Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of different, but complementary, oriental medical traditions.
In this article, we explore the origins of this ancient therapy and reveal some fascinating details about this branch of alternative medicine.
A brief history of TCM
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) may have originated during the 3rd century BC, but it is constantly evolving, especially under the influence of Western medicine.
TCM is not a stand-alone type of therapy, but rather encompasses the practices of herbal therapy, acupuncture, dietary therapy, and exercises in breathing and movement (such as Tai Chi).
Practitioners differ slightly in their treatments because each area (China, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan or Korea) has adopted certain practices unique to them.
Even so, the fundamental principles of the therapy remain the same throughout.
How does TCM work?
The basic tenant of TCM is that the body comprises of vital energy (ch’i or qi) which navigates its way around the body, much like our blood does.
Instead of blood vessels, though, TCM believes that vital energy flows through energy points on the body, called meridians.
Utilising their various therapies (herbal, dietary, movement etc), experienced practitioners treat the patient holistically and naturally.
Key to health is the balancing of Yin and Yang.
One of the goals of TCM is to restore a balance between the body’s Yin and Yang.
These opposing forces work in collaboration to keep the body balanced. TCM maintains that if an energy force is out of alignment, it causes various ailments in the body.
TCM thus focuses on restoring balance and removing energy blockages from the patient.
In addition to the concept of Yin and Yang, oriental medicine also relies on the principles of the Five Elements.
The five elements are fire, earth, wood, metal, and water. It is believed that these elements are represented within the human body.
They believe that these elements are symbolic of all life phenomena, and that imbalance of one or more elements can cause weakness and eventually, disease.
The beauty of TCM is that it uses herbs, movement and acupuncture to create the ideal conditions whereby the body can heal itself.
What does TCM treat?
According to the RCHM, Traditional Chinese Medicine has a role to play in the management and treatment of the following conditions:
- Skin disease, including eczema, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, urticaria
- Gastro-intestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, ulcerative colitis
- Gynaecological conditions, including pre-menstrual syndrome and dysmenorrhoea, endometriosis, infertility
- Chronic fatigue syndromes, whether with a background of viral infection or in other situations
- Respiratory conditions, including asthma, bronchitis, and chronic coughs, allergic and perennial rhinitis and sinusitis
- Rheumatological conditions (e.g. osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis)
- Urinary conditions
- Psychological or neurological problems (e.g. depression, anxiety)
TCM does not dispute the value of Western medicine, and is open to working with medical doctors to treat patients effectively.
They simply believe in treating the patient from a holistic and natural point of view.
Types of Traditional Chinese Medicine
In short, acupuncture is a form of therapy whereby extremely fine (sterile) needles are inserted into the skin.
Needles are placed at specific points along the body’s meridians (paths of energy) to release blockages and treat a wide variety of conditions.
2) Chinese Herbal Medicine
This is a riveting form of oriental therapy utilising over 5,500 plant (the majority), animal, and mineral substances.
No two patients are treated the same and often several ingredients or substances are combined to create a therapy customised to the patient.
The combination of herbs and substances is founded on thousands of years of practitioners utilising these therapies.
When combined in the right form and ratio by an experienced TCM practitioner, they create a synergistic healing effect in the body.
Herbal medicine administration:
Herbal powders: these can be mixed with warm water or seeped to make a therapeutic tea. This is one of the most common forms of providing herbal therapy.
Herbal decoctions: the TCM practitioner follows an elaborate series of precise steps to create this potent tea. The resulting decoction tea is strong both in taste and aroma, and can be stored for 48 hours.
Syrups: a convenient method to administer herbal medicine to children.
Liniments, salves, compresses and plasters: this therapy is applied externally, onto the skin. These items are either soaked in the herbal remedy before being placed on the body, or they are used to cover a herbal paste placed on the skin.
3) Dietary Therapy
This is an extremely popular form of Traditional Chinese Medicine. It originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), and the text on which it is based is called The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huangdi Neijing).
The ancient book gives recommendations regarding what and how to eat if the patient is suffering from specific health conditions.
Interestingly, TCM believes that foods also have energy (or qi). This makes literal sense, because humans and animals alike absorb energy (in the form of kilojoules) from the food they eat.
However, in TCM they take it a step further and believe in food having metaphysical energy qualities.
They also categorise food based on its qi temperature, ranging from high yang to high yin.
Chinese dietary therapy aims to balance the body by utilising the yin and yang qualities of foods.
They also incorporate the five food flavours (sour, sweet, bitter, hot and salty) in their therapy.
Examples of foods with a cooling effect:
- Fruits: apples, bananas, pears, watermelon and citrus
- Vegetables: lettuce, celery, bok choy, cucumber, spinach, aubergine, broccoli.
- Kelp or seaweed
- Soy in the form of tofu
Examples of foods with a heating effect:
- Meat: beef, lamb, chicken, shrimp
- Grains/legumes: black beans, spelt, quinoa
- Nuts/seeds: pine, almond, sunflower seeds, walnuts, peanuts, coconut
The idea is not to favour heating foods over cooling foods or vice versa. The key is to strike a balance between the various foods when preparing meals.
Along with the balancing of flavours and temperatures, traditional Chinese food therapy espouses eating whole food and practicing mindful eating.
Some useful dietary and mindful eating tips:
- Avoid processed (fake) food
- Avoid white sugar
- Chew your food thoroughly before swallowing
- Concentrate on tasting your food – do not eat while distracted
- Eat seasonal fruits and vegetables
- Stop eating before you are completely full
4) Tai Chi
Tai Chi involves smooth, controlled movements and deep breathing. It is a form of mindfulness in that it embraces the connection between the mind and the body.
Once again, we see that this form of Chinese Traditional Medicine concentrates on enhancing the body’s energy (ch’i or qi) through purposeful breathing and movement.
Tai Chi is a series of coordinated moves that flow from one to the other, much like a dance. Practitioners move through the steps and unlock vital energy forces within the body.
It takes a lot of practice to master Tai Chi, but the overall goal is to achieve complete harmony between the mind and body.
Tai Chi is also an effective form of exercise from a more Western perspective: it improves flexibility, fitness, immunity, mobility, and muscular strength.
There is no doubt that when practiced regularly, Tai Chi can enhance one’s self-esteem and quality of life.
TCM uses an integrative approach to enhance health and strengthen the immune system. Acupuncture, herbal and dietary therapy as well as Tai Chi are all used to improve the wellness of the patient.
Mindful eating practices help people make healthier food choices and prevent overeating. And the graceful movements of Tai Chi work with the body and mind to reduce stress whilst improving fitness.
Traditional Chinese Medicine promotes natural and holistic healing. It is a great option to explore if you wish to restore balance to your mind and body.