What is Chinese medicine?

What is Chinese medicine?

Team ErbologyErbology

To a Western audience, Chinese medicine can seem quite mysterious. If you’ve ever been into a Chinese pharmacy, you’ll already know that there are literally thousands of herbs and treatments on offer. Yet there is much to learn from this ancient medical system. So, what is Chinese medicine, and can we apply it in the modern day to help support our wellbeing?

April 27, 2022 4:19 pm

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a medical system which dates back at least 2000 years.(1)

Unlike Western medicine, which aims to treat specific diseases, Chinese medicine focuses on the whole individual. Instead of organs, tissues and cells, you’re more likely to hear about life forces when speaking with a practitioner of TCM.

Chinese medicine also focuses more on preventative measures – helping you to stay well – than Western medicine does.

One of the core beliefs in Chinese medicine is that balance and harmony are the key to living well. According to practitioners of TCM, there are two complementary life forces in all of us. The first is ‘yin’, the passive life force, and the second is ‘yang’, an active life force.

When these two forces are in balance and harmony, the individual will feel healthy and well. However, if there is an imbalance, the result is illness or malaise.

Chinese medicine has a vast arsenal of different methods to help correct these imbalances when they occur. These range from herbal remedies to treatments such as acupuncture and cupping.

How did Chinese medicine develop?

Chinese medicine has been around for such a long time that its origins stretch back to a period where medicine was intertwined with witchcraft, myth and legend.(2)

One of the records we have from that time is the oracle inscriptions of the Yin dynasty. In these, we can see that practitioners were starting to take note of, and formalise, different diseases from around 1600BC.

Fast forward to around 770BC and we start to see a separation between theories of medicine and those of witchcraft.

Around this time, the key principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine start to emerge, including the five elements (more on these below).

From this point onwards, the medical system evolved rapidly and many important works on Chinese medicine were written. Each added more knowledge, helping TCM to become the immense and complex system we know today.

By the 1600s AD, the academic system for TCM had become formalised. Students could train under the tutelage of four masters of Chinese medicine.

The modern era brought opportunities to learn and exchange knowledge with other medical systems. Other nations shared their knowledge of anatomy, medicine and surgery, which were integrated into TCM as well.


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What are the core principles of TCM?

As already mentioned above, a key part of Chinese medicine is the interaction between yin and yang. These two life forces must be in balance for us to remain feeling healthy and well.(2)

However, the theory of five elements is also central to TCM. The elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water relate to all of nature. In human beings, though, they are also linked with particular areas of the body.(2)(3)

For example, fire relates to the heart and small intestine. Meanwhile, metal relates to the lungs and large intestine.

What’s more, the elements interact with each other in different ways. There is specific terminology for these interactions. For example, one element can generate, control or insult another.

When the elements are balanced (i.e. they are generating and controlling each other correctly), the body is in balance, and you feel well.

When one element insults another, an imbalance occurs. As we’ve seen, this leads to the individual feeling unwell.

In the diagram below, you can see the ‘generative sequence’ of green arrows moving around the circle. The ‘controlling’ or ‘overcoming’ sequence is represented by the red arrows in the centre.


The generative sequence in Traditional Chinese Medicine

How do TCM practitioners diagnose imbalances?

If you were to visit a TCM practitioner with a particular problem (or even just advice on remaining well), they would perform a number of tests and observations to try and identify any imbalances in the body.(3)

Their aim is to find the source of the imbalance, using the five elements theory, and then help to rebalance yin and yang by correcting it.

To do this, they will pay attention to various areas in your body to check for signs of imbalance. For example, they might listen to your breathing, looking for coughing, wheezing or hiccuping.

They may use their sense of smell to identify the source of any odours. For example, a sweet smell indicates that the spleen is involved, while a putrid smell points to the kidneys.

They may also take your pulse and examine your tongue. Shapes, patterns and coatings on the tongue are all useful to help the practitioner diagnose an imbalance.

They’ll also likely ask you a number of questions about your symptoms and what else is going on in your life right now.

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"When the five elements are balanced (i.e. they are generating and controlling each other correctly), the body is in balance, and you feel well."

Treatments in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Depending on the practitioner’s diagnosis, they may use a variety of tools to help restore balance in your body. Here are a few of the most common ones.

1.Herbal medicine

This is perhaps the best known TCM treatment among Western audiences. But, it’s actually just one of many treatments on offer. Even so, herbal medicine is hugely important around the world, providing primary healthcare for over four billion people.(4)

Several key texts in Chinese medicine offer advice on which herbs to use for which imbalances. It’s also common to mix different herbs with complementary qualities.

One text, the Ben Cao Gang Mu (also called The Grand Materia Medica) dates back to 1578 AD. It contains information on 1892 substances, including 1173 which are derived from plants. On top of this, it offers an astounding 11000 herbal remedies to treat various ailments.(3)

Of course, this only represents the contribution of one text. There are many others!

As a result, practitioners can prescribe herbal treatments which are highly specific to the symptoms their patient is experiencing.


