The 8 Branches of Chinese Medicine
By Blake Storey
We have a lot of people come into our clinic seeking acupuncture. I get it. Acupuncture is a buzzword----something people can easily pop into a search engine and find results. But acupuncture--at least in my mind--does not equal Chinese medicine--and I think that this popular assumption demeans the power of this traditional healing methodology. It is our responsibility as practitioners to educate our patients on all 8 branches of Chinese medicine. This article is intended to give a summary of each branch and how they can be implemented in your daily life and medical practice to attain better results and more harmonious living.
There is an abundance of excellent research out there proving the effectiveness of meditation practices to reduce stress, inflammation, and disease and enhance performance, happiness, and overall well-being. However, meditation suffers from a similar problem as acupuncture that I mentioned above. It has become a buzzword that functions as a stand-in for a much larger underbelly of theoretical and practical knowledge. There are many different lineages of meditation, many different techniques, many different prescriptions. and many different outcomes. The type of meditation that works, is the one that you will do on a daily basis. PERIOD. The minimum effective dose for meditation is surprisingly small--just 5-10 minutes--but it must be done daily to have an impact. There are 3 forms of meditation that I personally practice and would recommend to anyone. The first is a daily gratitude journal--writing down 1-5 things, relationships, opportunities, etc. that you are grateful to have in your life. The second is a seated meditation that begins with relaxing the body and incorporates some form of structured breath-work (such as box breathing or exhaling twice as long as inhaling). The last step is the period of time that you take to observe your thoughts and emotions as they enter your consciousness and extend compassion to yourself and others. Seek to find the witness position, in which you can watch your thoughts without directly acting on them. If you get distracted or anxious simply repeat, "I am loving awareness and I send compassion to myself and all things."
Movement is so important that it might as well be called Vitamin M. Sitting still for extended periods on a regular basis not only leads to shorter hip flexors, but also to shorter lives. Our bodies are meant to move and, unfortunately, the conveniences of our modernity have made most moving obsolete--we no longer have to move our bodies to make our living, travel distances, or gather food (going to the grocery store doesn't count, unless you walk or bike there). When we think of the architypal healthy person, they are either athletes, farmers or centurians who still walk everywhere. This brings up my next point. A healthy movement practice should be an all day thing, not just that bout of exercise relegated to the 45 free minutes that we happen to have that day. Moving continuously throughout our day is best safeguard against stiff joints, weak muscles, and the plethora of metabolic diseases that come from sitting. So what does a day full of moving look like you may ask? To start to form your answer, imagine that you are a 5 year-old, before you were forced to go to school and sit. You would be standing, squatting, wiggling, fidgeting, etc. all day, and when you weren't you would be resting. Taking that mentality into the adult world may seem like a challenge, but it doesn't have to be. Get a standing desk, take regular walking breaks, answer your phone while walking, squat to pick random things up, stand on one leg, take the stairs, bike or walk to work, and of course work in about an hour each day for strength and conditioning, like yoga, calisthenics, etc. Brief bouts of high intensity exercise are very beneficial for overall health, but only in the context of low level, daily movement. Chinese medicine incorporates therapeutic practices like qigong and tai chi that are frequently prescribed to enhance the patient's recovery, and when done regularly they also prevent disease. Don't make excuses, get moving!
Listen here all you vegans, paleo nuts, carnivores, etc. There is no one correct human diet. Only the diet that is correct for you. The body is capable of adapting to a variety of different food inputs (within reason). New evidence in the fields of genetics and microbiology is pointing to the importance of customizing our diet to work better with both our genes and our gut microbiome. As long as you are satisfying your body/microbiome necessities with appropriate amounts amino acids, water, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, there is a vast landscape of food varieties to explore. That being said, not all food choices are created equal. Nutrient bio-availability is the name of the game when it comes to eating well and living a long time. Eating is an intrinsically catabolic (meaning breaking down) activity for the body and can leave a lot of inflammation in its wake if we are not careful. To reduce this potential damage of this process, be sure you are consuming the cleanest sources of food (organic produce, grass-fed animals, wild caught fish, etc.) and incorporating antioxidant rich plants and spices into your meals (try to eat as many different colorful foods as possible). Avoid simple sugars and processed carbohydrates and fats, which hide in pretty much everything that comes packaged in a box. Stick with whole ingredients and also consider forgoing large quantities of dairy and alcohol. On that note, forgoing food for a while (also known as fasting) has been shown to be hugely beneficial for our cellular metabolism and longevity. I personally only eat between noon and 8pm, fast for 24 hrs once a week, and work in a 5 day fast every 3 months. (Disclaimer: be sure to consult a health professional before you start any fasting regimen, as there are more variables to consider than you may imagine.)
