Causes of Disease in Chinese Medicine

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

According to traditional Chinese medicine, we are healthy, happy beings because our bodies are in a state of harmony. This harmony is between yin and yang, the different organs in our bodies and our relationship with the external environment. And yet, this harmony is constantly in a state of flux because of the activities of our daily lives; the way we treat our physical bodies, how we deal with our emotions, the changing weather, the stresses of work and family and the constant uncertainty of life itself.

When a person is healthy and an imbalance is created, it is quickly restored. If a person is unhealthy and there is an imbalance, because the strength of the body is compromised, it takes longer for the body to return to that harmonious state. When the body is in a prolonged state of imbalance, disease will occur. In Chinese medicine, it is the factors that cause the body to lose its harmonious balance that are the causes of disease.

Human beings have always struggled with external and internal threats to their health. External factors such as the weather are not normally causes of disease. It is only when the body is in a weakened state, or the external factors occur too quickly for the body to adjust that the delicate balance is disrupted and illness can occur. Some diseases are also seen to be caused by internal factors, such as problems with the organs, emotional stress, and excess sexual activity.

External Causes

Wind

Symptoms of external wind manifest with fever, chills, and sweating. Wind particularly affects the lungs which leads to coughing, stuffy, runny nose and an itchy or dry throat. Wind is said to be the master of 100 illnesses.

Heat Fire

The difference between heat and fire is temperature. Fire is not only hotter than heat, but it always flares upwards which manifest in symptoms of the upper body. Symptoms of fire include a strong aversion to heat, restlessness, irritability and thirst. Someone with fire symptoms has little sweat, a flushed face and red eyes.

Summer Heat

Symptoms of summer heat occur mostly in the summer season. Of all the external pathogenic factors, summer heat is the only one that is seasonal. It is also the only factor that is caused solely by heat from the external environment. There is no internal summer heat. Symptoms of summer heat include fever, excessive sweating, thirst, irritability, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Heatstroke is a common ailment in the summer season and its symptoms include dizziness, nausea, lack of energy. The best way to combat summer heat is to keep hydrated by drinking lots of water.

Dampness

External dampness includes the humidity in the air, and the water, rain and fog in the environment. Living in a damp environment, such as a basement in a damp climate, can cause dampness to invade the body and lead to disease. Symptoms of external dampness include chills, fever that does not improve with sweating, a heavy sensation in the body – especially the limbs and a cloudy, heavy feeling in the head. One of the main symptoms of dampness is a lack of thirst because the body is already inundated with moisture.

Dryness

Dryness is associated with autumn, so it occurs most often in that season. Dryness enters the body through the nose and mouth so most effects the lungs. These symptoms manifest as dry mouth, nose, throat, skin and cough. Dryness with the addition of heat also causes fever, headaches, sweating, thirst and irritability.

Cold

Cold is the main climatic element of winter, but of course, exists all year round and can combine with other elements such as dampness and wind. When the body is exposed to cold, either from cold weather or staying in a cold place for too long, the body will exhibit symptoms of fever, aversion to cold, headaches, body aches, stuffy nose, coughing and lack of sweat. Overeating raw foods, which are considered very cold in Chinese medicine is another way that cold can affect our health. Symptoms of over consumption of cold foods are pain in the abdomen or stomach, indigestion, vomiting, and diarrhea. Staying warm when we go outside and while we sleep is a good way to keep cold making us sick.

Internal Causes

Internal Wind

The main symptoms of internal wind are spasms, convulsions, rigid neck, upward turning of the eyes and opisthotonus (a severe muscle spasm where the back is arched and the head and toes are almost touching). Some less serious symptoms of internal wind are numbness or tremors of the limbs, blurry eyes, and vertigo. In Chinese medicine, the liver is the organ that generates wind, so someone presenting with these symptoms would be suffering from liver wind.

Internal Heat Fire

Signs of internal fire are more severe than external fire and include bleeding from the nose, blood in the urine or stools, bleeding associated with hemorrhoids and eruptions, boils or rashes on the skin and cold sores on the tongue or mouth.

