Traditional Chinese Medicine and You
How can a 5000 year old system of medicine have any relevance in today’s modern world? What could it possibly offer to a population that depends on a conventional medical model that bases everything on the facts presented by science? Every syndrome, every pain, every discomfort must be quantified and measured, must fit into certain parameters before a diagnosis can be determined. Based on the diagnosis, a regimen of scientifically proven and extensively tested treatments is then instituted and the results then quantified and measured yet again to determine how well a patient is responding.
Our western medical model excels in its scientific knowledge. Medical research has given us more and more treatment options in all areas. Stem cell research is changing the way our most devastating diseases will be treated in the near future. In just the last decade, there have been exciting discoveries in the treatment of some cancers, prolonging survival by years, not just months. But … the focus is on sickness, not health. There are new medications being rapidly approved by the FDA, but some come with devastating side effects. We only need to listen to the end of any pharmaceutical TV ad or read the numerous magazine advertisements to understand the risk factors associated with certain medication. It is also not unusual to hear that many patients are being treated with yet another medication to treat the side effects of the first medication. The end result is a patient taking multiple medications without knowing which symptom is disease related and which is side-effect related.
As a nurse, I do have faith in western medicine. As a practitioner of holistic nursing, with a foundation in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I believe that when the philosophy and principles of both eastern and western medicine are integrated, we have a greater understanding of the human body.
The following is a scenario that I am sure is very familiar and one that most of us have experienced at some point:
When you seek out your primary practitioner with specific symptoms, invariably there will be an examination followed by a battery of tests to determine what is going on. A review of the results will hopefully lead your primary in a specific direction so that you can be referred to the appropriate specialist. You can almost feel relieved that “something” has been discovered to explain your symptoms.
But, what if you are presenting with vague, but uncomfortable or persistent symptoms? You go through all the tests, the scans and the physical examinations, but there’s nothing wrong with you. On paper you are in tip-top shape. After a while, you may begin to feel that you are crazy or maybe a hypochondriac … that this is all in your head. TCM is proficient in taking those vague physical symptoms and the state of your emotions to determine specific patterns of disharmony. Because TCM looks at imbalances in the energy system, these vague symptoms create a blueprint that enables the practitioner to identify the specific nature of these imbalances.
TCM approaches a patient differently. TCM theory is rooted in the belief that the person is a completely integrated organism. It consists of a very intricate energy system that flows through defined pathways, both superficially and deep within the organs, bringing vital Qi (pronounced Chee) throughout the body. There are 6 major energy network pairs that are mutually dependent and mutually nurturing to each other. Each paired energy network has a specific mental and emotional quality as well as specific functions that not only incorporate the Western definition of the organ, but expands upon the functions of that particular energy.
TCM does not separate the mind and emotions from the physical body. In fact, it incorporates the belief that our emotions play a significant role in our physical health, and the state of our physical health can have a positive or negative effect on our emotions.
An Energy 101 Lesson
I mentioned energy pairs and their functions, as well as a relationship with specific emotions. Let’s take the Stomach and Spleen energy pair. The function of the Stomach energy is very much the same as that of Western medicine. It is responsible for receiving food that has been chewed in the mouth and passed down through the esophagus into stomach where the stomach acids further break down the food. The remainder or dregs are then passed into the Small Intestine … nothing new here. Here comes the TCM perspective: it is the breaking down of food that enables the Spleen energy to extract the essence, the energy of the food. This essence is then transformed into the different forms of energy needed to create blood, build the flesh of our muscles and hold our organs in place, to name a few. It is also transported in these various forms to other parts of the body.
As I stated before, in TCM the mind and emotions are not separate entities. In the case of the Stomach/Spleen network, this energy is associated with worry and overthinking. When the Stomach and Spleen energy is deficient, we begin to feel tired, especially in the morning or after we eat. This happens because the creation of energy is impaired. Have you ever used the phrase “my stomach is tied up in knots” when you are worried about something? Are your thoughts racing and your mind always on high alert? Overthinking! Each energy network also has an associated taste. The taste of the Stomach and Spleen energy is sweet. Do you find yourself craving sugar? Is your appetite not as good as it could be or are you ravenously hungry? Each and every one of these symptoms will lead a practitioner to determine what your particular imbalance(s) is and then devise a plan of care to address the issues.
The treatment may include Amma™ massage, appropriate herbs, hypnosis, or a referral for acupuncture, counseling or psychotherapy, even a medical professional. Nutritional recommendations are a must. (Think about it … the food we eat has energy. What has more energy … fresh vegetables or a Slurpie?) The course of treatment focuses on the balance and integration of mind, body and spirit. It incorporates treating the whole of the patient, not just the physically affected parts. This is just a small example of how TCM practitioners view their patients.
Western medicine can tell you what has happened. Eastern medicine can tell you why symptoms are happening. More importantly, the imbalance(s) can be addressed when the symptoms are still in the beginning stages and more easily resolved. Even with all the advances of our current medical model, the way patients are treated has become more and more fragmented. There is a specialist for every part of the human body. While this enables the specialist to target their particular specialty, it often leads doctors to a more narrow scope of thinking.
Inclusive, Not Exclusive
Today’s medical model has made practicing medicine very challenging. Individual medical practices are being swallowed up by large profit-motivated corporations. The time constraints placed on physicians, which enables them to see a greater number of patients per day, does not allow for the flexibility needed to fully address their patients’ individual needs. Furthermore, because each patient has a multitude of specialists, there is usually little communication between practitioners and rarely any one physician overseeing the coordination of patient care. It can be compared to an orchestra without a conductor. While everyone may be playing their particular instrument beautifully, there is no coordination of the music and it sounds discordant and disconnected. As far as a patient goes, it is easy to lose sight of that patient as the sum of all his parts.
I have great respect for both Eastern and Western medicine. That said, it shouldn’t be an “either or” choice, but an integrative approach that is inclusive, not exclusive. I envision a time when our medical system changes from a “sickness maintenance” focus to one that promotes prevention, education and early intervention to dramatically change our outcome to one of optimal health and well-being. There would be an interdisciplinary approach where all the practitioners involved in an individual’s care would be communicating and conferring under the leadership of the primary provider. Preventive care would be the cornerstone of the plan, not the afterthought. In the long run, it is this system of medicine that will significantly reduce the cost of health care while ensuring that everyone has access to this new integrative medical model.