Traditional Chinese Medicine (also known as TCM) is an ancient philosophical/medical art that has evolved over the past 5,000 years and is currently practiced by millions of people around the world. One of the earliest known texts, The Huangdi Neijing, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (2,600 BC) was a compilation of medical theories that had long been in practice. Based on the ancient philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism, Traditional Chinese Medicine has a long history throughout China, South East Asia and the Caribbean. Today natural beauty treatments, based on Chinese energetic principles and herbs, are popular in spas. We find TCM doctors who practice acupuncture and use Asian herbal medicines to treat patients in far reaches of the world. Chinese martial arts, tai chi and qigong are popular everywhere.
Although Chinese health and fitness arts have mainly been popularized by acupuncture and martial arts in the West, TCM is a multi-pronged system of healing that includes herbalism and diets based on a complex system of diagnosis, various types of energy balancing techniques using bodywork, movement/meditation practices, and a holistic approach of understanding the vital connections between our body, mind and spirit and our place in the universe. TCM teaches that we are akin to Earth’s life force–earth, metal, water, wood, and fire–influenced by seasonal changes and subject to the laws of Nature.
Why is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) important today?
Traditional Chinese Medicine, practiced throughout the world, offers many benefits to humans and animals and has historically served as a foundational health science and a complement or replacement for Western Medicine. TCM can give our stressed-out psyche a space for peace, while offering calm and grounding despite erratic, violent and unpredictable current events. Rather than seeing physical illness as something separate from mind and emotions, Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a framework for enhancing our wellness––mind, body and spirit.
TCM and Our Connection to the Earth
Traditional Chinese Medicine includes an elaborate system of anatomy and physiology made up of organ systems and meridians, that differs from our Western understanding. The endocrine system is explained with Five Element Theory, which acknowledges that there are 5 basic energies that make up the universe and humans (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood.)
From the Taoist tradition, Chinese medicine adopts the principle of yin and yang a multi- faceted theory of the balance of opposites. Yin is interior, dark, wet, and nourishing while yang is exterior, light, heat, and movement. Yin is Earth. Yang is Heaven. Yin is contained in internal organs and body fluids, bone and blood, while yang represents metabolism, organ function, muscles, and skin. Understanding how yin and yang work takes years of study and practice. Each of The Five Elements contains a yin organ and yang organ. The yin organs are solid, the heart, spleen, lung, kidney and liver. The yin contains moisture and nutrition. The yang organs are hollow. Nutrition, fluids and waste pass through them. They are the stomach, intestines, bladder and gallbladder.
In TCM, our connection to Earth is made evident by the Chinese names of acupuncture points and martial arts movements. For example, Yongquan “Bubbling Spring” (aka kidney 1 acupuncture point) is located on the sole of each foot and is associated with the adrenal glands––thus, our stress response. This point is understood to be where our deepest energy bubbles up to meet the Earth. In ancient times, this point was used to treat exorcism. Today, it is used to ease tension or numbness in the legs, loss of consciousness, headache, dizziness, or manic episodes. It is an energetic pathway that grounds us to Earth.
*photo by Theme Inn
Five Element Theory: Diet and Effects
Chinese dietetic tradition features Five Flavors associated with The Five Elements found in Nature that make up our universe and correspond with everything within it––including our body, mind, emotions, and energies. Flavors, nutrition and energy in our foods, herbs, the season, and life events affect our mood, perception, sleep patterns etc.
Below is a list of The Five Elements, and their associated tastes, organs, foods, energies, and actions. In TCM these are known as “The Correspondences.”
