Our era may be defined by modern medicine and the pharmaceuticals that arrive with it, but more and more people are veering away from potentially-harmful therapies in an effort to heal naturally. And a huge part of this movement? Traditional Chinese Medicine.
“Traditional Chinese Medicine has been having a moment since celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Michael Phelps have been publicly vocal about the benefits of its role in their lives,” Simone Wan, L.Ac, M.S., and founder of the new Traditional Chinese Medicine brand Total Wellness, told Forbes. “I also think that many people are looking for alternative ways to treat their ailments and finding it less attractive to take pharmaceutical medication.”
Indeed. Data reveals that alternative medicine is on the rise, while in 2018 the World Health Organization endorsed Traditional Chinese Medicine as part of their global medical compendium. What’s more, a new report out of The Department of Complementary-Alternative Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina found that more than 50 pecent of physicians in the U.S. intended to start or increase use of alternative treatments—including those established by Traditional Chinese Medicine.
“About time” was surely said in some circles. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been employed for over 2,000 years to not only combat health issues but also prevent them. Presently, the National Institutes of Health is financially backing studies to determine if TCM can treat fibromyalgia, ease joint pain caused by medical treatments for breast cancer and support cardiac rehabilitation; meanwhile, TCM has been shown to help a litany of ailments, including migraines and hypertension.
But what is Traditional Chinese Medicine—and how can you benefit from it?
TCM has its roots in Taoist philosophy and Chinese culture, and is based on an “energetic” model of heath and illness rather than the biochemical model that predominates in Western medicine. For a Westerner accustomed to the straightforward, analytical science of conventional medicine, exploring the ancient wisdom of TCM can be one of life’s most transforming experiences. It offers a way of thinking outside the box of cause-and-effect relationships, asking you to consider your body, mind and spirit in new, nonlinear ways.
The Tenets of TCM
Two primary concepts govern TCM. The first is Qi. Pronounced chee, Qi is our body’s vital energy—not just the energy of your physical body but also the life force that serves as the essence of your being. Chinese medicine utilizes a systematic approach for maintaining and promoting health based on the premise that Qi is responsible for health and disease. Yin and yang, which are forms of Qi, are the opposites that exist everywhere in the universe and in your body. By this thinking, you will be in optimal health when your yin and yang are in harmony.
The second biggest principle of TCM—and one of the most helpful—is the Five Elements. These are the five basic properties that are said to be present throughout the natural world: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Like Qi, yin and yang, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of the Five Elements is also found in your body. Each is also associated with particular traits and tendencies—you can think of them as metaphors for qualities, or capacities, present in your body and expressed in your physiology, your emotions and your spirit. One of the Five Elements typically dominates your personality and determines your specific health requirements. (To discover your “power” element, go to this fun and enlightening quiz.)
The focus of TCM—and the techniques it uses
Another defining feature of TCM is that it aims for a holistic, natural approach to healing—holistic meaning mind, spirit and body (and the whole body at that) and natural, in that it relies upon the body’s own healing mechanisms to prevent and repair injury and illness. “Western medicine really waits for something to be wrong until we start to address it,” Scott Turpin, an athlete-turned-acupuncturist and founder of Scott Turpin Chinese Medicine told Outside. “Chinese medicine evolved with this broader scope of managing quality of life.”
To this end, TCM calls upon ancient techniques to act as catalysts for prevention and healing. Chief among these is acupuncture, medical massages, herbal remedies, cupping and nutrition (among others).
Acupuncture may be the most common modality of TCM. Utilizing small, thin needles, the technique aims to increase the flow of Qi throughout the body, and may naturally relieve everything from low back pain to tension headaches. “Medical massages,” including acupressure and Tui na, increases flow as well, in the hope of enhancing circulation and Qi while also offering pain relief and stress relief.
Herbal remedies, meanwhile, cover an array of plants and minerals that are used as supplementations in the name of well-being. Some of the most popular forms of TCM’s herbal therapies include Panax ginseng, which alleviates stress, supports neurological health and improves physical performance, and gingko biloba, which naturally supports mood and energy.
Cupping uses specialized cups and heat therapy to accelerate the healing of overworked muscles, reduce soreness and, again, bolster the flow of Qi. Lastly, Chinese nutrition operates by the belief that food is medicine and is used to synchronize the elements in the body. As MindBodyGreen puts it, “the focus of Chinese medicine is the quality of the food as opposed to its quantity, a commonly emphasized factor in the Western approach. In the East, foods are described by qualities such as temperature, flavor and action.” TCM, on the other hand, distinguishes the unique energy and “characteristic properties of each food such as hot/cold, salty/sweet/bitter flavors, and how foods act on and move throughout our bodies.” Gooseberries, for example, may be used to organically encourage liver health, while green tea may be called upon to diminish fatigue.
Sound promising? Yes. In a systemized review of 41 trials, acupuncture demonstrated the ability to relieve insomnia just as effectively as Western medical treatments such as Ambien, while a 2007 clinical study out of the University of Arizona showed that the ancient technique can improve heartburn better than medicine alone. Herbal therapies are part of a growing body of research, with exciting new data being revealed daily about its capacities (such as turmeric’s potential to promote neurological health). WebMD reveals that cupping may help relieve pain from shingles. (And all of this is just our getting started.)
In short, TCM may be rooted in antiquity but it’s riding on the wave of the future, serving as an effective alternative to maintaining and restoring health—and allowing you to heal naturally.