Uncovering the Truth of Traditional Chinese Medicine

What is Chinese medicine? Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is thousands of years old and has changed little over the centuries. Its basic concept is that a… Rina - December 23, 2020

What is Chinese medicine? Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is thousands of years old and has changed little over the centuries. Its basic concept is that a vital force of life, called Qi, surges through the body. Any imbalance in Qi can cause disease and illness. They call this yin and yang. An ancient yet completely modern healing system and concept.

Traditional Chinese Medicine has the power to unlock your true potential and help you develop and use your own unique gifts and talents. Its insightful wisdom and ability to understand and address individual health needs empower each person with a way to unite body, mind, and spirit—the foundation for lasting, authentic health.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
A Chinese Doctor prescribes medicine. Credit: Shutterstock

1. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) teaches you how to live a life of balance, wellness, and harmony

If you reach into history, you’ll find ancient wisdom and practice that you may have heard of, but might not truly understand: Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s true that TCM is one of the oldest healing systems on the planet. It has been in continuous practice for thousands of years. How can something so old still work for people living in modern times? TCM can effectively help heal anyone and any health issues no matter what year it is. It is rooted in unchanging natural law, which has its source beyond time. This unique paradigm of medicine grew out of observation of our reality and how it functions at the deepest levels.

There are many different techniques in Eastern Medicine. Credit: Shutterstock

It’s a medicine of extraordinary relationships. Every TCM principle, theory, and healing practice reflects and harmonizes with the relationships that exist within natural law. TCM, also often referred to as “Eastern Medicine” originated in ancient mainland China. Dating back more than 2,500 years and has evolved and has been perfected ever since. Even for those relying on modern “Western Medicine” which is only a couple of hundred years old. However, there is likely a lot that can be learned from TCM practices. But what exactly is Traditional Chinese Medicine? An understanding of the premises of TCM starts with the underlying philosophies.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
Dried herbs. Credit: Shutterstock

2. Four Key TCM Principles

Our body is many parts connected as a whole. Every structure in your body is an integral and necessary part of your physical balance. TCM factors in the particular season, geographical location, time of day, and age, genetics, and the condition of your body when looking at your health issues. You were born with a natural self-healing ability. Your body is a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm. Think about it: nature has a regenerative capacity, and so do you.

There are many different treatments in TCM. Credit: Shutterstock

Sometimes, this ability may appear lost or difficult to access. Prevention is the best cure. Do you know your body is continually revealing signs about the state of your health? It’s common to ignore these signs or symptoms until something more complicated arises. TCM teaches you how to interpret what your body is telling you. In TCM, the treatment would depend on diagnosing the imbalance. For example, a person with insomnia may have difficulty sleeping because of an imbalance such as a kidney yin deficiency, liver yang rising, or blood deficiency.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
Checking the pulse. Credit: Shutterstock

3. The Balance – Chinese medicine

Ancient Chinese believed that humans are microcosms of the larger surrounding universe and connected with nature and subject to its forces. The balance between health and disease is a key concept. TCM treatment seeks to restore this balance through treatment specific to the individual. Balance is achieved through the interaction of five elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Each element supports the others, thus maintaining the stability of the body and balance.

TCM focuses on making sure you’re balanced. Credit: Shutterstock

Rooted in a philosophy known as Taoism, traditional Chinese medicine is based on the theory that all the body’s organs mutually support each other. Therefore, in order to be healthy, an individual’s organs (and their functions) must be in balance. Another theory in traditional Chinese medicine is that vital energy (called “qi” or “chi”) flows throughout the body via certain pathways (or “meridians”). According to this theory, disease and other emotional, mental, and physical health problems develop when the flow of qi is blocked, weak, or excessive. Restoring the flow of qi is considered essential to balancing the yin and yang and, in turn, achieving wellness.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
The balace between the 5 elements. Credit: Shutterstock

4. The Principles of TCM

According to TCM, illness arises because of specific yin-yang imbalances of the Functional Entities. The functional entities are the Five Fundamental Substances. These are Qi, Xue (Blood), Jinye (Body Fluids), Jing (Essence), and Shen (Spirit). The Three Yang Principles are Exterior, Excess, and Heat. The Three Yin Principle qualities are Cold, Deficiency and Interior.

