About Chinese Medicine. Part I. “So, what is it that you do?”

I have often been asked this question, as one does, on social occasions and so on. To be honest these moments are one of the very rare occasions when I wish I was still working as a Western Doctor. It would be so much easier to say “I am a Paediatrician” or “I am a Urologist”. People know what those are; there are no awkward moments, unlike when I say “I’m a Chinese Medicine Practitioner”. (Oh, that’s interesting, so you stick needles in people?) Yes, pretty much, I stick needles in people for a living. You can see why it somehow makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Of course, Chinese medicine is much more than that: an established and extremely clever, beautifully constructed, multi faceted way of understanding everything about human health and sickness. It covers every aspect of health, physically, mentally and emotionally. It possesses a deep understanding of the processes of health and illness. It understands the factors that affect our health such as lifestyle, emotions, food, weather and so on. It is of course much too complicated to convey all of this in conversation over a dinner party. Usually, if I try, I soon have to stop as I can detect the puzzlement in the eyes of the person I’m chatting to.
“You need to write about it in your blog” my daughter told me. Yes, that makes more sense. I won’t have anyone’s confused look to stop me in my tracks, so I am going to give it a go. I will try to simplify things as much as possible, whilst still doing justice the important principles of T.C.M. (traditional Chinese medicine). Like everything in Chinese medicine it is all about keeping the balance.

The main parts of T.C.M. are Acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and Tuina, which is the physiotherapy of Chinese medicine. Other associated methods are exercise, like QiGong and Tai Chi, nutrition, and lifestyle advice. All are very important and are used in my clinic, individually or in combination, according to the needs of each individual case.

Trying to simplify things (again) I will mainly discuss Acupuncture and herbal medicine, focusing in this first post of the series on general principles. But first: how did it all begin?

This is one of the most commonly asked questions, and justifiably so. Who came up with this crazy idea of sticking needles into people to make them feel better? The disappointing answer to this question is that we don’t know. Acupuncture was practised well before written history began. There has been no evidence found to help solve the mystery. The most likely theory is the idea came about when someone was accidentally stabbed by a sharp object, and experienced the unexpected effect of some sort of symptom being relieved. From that point onward began a patient process of trial and error to identify all the acupuncture points on the human body. It became clear that most of these points are located on a network of lines on the human body. They realised these lines (termed meridians) are the main pathway of the body’s energy (termed the Qi). Now, as long as the Qi energy is strong and is free to flow along the Meridians, all is good, we feel well and in good health. However, if the Qi is weak or blocked we will develop problems. Now, what can cause the Qi to struggle? Before I attempt to answer this question I would like to pause for a moment. Starting to talk about Qi and Meridians usually makes some people (particularly people with a scientific background) switch off. I can understand that, after all I used to think just like that myself in my early academic life. I would like to point out all of this knowledge regarding TCM theory is based on knowledge accumulated through trial and error, and careful observations over hundreds of years. It is not just a strange idea someone thought up in the shower. It is based on simple facts that are tried and tested, and that is one of the main reasons it is so effective!

As well as Acupuncture, the same is true for Chinese herbal medicine. We often hear in the media that Chinese people believe that this herb is good for that, and so on. Actually, it has nothing to do with belief and it has everything to do with sound science. The basic assumption was that since humans are part of nature, made of the same materials and using the same energy as the rest of nature, then there must be materials in the natural world that can help us when we get ill. How this works is explained more in my next blog, but a summary is that everything in nature exists in perfect balance, and so it is in the human body. If for some reason this balance has been disrupted we will feel it as an illness or as a symptom. The assumption was that there must be materials out there in nature which can redress these imbalances that are making us ill. With this in mind a great search began.

The ancient Chinese doctors have tried absolutely everything in the natural world to see the effect on the human body: plants, minerals and animals. More than that, when they tried a plant they tried the different parts of the plant separately: the roots, the stalk, the bark, the leaves, the flowers, the fruit (immature then mature), the peel, the stones- and so on. Then each of these can be prepared in a different way to achieve different effects. For example, it can be taken raw or dried or fried or fried in honey/vinegar/wine and so on. The same goes for animals. Every animal and every different part of every animal has been tested to see its effect on the human body. From this you can start to comprehend the huge variety of material tested over the years: hundreds of thousands, probably millions of substances. Out of these the Chinese medicine materia medica has been established, in which over 5000 materials have been identified as having a medicinal property.

A very important fact about this process of creating the materia medica is that these materials have been always tested by ancient doctors themselves and usually on themselves. Famous ancient TCM practitioners used to try new materials on themselves and report the effects. They used to go through hundreds of different materials and it wasn’t surprising that some of them got ill and even died in the process. It sounds terrible, but due to the sacrifices of these brilliant ancient scientists we have this enormous body of knowledge, regarding the effect of these herbs on the human body, and their ability to heal diseases and ease symptoms. The fact those doctors tested the herbs on themselves made the information much more reliable. Modern medicines are tested on animals. Very commonly they show a good result when tested on rats or monkeys but when they are used in humans problems start to appear.

To sum up this point: the use of Acupuncture needles and herbal medicine to help people with their medical problems is often viewed, in the West and in particular by the scientific establishment, with great suspicion. It is often referred to as: an untested and unproven method of treatment. This description could not be further from the truth in regard to Chinese medicine. Actually, the truth, as is often the case, is the complete opposite. Chinese medicine has been tried, tested and proven much more thoroughly than any modern method of treatment has. It is based on careful and patient observations and an accumulation of experience over hundreds of years. That is the reason why, despite never having the scientific knowledge and technology available to modern medical science, TCM is still much safer and, in many cases, a much more effective method of treatment than modern medicines!

Now, as we put this important point to bed, we can move on to trying to explain how it all works, and what is the logic behind it.

In my next blog I will try and do just that. I will try and make sense of terms like Qi, balance, yin, yang, heat and dampness. Hopefully then TCM will start to make more sense.

Have a good week,