What is Traditional Chinese Medicine? An Introduction

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Traditional Chinese medicine to the uninitiated, may seem mysterious, magical and a bit odd. But the fact that TCM has been around for thousands of years and is still able to treat modern diseases is a testament to its ability to heal the mind, body and spirit.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest medical systems in existence. It predates the rise of the British empire, the invention of the printing press and the discovery of DNA. The Chinese have been using acupuncture, herbs, moxibustion, cupping and massage to treat illnesses for thousands of years. That enormous body of knowledge is still relevant today, and is very much a part of the present system that is Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an umbrella term for the many modalities used by the Acupuncturist or Chinese Medicine practitioner. These include Acupuncture (electro, auricular, cosmetic), Herbal Medicine, Tui Na (Chinese medical massage), Gua Sha (scraping), Moxibustion (the burning of the herb mugwort), Cupping, Dietary Therapy and Energy Work (Qi Gong, Tai Chi and Meditation). Below is a brief description of each.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture Needles

Acupuncture is a technique utilizing fine sterile disposable stainless steel needles inserted at specific points in the body in order to correct various ailments and normalize the body’s physiological processes. Where the needles are applied and the depth of their insertion is determined by the nature of the problem. Traditional Chinese Medicine holds that there are as many as 2000 acupuncture points on the human body.

The ancient Chinese believed that there is a universal life energy called Qi present in every living creature. This energy is said to circulate throughout the body along specific pathways called meridians. As long as this energy flows freely throughout the meridians, health is maintained, but once the flow of energy is blocked, the system is disrupted and pain and illness occur.

Electro Acupuncture

Electro acupuncture involves sending a weak electrical current through inserted acupuncture needles to stimulate acupuncture points. A slight throbbing or tingling sensation may be felt during treatment. This modality is usually employed for severe pain and other musculoskeletal conditions.

Cosmetic Acupuncture

Cosmetic acupuncture is an effective, non-surgical treatment used to reduce the signs of aging. It has been used in China for more than two thousand years. Tiny sterile needles are inserted into the face along meridian lines and acupuncture points to increase blood circulation. The face receives an increase of blood to nourish, oxygenate and moisturize the skin from the inside out. Cosmetic acupuncture also stimulates the production of collagen, giving the skin a firm, tight look.

Auricular Acupuncture

Auricular acupuncture is acupuncture specifically of the ear. The ear is a microsystem of the entire body and is widely used for many conditions including addiction treatment, mood disorders, obesity and pain This medical system emphasizes a holistic approach to medicine, an approach that treats the whole person. The acupuncture points found on the ear help to regulate the body’s internal organs, structures, and functions. Auricular therapy has been shown to stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s own feel-good chemicals.

Chinese Herbs

Chinese Herbs

Chinese herbalism is complex and can take a lifetime to master. Each herb has many different properties which interact with both the person taking them as well as the other herbs in the formula. Chinese herbs function much in the same way as acupuncture in that the goal is to rebalance the body using Qi (the body’s intrinsic energy), Yin and Yang. Each herb has a thermal nature, a flavour, specific organs it acts upon and a direction in which it moves, and all must be balanced with incredible precision to achieve their desired outcome in the body. Because herbs are taken internally, they have a strong and often immediate effect and are incredibly powerful. They can be used in conjunction with acupuncture or other modalities, or alone, and are often chosen for chronic problems, long standing deficiencies or degenerative diseases because of their powerful nature.

Moxibustion

Moxibustion

Moxibustion is the application of indirect heat by burning the herb Folium Artemisiae vulgaris, commonly known as Mugwort, over a single, or group of acupuncture points. It is either applied to the end of an inserted acupuncture needle, held above the skin, or stuck to an acupuncture point with a thick foam between the skin surface and the actual moxa. The purpose of moxibustion is to warm the meridians and dispel cold, strengthen the blood and immune system, stimulate the flow of qi, remove stagnation, prevent disease and maintain general health.

Tui Na

Tui na is a form of Oriental bodywork that has been used in China for centuries. A combination of massage, acupressure and other forms of body manipulation, tui na works by applying pressure to acupoints, meridians and groups of muscles or nerves to remove blockages that prevent the free flow of Qi. Removing these blockages restores the balance of Qi in the body, leading to improved health and vitality.

