People often walk into my clinic for the first time and ask something like, “What do you have for allergies?”
My reply is usually: “Nothing. But I’m sure I got something for your allergies.”
This is not me being a smartass.
In our culture, we think of disease as having a set of symptoms addressed by a specific standard of care. That’s why your doctor may prescribe diabetes or high blood pressure medication which has been approved for that condition. From the public’s point of view, it seems like a 1:1 relationship between disease and treatment. Chinese Medicine, on the other hand, takes a far different approach.
Chinese Medicine sees the same condition in multiple ways depending on how it expresses itself in the patient. As a result, there is no standardized treatment for insomnia or heartburn for example. We examine a symptom like heartburn in the context of what else the patient may be experiencing, even if the other symptoms are seemingly unrelated.
This group of symptoms becomes an omni-directional field of engagement depicting what bodily functions are overburdened. They also guide the practitioner into selecting the appropriate treatment from an otherwise overwhelming array of strategies.
For instance, some heartburn patients have gallbladder and stomach dysfunction where the organs are clogged and backfiring that excess. Others with reflux have a weak digestion, making them more sensitive to cold and prone to diarrhea.
Each of these patients needs completely opposite forms of treatment. To mix them up would be disastrous. This is why I lose it whenever I see a Chinese herbal formula based on a western medical diagnosis. In Chinese Medicine, treatment and the disease are customized for each patient.
For you as a person, a holistic disease model can be very helpful as you try to determine where your wellness efforts are best spent. How a disorder manifests provides information about parts of our overall health that need more attention from us. Do you get sinus infections often? Chinese Medicine would probably have a lot to say about the state of your stomach, large intestine, liver and metabolic health to name just a few.
The occurrence, severity and length of a disease all measure the capacity in which particular systems of our body cope with a stressor. In Chinese Medical terms, the body’s ability to overcome any pathologic change is often referred to as the strength of our zheng qi.
You might recall stories early in the pandemic about those who were silent carriers while others became gravely ill. The spectrum of responses to the virus varied even among family, friends and coworkers.
While the news media speculated over whether this was particular to covid-19, one of the oldest classics in Chinese Medicine (the Neijing) discusses epidemics and certain people whose zheng qi was so strong they never got sick. It’s actually a medical discussion we’ve been having for thousands of years.
The Neijing goes on to say that, for “epidemic qi”, the best strategy is to not come into contact with it in the first place [duh]. This wisdom would later be echoed in the Karate Kid Miyagism: “Best defense; no be there.”
But the Neijing also describes how to cultivate zheng qi so that if a battle does break out between us and an invading pathogen, the terrain tips victory in our favor. Through lifestyle practices in accordance with the natural world, our bodies have a greater chance of adapting to change and finding center again. According to the Neijing, this is critical for whether disease sets in or the degree in which we experience it.
Although I’m not oversimplifying the introduction of a novel virus, it is still a good public health message that was tragically drowned out during the pandemic. Since epidemics are likely to become more commonplace, the dire importance of our zheng qi should make us pause for a moment.
To be blunt: Your best long term investment is in things like food, nontoxic exercise, living in accordance with the seasons, sleep and restorative practices such as meditation.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, one’s unique reaction to a stressor underscores all types of potential diseases, not just plagues. This is why some people are prone to migraines while others are not. Among those who suffer from migraines, how it manifests is seen differently for each person based on how their body functions, medical history and something that is probably the most overlooked: surrounding life circumstances:
If you have irregular sleep habits for example and are prone to migraines, you’ll probably get them more frequently.
Life circumstances often get lost if we’re not feeling well and looking for help. When something is not working right, we tend to view it in a silo. It makes a lot of sense especially due to us being conditioned to think in that 1:1 compartmentalized way. If you have menopausal symptoms, it’s an endocrine problem; anxiety, a neurological or psychological condition.
But reductionism is not what Chinese Medicine is about. We are looking for how the whole body can adapt to a pathogenic change. The body’s role in managing disease is greater than we are socially conditioned to think. And yes, sometimes, it’s not enough. Chinese Medicine, when practiced this way however, can give one an extra push in the right direction.
Herbs, acupuncture and healthy lifestyle choices support us in the moving target that is our ongoing health. Instead of “getting rid of disease”, Chinese Medicine is a reset for the body so that it can overcome a potential war —or at least manage it way better than no intervention at all. This is what we mean by our body’s capacity to self heal.
To paraphrase a practitioner who has been doing this much longer than I: Chinese Medicine is an adaptogenic medicine. We help the body adjust to its environment so that it will stop overreacting or shutting down when it encounters a particular stressor.