Yin and Yang. Credit: Shutterstock

Yin and Yang are not only meant to apply to symptom characteristics, but they also apply to human traits. For the TCM practitioner, it’s important to fully understand the constitution of the patient. Yang characteristics: active, positive, brightness, heaven, south slope, sunshine, fire, hardness, male, dryness, day-time, upward seeking, restless, producing, hot, even numbers, and dominant aspects of things. Yin characteristics: passive, negative, darkness, earth, north slope, cloudy, water, softness, female, moisture, night-time, downward seeking, slowness, consuming, cold, odd numbers, and docile aspects of things.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
The delicate process of acupuncture. Credit: Shutterstock

5. Acupuncture

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. A key component of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is most commonly used to treat pain. Increasingly, it is being used for overall wellness, including stress management. One major hypothesis is that acupuncture works through neurohormonal pathways. Basically, you put the needle through specific points in the body and stimulate the nerve. The nerve actually signals the brain, and the brain releases neural hormones such as beta-Endorphins.

Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese Medicine Practice. Credit: Shutterstock

There is no universal response to acupuncture. Some people feel relaxed and maybe a little tired, while others feel energized and ready for anything. Some people experience an improvement right away, and for others, it can take several treatments before noticing a positive change. Disruption of the energy flow can cause disease. By applying acupuncture to certain points, it is thought to improve the flow of Qi, improving health. Studies have shown that acupuncture is effective for a variety of conditions. Acupuncture is not for everyone.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body. Credit: Shutterstock

6. What does acupuncture help with?

Modern research has demonstrated acupuncture’s effects on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating the body’s various systems, acupuncture can help to resolve pain, and improve sleep, digestive function, and sense of well-being. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles through your skin at strategic points on your body.

A man getting facial acupuncture. Credit: Shutterstock

Traditional Chinese medicine explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as chi or qi (chee) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will re-balance. In contrast, many Western practitioners view acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles and connective tissue. Some believe that this stimulation boosts your body’s natural painkillers.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
Common side effects include soreness and minor bleeding or bruising where the needles were inserted. Credit: Shutterstock

7. What are the risks of acupuncture?

The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, certified acupuncture practitioner using sterile needles. Single-use, disposable needles are now the practice standard, so the risk of infection is minimal. Not everyone is a good candidate for acupuncture. Make sure you consult a healthcare provider before you make a decision for this course of treatment.

Acupuncture points. Credit: Shutterstock

You may be at risk of complications if you:

  • Have a bleeding disorder
  • Take blood thinners.
  • Have a pacemaker
  • Receive acupuncture that involves applying mild electrical pulses to the needles can interfere with a pacemaker’s operation.
In general, it’s common to receive six to eight treatments. Credit: Shutterstock

8. Choosing an acupuncturist

If you’re considering acupuncture, take the same steps you would choose a doctor. Ask people you trust for recommendations. Check the practitioner’s training and credentials. Most states require that nonphysician acupuncturists pass an exam conducted by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Interview the practitioner. Ask what’s involved in the treatment, how likely it is to help your condition and how much it will cost. Find out whether your insurance covers the treatment. Tell your doctor you’re considering acupuncture. He or she may be able to tell you about the success rate of using acupuncture for your condition or recommend an acupuncture practitioner.

