What is traditional Chinese medicine?
Traditional Chinese medicine is not a term that is used very much in China itself, but in the west practitioners call it TCM. It has become a popular treatment method throughout the world.
Traditional Chinese medicine has been around for well over 2,000 years. One of the classic texts on it is supposed to have been written by the Yellow Emperor. At the beginning of this book, which takes the form of a dialogue, we find the Yellow Emperor, discussing the importance of qi (pronounced ‘chee’) and how to regulate yin and yang in the body with his ministers.
Qi is hard to describe, but it is basically energy or one’s life force. Qi travels through meridians in our body – you may have seen charts or busts with lines and acupuncture points on them. We inherit some qi but we can also harness it from food, drink and air. The qi we inherit gradually gets used up but the other sources renew it.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, if qi can’t flow through our body it becomes blocked so we become ill. The book says, ‘The key to mastering health is to regulate the yin and yang of the body. If the yin and yang balance is disrupted, it is like going through a year with spring but no winter, or winter but no summer. When the yang is excessive, the yin will become consumed.’
The main arms of TCM are acupuncture, herbs, massage and qi gong. Some people, including the Yellow Emperor, also consider diet to be an important part of traditional Chinese medicine.
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A traditional Chinese medicine practitioner today will take your pulse, look at your tongue and assess your overall energy and posture. The pulse is taken slightly differently in TCM, as there are three pulse points on each arm. These pulses measure imbalances in your body, which are then worked on to bring them back into balance.
Once you have been diagnosed, you will almost definitely not hear the result in western terms. For example if you have asthma then you might be told you have cold damp (although other factors may change this). In order to balance the body then treatment would basically be to heat the cold and dry the damp. Bringing it all into balance.
Acupuncture and moxibustion
Acupuncture uses fine needles that are put into the blocked points in your body. They are designed to get the qi flowing again. There are around 2,000 points that are located along 20 meridians. A lot of them have names and when they are doing their training TCM practitioners need to memorize these. Some examples of names in English are ‘crouching rabbit’, ‘sea of blood’ and ‘heavenly stream’.
After you have been diagnosed, you will lie down and have 10 to 20 needles inserted into your skin. Trust me, they do not hurt. Then you will be left to chill out for between half an hour and an hour (maybe more). The needles are taken out and disposed of (most use disposable needles today). I always feel blissed out when I leave, in fact I am too blissed out to get in the car right away!
Moxibustion, or moxa, is dried and compressed mugwort herb. It is generally used to treat cold and stagnant conditions. A small piece is put onto the end of the needles and slowly burns as you lie there. It smells pretty good once you get used to it…
Herbs play an important part in traditional Chinese medicine. According to the Yellow Emperor herbs can be pungent and sweet (yang) or sour, bitter and salty (yin).
Some of the more common herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine are ginseng, licorice, dang gui, ginger, mushrooms, goji berries and bupleurum. Most are plant based but animals are also used.
This has caused some controversy among animal rights activists. For example, tiger bones are used in some herbal mixes even though they are an endangered species. Sea horses, rhino horn and bear bile are also used to treat certain conditions.
Chinese therapeutic massage, is called ‘tui na’ in TCM. Tui na means ‘push, lift and squeeze’. This massage, which can be hard or soft is also designed to get the qi flowing along the meridians and in your muscles. The Yellow Emperor says that tui na directs qi to the area of deficiency and brings it back into balance.
Qi gong is similar in some ways to tai chi. Qi gong ‘means qi cultivation’ and it is a physical practice that involves slow movements (sometimes none at all), breathing and meditating. Qi gong helps you cultivate your own qi so it is about internal cultivation whereas acupuncture, for example, involves external assistance.
There are well over 50 types of qi gong and some are taught at medical schools in Chinese universities.
The movements of dynamic qi gong vary from imitating animals to very slow martial arts actions. I have done a fair bit of static qi gong and it involved standing like a tree for at least 20 minutes without moving. Another stance was bending slightly and holding an enormous imaginary ball for the same amount of time. Qi gong is designed to train you mentally, physically and spiritually.
Food and drink
The Yellow Emperor begins his book talking about how life expectancy has gone down in recent years. It used to be commonplace for people to live to 100 years and more, he says.
One of his ministers explains that in the past people ‘ate a balanced diet at regular times… They maintained well-being of body and mind…These days, people fail to regulate their lifestyle and diet, and sleep improperly. So it is not surprising that they look old at fifty and die soon after’.
A bit harsh for someone who supposedly lived around 2,500BCE!
All foods and drinks have healing properties. They are generally classed as hot or cold or neutral. Warming foods raise your yang levels and cooling foods nourish the yin. A cup of tea, surprisingly, is cold! Examples of neutral foods that can be eaten by anyone, any time are olives, figs, potatoes and peas.
Generally traditional Chinese medicine says that you should eat warming and cooling foods according to the seasons. So when it is a scorching hot summer we should eat cooling foods and vice versa.
While the science might be out on whether TCM works, the World Health Organization released its traditional medicine strategy in 2014. The role of this strategy is to ‘strengthen the role traditional medicine plays in keeping populations healthy’. The WHO said ‘traditional medicine is an important part of healthcare and community demand is increasing’.
Have you ever been treated by a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner?