by Mitra Malek

What if the key to good health is keeping your life and body in balance? Seems logical, but when most folks get sick, they wonder where they picked up a bug—not if something was out of whack in their world. tcm_flipMany might turn to antibiotics, and some who are very sick might look to surgery. Traditional Chinese medicine (or TCM) turns that habit on its head. In this ancient system, “medicine” takes on new meaning. It’s about cultivating balance to treat illness and to keep it at bay. Everything from how you deal with your neighbors to how long you spend on the couch affects you. If you can keep it all in harmony, you’ll be healthy, the theory goes.

In this ancient system, “medicine” takes on new meaning.(tweet this)

What is TCM?

So how does it work? First, it’s based on the idea that vital energy, called qi (pronounced “chee”), flows through everyone and nature. It’s what makes the world go round, keeping seasonal cycles and circadian rhythms. “When this life force is moving in a harmonious and balanced manner we have physical and environmental health,”TCM_world hands says Jayne M. Bliss, a licensed acupuncturist and doctor of oriental medicine in Pennsylvania. “But when it is blocked, diminished, or corrupted in any way, we create distress and illness within our body/mind/spirit and our natural world.” Chinese medicine says everything is part of a whole. That means everything exists in relation to something else—and if that’s the case, there’s got to be balance between them to keep things in order. In simple terms, we need the right blend of passive energy, called yin, and active energy, called yang.

It’s not a cinch to create harmony day in and day out, but Chinese medicine can help us. It uses tools that range from herbal remedies to tiny needles (acupuncture), massage (tui na), meditative movement (tai chi), and postures (qigong). To figure out what’s going on with a person, TCM considers not just your physical condition, but also your habits and environment. Symptoms too, but it’s not so much about cause and effect, like with Western medicine.

All About Acupuncture

A popular type of Chinese medicine in the West is acupuncture. Acupuncturists insert hair-thin needles into specific points on the body to cultivate a spot-on blend of yin-yang energy. Their schooling and experience teach them where exactly to place the needles. Sounds painful, but most folks don’t feel anything. The needles stay in place, usually for about 30 minutes. tcm_acupunctureFor some, the sensation is uncomfortable. Others love it. Often people need more than one session. “Really, the simplest thing is, it reharmonizes your body’s ability to heal itself,” says Blake Storey, a licensed acupuncturist who owns Chattanooga Holistic Medicine in Tennessee. “We all have an innate ability to heal ourselves. Your pains aren’t designed to last. They happen; your body sends a response and gets rid of them. Disease is the result of your body not healing itself properly.”

Studies have shown traditional Chinese medicine is effective for a variety of conditions. Acupuncture can relieve chronic pain in muscles and joints. It also helps with nausea and sciatica and can induce labor, according to an oft-cited list from the World Health Organization. “There are very few cases where acupuncture can’t make some kind of difference,” says Rachel Toomim, a licensed acupuncturist who owns Advanced Acupuncture at Mindspa in Sarasota, Florida. At least one recent study has shown it can lower high blood pressure, though it’s worth noting that the American Heart Association is skeptical.

Chinese Herbs, Tai Chi, and Qigong

Herbal remedies are also central to Chinese medicine, TCM_QiGongbut not as common as acupuncture in the West. They work best for acute illnesses like the flu or bacterial infections, Storey says. If you’re not into needles or herbs, consider tai chi and qigong, especially if you’re older. They can improve coordination and cognitive function and help with anxiety, according to recent trials.

TCM’s Growing Popularity

All told, though, for most conditions there’s not enough rigorous scientific evidence to know whether Chinese medicine works, according to the National Institutes of Health. Still, keep in mind that Chinese medicine has been part of Chinese health practices for thousands of years. And it’s becoming more mainstream in the West. Research last year from the Society for Human Resource Management showed 37% of employers offer acupressure/acupuncture medical coverage to employees.

For sure, Western medicine still plays a role in keeping people healthy—but a growing number of doctors’ offices are incorporating Eastern medicine practices. “Using the principles of traditional Chinese medicine as a lifestyle greatly reduces any chance of having disease,” Bliss says.

Journalist Mitra Malek writes about wellness, fitness, and innovation. She’s been a yoga teacher since 2006 and was a senior editor for Yoga Journal magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mitramalek.


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