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2. Acupuncture

This treatment is also widely known in the Western world. Practitioners perform acupuncture by inserting tiny sterile needles into the body at specific points, known as acupuncture points.(3)

Acupuncture points lie along lines called ‘meridians’. These are channels through which our life force (Qi) flows.

There are 12 primary meridians in the body, each of which relates to a key organ.

The theory behind the practice is that acupuncture can help Qi to flow throughout the body more easily.

However Western science also recognises the benefits of acupuncture. So much so, that the World Health Organisation agreed in a 2002 report that acupuncture demonstrates significant clinical benefits in treating a number of health issues.

These include allergic rhinitis, headaches, chronic back pain and postoperative pain.(3)

A similar approach called acupressure also makes use of acupuncture points and meridians. However this type of therapy uses pressure from the practitioner’s fingers rather than needles. If you’re interested in acupuncture but can’t stand needles, this could be a great option for you!

3. Cupping

A favourite among celebrities and athletes, and a wellness craze in its own right, cupping is intended to improve circulation.

It uses glass or plastic cups to create a vacuum against the skin. This draws blood into the area sucked into the vacuum.

Modern practitioners often use suction pumps to create the vacuum, whereas in ancient times they would have used heat.

Along with, or instead of, cupping practitioners often make use of massage.

4. Moxibustion

A lesser-known technique, moxibustion often works in conjunction with acupuncture. It involves heating acupuncture points to help stimulate the flow of Qi.(4)

However, it doesn’t simply apply heat by the use of warm water or cloth, as you might suspect.

Instead, it’s traditional to use mugwort herb (moxa) which is set on fire and then left until smouldering. While it can be applied directly, it’s more popular to use it indirectly, holding it close to the acupuncture point to gently warm it.

It’s also possible to wrap the top of an acupuncture needle in mugwort and set it alight so that the heat travels into the acupuncture point from the outside.

Practitioners specifically use mugwort for moxibustion as it is traditionally thought to have therapeutic, health-promoting effects.


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5. Movement

Chinese medicine also values the idea that movement can help improve the flow of Qi through the body.

A set of principles called Qigong suggest that, in moving your body, you are combining breath work, meditation, and improving your strength and balance.

Tai chi, a very famous form of meditative exercise, is based on Qigong principles. It is now popular throughout the world, providing a holistic exercise which helps to heal the body and mind.(3)

Does Traditional Chinese Medicine work?

According to the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health, some areas of TCM have gained greater acceptance into Western medicine than others.

For example, the NCCIH notes that some elements of TCM, such as acupuncture and tai chi, may help improve your quality of life. They may also help manage pain.(5)

There have been a plethora of scientific studies which have investigated whether herbal remedies from TCM can help to treat or cure diseases.

The results of these have been mixed, and so the Western view is generally that the evidence for herbal remedies from TCM is inconclusive.

However, it’s worth noting that the purpose of many of these herbal remedies is not to treat a disease (as a Western medicine would) but to address imbalances in the body. Similarly, the focus is more on ‘staying well’ rather than curing a specific disease.

Worries about Chinese herbal remedies

The supplements industry in the UK and US is unregulated. That means that suppliers do not have to prove the efficacy of their products in order to sell them.

Nor does the government take responsibility for checking that they are being sold as advertised.

In some cases, unscrupulous – or simply unsuitably trained –  suppliers have taken advantage of this to put substandard products on the market.

For example, an alarming study from 2015 examined 26 legally available Chinese herbal remedies sold ‘over the counter’ in Australia. They found that 50% of the samples contained DNA from plants or animals which were not declared, including one which contained DNA from an endangered species (the snow leopard).

Furthermore, 50% of the samples contained undeclared drugs such as warfarin and paracetamol.

The team used mass spectrometry to examine the heavy metal content of their samples and discovered unacceptable levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium.

Overall, 92% of the samples were shown to be contaminated in some way.

The NCCIH also noted in its fact sheet that there have been instances of practitioners mistaking one herb for another, with detrimental health effects for the patient.(5)

The bottom line for Traditional Chinese Medicine

TCM is an ancient method which has aimed to help countless people maintain their good health over thousands of years.

However, the clinical evidence for its efficacy – from a Western perspective – is mixed.

Some practices may be useful, particularly those which focus on meditation and movement. Furthermore, the preventative approach to health may appeal to people as a more holistic and integrated offering than he Western medical approach.

That said, there are legitimate concerns about the safety of many widely available herbal remedies sold under the banner of TCM. What’s more, there is essentially no way for the consumer to protect themselves from unscrupulous suppliers, because the industry is not regulated by the government.

If you are interested in trying out traditional herbal remedies for yourself, we would recommend sourcing from an organic supplier who operates in Europe or the US.

This is because to meet organic criteria, your supplier must provide evidence that they meet EU or US regulations on the presence of heavy metals. They are also not allowed to use pesticides.

While this helps eliminate some of the worries around herbal remedies, it does not guarantee that the product will work as a medicine. Indeed, this is not actually the purpose of many herbal mixtures in TCM.

As always, we’d suggest that you do plenty of research on any supplier before making a purchase, and go in with your eyes open to the pitfalls we’ve mentioned.

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