Internal Dampness

Internal dampness usually has to do with a dysfunction of the spleen. The spleen, when out of balance, is prone to dampness. A common symptom is difficult urination. If the dampness is in the upper part of the body like the lungs, the patient will feel tightness in the chest, dizziness and vertigo. If the dampness is in the stomach they will feel fullness and distension in the abdomen, nausea, soft or loose stools, heaviness of the limbs and have a sticky sweet taste in the mouth.

Internal Dryness

Internal dryness results in the lack of blood and body fluids, and can occur after a feverish illness, not allowing the patient to recover completely and causing their illness to linger. Internal dryness is common after someone has suffered a chronic disease as the body and body fluids are often exhausted and the body is not able to nourish tissues. Many medications are also considered very heating in Chinese medicine and can contribute to dryness inside the body. Symptoms of internal dryness include thirst, dry skin that can be coarse and flaky, dry hair, constipation, emaciated muscles and a dry tongue.

Internal Cold

Internal cold is caused by a deficiency of fire or yang energy inside the body. Yang deficiency can occur in any of our organs. The symptoms a person experiences will correspond to the organ affected. For example, if the yang of the heart is deficient the function of the heart will be compromised as we see with heart failure. These patients feel cold, have palpitations, shortness of breath and a stagnation of their qi and blood which can lead to severe chest pains. Lips and face are often a bluish or purple in these patients.

Emotional Factors

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It may seem strange that something like emotions could be considered a cause of disease. Of course, emotions are a normal part of being human. But feeling them intensely for prolonged periods, being unable to express your emotions, or experiencing a sudden shock or trauma is the way in which they can become a cause of disease.

Each organ is associated with an emotion in Chinese medicine. When the organ is out of balance, there will be a disturbance in its associated emotion, and conversely, if you are feeling overwhelmed by a specific emotion, it may damage its corresponding organ. Here are the organs and their corresponding emotions…

The Heart – Joy

The Liver – Anger or Frustration

The Lungs – Sadness or Grief

The Spleen – Worry or Overthinking

The Kidneys – Fear

An example would be someone suffering from the sudden loss of a loved one. The shock might cause an overwhelming sense of loss and grief which, if intense could cause lung symptoms like asthma, shortness of breath and cough. This also works in reverse, if someone was suffering from a prolonged cough, they might find that they were feeling more melancholy than usual. It is a constant cycle of interaction.

Then we have what are called the “miscellaneous factors” in Chinese medicine. These are the causes of disease that do not fit into the previous categories of internal, external or emotional.

Diet & Eating Habits

Nutrition and eating habits are necessary for the body to perform its vital functions. One of the major causes of disease is poor diet and bad eating habits. If we are not able to attain enough nutrition to keep our bodies healthy and functioning at optimal levels, then illness will occur. The amount of food and the frequency at which we eat it is also important. Many smaller meals are always better (and easier on the digestive system) than one or two large ones. Everyone is different, but we tend to live in a culture with larger than necessary portions and not enough time to eat regularly, the body loves consistency.

Eating a varied diet, full of fruits and vegetables, being careful to wash foods carefully will help keep the body strong and the immune system able to fight off pathogens from inside and out. Food therapy is a huge component of Chinese medicine, each food having its medicinal properties, temperatures and seasons when they are best consumed for health. The Chinese have used food as medicine for thousands of years and there is a wealth of knowledge on how to use food to keep yourself in the best health possible all year round.

Another thing important in TCM is being mindful when you eat. We are so often doing more than one thing at a time, and people often use their lunch breaks or dinner to catch up on work, watch tv or help the kids with their homework. One way we can relieve some of the burden on our already taxed digestive systems is to really focus and when we are eating, and just eat. The spleen, which is the organ of digestion in Chinese medicine is responsible for digesting not only the food that we eat, but information and stimulus as well which is why allowing it to digest those things one at a time will lift some of the burden. And we all want to have happy spleens right? Of course we do.