Cupping

cupping

Cupping utilizes round glass or plastic cups over a large muscular area such as the back to enhance blood circulation and draw toxins out of the body. Cupping therapy has the action of warming the meridians, invigorating Qi and blood circulation, relieving blood stagnation, alleviating pain and swelling and dispelling damp and cold. With this extensive range of indications, it’s commonly applied for wind cold-damp bi syndrome, lumbar pain, shoulder and back pain, aching lower extremities, soft tissue sprains and contusions, common colds, headaches, cough, asthma, stomach aches, abdominal pain and dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps).

Gua Sha

“Gua” means to scrape or rub. “Sha” is the term for the reddish raised skin rash that occurs as a result of the scraping. Sha refers to the blood stagnation in the subcutaneous tissues before and after it is raised as the reddish skin rash (petechiae) or bruising (ecchymosis). Gua Sha involves lubricating the skin with oil (traditionally a thick oil such as peanut was used) and using a smooth edged instrument, the acupuncturist uses long or short strokes causing redness or bruising. Gua Sha is used to treat as well as prevent the common cold, flu, bronchitis, asthma, and pain both acute and chronic. It is also used to detoxify the body and for fevers as the scraping brings the excess heat and toxins to the surface of the body to be released

Dietary Therapy

Chinese dietary therapy

Nutrition and dietary therapy is an essential aspect of Chinese medicine. The Chinese have known for thousands of years the direct correlation between what we eat and our health. Even before the development of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, foods were used by traditional peoples to heal diseases and build immunity.

The Philosophy of Chinese Medicine

The philosophy of TCM is based on the Taoist view that human beings should strive to live in harmony with nature and their natural environment. Eating foods that grow locally and in season, internal practices like Tai Chi and Qi Gong, freely expressing our emotions, being self aware by listening to our needs and desires are, in the TCM view, the way to a healthy and balanced life.

5 Elements in Chinese Medicine

The TCM philosophy offers us different approaches to viewing our nature, the workings of our bodies, the development of disease and the process of healing. The emotional self, for example, is just as important to the TCM practitioner as the physical body. When a patient arrives with a specific complaint, all physical as well as emotional and psychological aspects are evaluated, as it is the entire person who must be re-balanced, not just one aspect. This holistic approach is the strength of the TCM model. Treating the whole is in opposition to the reductionist model in the West which reduces the body into parts, not taking into consideration that they operate synergistically as a whole. This is one of the reasons why TCM is still able to treat a huge variety of ailments in the modern world. Treatments is designed specifically to each persons set of unique signs and symptoms which is part of the reason why Chinese medicine is so effective. The focus is not on treating disease, it is on treating the person and their unique needs.
Illness is described in the way it is seen to exist, in natural terms. Terms like water, fire, wind and earth are used to describe a person and aspects of their health, personality and disease. Illness develops when something is out of balance, is deficient, in excess or stagnant. The energy of the body, or Qi, must then be re-balanced, topped up, sedated, and moved depending on the presenting condition. Qi moves along specific rivers or pathways in the body called meridians. The acupuncture points are places where the Qi comes to the surface and is able to be manipulated by the acupuncture needles.

Herbs work internally to achieve the same goals. They are powerful tools and can be used alone or in conjunction with acupuncture or any of the other modalities, like Tui Na, Cupping or Gua Sha. All are used to re-balance the body and return it to a state of equilibrium. It is up to the practitioner to decide which ones in isolation or combined are most effective for the patient and the imbalance that has led them to seek treatment.

In conclusion, Chinese medicine holds the body and its capacity for healing in great reverence. It does not see itself as an outside force that is able to heal the body, but as a way to help adjust the body and bring it back into balance so that health is restored. In essence, it is not the practitioner doing the healing, it is the body. Advice on nutrition, living with the seasons and moderation in life empowers the patient and enables him to participate in his own healing. The goal of the TCM practitioner is to use these concepts to guide the patient on how to live a healthy, happy and balanced life.


