What Is Chinese Medicine?

Chinese Medicine's Origins

The roots of Chinese Medicine are ancient—over 2000 years old. The earliest known Chinese medical text is the Classic of Internal Medicine (Neijing), compiled by scholars beginning in the 2nd century B.C. The Classic sets forth foundational concepts and methodologies of CM, including the theory of yin and yang, the five phases, and the practice of acupuncture. Notably, this was the first major text to attribute human disease to natural influences rather than magical and demonological factors.

Over centuries, medical scholars refined and systematized CM, producing seminal texts that are still the mainstays of CM education today. Though scholars wrote the texts, CM was also practiced by tradesmen who passed on their knowledge to succeeding generations through apprenticeships. While CM is predominantly Taoist in origin, it was greatly influenced by Buddhist and, later, Confucianist doctrine. Chinese medical ideas and practice spread throughout Asia starting around 600 A.D., resulting in their adoption and further development in both Japan and Korea.

Acupuncture travelled to Europe via Jesuit missionaries during the 17th century. Thus began a gradual cross-fertilization between Eastern and Western medicine. By the early 20th century, political and social turmoil contributed to a decline in the official stature of CM. But after World War II, with China under communist rule, CM enjoyed a dramatic resurgence of interest and development which is still underway today.

Acupuncture first gained widespread attention in the U.S. in 1971 when James Reston, a New York Times reporter traveling in China, was successfully treated with acupuncture after an emergency appendectomy. Reston wrote about his remarkable recovery in a front page article in the Times. Over several decades, groups of skeptical scientists and medical professionals visited China to witness acupuncture, particularly as employed in surgical anaesthesia. They found acupuncture's effects unbelievable, in part because they had no explanation for how it works. Research has since illuminated some of the mechanisms, but we are still far from reaching a full understanding. Independent schools of CM began opening in the 70's and have been turning out increasing numbers of graduates ever since.

In 1997, the National Institutes of Health reviewed the scientific studies of acupuncture and concluded that it had been proven effective for a number of health conditions and was worthy of further study. They also noted that acupuncture is much safer than other procedures or drugs used for the same conditions. The NIH sponsors research into acupuncture's effectiveness and mechanisms of action.

Medicinal herbs have always been an important component of medical treatment in China. The U.S. has been slow to accept herbal medicine. Research on herbs is notably lacking in our universities. The pharmaceutical companies, however, have taken notice of herbs' effectiveness. They are attempting to isolate active constituents so that they can patent them as drugs.

CM Diagnosis and Treatment

In CM, diagnosis is based on keen observation. The modern practitioner uses her four senses (not taste) to determine where your imbalances lie.

From the Chinese perspective, everything has a relative yin or yang quality. Yang is active, energetic, hot, light…whereas Yin is quiescent, substantive, cold, dark…. Reduced to its simplest terms, medical treatment is based on balancing yin and yang. You can learn more at these excellent websites: www.TCMbasics.com and www.docmisha.com.

In Chinese medical theory, capitalized words such as Blood, Fluids, Liver, or Spleen have special meanings. While their meanings overlap with the same words as we understanding them, there are important differences. So, if an acupuncturist says you have a Liver imbalance, don't assume that your liver isn't functioning properly!

CM treatment modalities range from gentle, self-directed practices to assertive, professionally-administered treatments. While acupuncture and herbs are two of the strongest of CM interventions, the foundation of CM is prevention. At one time in China, the doctor only got paid when the patient remained healthy! Chinese preventive medicine includes guidance in proper diet, exercise, meditation, and the cultivation of emotional balance.

About Chinese medicinal herbs

The Chinese Materia Medica (or Chinese pharmacy) is comprised of several hundred herbs in common use. While most medicinals are plant material, hence the term "herbs," the Chinese were very resourceful and also studied the healing properties of animal and mineral substances. In my practice, I use almost exclusively plants.

More than 25% of pharmaceuticals are derived from plants. In contrast to drugs, herbs cause considerably less iatrogenesis (when treatment causes illness). Over the course of human evolution, we have been exposed to all the natural substances that exist on the planet. That makes us physiologically well-suited to process herbs. Also, the symphony of constituents in whole herbs may work more harmoniously in the body than an "active constituent" would. We can see this principle in regard to foods: while research shows that whole foods can prevent disease, it frequently fails to demonstrate the same benefit from isolated food components, like vitamins.

Of course "natural" is not always safer or better for you. Using the right medicine at the right time is key to bringing about healing.