintaining a harmony between these opposites means health, good weather, and good fortune, while disharmony brings disease, disaster, and bad luck. The entire aim of TCM is to restore harmony, in the world and in the body.
TCM is based upon a universal notion, expressed in nature in bi-polar terms Yin and Yang. Energies that characterize the complementary yet opposing materialization of all phenomena, yin and yang are the most basic divisions of energy in the universe. That which is above corresponds to a below; heat is complimented by cold, night is pursued by day. In all of manifest creation, qi is divided and apparent in duality.
The concept of yin and yang pervades all of traditional Chinese thought, not just in medicine, but in other forms of science and art as well. The concept of yin and yang is the idea that everything has its opposite.
We might think of this as two basic forces operating in nature. One force is an outward, expansive, linear, positive force that changes things. The other is an inward, contractive, downward, negative force that is hidden and unmanifest. The outward force is the yang force and is associated with heaven, light, up, daytime, male traits, function and so forth. The inward force is the yin force and is associated with such things as darkness, winter, nighttime, female traits and structure. All matter and energy in the universe can be represented on the spectrum of yin merging into yang. Health is yin and yang in balance.
Taste is one way of deciding which herbs have the needed actions. It represents a sensory method of ascertaining the biochemical action of a given herb or food, in other words, the remedy’s “energy”.
The five tastes include pungent (spicy), salty, sour, bitter and sweet.
We do not actually have taste buds for pungent. It is called a taste, but is more correctly an irritation of the tissues- a mouth sensation. Spicy taste stimulates, warms and dries dampness. It is used in conditions of excess dampness (mucus) in the lungs, which are associated with the metal element. Spicy taste increases digestion, circulation and secretions.
Salty foods, such as seaweeds, bring out the yang flavor of food and provoke a yang effect in the body. Salty taste retains fluids, moistens tissue and supports the kidneys. It softens masses, such as cysts and benign tumors, and relaxes muscles.
Sour taste is found in foods containing organic acids. Sour taste enhances digestion, especially of proteins. It also enhances liver function. Sour also dries mucus, tightens tissues, stimulates digestion and promotes bile flow. The concept of sour taste also incorporates the tissue sensation of astringent, which is the tightening and drying of tissue.
Bitter taste is, all in all, detoxifying and anti-inflammatory. Bitter remedies can be used in small doses before meals as a digestive preparation, stimulating secretion of digestive juices and provoking both appetite and efficient digestion. Bitter taste is cold, so is used to “clear heat”- reduce inflammation, in Western terms.
Sweet taste is nourishing, so is used to tonify. It builds, feeds and harmonizes tissue. The waste byproducts of this building process are acid, though, so we need to be conscious of keeping the body pH balanced when we are in a rebuilding, healing, phase.
Turn up the Heat
An important factor of Chinese energetics is the temperature of the disease. TCM classifies herbal actions based on temperature, and the concept includes influence on metabolic rate and effect on actual body temperature.
A good way to understand the broad concept of temperature is a spectrum from hypometabolic (cold) to hypermetabolic (hot). As the metabolic rate increases, more calories per minute are burned. Temperature and all other biological processes increase. The opposite is true for the cold direction.
Less extreme conditions are classified as warm or cool and most illnesses fall in this range.
TCM always has something to offer for nagging chronic complaints that bother us. Western medicine may heroically rescue us, but Chinese medicine can protect and preserve our health every day. These two great systems offer a great set of complements to each other.