- Flavor: Bitter
- Energy/Effects: Stimulating, cleansing
- Effect: Detoxifying, energizing
- Season: Summer is the time when the Fire energy is most active
- Time of Day: Mid-morning is when the associated organs and meridians are most active
- Organs: Associated with our Heart, Pericardium, Small Intestine, Triple Heater impacting blood pressure, circulation
- Foods: “Fire Element” bitter foods include teas, coffee, greens, certain herbs (rosemary) and spices (cardamom), heart tonics (Salvia Miltiorrhizae aka danshen used for angina; hawthorn berry and herbs to reduce cholesterol)
- Flavor: Sweet
- Energy: Harmonizing
- Effect: Nourishing
- Season: Indian Summer
- Time of Day: Early morning
- Foods: “Earth Element” foods include soothing, blood building and nourishing licorice root, goji berry, rehmannia, mushrooms, grains, yams, oils, nuts, apricots, beef, digestive and diuretic herbs
- Organs: Associated with Stomach, Spleen impacting digestion, blood volume and quality, integrity of blood vessels, blood sugar balance, our flesh (edema)
- Flavor: Pungent, hot
- Energy: Cleansing, warming, stimulating
- Effect: Diaphoretic, laxative, anti-mucus
- Season: Autumn
- Time of Day: Before sunrise
- Foods: “Metal Element” foods include onion, radish, ginger, pepper, garlic, turmeric, Tremella, American ginseng, Solomon’s Seal herb, lily bulb, neutral yin tonics which are moistening, rejuvenating
- Organs: Associated with Lung, Large Intestine, Skin, impacting breathing, elimination, vitality
- Flavor: Salty
- Energy: Strengthening
- Effect: Stimulating, cleansing, a source of minerals
- Season: Winter
- Time of Day: Afternoon, evening
- Foods: “Water Element” foods include seaweeds, miso, soy sauce, olives, high sodium foods such as celery and okra and adrenal tonics that support hormones
- Organs: Associated with Kidney, Urinary Bladder, Adrenal glands, Hormones, impacting water balance (edema, obesity, heart disease) sexuality, immunity, growth and longevity
- Flavor: Sour
- Energy: Cleansing, Draining, Astringent
- Season: Spring
- Time of Day: After midnight
- Foods: “Wood Element” foods include lemon, grapefruit, sauerkraut, and vinegar,
- Organs: Associated with Liver, Gallbladder, impacting joints, muscles, tendons, allergies, headache, arthritis, paralysis, vision
The Mind/Body Connection in Eastern Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is understood that within each Element there is a spirit (Shen) that expresses emotions and affects the body and behavior. It is also understood that our spirit affects circulation, energy and mood. For example, at one time or another we have all eaten a food that affects our mood. Dietary habits underlie emotional habits, body shape and energy patterns.
Flavors, Shape and Mood
In Eastern Medicine and TCM, it is understood that our diet impacts our health, relationships and emotions.
- Sweets may make us more round, mellow, sleepy. Excess sweet increases edema, obesity, and obsession (melancholy)
- Bitter coffee improves mental clarity and drive. Excess bitter drives nervous energy, quickens our pulse, increases emotional imbalance.
- Pungent hot spices clear phlegm and cloudy thinking. Excess heat (from smoking) dries our lungs, troubles our complexion and increases jittery anxiety.
- Salt is digestive and cleansing. Excess salt raises blood pressure, increases edema, may increase depression or anxiety.
- Sour cleansing foods help drain fluids and inflammation from the body and may cleanse the blood and brighten vision and mood. Excess sour is draining for energy, muscles and enthusiasm.
Traditional Chinese Medicine aims for balance, growth, kindness, compassion and longevity to do our work and express love. The Five Flavors may be used to balance body and mind in order to accomplish our goals.
*photo by note thanun
How TCM Sees Addictions
What is an addiction?
In TCM, addictions can look like: repeating the same mistake, eating the same food or taking the same substance––whether or not it is considered to be healthy, and even if it does our body harm. For example, milk is considered to be healthy, but many people cannot tolerate its effects. They may not even recognize its effects on their energy, breathing, or mood. Many people become ill when they overuse (become addicted to) one or more flavors or foods and create poor habits ignoring the necessary balance.
Addictive Habits and Emotions
In a Traditional Chinese Medicine framework, a person might become dry and edgy from fasting, smoking, over-eating hot spice, dry salty foods, and from lack of sleep. If a person is suffering from fear, anger, and anxiety, they may crave aggravating foods such as caffeine found in coffee, tea, chocolate or alcohol. Our emotions and cravings tell us which Element(s) are involved. We may gain deep belly fat and fall into a depression while eating unhealthy comfort foods (like sweets, processed foods or junk foods), which may also cause us to sleep during the day.
In Ancient TCM, these and many other conditions would be treated by balancing flavors with foods and herbs that impact yin and yang.
