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How Does Traditional Chinese Medicine Work?

The Chinese regard the body as a system that requires a balance of yin and yang energy to enjoy good health. Each part of the body is also thought of as an individual system that requires its own balance of yin and yang to function properly. TCM assumes that a balanced body has a natural ability to resist or cope with agents of disease. Symptoms are caused by an imbalance of yin and yang in some part of the body, and illness can develop if the imbalance persists for any length of time. Therefore, health is maintained by recognizing an imbalance before it becomes a disease. Chinese medicine holds that everything needed to restore health already exists in nature and that it is up to the individual, with or without the aid of a health practitioner, to free up energy and restore balance using diet, herbs, acupuncture, and other yin/yang treatments.

The Chinese believe that all living things—people, the earth, and the universe—are connected by cosmic energy. Thus the balance of chi in an individual is connected to the balance in the environment; the forces active within the world are the same forces active within the individual body. Simply put, nothing happens without consequence to something else. The concern for balance and harmony is not only reflected in the TCM approach to the individual but also in the view that the balance and well-being of the resources of the natural world and society are vital to the overall health of all who live on the earth. Practitioners never lose sight of the multifaceted relationship between individuals, communities, societies, and nature.

Traditional Chinese Diagnosis

The TCM practitioner has four diagnostic methods (szu-chen): inspection, auscultation/olfaction, inquiry, and palpation. These methods gather information about the five phases and their related body systems. The practitioner examines how the person eats, sleeps, thinks, works, relaxes, dreams, and imagines. No part of the self is considered a neutral bystander when the body is in a state of imbalance. All of this diagnostic information is compiled to arrive at a "pattern of disharmony," or bian zheng.

Inspection refers to the visual assessment of the spirit and physical body of patients. Spirit inspection or observation is an assessment of the person's overall appearance, especially the eyes, the complexion, and the quality of voice. Good spirit, even in the presence of serious illness, indicates a more positive prognosis.

Tongue diagnosis is a highly developed system of inspection of the physical body. The tongue is considered to be the visual gateway to the interior of the body. The whole body "lives" on the tongue, rather like a hologram. Different areas of the tongue correspond to the five phases and related organ systems as seen in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3 The microcosmic tongue— diagnostic information found in your mouth.

The practitioner inspects the color, shape, markings, and coating of the tongue to gather information about the state of balance in the person's body. For example, a moist tongue with a thin white coating may signal the presence of a "cold" or yin illness whereas a dry, yellow or dark tongue may signal a "hot" or yang illness.

The second part of diagnosis consists of listening and smelling. Practitioners will listen to the quality of speech, breath, and other sounds their patients make, and they will observe other odors such as those from the breath and body, as well as excreta. Types of sound are associated with the five phases and organ systems. How the person is breathing is a good indication of the status of the organs. Phases and organ systems are associated with specific odors such as sickly sweet, rotten, putrid, rancid, and scorched. Odors can arise from the skin itself or from the ears, nose, genitals, urine, stool, or bodily discharges. The breath may also have a distinctive odor. Usually the stronger the odor, the more serious the imbalance has become.

The third part of diagnosis, inquiry, is the process of taking a comprehensive health, social, emotional, and spiritual history. The practitioners question their patients not only about the complaint that brought them there, but also about many other factors, including sensations of hot and cold, perspiration, excreta, hearing, thirst, sleep, digestion, emotions, sexual drive, and energy level.

Palpation is the fourth diagnostic method and includes pulse examination and general touching and probing of the body, especially at the acupuncture points. Reading the pulses can provide key information about the person's condition. For example, a fast pulse might indicate a problem with an overactive heart or liver; a slow pulse might indicate a sluggish digestive system; pulses described as wide, flat, and soft may indicate a spleen problem; and narrow, forceful pulses might indicate a liver dysfunction. The locations of major points used in pulse diagnosis are illustrated in Figure 3.4. The pulse allows the practitioner to feel the quality of chi and blood at the different locations in the body.

Figure 3.4Figure 3.4 Put your finger on it: major points used in pulse diagnosis.

Traditional Chinese Treatments: Restoring Balance and Flow.

Since an individual's combinations of yin and yang are unique, TCM practitioners must tailor their treatment to each client. The goal of treatment is to reestablish a balanced flow of energy in the person through diet, herbs, massage, acupuncture, and Qigong, a Chinese form of Yoga.


The simplest and most accessible treatment is diet. Dietary interventions are individualized on the basis of the individual's pattern of disharmony. Foods are used to rebalance the body's internal "climate" by bringing warmth to coldness or cooling off too much heat—that is, by balancing yin and yang. The thermal nature of food is described by the way a person feels after ingesting it. A diet to maintain health should be varied and include a minimum of seven different fruits and vegetables a day to avoid a cold or hot imbalance. If a person is ill and the symptoms indicate a hot condition, then the diet should emphasize cooling foods, and vice versa.

Each food has both yin and yang energies but often one is dominant. Cooling foods and those with bitter and salty flavors are yin. Warming foods are yang, as are foods with pungent and sweet flavors. When people have an excess of yin they may be sluggish, laid back, calm, slightly overweight, and emotionally sensitive. To balance these overly yin tendencies, yang foods are added to the diet to help activate the metabolism and provide more energy. People experiencing an excess of yang may be tense, loud, hyperactive, and aggressive. By adding yin foods to their diets, internal tension can be cooled. See Table 3.2 for a list of common foods and their thermal effects on the body.

