As interest in holistic and natural medicine grows, so has interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). More and more, people are seeking to understand what TCM is, and how it works.
Very simply, TCM practitioners believe that a healthy body is a body in balance.
Within the body are two opposing forces: yin, a cool, quiet, nourishing force, and yang, a warm, active, invigorating force. When these forces are in balance, a person is in perfect health. A person’s vital energy, or Qi, flows through the body sustaining this balance, and thereby, his physical, mental and emotional wellness. When the flow of Qi is obstructed by pathogens, stress or other factors, this equilibrium is disturbed, and the person falls ill.
TCM physicians, therefore, seek to remove obstructions and restore the flow of Qi. To do this, they use a variety of therapies, alone or in combination, including herbal medications, physical therapies like acupuncture, acupressure and cupping, and dietary adjustments.
Google “academic studies on acupuncture” and more than 44,000 studies pop up, some 4,000 of them done in the last year alone. Acupuncture is possibly the most well-known and widely accepted of the TCM therapies, gaining acceptance most notably as complementary therapy for fertility treatments, and as a form of pain relief.
Amid its many functions, acupuncture is a valuable therapy when Qi is blocked. During treatments, which typically lasts between 20 and 30 minutes, needles as fine as human hair are inserted into specific points on the body. The sterilised and disposable needles are so fine that most people feel nothing more than a slight tingling sensation when they are inserted.
The acupuncture points themselves are mostly located along the paths – or meridians – through which Qi flows. Acupuncture helps move this energy, using techniques that have ascending, descending, reinforcing, reducing, warming and clearing effects.
Treatments can sometimes be combined with cupping for greater effect.
Cupping is a therapy in which plastic or glass cups are used to apply suction to meridian points on the body. The cups can be left in place (stationary cupping), usually for 10 to 15 minutes, or moved along meridians for 5 to 10 minutes (gliding cupping).
Both methods rejuvenate the meridians, opening up stagnant points to improve the flow of Qi.
It is not unusual for cupping to leave distinctive circular marks on the skin – as the world observed on US swimmer Michael Phelps during the Rio Olympics. For competitive athletes, cupping stimulates blood flow and helps relieve soreness after a hard workout. The marks that are left behind are harmless and disappear completely in a matter of days.
Tui na is a medical massage based on the same principles as acupuncture, except that instead of needles, the arm, hands and fingers are used to brush, knead, push, rub and tap acupoints, meridians and groups of muscles or nerves. The precise techniques used depend on the condition of the patient and the part of the body being massaged.
As with acupuncture, the aim of the therapy is to remove blockages that prevent the free flow of Qi, and restore the yin-yang balance in the body. A typical session lasts from 30 minutes to 1 hour, with the number of sessions varying according to the problem at hand. Patients usually feel relaxed and energised at their end of the session.
Unlike acupuncture, tui na can be used on children as young as six months to address a range of childhood ailments including indigestion, constipation, cough, asthma, enuresis, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and dysplasia. It is, however, important to understand that a child’s meridian points differ from those of a fully formed adult, and that treatment for children should only be undertaken by a professional qualified in paediatric tui na.
Walk past a well-stocked TCM shop, and you will see dozens of different medicinal herbs on offer. While these herbs will help resolve stubborn symptoms, their primary role goes deeper, to correcting the underlying imbalances causing those symptoms.
In other words, TCM treats not just the illness but the person with the illness.
The herbs are categorised as warming or cooling, and then further categorised according to the effect they have on the human body. Generally speaking, sweet herbs nourish depleted qi, sour herbs act as astringents, bitter herbs dry dampness, acrid herbs resolve stagnation and salty herbs soften and purge. In this way, heat within the body can be cooled, cold can be warmed, dampness is dried and agitation, calmed, among other things.1
Qualified TCM physicians prescribe herbs singly or in blends to suit the precise requirements of individual patients. Some herbs are consumed raw or brewed into teas. Others are conveniently available as powdered concentrates to be mixed with water, or in the form of tablets and capsules.
It is not unusual for a TCM practitioner to advice a patient to add ginger to his food to fight the flu, or honey to his tea to help insomnia.
In TCM, food is its own medicine.
Like herbs, food items are categorized according to whether they are warming or cooling, and then again according to their tastes and effects. Generally, bitter foods drain heat and dry dampness; sour foods act as astringents and are cooling; spicy foods have a warming effect, and are useful in moving qi; salty food are cooling and help retain fluids in the body; and sweet foods are either neutral or warm, and are nourishing.
Since each person is uniquely different, whether a particular food will help nourish him or further deplete his energy depends on the condition and needs of that person.
Ultimately, with a suitable practitioner who understands your condition, TCM offers therapies that are safe and reliable. While relatively new in the west, they have been successfully used for thousands of years in China and across Asia, and are backed by a growing body of scientific research.
1Schoenbart, B., & Shefi, E. (2007, August 12). Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Categories. Retrieved from How Stuff Works Website: http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/natural-medicine/chinese/traditional-chinese-herbal-medicine1.htm
2Zilavy, P. (2011). Traditional Chinese Medicine Dietary Therapy. Retrieved from Lotus Root Acupuncture Website: http://www.lotusrootacupuncture.com/nutritition.html