Make sure you research your acupuncturist. Credit: Shutterstock

Each person who performs acupuncture has a unique style, often blending aspects of Eastern and Western approaches to medicine. To determine the type of acupuncture treatment that will help you the most, your practitioner may ask you about your symptoms, behaviors and lifestyle. He or she may also closely examine the parts of your body that are painful, the shape, coating and color of your tongue, color of your face, and different aspects of your pulse. This initial evaluation and treatment may take up to 60 minutes. Subsequent appointments usually take about a half-hour. A common treatment plan for a single complaint would typically involve one or two treatments a week. In general, it’s common to receive six to eight treatments.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
the heat of burning moxa to stimulate acupoints. Credit: Shutterstock

9. Moxibustion (the burning of herbal leaves on or near the body)

Moxibustion is a form of heat therapy in which dried plant materials called “moxa” are burned on or very near the surface of the skin. The intention is to warm and invigorate the flow of Qi in the body and dispel certain pathogenic influences. Moxibustion is a traditional medical treatment originating in China. It involves using the heat of burning moxa to stimulate acupoints. It is considered safe and effective and is widely used throughout the world. It warms the meridians and expels cold.

Moxibustion. Credit; Shutterstock

It can be used to promote circulation over areas of chronic pain or muscle tension. The patient will experience a pleasant heating sensation that penetrates deep into the skin, but should not experience any pain, blistering or scarring unless the moxa is left in place for too long. Indirect moxibustion is currently the more popular form of care because there is a much lower risk of pain or burning.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
direct moxibustion is no longer used very often. Credit: Shutterstock

10. What are the 2 methods of moxibustion?

There are two main types of moxibustion: direct and indirect. The technique most commonly used today, indirect moxibustion, often involves burning moxa (a substance created from dried leaves of the herbs mugwort or wormwood) on top of the acupuncture needle.

Direct skin moxibustion is no longer common practice. Credit: Shutterstock

In some cases, however, practitioners may set the burning moxa over a layer of ginger, garlic, or salt placed on the patient’s skin. Other techniques include applying heat to acupuncture points from an electrical source, as well as holding the burning moxa above the skin for several minutes. In direct moxibustion, the burning moxa is placed directly on the skin. Since this technique can cause pain and scarring, direct moxibustion is no longer used very often.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
It warms the meridians and expels cold. Credit: Shutterstock

11. What does moxibustion help with?

Moxibustion is used for pain due to injury or arthritis, especially in “cold” patterns where the pain naturally feels better with the application of heat. It is also used for digestive problems and irregular elimination, gynecological and obstetrical conditions (including breech presentation in late-term pregnancy). Moxibustion can be used to prevent diseases and maintain health as part of tonification treatments to help strengthen the organs and immune system.

Moxibustion materials. Credit: Shutterstock

It warms the meridians and expels cold and can be used to promote circulation over areas of chronic pain or muscle tension. You will need to use moxibustion twice a day for seven days for ten minutes each time (morning and evening). Research has shown that moxibustion in pregnancy is most likely to work when the mother also spends ten minutes twice a day in what is called the ‘knee chest position’.

The biggest risk comes from how easy it is to burn yourself. Credit: Shutterstock

12. What are the risks of moxibustion?

Some side effects include allergies, burns, infection, coughing, nausea, vomiting, fetal distress, premature birth, basal cell carcinoma (BCC), ectropion, and even hyperpigmentation. Moxibustion may still be worth a try if you’re exploring alternative treatments. But make sure you talk to your doctor before taking the risk.

But it does come with a few risks. The biggest risk comes from how easy it is to burn yourself in the process. For this reason, it’s best to stick with indirect moxibustion, especially if you’re doing it on your own. This allows for some space between the burning moxa and your skin.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
A type of deep-tissue massage. Credit: Shutterstock

13. Cupping (the use of warmed glass jars)

Cupping gives your body a boost in releasing those toxins. Focused blood flow helps your body by flushing built-up toxins through the lymphatic system. (Your lymphatic system is responsible for eliminating your body’s toxins and waste.) Cupping therapy is an ancient form of alternative medicine in which a therapist puts special cups on your skin for a few minutes to create suction.