Stress

Stress is also a normal part of life. We all experience heightened levels of stress that are often beyond our control. The key to health is being able to maintain that balance and find healthy ways to deal with stress so it does not become overwhelming. Thankfully, Chinese medicine offers us many tools with which to effectively deal with stress.

Qi Gong

Qi Gong is an internal martial art which has been practiced for thousands of years in China is an ideal way to calm the mind and body with its fluid movements and emphasis on breathing.

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is another excellent exercise and way to calm the mind, body, and spirit with forms of graceful movements also with an emphasis on the breath. Both are best practiced outside, as nature has a calming, grounding effect on body mind and spirit.

Meditation

Meditation is another tool employed to help combat the effects of stress. It is amazing how dramatic the act of sitting quietly for 20 minutes can affect how you feel. It is a wonderfully simple way to pull yourself out of what is worrying you and become more centered. And, because nature is such a fundamental part of Chinese medicine, the simple act of going outside, taking a walk and taking deep breaths is an incredibly healing, calming thing for mind and body. Make sure to take the time you need to step outside of what is stressing you and give yourself the gift of healing with one of the many modalities that have been used for thousands of years by the Chinese.

Fatigue


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In this chaotic time, this is perhaps one of the most common causes of disease. We are a chronically under-slept culture. The incredibly healing restorative power of sleep cannot be overstated. Sleep is the time that our bodies have to heal and repair any damage. It is also a time for the mind to rest, which is an incredibly important aspect of health. Everyone knows that feeling of being run down, and how susceptible we are to illness when our bodies and psyches are exhausted. Give yourself the time to sleep. It is important for the immune system, stress and is your body’s time to rebalance itself which it really needs.

Excess Sexual Activity

This is one that surprises people. Is it really possible that excess sexual activity can be bad for you? Yes. It is true, that in Chinese Medicine excess sexual activity is a cause of disease, and let me tell you why. First of all this problem is more relevant for men that it is for women and that is because sex for men usually ends in ejaculation. That ejaculation contains the man’s fundamental essence, called Jing. A substantial and ongoing loss of this Jing can have long term health consequences which become more severe as the man ages. A loss of Jing causes the body to age prematurely. For women this loss of Jing, the body’s fundamental essence can occur by having too many children too close together. Pregnancy is traumatic to the body and supplementing and allowing the body to heal sufficiently afterwards is important so that you are not unnecessarily draining your Jing. Also, marrying too young and engaging in excess sexual activity before your body is fully developed is another way you can injure Jing. Don’t get me wrong, having a healthy sex life is a very important factor in good health, but, like everything in Chinese medicine, it is all about balance. So, my advice to you would be moderation. :)

Injuries & Trauma


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Injuries and traumas are unavoidable and often out of our control. Broken bones, sprains, cuts, pulled muscles and animal bites and accidents happen to all of us. The damage is usually localized, and if treatment is sought right away and given correctly then there are usually no long term effects. But, if treatment is not received quickly enough or things like infections develop, they can lead more serious problems and eventually be causes of disease.

Parasites

Parasites are still a problem in many parts of the world where there is poor sanitation and health regulations. Parasites have a profound effect on the body often causing pain in the abdomen, poor appetite, and emaciation. Parasites drain the body of essential nutrition leading to deficiencies and weight loss. Children especially are susceptible to parasites and worms and should be checked if any of the above symptoms are observed.

Chinese medicine was developed over thousands of years and as a result has a robust understanding of the human body and the causes of disease which is why, there is, and always has been, a huge emphasis on prevention. The idea being that if the body is strong, healthy and in balance, disease will never have a chance to develop. There is a quote that illustrates this and basically sums up the idea that is at the core of Chinese medicine. It was written in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty by the famous emperor Huang Di.

Maintaining order rather than correcting disorder is the ultimate principle of wisdom. To cure disease after it has appeared is like digging a well when one already feels thirsty or forging weapons after the war has already begun.

~ Huang Di / The Yellow Emperor   476 – 221BC