When I describe to my patients the different ways that Chinese medicine conceives of them as human beings, they are usually surprised at the depth, complexity and common sense of the concepts. One patient commented recently, “You are the doctor I always wished I had because you listen and see me as a whole person.” Just as western medicine has its view of life through the models of anatomy, physiology and chemistry, Chinese medicine has its unique models of understanding. These models are multifaceted and grounded in the concept that since humans are part of the ecosystem of earth’s biome, we function in consistent ways to make energy and to respond and adapt to constant threats and changes. How we function now is precisely the same as it has been throughout human history. Instead of focusing on outside “germs” that are ever-changing, we focus on the unchanging, the innate function of humans present since the beginning of time. Living a life that supports this function leads to better health and the ability to respond to outside forces that can invade and make us sick.
The closest any modern science comes to describing these models is physics and astrophysics. These disciplines suppose that everything is composed of matter and energy, and do remember that human beings are part of everything! Chinese medicine concerns itself with both matter and energy, yin and yang being its way of stating them. Western medicine concerns itself solely with the matter side. (See my post Focus on Western Medicine)
Acupuncturists study anatomy and physiology from modern science and so are well versed in the diagnoses and treatments patients arrive with from their MDs. Instead of focusing on the illnesses though, we learn to assess what has interfered with that time-eternal way we function to allow those illnesses to occur. For example, with the common cold, we assess what disrupted a patient’s ability to generate sufficient warmth and fluids to respond to the cold pathogen (virus) and repel it when encountered. Sufficient warmth and fluids are necessary to generate a protective response (immune response) to fend off cold. Possible reasons for insufficient response include being tired from an exhausting work week, not drinking enough water, having digestion that is incapable of absorbing and producing sufficient fluids so the body is deficient in response-level fluids (sweat), or being so preoccupied with worry that digestion is weakened causing it not to produce sufficient fluids (spleen organ system is responsible for both).
When there is no material explanation for a health problem, and even when there is, one must look further at what is not material, what is unseen, what is immaterial, like the energy of the organs and like the energy of emotions. We clearly experience emotions so they are real, but we cannot put fear in a bottle and not feel it, then open the bottle and feel it again. It is invisible, immaterial, it can’t be imaged, counted or bottled. As hinted at above, Chinese medicine associates specific emotions with specific organs and their energy channels in the body. This allows a linking up of physical problems with emotional causes.
Chinese medicine has a generalized, broader view of many physiological concepts. For example, muscles move us but movement is more than just going from here to there; it is part of our defense, to run away. Therefore movement, as well as antibodies, as well as all of our senses constantly assessing our surroundings for threats, all involve immune energy. Treating the immune energy with acupuncture can help correct problems with all of these functions.
Similarly, digestion is recognized as a warm metabolic process, one of ripening and rotting. Since cold slows down all functions in nature it is self-evident that iced drinks and cold food disrupt and damage digestive function. (See my article How Cold Food and Drink Affect Digestion.) Treatment with acupuncture can help the body drive out the cold and restore the warmth. Nutritional counseling grounded in Chinese medicine can provide clarity on the necessity of stopping the cold consumption to stop the body’s defensive warming response (the immune response called inflammation) causing, for example, GERD and IBS.
As opposed to the domination treatments of western medicine (see my post Focus on Western Medicine), Chinese medicine practices harmonization. When our internal environment is in harmony it accommodates the proper functions of anatomy and physiology known as autoregulation or homeostasis. It allows blood values to normalize and physical pain to subside. When we live in harmony with our external environment by, for example, eating whole foods and sleeping when it is dark, we can respond better to challenges from that environment like cold and heat (viruses and bacteria). Acupuncture coaxes harmony to return by working with the energy channels of the body to either unblock, return, or disperse energy in the channels and organs. For external-origin illness like a cold (germ theory concepts,) acupuncture strengthens the patients warmth and fluids, then releases the exterior so the pathogen can be pushed back outside. Low back pain, with or without physical evidence from images, is helped by warming and unblocking cold in the channels that pass through the region—cold being stored emotions (an internal origin illness) or cold absorbed from outside.
Internal harmony requires that there be emotional harmony. The holistic, comprehensive lens of Chinese medicine describes how we encounter emotions, digest them, then assimilate or eliminate them. It further explains where in our bodies we sequester emotions that are overwhelmingly traumatic or that we neglect to fully process at the time we encounter them. This locking away of emotions requires resources which can leave us physically tired. They can also cause internal illness and/or physical pain with slow deterioration.
Each human is absolutely unique and in a constant state of response to life. Recognition of this fact leads Chinese medicine to diagnose a patient as an individual, in the current moment, as a presentation of their experience of life. From this viewpoint an individualized treatment is developed at each appointment. This means that a patient might need the same treatment repeatedly for months or that a patient could change so significantly between treatments that they never receive the same one twice. This plays out with, for example, acid reflux. The disharmony causing GERD in one patient might be very different and be treated completely differently than in another.
Acupuncture nudges human health toward a state of internal harmony using the body’s system of subtle energy. This energy is invisible and unmeasurable so its effects cannot be “proven” with the same measurement analysis employed by material science. However, using observational analysis it is clear that pain levels, emotional state, physiological function, blood values, and imaging results can all change from harmonization using needles in the energetic channels of the body.