Cupping supplies. Credit: Shutterstock

People get it for many purposes, including to help with pain, inflammation, blood flow, relaxation and well-being, and as a type of deep-tissue massage. When the hot cup is placed on your skin, the air inside the cup cools and creates a vacuum that draws the skin and muscle upward into the cup. Your skin may turn red as the blood vessels respond to the change in pressure. With dry cupping, the cup is set in place for a set time, usually between 5 and 10 minutes.

The balance between the yin and the yang. Credit: Shutterstock

14. What does Cupping help with?

Cupping increases blood circulation, which may relieve muscle tension, and can improve overall blood flow and promote cell repair. It may also help form new connective tissues and create new blood vessels in the tissue. There are two different types of cupping: dry and wet. During both types of cupping, your therapist will put a flammable substance such as alcohol, herbs, or paper in a cup and set it on fire. As the fire goes out, they put the cup upside down on your skin.

It may look intense but it has many benefits. Credit: Shutterstock

As the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum. This causes your skin to rise and redden as your blood vessels expand. The cup is generally left in place for up to 3 minutes. Cupping gives your body a boost in releasing those toxins. Focused blood flow helps your body by flushing built-up toxins through the lymphatic system. (Your lymphatic system is responsible for eliminating your body’s toxins and waste.) Afterward, you may get an antibiotic ointment and bandage to prevent infection. Your skin should look normal again within 10 days.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
Afterwards, you may get an antibiotic ointment and bandage to prevent infection. Credit: Shutterstock

15. What to expect after cupping?

The red marks are a result of the blood being pulled into that area. The darker the mark, the more stagnant fluids (toxins, blood and lymph) were dredged up during treatment. The marks last anywhere from a few hours to several days. The more often you receive cupping for the same issue, the lighter the marks will be. In places, particularly nearer my neck, there was some associated pain, but nothing too extreme.

Cupping therapy. Credit: Shutterstock

Many describe it as good pain, describing it as cathartic. They feel as though they were doing something constructive below their skin. Some people (not everyone) feel chilled, achy, sore, and tired and have mild flu-like symptoms after cupping. These detox symptoms are natural and they should be mild and brief. They should only last about 24 to 48 hours. You might get 3-5 cups in your first session. Or you might just try one to see how it goes. It’s rare to get more than 5-7 cups. Afterwards, you may get an antibiotic ointment and bandage to prevent infection.

massage originated in ancient China. Credit: Shutterstock

16. Tui Na Massage

Tui Na Massage is one of the most popular forms of Chinese Massage today. It involves deep massage techniques applied over the whole body, especially the back, with many repetitions. Benefits of Chinese Tuina Massage. It’s one of the four main branches of traditional Chinese medicine, along with acupuncture, qi gong, and Chinese herbal medicine. One of the most often cited studies shows that massage can decrease cortisol (the stress chemical) by an average of 31% and increase serotonin and dopamine by around the same amount (31% and 28% respectively). Tui na follows acupressure points, which are the same as acupuncture points.

Massage therapy. Credi: Shutterstock

The points are targets along the body that are around clusters of nerve endings, mast cells, lymphatics, and capillaries, all capable of triggering biochemical and physiological changes in the body. You’ve likely heard chi referenced with these. When you work these points, be it with acupressure or acupuncture, two main things happen. You are creating an endogenous opiate release, so you are making your body release its own naturally occurring and created ‘feel-good’ chemicals, like serotonin, dopamine, and opiates. And the second is down-modulation of sympathetic upregulation, which basically just means you are turning down your fight-or-flight response.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
has some similarities to a Deep Tissue Massage. Credit: Shutterstock

17. What is Tui Na for?

Unlike deep tissue or sports massage, which focuses on releasing tight muscular knots by targeting blood flow to the area, Chinese Massage techniques also aim to promote overall health by easing the flow of energy, or “qi”, around the body. There are two main types of Chinese massage. Tui Na, or tuina, is a therapeutic form of massage and has been used in China for more than 5,000 years. Defined as “the ancient healing art of fingers and strength,” tui na (pronounced “twee nah”) has been gaining international attention for its safe and effective treatment for a wide variety of conditions.