7 Most Common Acupuncture Side Effects

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac

For those unfamiliar with acupuncture, or with limited experience, there are some side effects that everyone should be aware of. This is why it is always good to do your research and make sure you have all the information before taking the plunge. Below is a list of the most common side effects of having acupuncture treatments, and some of them might surprise you.

wellbeing

1. An Overall Feeling of Wellbeing

By far one of the most common things heard by acupuncturists from their patients is that they feel an overwhelming sense of wellbeing. I believe the reason lies within the very foundation upon which Chinese medicine in built. Because Chinese medicine is a holistic system, when you come in for an acupuncture treatment, it is not just the ailment that is being treated, it is the entire person on every level. This is in contrast to the Western model which functions in more of a reductionistic way, honing in on the part of the body that is seen to be malfunctioning and treating it, often in isolation. In Chinese medicine, the entire body is seen to function as a whole and no one part can be separated from the others, it is one, everything acting synergistically. This is why people often feel a euphoric sense of calm, peace and wellbeing when receiving acupuncture treatment, as the entire being is being healed and rebalanced which is what the body really needs. The feeling of wellbeing is your body’s way of saying thank you.

2. Improved Sleep

Sleep is something that most of us don’t get nearly enough of. I have seen this over and over again in practice, we certainly seem to be a sleep deprived culture. Everyone is under pressure to get a lot done and there never seems to be enough time. Sleep, unfortunately, is the thing that often suffers. Thankfully, one of the wonderful things about acupuncture (and there are many) is that it is incredibly relaxing to the body and benefits the nervous system allowing us to have better quality sleep.

3. Feeling More Relaxed

Acupuncture is incredibly relaxing to the body. For anyone who has never had acupuncture before this may seem a strange statement. How, you may ask, could the body relax when it is full of needles? But, it is true. The tiny acupuncture needles release endorphins that cause a pleasant feeling of euphoria and are extremely beneficial to the nervous system causing the body to feel relaxed. Many people become so relaxed on the table, that they pass out cold. This is extra nice because it helps with number two - getting a bit of a nap is an added bonus.

acuface

4. Other Negative Symptoms Disappearing

The intake process is involved and great care is taken to collect both a medical history and other relevant information about the patient's health on every level. During this process there is usually a chief complaint which is the reason that the person has come to see you. After the information is collected, a diagnosis is formulated and a treatment plan put together. As treatment begins, something wonderful happens... the patient will say things like, “you know I was coming to you for my terrible migraines, but I had been having this awful constipation for years. I forgot to mention it to you, but it has completely cleared up.” It is very common for symptoms that are perhaps not the reason you sought treatment to resolve themselves, and the reason goes back to number one. Because Chinese medicine is based on a holistic system, it is not treating symptoms, it is treating the entire human being, therefore, the whole body is being balanced out meaning that symptoms that you may have been struggling with, will disappear.

5. Heightened Senses & Awareness

Acupuncture has the ability to heighten the senses and bring greater awareness to the patient. There are many people out there who are not entirely connected to their bodies and have a difficult time describing how they feel. Acupuncture helps them to reconnect with their bodies as they learn to feel the qi moving around inside them. There are many different sensations that can be felt while having acupuncture, and most are the movements of qi inside the body. For those who are more embodied, people who practice yoga, martial arts and athletes for example, this awareness has been developed and acupuncture can serve to heighten that awareness. For those who are not as connected to their bodies, acupuncture can be an introduction to their bodies and create an awareness that will help them maintain balance and health in the future.

acuwrist

6. Increased Energy

Many people come to have acupuncture for various kinds of stagnation. Stagnation is a common term in Chinese medicine and basically means a blockage of some kind in the body. It can be a blockage of blood, or of qi (the body’s vital energy). Stagnation is one of the main causes of pain in TCM, and acupuncture and herbs are excellent for moving stagnations. One of the side effects of moving blockages in the body is that it frees up all the energy that has been pooling around the blockage, and people will often find that their energy increases once the stagnation starts breaking up and things are flowing freely again. This is especially true of people experiencing pain which is very exhausting to the body. Once the stagnation, which is the cause of the pain, is moved, the body is no longer being drained and the energy stores are freed up for more constructive and pleasant bodily processes.

