In the holistic approach of Chinese medicine, we are ultimately looking at the root cause of why the body is manifesting symptoms. The framework to understand disease from a Chinese medicine perspective is what we will briefly explore today. It’s important to understand that influences from any and all categories can be influencing your patterns of disease. The job of your practitioner is to see all the pieces and decide the best course of treatment, which will evolve and change as your body heals.
This means environmental factors that are able to get past the body’s defense and cause disease. One easy example to understand is contraction of influenza. In Chinese medicine, we might say this is “wind-heat” or “wind-cold”, and if a person’s immunity (wei qi) is compromised , they will show signs of the flu because the exogenous pathogens are able to penetrate the body. If you’ve heard your acupuncturist encourage you to wear a scarf in cold and windy times, it is to protect the back of the neck from exogenous pathogens, where they can easily enter.
It has been argued that exogenous factors may not be as important in this day and age of climate control everywhere. However, perhaps due to this, we dress improperly and exhaust ourselves, leaving our wei qi more vulnerable to small changes. Additionally, may people work in a very strongly air-conditioned office, after coming in from a hot outside environment. These strong changes in climate (even artificial) can cause sneezing, sniffling and congestion like a cold or allergies might manifest.
The 7 Emotions
These include pensiveness, anxiety, anger, joy, fear, grief and fright. Perhaps you’re thinking how can joy cause disease? Like any emotion, there is a spectrum. Extreme joy can be likened to mania or, maybe more commonly, being over-caffeinated. In this state the qi is scattered, and one becomes jittery, unfocused, and unable to calm down (or sleep!). The other emotions have an effect on the qi initially, either stagnating, scattering, binding or depleting it in some way. After that, the blood and organs can be effected if the emotional state is not moved through in a healthy way.
Another way to see how the emotions effect health is to think about believe systems. What messages are you telling yourself everyday (you know, that voice in your head)? Do you believe you deserve good health? Do you think you can get better? Are suppressing emotions that you feel are ‘wrong’ ? Do you believe you are bad/wrong/not good enough/not smart enough/etc? Observe how you treat yourself. Consider bringing more love and compassion to yourself, like you would a good friend.
This would be the equivalent of your genes, or jing as we’d say in Chinese medicine. The quality of this jing depends on parent’s health at the time of conception and Mother’s health during pregnancy. There is growing evident to support studies showing that influences on modern diseases are up to 90% life style and 10% genes. That means 90% controllable and changeable by our actions. Epigenetics is a field showing how we have many potentials for disease according to the blue print of our DNA, but what ‘switches’ get flipped depends on our lifestyle.
How much is nature (genetic predisposition), versus nurture? Are we actually just playing out the mental and physical patterning of our parents, and having similar diseases (rather than inheriting them)? What belief systems are we continuing to perpetuate that are influencing our body’s disharmony? What habits are we continuing to follow (eating, drinking, sleep) that we’ve learned from our parents? If you want to know more about epigenetics, check out The Biology of Belief and other books by Bruce Lipton, P.h.D.
Unregulated Eating and Drinking
This is basically how we eat and what we eat. How we eat food is often overlooked. Eating on the go, standing up, or in a tense environment (during or directly after conflict) does not bode well for digestion or assimilation. The Spleen is King when it comes to digestion, so protecting it is foundational. Without going into too many specifics, here’s some basic Spleen-friendly practices:
- favor room-temperature or warm fluids (water, tea, etc) over iced beverages and cold foods
- avoid artificial colorings, sweeteners, and flavors. Stick with real, whole food.
- limit or avoid sweets, candies, cereals (candy disguised as food), soda, energy drinks (especially ‘sugar free’ ones), and other forms of sugar.
- favor “bland” foods like rice (try congee!), root vegetables, squashes, beans, oats, quinoa, and meats like chicken, turkey and grass fed beef.
- extreme dieting can be detrimental to the Spleen, as can consistently overeating. Eating mindfully, until about 70% full, is ideal.
Overconsumption of low quality alcohol is also a major contributing factor, particularly after age 30, to formation of pathological dampness, heat, and blood stasis.
A common example would be treating a viral disease with an antibiotic. This does not address the virus, and can injure the gut microbiome, particularly. This can give rise to diarrhea, indigestion, and the like.
In Chinese medicine, improper treatment occurs mainly in the herbal medicine realm. For example, a patient’s condition may present one way, but there’s a hidden underlying pathology that may be aggravated if the practitioner does not balance the herbal formula properly.
Improper treatment can also be the lack of intervention, whereas the pathogen is allowed to penetrate deeper into the body.
Overexertion & Improper Living
This is quite common in the American paradigm. Mental overexertion is more common than physical overwork. However, even just running oneself ragged by overcommitting and never allowing space between “doing” can become a sort of physical overexertion.
Lack of physical movement can cause the vital energy of the body (or qi) to stagnate, leading to a number of patterns. Oftentimes, one of the first things we see is mild pain in the neck, an increase in irritability, and more fatigue. Movements that can build the body’s vitality and keep the flow of energy moving include yoga, tai chi, and qi gong.
Physical Trauma and Injury
This is pretty self explanatory. Physical trauma and injury includes all sports injuries, motor vehicle accidents, falls, bumps and bruises. These direct injuries to the body cause stagnation of qi and blood (a healthy physiological process as the body brings attention to the injured areas). However, if left untreated, especially in the presence of constitutional factors, these injuries can continue to plague the patient may years later. I often see chronic pain in areas that have been treated with ice therapy over and over again (past the initial 24-48 hours). This icing impedes proper flow of blood and qi, causing congealing that leads to pain.
This blog post is a simple and brief foray into this subject, and by no means exhaustive. Each category could be a term paper. The beauty of this medicine is in its ability to see each individual as a unique and ever-evolving entity. Any given day or year, there will be multiple influences on a patient’s health.
Maybe this information empowers patients to see what areas of their life might need a new direction, or just a tweak here and there. Or, it offers a glimpse into how your practitioner is approaching your treatments. As always, your practitioner is the best resource for specific advice about how you can participate in your health journey.
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, she will be out hiking, cycling, or playing in the water.