How to Balance the Five Flavors
Flavor: Balance With:
- Bitter pungent, sweet, salty (also sedating flavors)
- Sweet bitter, pungent, sour (also drying flavors)
- Pungent bitter, sour, sweet (also cooling, sedating flavors)
- Salty sour, sweet and bitter (also moistening, oily flavors)
- Sour pungent, sweet, neutral
Seasonal Foods and Exercise
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each season strongly informs what kinds of foods to eat. The foods that are “healthiest” for any given season are dependent upon what can offer balance. A simple example is to eat soup (warm) in the winter (cold). These specifications are further influenced by a person’s body type or constitution, the weather, the time of day, and more.
Below is a summary of the seasonal medicines and energies addressed by Traditional Chinese Medicine that emerge from each season (or weather condition.) Adjust the season to your local weather and atmospheric conditions in your time zone. Seasonal and local foods avoid extremes such as eating tropical fruit in winter or a cold climate or eating sweet, rich moisturizing foods in rainy, damp weather.
In spring, the earth pushes grass and trees upward with tremendous vitality.
It is known to be a “damp” season, and filled with possibility. The winds bring seeds, buds open and many rejoice at the sweet rebirth of the Earth. Our early morning energy is a time for stretching, walking, tai chi and qigong. We celebrate the return of flowers and green leaves on trees.
We eat fresh, local seasonal foods like fresh greens and yellow vegetables, summer squash, light miso, sprouts, adzuki bean, cucumber, shiitake, asparagus, peas, parsley and cilantro.
Summer: Sweet and Cleansing
In Summer’s full bloom, all living things on earth come out to play. We eat spicy vegetables and sweet fruits such as chard, kale, cilantro, and turn to ripe, blood-building fruits such as cherries and berries. We exercise to increase sweating in order to enhance detoxification.
Fall: Nourishing and Moisturizing
In Fall we gather our reserves, and consolidate our energy. We eat pungent foods like ginger, garlic, onion, daikon to clear phlegm in the lungs and digestive tract and prevent colds. We nourish our immunity by enhancing digestion with root vegetables, turnips, pumpkins, red miso, mushrooms, and sunchokes. We counteract the dryness of the season through moistening, sweet, and neutral-tasting foods like tremella and white ginseng, which prevent dry cough and thirst. Bone broth also supports minerals, bones, joints and ligaments.
During this season, qigong movements can be graceful and improve balance. We take walks in nature, smell the Autumn leaves and prepare to support blood and internal organs and increase sleep during the cold, dark season. We enjoy the sauna, massage and skin brush to exfoliate, reduce heavy metals and improve breathing.
In Winter or cold weather (or if we have internal cold––a tendency to chills and weakness) we enjoy warming, slow-cooked vegetable and meat soups, bone broth, and pungent spices. We turn to rejuvenating tonics and adaptogens to prevent colds, weakness and aging: astragalus and jujube tea, ashwagandha (can be added to grains), ginsengs, schisandra, goji berry, and other herbs to support sexual hormones and ease signs of aging. If we catch a cold, we avoid using tonic herbs and rich or phlegm-inducing foods in order to treat cold symptoms directly.
For many, our activities in colder, darker days are quiet and meditative. Winter can be a good time for reflection and redirection of our goals. People who have warmer energy and a strong constitution tend to love winter sports and exercise.
*photo by Mario Dobelmann
Yin and Yang
Traditional Chinese Medicine offers many ways to understand our energy differences. One of the most commonly-known and important foundations of balance in Eastern medicine and philosophy is the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are part of the many-layered approach we use to describe wellness and to adjust our habits in order to reach balance and protect immunity. Life is fluid change; the interdependence and easy flow of yin and yang. Stagnation and blockage causes pain and illness. Again, yin and yang describe a binary system of opposites. They are used metaphorically:
- Yin is dark, wet, young, night, female, passive, Earth, cold, dark winter
- Yang is bright, sunshine, daytime, active, Heaven, hot weather, summer
Yin and Yang in the Body
In the body, Yin energy represents moisture and body fluids including blood and internal organs. Yang represents metabolism, organ function, heat, activity and the outer part of the body––the skin. Yin and Yang work in tandem to protect vitality.
Yin nourishes organs to protect organ tissue and Yang energizes the function of organ systems. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners often say, “Yin nourishes Yang and Yang protects Yin.”