Tui Na massage has been around for 5000 years. Credit: Shutterstock

The name of this massage therapy modality comes from the two words describing actions in the treatment: tui means “to push” and na means “to grab or squeeze.” Tui Na has been called a combination of Shiatsu—a Japanese bodywork practice—and acupressure massage. Tui Na massage sessions usually last been thirty minutes and one hour, and normally take place on a massage table. Some techniques and strokes used in Tui Na are much like those used in a relaxing Swedish massage, such as gliding, kneading, rocking, pulling, friction, and rolling

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese herbal remedies. Credit: Shutterstock

18. Herbal remedies

Traditional Chinese herbal remedies are part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and have been used in China for thousands of years. Traditional Chinese herbal remedies are a large part of TCM. They can be given as pills, teas, powders, liquid extracts or syrups. Hundreds of different types of herbs are used in TCM, and TCM practitioners often use combinations of herbs rather than a single herb. Like acupuncture, Chinese herbs can address unhealthy body patterns that manifest in a variety of symptoms and complaints. The aims of Chinese herbal therapy are to help you regain balance in your body and to strengthen your body’s resistance to disease.

Herbal medicine. Credit: Shutterstock

Chinese herbal medicine takes a holistic approach to disease and prophylactic care and focuses as much on the prevention of illness as the treatment of it. Most diseases or illnesses present with a core set of recognisable signs and symptoms, but the actual presentation of a particular disease or illness may vary from person to person. For this reason, people with similar health conditions may be provided with quite different Chinese herbal medicine prescriptions.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
You may find some in your kitchen. Credit: Shutterstock

19. What substances are used in herbal medicine?

There are more than 450 substances commonly used in Chinese herbal medicine. Chinese herbal medicines are mainly plant based, but some preparations include minerals or animal products. They can be packaged as powders, pastes, lotions or tablets, depending on the herb and its intended use. Different herbs have different properties and can balance particular parts of the body.

Herbs. Credit: Shutterstock

You may find some in your kitchen, such as ginger, garlic and cinnamon, while others, such as chrysanthemum and peony flowers, you are more likely to find in your garden. TCM consists mostly of plant origin, though some animal and mineral substances may also be used. Some substances that were used traditionally are no longer part of modern professional Chinese herbal medicine practice. For example, traditional remedies with extracts of endangered species have been replaced by other substances with similar actions.

Immune boosting herbs. Credit: Shutterstock

20. Chinese herbal medicine prescribed

A well-constructed formula targets the condition, while counteracting and minimising the unwanted effects of an individual herb. Chinese herbal medicine can assist with general health maintenance and disease prevention. By strengthening and enhancing normal body functions, the immune system is boosted and a general sense of well-being promoted.

In theory, TCM should lead to a happy, healthy, balanced life. Credit: Shutterstock

The benefits of Chinese Massage include renewed energy, vigor, and strength. soothed lower back pain and sciatica, better cardiovascular health lowered hypertension (blood pressure), opened up frozen shoulders, and relieved rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. increased immunity, and better sleep. Depending on their workload, it is advisable that most people get a Chinese massages around three times a month. Some people may experience a lot of stress, or otherwise feel a strong need to take better care of themselves, and then they may come around four times a month.

Herbal formulas according to this standard mode. Credit: Shutterstock

21. Chinese Patent Medicines

In present-day China, there are still many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine who prescribe herbal formulas according to this standard model. But there are also many pharmaceutical companies that make prepared medicines that you can buy over the counter in drugstores, just like aspirin or cough syrup in Western pharmacies.

