Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a multi-faceted and time-tested approach to wellness and disease management. You may assimilate its practices with Western medicine or occasionally use herbs or acupuncture, but there is a lot more to know about its history and benefits to your health.
Keep reading to explore the basics of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Plus, learn how to incorporate TCM practices into your daily life.
What Is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Below is a brief overview of the history of TCM. In addition, some of the key distinctions between Western medicine and TCM are highlighted.
A brief history of Traditional Chinese Medicine
The beginnings of Traditional Chinese Medicine go back to 2000 B.C. TCM Physician Vong U Chan from Eu Yan Sang clinic explains: “The knowledge and philosophical concepts we have today are obtained from ancient TCM classics documented and passed down by generations of renowned ancient physicians based on their countless experiments and clinical experiences.”
Acupuncture needles were invented in 1000 B.C. Then in 770 B.C., practitioners developed the philosophical theories that form the foundation of TCM. These theories include the yin-yang theory and the five elements theory.
The first comprehensive medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, was written in 475 B.C. While this text is ancient, Physician Vong notes that this text established the theoretical basis and principles of TCM. And it is still being used today.
Today, TCM includes herbal remedies, acupuncture, tuina massage, and cupping therapy. Centuries ago, it took a long time to prepare herbal remedies. But today, you can consume capsules and essence for convenience and easy consumption.
Reductionist and Holistic Approach
According to the Acupuncture Massage College, Western medicine has its roots in the rationalist philosophy of the European Enlightenment. Because of this, Western medicine tends to take a reductionist approach. It views the brain and body as a “machine” and focuses on physical explanations and solutions.
Traditional Chinese Medicine views the patient from a holistic perspective, which includes the body and the mind or spirit. Maintaining a balance between the body and mind or spirit is the basis of TCM.
Physician Vong says, “TCM takes on a more holistic approach by addressing the biosystem as a whole. By rebalancing the bio environment of the body, the overall immune system will be strengthened to achieve long-lasting effects. Therefore, for certain medical conditions, especially those that are not life-threatening, TCM is able to prevent future issues or reoccurrences of the disease since it improves the overall immune system, whereas Western medicine can only address the symptoms but not the root cause of chronic conditions.”
On the other hand, Western medicine is very useful for health conditions requiring an emergency response or surgery. As Physician Vong notes, “Western medicine is typically more rapid and yields immediate effects. Hence, it is highly effective for life-threatening conditions.”
Basic Principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine
TCM focuses on maintaining a balance between a healthy body and mind/spirit.
As Physician Vong explains, “The human body is an organic whole and all the different components are interconnected. Each organ has its own individual function, as well as complementing other organs and the entire internal system. A harmonious and well-coordinated relationship among all the organs is essential for the human body to perform at its optimal level.”
The environment also plays a key role in health, according to TCM. Physician Vong continues, “The human body also shares a close relationship with its surroundings. As such, factors from the external environment, such as the weather, geographic location, work, family, etc. can affect our health.”
While these concepts form the basic principles of TCM, there are several key components of TCM philosophy.
Yin-yang is TCM’s basic principle of balance. It means “dark-bright.” Yin and yang represent opposites that are connected and complementary to one another. You can’t have one without the other. For example, yin refers to the night and yang refers to the day.
The 5 Fundamental Substances
In TCM, there are five fundamental substances: Qi (vital energy, 氣), blood (xue, 血), bodily fluid (jin ye, 津液 ), essence (jing, 精), and spirit or mind (shen, 神).
Qi, or “vital energy,” is the most basic of the five substances. Physician Vong says, “TCM believes that to be balanced in life and healthy, a person must have balanced qi. If there is an imbalance or deficiency of qi in the body, illnesses or other conditions can develop.”
Jing is the essence of the body. It is responsible for all growth, development, and reproduction. For example, jing corresponds to the bones and teeth.
Shen corresponds with emotional wellbeing and means “spirit mind.” It is responsible for regulating emotions, perceptions, and thought. Physician Vong explains, “Shen is stored in the heart and nourished by xue (blood). During sleep, it enters a rest state. As such, any imbalance in Shen can result in insomnia, palpitations, or even mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and loss of consciousness.”
Xue is the liquid life force of the body. Once again, Physician Vong explains, “Qi gives rise to blood, which then nourishes the visceral organs, which in turn produces more qi.” Not enough xue can lead to fatigue, emaciation, and dry skin. On the other hand, excess xue may stagnate and cause severe pain and obstruction, such as thrombosis.
Jin Ye translates to body fluids. This fundamental substance moistens and lubricates the body. “Jin is lighter and water-like, which moistens and nourishes the skin and muscles,” says Physician Vong, “Ye is thicker and viscous and lubricates the internal organs such as the brain and spinal cord.”
The 5 Main Organs
TCM views organs a little differently from Western medicine. In TCM, organs are more than just their anatomical parts. In fact, they comprise systems. TCM identifies five organ systems: liver, spleen, lung, heart, and kidney.
The liver system
It regulates qi movement in the body. The Liver system stores blood, and also boosts the digestive functions of the spleen. Also, it nourishes the eyes and ensures proper movement of tendons.
The spleen system
It helps digestion, governs blood flow and fluid metabolism in the body. The spleen system transforms food into energy used for qi and blood. The health of the spleen also shows in the lips, mouth, and movement of the muscles and limbs.
The lung system
It regulates qi necessary for blood circulation, fluid metabolism, the autonomic nervous system, and the immune system. The lung system is responsible for controlling the circulation of qi and blood to keep skin and body hair moist. The skin and hair become dry and rough when these functions weaken.
The heart system
It regulates the cardiovascular system and maintains the nervous system. The heart holds the “spirit” (Shen), or an individual’s vitality. A balanced heart system also ensures optimal mental and cognitive abilities.
The kidney system
The kidney system regulates the urinary system and controls the reproductive and nervous systems. Jing, an essential substance for bone growth, is stored in the kidney system. Disharmony of the kidney system can cause dental, skeletal, and urinary tract disorders.
Meridians and Acupoints
According to TCM, the body has 12 principal meridians or channels that allow it to distribute qi, body fluids, and blood throughout the body. However, meridians do not have anatomical structures. Basically, they are not physical structures but rather non-physical.
Along these 12 channels are approximately 365 acupoints. And each of these acupoints is associated with a particular meridian channel that connects to specific organs.
The 12 major meridians are located along each arm and leg, and they have yin-yang properties. The six yin meridians are in the inner region of the arms, legs, chest, and torso. The six yang meridians run along the outer region of the arms, legs, head, and torso.
The 5 Elements
TCM recognizes Five Elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Each of the elements represents different properties, functions, or appearances that can classify all things in the universe. In fact, they each correspond to a direction, season, yin organ, yang organ, and one of the five senses.
TCM in Your Daily Life
Physician Vong emphasizes that TCM is not just about herbs or acupoints. In fact, if you want to learn more about Chinese medicine, a good place to start is by learning more about your body’s constitution. How are the five elements functioning in your body? Which foods and what kinds of exercise suit you best? Notice how your environment is affecting your wellbeing. Learn which foods to eat during each season to optimize your health.
These may seem like complex subjects, but a licensed Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner can easily help you answer these questions. The practitioner can also help manage your existing health conditions and offer preventive care.
- Eu Yan Sang Integrated Health. N.d. Understanding Basic TCM Terms. [Accessed 17 January 2022]
- Acupuncture Massage College. 2017. Meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine? [Accessed 17 January 2022]
- Acupuncture Massage College. 2019. Yin-Yang in Traditional Chinese Medicine. [Accessed 17 January 2022]
- Eu Yan Sang. Basic TCM Concepts. [Accessed 17 January 2022]
- Acupuncture Massage College. 2017. Western and Eastern Medicine: A Tale of Two Doctors. [Accessed 17 January 2022]
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