Updated: May 4
When I first started learning acupuncture as it is taught to doctors in the US, I was struck by the vast divide between how Chinese medicine is viewed by those who grew up in the East and the Western perspective.
Chinese medicine dates back thousands of years and its principles are inextricably entwined with the history, philosophy, culture, language and literature of the civilization. Philosophical precepts like yin and yang, and the five elements, explain not only medicine, but the basis of all life. Of course not all Chinese know or follow such principles, but yang shen 养身 or self care, is simply the way to live in alignment with health and nature.
Growing up in Hong Kong, I was fully immersed in Chinese medicine health practices without even knowing it. I grew up eating foods and drinking soups full of functional herbal foods like white fungus and goji berries. Foods were said to be “heaty” or “cold”, so cherries and lychees should be avoided if you didn’t want to exacerbate your acne. The Chinese have always traditionally served hot water, because iced water is considered injurious to the digestive system.
During my rebellious teens, I stubbornly rejected Chinese language lessons and patriarchal tenets. So these health practices were also tossed to the side along with the old wives’ tales, like when we were warned that we would get appendicitis if we swam right after eating.
East vs West
The Western biomedical tradition teaches a fundamentally reductionist approach, for example seeking to identify the single active compound in a medicinal herb. We have used science to identify cellular structure and mechanisms that have led to extraordinary advances.
And while modern medicine and healthcare systems represent a triumph of our civilization, we are also beginning to discover the miracle of nature. Like how breast milk represents a more perfect nutritional solution for most infants than anything we have been able to design.
So when we study acupuncture treatment protocols, we are beginning to understand how they need to take into account individual patients’ constitutions, which may mean that conditiona like menopause would present as different sets of symptoms. And now biomedical research is increasingly shifting to a precision medicine or customized treatment protocol, whether for cancer or brain health.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is gradually gaining more traction as a healing tradition that can be considered as individual treatment modlaities (i.e. acupunture, herbal medicine, bodywork, qi gong) or as a collection of holistic practices, In some cases we are recognizing where the “en suite” approach to Chinese herbal medicines may be more effective, and other situations where the patient may be better served with the single herb.
Technology and the rise of the internet has been a boon to integrative medicine, but also represents a bane. Consumers must be mindful of how to sort out trustworthy sources of health information from those with commercial interest or limited expertise. Doing some due diligence by researching information sources and trusting your common sense are always good ideas. I try to remind myself that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Yoga and taichi have become such popular movement and mind body practices, as are qi gong and pranayama breathwork. Chinese medicine and other traditional healing systems like Ayurvedic medicine bring a wealth of wisdom that is being embraced widely within wellness practices.
I have loved seeing the curiosity and respect that Chinese medicine has garnered in the West. And it’s fun when goji berries pop up as ingredients in Western snacks, or US Olympic athletes have cupping marks on their backs. I look forward to a time when we are all willing to let go of of stubborn beliefs, and to just allow the richness and common good to flow and be shared between East and West.
Bilingual website featuring historical and modern applications of traditional Chinese medicine.