In my Chinese medicine program, before we were allowed to insert needles into people, we were first taught how to interact with our patients through the time-honored traditions of Asian body work. We primarily learned Shiatsu and Tui Na, while also incorporating fire cupping and guasha. This allowed us to form a solid base of understanding for the landscape of the human body and begin to apply treatment methodologies without needing to know about needling techniques. One of our teachers taught us that needles are just extensions of our hands and fingers, not replacements for them. This perspective emphasizes the importance of palpation as both a diagnostic and treatment tool, and most of my acupuncture treatments begin with feeling for the most tender or reactive points. Those are usually the most powerful ones in my experience. The power of massage to relax the body and directly move blood and qi cannot be overestimated. For maintenance, I would recommend some form of body work every two weeks. For more serious illness patterns, and especially in the elderly, I would recommend once or twice per week.
This refers to the study of the ancient Chinese texts, namely the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching. Both are pictographic representations of elemental natural truths about humanity and the universe. They have been translated into many different languages; however, any translation will create distortion, so the best way to study them is to learn to read the original pictograms. In lieu of that, the interpretations can be quite useful for our purposes here. I use a translation of the I Ching by Carrol Anthony and a translation of the Tao Te Ching by Brian Walker. The way to use these texts can vary greatly, but what I personally practice and recommend is a daily or weekly reading. In the case of the I Ching you begin with a question in mind and then use coins or sticks to randomly pick the proper passages to read. As this is a bit more tedious than most Westerners have patience for, I would just suggest you pick one reading and focus on its message for the rest of the day/week. The beauty of these texts is that they are philosophical rather than religious in nature, meaning they can be applied outside the context of our encultured prejudices and backgrounds. They speak to the process of becoming more compassionate, enlightened, and happy beings, rather than dwelling on the attainment of those states. They share a similar ideology to Greek/Roman Stoicism and can often be mistaken for being detached or fatalistic, but that is only a half-baked interpretation at best. Detachment from the ego and its desire for attaining fixed states (such as success, achievement, fame, fortune, etc) is precisely the method for actually attaining happiness and joy. Cosmology goes very well with the practices of meditation, and I really couldn't imagine one without the other.
Feng Shui has become fairly commonplace in the Western vernacular. The literal translation is wind water and it refers to the arrangement of our immediate environment to promote health and wealth. It applies to more than just not living too close to a graveyard or setting up your bedroom so that your bed isn't in the way of the door. The art/science of Feng Shui actually refers to a copious litany of recordings taken over millennia of which minutia of house and village layouts corresponded with which event factors (good and bad). Often times these would be more correlative in nature and not necessarily causative, but they still represent thousands of years of recorded observations which would be a little silly to call insignificant. And just like any traditional form of knowledge, the most useful bits tended to get passed on generation to generation, until we are left with empirically accurate-yet difficult to explain-practices that just seem to work (see Acupuncture section below). The way that I choose to view Feng Shui, though, is a bit more straight forward and applies to a much broader concept of designing for success. In other words, make your environment support your goals. If you want to get more daily exercise move closer to work and either bike or walk; if you want to do less sitting at work, get a standing desk; if you want to be more relaxed, listen to relaxing music; if you want to be more generous/wealthy/healthy, surround yourself with books and people who exemplify these characteristics. The idea of faking it until you make it applies to how you arrange your wardrobe, your house and your personal life.