7. Clear Thinking and Better Concentration

A very nice side effect of acupuncture treatments is that people often report that they are able to think more clearly and are better able to concentrate. In this age of multitasking, long hours and lack of sleep we can all use all the help we can get. Acupuncture helps us to rebalance. When there is an imbalance in the body, our qi is disrupted. Often times, due to hectic schedules, improper nutrition and lack of sleep, we simply do not have enough qi to provide us with the energy we need, and the result often manifests in decreased cognitive abilities like dull thinking, forgetfulness and difficulty remembering. Because acupuncture treatments are rebalancing the entire body, it ensures that all the organs are functioning properly, making all the qi we need so we have plenty to think clearly, concentrate and remember. I think the term side effects has been sullied by the media. We are bombarded on a daily basis with commercials from drug companies that sing the praises of some new drug while quietly listing a myriad of side effects that are often worse that the symptom you are taking the drug for. This is what I think many people associate with the term side effects. But, in this case, I present to you a list of side effects which do not take away from the overall pleasantness of an acupuncture treatment, but enhance them exponentially.


Love Your Spleen.

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Helpful tips - How to Keep Your Spleen Strong According to Chinese Medicine.

One of the most common things I see in my practice is problems with digestion. Interestingly, this isn’t usually the reason that people come to see me, but when I am going through their medical history, it usually comes up. The sad thing is that most people live with digestive problems when in Chinese Medicine they are relatively easy to fix with a little treatment, nutritional counselling and some tips on how to help support and strengthen our digestions.

Now, a lot of people think of the spleen as in the western medicine spleen, part of the immune system and responsible for the production of white blood cells (lymphocytes) and removal of old red blood cells. It is not the same as it is in Chinese Medicine. The spleen in Chinese Medicine is paired with the Stomach, and both are the main organs of digestion for the body. The difference is that they not only digest food but also stimulus and information - everything that comes into the body through our sense organs.

What you learn your first year in Acupuncture school when learning Chinese Medicine theory, is that we live in a Spleen deficient culture. We are constantly taking in information, and that information has to be processed by, you guessed it, the Spleen. We eat in front of the TV (taking in food, and stimulus at the same time), we are constantly looking at our mobile devices on the road and wherever we go, and we are always multitasking. Never doing just one thing at a time. And thus, we are overloading our poor Spleens.

So, what can we do? There are lots of things that, once you are aware of them, can help take the burden off your Spleen.

Don’t Put Ice In Your Drinks. Avoid Cold Foods.

The Spleen hates cold, so one easy way to help your Spleen is to avoid ice in your drinks. Because the Spleen is responsible for breaking down your food through the process of digestion, and this is powered by heat. Eating and drinking cold foods such as icy drinks, eating ice cream (a TCM nono!), or eating a lot of frozen or very cold foods (many foods in raw form are considered “cold”) taxes the Spleens energy, as it has to heat up again to be able to do the work necessary for digestion.

Be Mindful.

This is not just good advice for helping your Spleen, but a good life philosophy. One of the best things you can do for your Spleen is to do one thing at a time and be absolutely mindful when you do it. This means when you are eating, JUST EAT. Don’t sit in front of the TV, read, study or catch up on work. In such a fast-paced world where everyone is short on time, it is understandable that people are always doing many things at once, but this small thing will not only help your Spleen, it will relax your mind and body as well.

Chew Your Food.

We can all help our Spleens by making sure that we really chew our food well. We tend to all be in such a hurry that we do not chew our food nearly as well as we should. Chewing will help the breakdown of the foods before they get to the stomach, making the Spleens job a little easier.

Eat Soups.

Since most of us have at least some Spleen deficiency, one of the best things you can do to be kind to your Spleen is to eat soups. These are warming (the longer and slower they are cooked, the more warming they become) and they are very easy to digest which is why they are prescribed to you when you are sick - your body requires less energy to digest them, focussing its energies to fighting pathogens and getting you well. Soups do not take a lot of energy to digest, saving the Spleens energy for other things. There are many foods that are beneficial to the Spleen which I will list later in the article. I will also list foods that the Spleen is not so fond of so you can at least be aware of what they are and avoid them when you can.

Take A Break.

Because we live in a culture that is so bombarded by stimulus, most people have deficient Spleens. The Spleen must take in and process ALL that information, including the food we eat and liquids we drink, so you can imagine, it is a very hard-working organ. Something that you can do to give your Spleen a break, is to literally, take a break. Go for a walk outside. Leave your phone at home. Sit somewhere quiet and meditate away from the TV, the phone and try to avoid interruptions. Doing this even once a day for a few minutes will really help the Spleen and you will notice a big difference in how you feel. You will notice that you are calmer, more aware and feel more at peace. And your Spleen will love you.