Constitution versus Condition
How do we differentiate between our inherited health and our current health condition? Traditional Asian medicine makes a distinction between constitution––body and energy type, including our genetic inheritance, as opposed to a condition which are current symptoms or chronic symptoms.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, every individual is born with a certain constitution, which can be temporarily more yin, more yang, yin deficient, yang deficient, or somewhere in-between. While our conditions can change throughout our lifetime, our constitution remains constant. Knowing our constitution can help us to understand our tendencies to illnesses and imbalance; also the healing foods and practices that can offer balance and healing. TCM doctors often express our constitution in terms of The Five Elements: A Fire person has Fire issues (heart, circulation, emotional issues,) a Wood person can develop liver problems, an Earth person is vulnerable to developing diabetes, etc. (See Karma Herbs.)
TCM as a Valuable Tool in Modern Health
In the modern world, many are faced with life-threatening weather and atmospheric conditions, fire and floods, and world wide epidemic infection that threatens lung health (among many other conditions).
While Western medicine can offer unparalleled support in terms of acute illnesses (like a broken bone, for instance), high-tech surgeries and powerful medicines, it can fall short when addressing some more elusive (and yet all too common) conditions like stress, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, immunity, recovery and many unexplained chronic illnesses.
The following foods and herbs support moisture and rejuvenation for our lungs during this special time of need. If you have chronic thirst, dry throat and mouth, dry cough, thick phlegm or wheezing, these foods and herbs can help to heal lung irritation, dryness and promote immunity.
Foods, herbs, supplements to enhance (Lung and Stomach) Yin in order to heal dryness, thirst, sore throat, cough, wheezing, COPD, and smoke inhalation
|Alfalfa sprout, artichoke, asparagus, kelp, mung bean sprout, pea, seaweed, string bean, sweet potato, tomato, water chestnut, yam, zucchini–steamed or boiled; Organic Juk: Rice cooked soft adding moistening Chinese herbs tremella and jujube red date, wheat, oats|
|Fruit||Sweet ripe fruits: Apple, apricot, avocado, banana, lemon, lime, mango, mulberry, pear, grapes, persimmon, pineapple, pomegranate, watermelon, goji berry, mulberry, blackberry, kiwi, strawberry
Instead of sugar or maple syrup use Loquat cough syrup, stevia or monk fruit (lo han quo)
|Bean||Adzuki, black beans, black soya, kidney, lima, mung|
|Bean Products||Tofu and fermented soy products|
|Nuts and seeds||Coconut milk, sesame seed, black sesame seed, walnut|
|Fish||Fish in general but especially clam, freshwater clam, crab, cuttlefish, oyster, octopus, sardine, caviar, sea snail|
|Meat||Beef, duck, goose, pork, pork kidney, rabbit|
|Dairy||Cheese, chicken egg, cows milk, nut milks, duck egg|
|Herbs and spices||Marjoram, Chrysanthemum flower tea, Chinese herbs for lung dryness and cough: loquat, monk fruit (lo han quo), tremella, lily bulb, glehnia, ophiopogonis, American ginseng, Chinese asparagus (tian men dong), dendrobium, Solomon’s seal, etc|
|Oils and Condiments||Coconut and coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, ghee, lard|
|Supplements:||American ginseng, royal jelly, bee pollen, reishi, cordialis, cordyceps and cordyceps flowers|
*photo by Gilly
How to Study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Traditional Chinese Medicine is a passion, an avocation and an ancient and venerable healing modality for the majority of the world’s people. If you are interested in studying TCM more in-depth, there are a variety of options for learning about this ancient health science.
- Meet with a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner
- Experience various forms of TCM such as acupuncture, reflexology, QiGong, herbalism, and more.
- Travel to China or Taiwan to experience an Eastern/Western integrated medical system.
- Study Traditional Chinese Medicine formally in an accredited college or university in the US or abroad.
- Study TCM basics to inform your overall holistic health practice through a comprehensive program such as the Academy Healing Nutrition.
Since Traditional Chinese Medicine is practiced by millions of people throughout the world, you can experience a wide range of different services and perspectives that are within your reach. There are many TCM professionals who come from formalized programs taught in North America, Europe, China, Taiwan and the East. A professional licensing organization within North America is the NCCAOM National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Washington, DC which has a list of qualified TCM practitioners.