Table 3.2 Thermal Properties of Some Common Foods


Pork, duck, eggs, clams, crab, millet, barley, wheat, lettuce, celery, broccoli, spinach, tomato, banana, watermelon, asparagus, ice cream, soy sauce


Beef, beef liver, rabbit, sardines, yam, rice, corn, rye, potato, beet, turnip, carrot, lemon, apple


Tuna, turkey, salmon, lamb, venison, chicken, chicken liver, shrimp, trout, oats, cabbage, squash, kale, scallion, celery, ginger, sugar, garlic, pepper

TCM practitioners recommend certain foods for balancing and improving a variety of conditions. Foods can be potent healers, especially when dealing with temporary illnesses, but they are never used as a lone treatment for serious or chronic conditions.


Herbal medicine (ahong yao) is an integral part of TCM. In terms of the complexity of diagnosis and treatment, it resembles the practice of Western internal medicine. Herbs may be used whole, typically as a tea, or they may be powdered and made into pills, poultices, or tinctures for internal or external use. Just as in food, some herbs are warming (cinnamon) and some are cooling (mint).

With the exception of conditions that require surgery, herbs can be used to treat almost any condition in the practice of TCM. Herbs are often prescribed in complex mixtures and tend not to be used as isolated components, such as extractions from the parent plant. TCM practitioners believe that the healing benefits of herbs result from the synergistic interactions of all the components of the plant. The same herb can be used for many different disorders. Likewise, the same disorder in different people will be treated with different herbs, depending on the practitioner's assessment of the individual. Herbs are used in the following ways: antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer. Herbs are also used to treat pain, aid digestion, lower cholesterol, treat colds and flu, increase resistance to disease, enhance immune function, improve circulation, regulate menstruation, and increase energy. Table 3.3 lists herbs commonly used as tonics in TCM, and Chapter 6, "Herbal Medicine," covers the use of herbs in greater detail.

Table 3.3 Tonic Herbs Frequently Used in TCM




Lowers blood pressure, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides, antiseptic, antifungal


Warming effect, stimulates digestion, decreases nausea, relieves aches and pains

Green tea

Lowers cholesterol, anticancer effects, antibacterial effects


Enhances immune function by increasing activity of white blood cells and increases production of antibodies and interferon

Siberian Ginseng

Enhances immune function, increases energy


Increases appetite and digestion, tones skin and muscles, restores depleted sexual energy

Dong Quai (or Tang Kuei)

Blood-building tonic which improves circulation, tones the uterus, balances female hormones

Ho Shou Wu (or Fo Ti)

Cleans the blood, nourishes hair and teeth, increases energy, powerful sexual tonic


Traditional Chinese massage methods were described in texts as early as 200 BC. Both energizing and sedating massage techniques are used to treat and relieve many medical conditions.

Widely varying illnesses treated with traditional Chinese massage include the common cold, insomnia, leg cramps, painful menses, diarrhea, abdominal pains, headache, asthma, rheumatic pains, stiff neck, colic, nasal bleeding, and throat pains. Massage increases circulation of blood and lymph to the skin and underlying muscles, bringing added nutrients and pain relief. Massage can help restore proper movement to injured limbs and joints and help restore a sense of balance. Massage is an effective method of reducing stress and tension that usually leads to a feeling of relaxation. Chapter 11 covers massage therapy in greater detail.


Acupuncture involves stimulating specific anatomic points called hsueh where each meridian passes close to the skin surface. The primary goal of acupuncture is the manipulation of energy flow throughout the body following a thorough assessment by a TCM practitioner. Puncturing the skin with very fine needles is the usual method but practitioners may also use pressure (shiatsu), friction, suction, heat, or electromagnetic energy to stimulate points. Moxibustion is an application of heat from certain burning substances at acupuncture points on the body. Ear acupuncture is a complete system within itself and is quite powerful for balancing the hormones and overall energy of the body.

Treatment is offered in the context of the total person and with the goal of correcting the flow of chi to restore health. Some Western health care practitioners who have learned the techniques of acupuncture miss the broader context and limit their focus to an injured or painful body part. Acupuncture is effective in the treatment of acute and chronic pain and motion disabilities. In addition it can be used for the maladies listed below:

  • Respiratory and cardiovascular conditions

  • Eye, ear, nose, and throat disorders

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Urogenital conditions

  • Skin disorders

  • Psychiatric problems

  • Addictive disorders and withdrawal syndromes.

Chapter 12, "Pressure-Point Therapies," covers acupuncture in more detail.


Qigong, pronounced chee-gong, is the art and science of using breath, movement, self-massage, and meditation to cleanse, strengthen, and circulate vital life energy and blood. In India the comparable practice is called yoga. Both of these traditions of self-healing have been called "moving meditation" or "meditation in motion." T'ai Chi, which is familiar to many Americans, is a more physical form of qigong. In China, millions of people from children to workers, to elders, to patients in the hospital practice qigong daily. The techniques are easy to learn and simple to apply for people who are well or sick. Qigong decreases fatigue and forgetfulness and generates energy by enhancing bodily functions.


People who are pregnant, hemophylic, or who suffer from acute cardiovascular disorders should NOT receive acupuncture treatment.

It is inevitable that taking a deep breath triggers a sense of relaxation. By adding the intention to relax with breathing, the effect is even greater. Adding gentle movements or self-massage to deep breathing and relaxation generates increased self-healing abilities. The focus on deep and intentional relaxation allows for the release of emotional stress, for a sense of tranquility, and for one's natural spirituality to arise.

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