The Chinese consider herbs to be different from food insomuch as they are much stronger in action and taste. The Chinese Materia Medica consists of over 350 different substances, mainly plant parts, but also animal parts and various minerals, and it breaks each down into specific tastes (bitter, sweet, salty, astringent, bland and aromatic), temperature profiles, and acupuncture channels that they enter. Again these connections were not handed down on golden tablets, but rather came as a result of millennia of careful observation of herbs and their effects on the body. Unfortunately, humans are flawed creatures and he Chinese made a few very critical mistakes largely due to cultural attitudes about certain herbs and longevity/virility. I won't get into too much detail here (you can research more on your own), but lets just say the ancient Chinese consumed a lot more mercury, lead, human urine, and rhino penis than I think was necessary to health. All that being said, our culture is not without its own faults of abusing substances. Just consider the current opioid epidemic, or the rampant alcoholism or toxic load from environmental pollutants that we currently deal with. Again, humans are far from perfect. The most useful piece of information from the Materia Medica is how the herbs interact and enhance each other to treat a wide variety of modern diseases. They have a much broader range of action than pharmaceuticals or plant extracts, which usually just contain one or two compounds, and because of this they are much safer to use while still being effective. The main difference is that they are usually not stand alone treatments, and per the theme of this entire article, must be combined with other therapies and lifestyle changes to have the maximum benefit. I tend to use herbs that are adaptagenic--adjusting to the body's natural equilibrium as need--with the occasional use of herbs that will have definite effects one direction or the other. This way of prescribing helps the body to manage its own process of disease recovery. Herbal remedies are far underutilized in our Western culture in a large part because patients don't seek herbal treatment soon enough and/or look for quick pharmaceutical answers to symptoms rather than seeing the symptoms as signs that the body is healing. A great example of what I mean is the use of NSAIDs to chronically suppress pain or headaches. The pain is a signal to the body and brain that there is a deeper issue that needs to be resolved, and by covering it up with an NSAID we are putting a muffler on the feedback system. A more mature approach would be to take an inflammation reducing herbal formula, pursue acupuncture/body work, clean up one's diet, and correct one's movement patterns.
Acupuncture and Moxabustion
Finally, we circle back to where this whole discussion began. Acupuncture is great. Don't get me wrong. But have we ever asked why it is great (both as patients and practitioners)? The list of explanations is quite exhaustive and range from placebo to increased blood flow to the complex cycling of qi in the extraordinary vessels. The truth is that all of those explanations are correct and that it doesn't matter which one you believe. It actually doesn't even matter if you believe acupuncture works at all--you can still get benefit from getting treated. Simply the act of acupuncture can produce positive effects independent of the patient's thoughts on the subject. Conversely, acupuncture can also have neutral effects and deleterious effects--usually caused from inexperienced needling or a patient's idiosyncratic neural wiring and attitude. Luckily, these neutral/negative effects are self-correcting when viewed in a more comprehensive view of Chinese medicine--one such example is accelerated healing after a treatment which initially exacerbated the symptoms temporarily. Again, acupuncture is just a tool in a much broader view of the human body and health. The points themselves are time-tested to produce results. Moxabustion (which I am grouping with acupuncture) has been scientifically shown to increase white blood cell count and has a pronounced physical heating effect on the tissue that it used on. Heat brings more blood and thus more healing. There have been countless books written on the subject of acupuncture and moxabustion, so I don't feel like I need to go into great detail on how they work. What is my philosophy towards administering acupuncture/moxabustion? Simple. Be safe with techniques and follow some repeatable and testable format for treatment. The rest is kind of like watching a good magic trick. Sit back, get out of the way, and let it work.
The body of traditional Chinese medicine is vast. As patients and practitioners we should do ourselves the service of learning about the diversity of its many branches. I often use the metaphor of a potted plant to describe holistic medicine to my patients. In order for it to thrive, we need more than just the plant and the pot. We need to provide rich soil, appropriate sunlight, and clean water. The more variables of health that we can account for, the more resilient we will be to disease. Use the power of synergy to its maximum advantage and don't lose the forest for the trees. Become more than just an acupuncturist. Become a well-rounded healer. Become a well-rounded human.