These can be taken in tea or soup form. Credit: Shutterstock

According to Chinese medical theory, each patient should receive a unique treatment specifically made for their individual constitution and imbalances. The Five Elements theory in TCM, named wood, fire, earth, metal and water, divides the human body into five systems. Each system has its own specific features that can be inferred by analyzing those natural materials. The movement and interchange among the five elements are used to explain human body’s physiology. The patient then takes these herbs home and cooks them together as a kind of soup or tea.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
Improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. Credit: Shutterstock

22. Movement and concentration exercises (such as Tai Chi)

Although tai chi is slow and gentle and doesn’t leave you breathless, it addresses the key components of fitness — muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing.

Tai Chi is a gentle practice. Credit: Shutterstock

Tai chi, also called tai chi chuan, is a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching. Each posture flows into the next without pause, ensuring that your body is in constant motion. Tai chi has many different styles. Each style may subtly emphasize various tai chi principles and methods. There are variations within each style. Some styles may focus on health maintenance, while others focus on the martial arts aspect of tai chi. Tai chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, making it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels. In fact, because tai chi is a low-impact exercise, it may be especially suitable if you’re an older adult who otherwise may not exercise.

Starting off slow. Credit: Shutterstock

23. The Basics of Tai Chi

Although you can rent or buy videos and books about tai chi, consider seeking guidance from a qualified tai chi instructor to gain the full benefits and learn proper techniques. Once you have the basics down, then you could consider using videos or doing it on your own. Practicing outside of classes is a great daily meditation exercise. There are many community gyms and clubs that offer classes for free or at low prices. And it is great to connect with other people in your area.

A group practicing tai chi. Credit: Shutterstock

To find a class near you, contact local fitness centers, health clubs and senior centers. Tai chi instructors don’t have to be licensed or attend a standard training program. It’s a good idea to ask about an instructor’s training and experience and get recommendations if possible. A tai chi instructor can teach you specific positions and breathing techniques. An instructor can also teach you how to practice tai chi safely, especially if you have injuries, chronic conditions, or balance or coordination problems. Although tai chi is slow and gentle and generally doesn’t have negative side effects, it may be possible to get injured if you don’t use the proper techniques.

An Overview of Chinese Medicine
The ability to sense the position of one’s body in space. Credit: Shutterstock

24. Muscle strength

Tai chi and movements like it can help to improve both lower-body strength and upper-body strength. When practiced regularly, tai chi can be comparable to resistance training and brisk walking. Although you aren’t working with weights or resistance bands, the unsupported arm exercise involved in tai chi strengthens your upper body. Tai chi strengthens both the lower and upper extremities and also the core muscles of the back and abdomen. Tai chi can boost upper and lower body flexibility, strength, and balance.

Tai chi improves balance and, according to some studies, reduces falls. Proprioception — the ability to sense the position of one’s body in space — declines with age. Tai chi helps train this sense, which is a function of sensory neurons in the inner ear and stretch receptors in the muscles and ligaments. Tai chi also improves muscle strength and flexibility, which makes it easier to recover from a stumble. Fear of falling can make you more likely to fall; some studies have found that tai chi training helps reduce that fear.

A certified practitioner. Credit: Shutterstock

25. What to consider when switching to TCM.

If you are thinking of using TCM, a certified practitioner is your safest choice. The federally recognized Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) accredits schools that teach acupuncture and TCM. You’ll also find doctors who denounce traditional Chinese medicine as pseudoscience and quackery, pointing to some of its most outlandish claims, like the ancient practice of prescribing firecrackers to chase away demons, or mysterious concepts still embraced, such as a nebulous life force called qi (a term translated literally as “the steam that rises from the rice”). Others rail against its use of animal parts and warn against the potential dangers of its herbal formulas.

Many of the states that license acupuncture require graduation from an ACAOM-accredited school. The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine offers separate certification programs in acupuncture, Chinese herbology, and Oriental bodywork. Make sure to do your research and consult a physician while making these decisions that will affect your overall health.