The Spleens Functions in Chinese Medicine

The Spleen is responsible for many functions so that if you have symptoms in any of these areas, they point to a disharmony of the Spleen.

The Spleen Controls Blood

The Spleen is responsible for manufacturing the Blood and the Spleen Qi keeps it in the vessels. If Spleen Qi is weak, a person will bruise easily, and/or will have problems with bleeding.

The Spleen Controls The Muscles And The Four Limbs

The Spleen is responsible for circulating nutrients to the muscles and tissues. If the Spleen is weak, then the muscles and limbs are not nourished and become weak and tired.

The Spleen Is Responsible For Transformation & Transportation

The Spleen is responsible for the intake, processing and distribution of nutrients extracted from food and drink. The Spleen takes these nutrients and creates Qi and Blood, both vital substances for all the body’s functions and maintaining proper health. If transformation and transportation is functioning properly, the Qi is strong, digestion is smooth and the body is kept moist. When malfunctioning, the Qi is weak (lassitude and lethargy), the appetite is poor, digestion is sluggish and the stools are loose and watery.

The Spleen Opens Into The Mouth & Manifests In The Lips

Chewing is necessary for the functioning of the Spleen and if the Spleen is deficient, the sense of taste may be dulled. Red, moist and vibrant lips indicate a healthy Spleen. If the Spleen is deficient however, the lips will be pale from lack of nourishment.

Controls The Upright Qi

The Spleen is responsible for the body’s “holding” function. This is called the upright Qi. It is specifically the force that counteracts gravity when it comes to holding things, specifically the organs, in place. This is very important! Without healthy upright Qi, all of our organs would be at the bottom of our abdomen! When the Spleen is weak, we see prolapse of organs (uterus, bladder, stomach), prolapse of the vagina as well as things like haemorrhoids (prolapse of the anus, PLUS bleeding also attributed to the Spleen).

Houses Thought

Every organ in TCM is seen to have its own unique Spirit, and the Spirit of the Spleen is called the Yi. The Spleen is directly related to our capacity for thinking. How well we manage our thoughts, concentrate, exercise discernment and form intentions is dependent on the strength of the Spleen.

Worry - The Emotion of the Spleen

All organs in TCM also are associated with an emotion, and the emotion of the Spleen is worry and overthinking. This works in two ways. Excessive worry will damage the Spleen Qi, and a deficient Spleen can weaken the mind and our capacity to think clearly and focus, leaving us susceptible to worry.

Foods Beneficial For The Spleen

  • Organic lightly cooked vegetables, corn, celery, watercress, turnip, pumpkin, alfalfa sprouts, button mushrooms, radish, caper
  • Brown rice, barley, amaranth, rye, oats
  • Legumes, kidney beans, adzuki beans, lentils
  • Small amount of lean organic meat, poultry and fish, tuna
  • Small amount of whole fruits, lemon
  • Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
  • Seaweed, kelp
  • Green tea, jasmine tea, raspberry leaf tea, chai tea
  • Raspberry, peach, strawberry, cherry
  • Walnut, chestnuts, pine nuts, pistachios
  • Lamb, venison
  • Lobster, mussels, prawns, shrimp, trout
  • Black pepper, cinnamon bark, clove, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, peppermint, rosemary, sage, turmeric, thyme, horseradish, cayenne, nutmeg

Foods That Hurt The Spleen

  • Dairy
  • Wheat
  • Cold drinks
  • Fruit juice
  • Processed foods
  • Refined flour, pastry, pasta, breads
  • Cold raw foods
  • Refined sugar and sugar substitutes
  • Coffee, alcohol
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Bananas, avocado

When the Spleen is functioning well a person will feel energetic, their digestion will be smooth, their bowel movements will be regular and firm (not soft), thoughts will be clear and one will be able to concentrate.

When the Spleen is imbalanced there will be symptoms of digestive upset, loose stools, poor appetite, low energy, oedema (water retention), nausea, vomiting, weakness in the four limbs, pale lips, organ prolapse, bruising and a feeling of cold.

Because most of us have some level of Spleen deficiency, we can all help our Spleens by being aware of simple things we can all do to take some of the pressure off of this important organ. Your Spleen will love you for it.

 

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