Traditional Chinese Medicine

Information on traditional chinese medicine and acupuncture. Also an overview of chinese herbal medicines...

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), health and well-being depends on the smooth and balanced flow of Qi through a body. Qi consists of Yin and Yang, opposing but complementary qualities in nature. Yin signifies cold, damp, darkness, passivity and contraction; Yang is associated with heat, dryness, light, action and expansion. Yin organs are dense and blood-filled, such as the heart and liver. Yang organs are hollow and involved with discharge or absorption, like the gall bladder and stomach. When these qualities become unbalanced - too much Yang or too little Yin - the flow of Qi is interrupted and illness may result.

An important concept of TCM is that of the Five Elements: fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Everything in the universe, including the organs of the body, is associated with one of these elements, whose properties are interactive.

As illness is seen as a lack of harmony, the goal of all treatment is to assist the body to regain balance. Infection, for example, is viewed as having an underlying cause in an imbalance of some kind. TCM targets that imbalance, rather than the infectious organism.

There are three main strands to Traditional Chinese Medicine: herbal therapy, acupuncture and Qigong exercises. Herbal medicine acts on organs internally, acupuncture stimulates the external body and Qigong restores the orderly flow of Qi (sometimes known as ch'i, or energy).

Chinese Herbal Medicine

The key to success in TCM is the treatment of each patient as an individual, so a practitioner might give different herbal prescriptions to patients with exactly the same infection because their symptoms indicate a different type of imbalance.

The practitioner usually designs a remedy using one or two main ingredients that target the illness. Other ingredients are added to adjust the formula to the patient's Yin and Yang conditions. Chinese herbalists rarely prescribe a single herb to treat a condition; they create formulas instead, usually containing from four to as many as twenty herbs.

There are about 600 different herbs in use today. Chinese herbology incorporates ingredients from all parts of plants: the leaf, stem, flower and root, as well as ingredients from animals and minerals. The use of parts of endangered species (such as seahorses, rhinoceros horns and tiger bones) has created world-wide controversy and many herbal manufacturers have discontinued their use.

Decoction is the traditional method of preparing herbal medicine. A decoction is a concentrated form of tea. The practitioner weighs out a day's dosage of each herb and combines them in a bag. A patient is given a bag for each day the herbal formula is to be taken. The patient then boils the herbs in water for 30 to 60 minutes, and drinks the resulting decoction several times a day.

There are two main methods of classifying traditional Chinese herbs: the Four Natures and the Five Tastes.

The four natures

These are the Yin and Yang temperature characteristics of the herb: from cold (extreme Yin), cool, warm to hot (extreme Yang). The patient's internal balance of Yin and Yang is taken into account when the herbs are selected. For example, medicinal herbs of hot, Yang, nature are used when the person is suffering from internal cold, or when the patient has a generally cold constituency.

The five tastes

The five tastes are spicy, sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Spicy herbs generate sweat to vitalise Qi and the blood. Sweet-tasting herbs tone and harmonise bodily systems.

The various combinations of temperature and taste give the herb the properties to influence the Yin and Yang energy patterns of the body. For example, sour, bitter and salty tastes are related to Yin, while acrid and sweet are attributed to Yang. There are herbs that will warm, herbs that will cool, herbs that will tone and herbs that will move stagnation.


Acupuncture is based on the theory of meridians. According to this theory, Qi, (energy) and blood circulate in the body through a system of channels called meridians, connecting internal organs with external organs or tissues. By stimulating certain points of the body surface reached by meridians through needles, the flow of Qi and blood can be regulated and diseases treated. These stimulation points are called acupuncture points, or acupoints.

The acupuncturist first selects appropriate acupoints along different meridians based on identified health problems. Then very fine needles are inserted. They are made of stainless steel and vary in length from one to six centimetres. The choice of needle is usually determined by the location of the acupoint and the effects being sought. If the point is correctly located and the required depth reached, the patient will usually experience a feeling of soreness, heaviness, numbness and distension.

The needles are usually left in place for 15 to 30 minutes, during which time they may be manipulated to tone the Qi. Needle manipulations generally involve lifting, thrusting, twisting and rotating, according to the health problem.

The effectiveness of acupuncture treatment is strongly dependent upon an accurate medical diagnosis. The needling skills and techniques of the practitioner are also extremely important.

Acupuncture is often conducted in combination with Moxibustion. This is when moxa sticks, made from dry moxa leaves, are ignited and held about an inch above the patient's skin over specific acupoints. This is done to warm the Qi and blood in the channels, and is mostly practised when cold and damp need to be expelled or Qi and blood toned.

Qigong Exercises

In traditional Chinese medicine Qi is considered the fundamental substance of the human body. It is formed from inhaled oxygen, dietary nutrients and the "Primordial Qi" which is stored in the kidney. Qi circulates along meridians and health problems occur if the flow of Qi is stagnated.

Qigong is a series of exercises which regulate the mind and breathing in order to control or promote the flow of Qi. While normal physical exercise expends energy by tensing the muscles and accelerating the heartbeat and respiration, Qigong works to ease, smooth and regulate breathing in order to store up or accumulate energy in the body.

Further Information