How Chinese Medicine views human health

Health, as defined by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is balance. The Qi (pronounced chee), or vital force, will flow smoothly through all the meridians when Yin and Yang are balanced in the body. This also implies a balance between cold and hot elements, resistance to both internal and external pathogens, and neither conditions of excess nor deficiency. To treat “excessive” conditions, such as obesity or acute infections, the Licensed Acupuncturist must use “reducing” techniques. The treatment principle for “deficient” conditions is to “tonify” which means building up strength, endurance and flexibility.

TCM views the body as an entire social system. The “solid” organs are personified thus: The Heart as Emperor rules the Spirit, the Liver as General stores the Blood, the Lung as Minister controls respiration and Qi circulation, the Spleen is in charge of “logistics” (digestive function), and the Kidneys are viewed as the “cultural advisor” which transforms both food and the “essence” inherited from our parents into Qi. Superimposed upon the Yin/Yang balance is the concept of harmony between the “Five Elements” of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The five elements are affiliated with tastes, body organs, bodily tissues, emotions, colors, planets, seasons, etc. For example anger is thought to emanate from the Liver and is associated with the element Wood. Anger can make the Qi rise suddenly, and cause ear or eye infections. Sadness is affiliated with the Lungs and the element Metal. Many people smoke, consciously or not, to deaden their feelings of grief. Joy is of the Heart, and likened to Fire. Fear is from the Kidneys and associated with Water, and both salt and water metabolism. Fear, for example, can make the Qi go precipitously downwards, causing incontinence. Worry, from the Spleen and linked to the element Earth, can cause the Qi to become “stagnant” which can manifest as constipation, delayed menses, obesity, or excess Phlegm (mucus, pus or tumor) production.

The study of Traditional Chinese Medicine is a lifelong pursuit; the preceding paragraph is an extremely rudimentary sketch. TCM has four branches: 1) Acupunture and Moxibustion (burning of pressed Artemesia near specific points on the body), 2) Tui Na, or Chinese physical therapy, 3) Exercise, such as Tai Ch’i and Qi Gong, and 4) Diet. There are numerous readily applicable principles to food consumption which will help bring our health into balance.
In Chinese Medicine, foods are considered not for their caloric, vitamin or mineral content, but for their flavors, “temperatures” and actions on the body. The Chinese say “Warm foods restore balance. Just go to the center and forget either extreme.” Although in general TCM doctors do recommend a mostly cooked foods diet, the above quote refers not to actual temperature, but a way of classifying the food “quality.” For example, nuts, avocado, chocolate, coffee, fried and grilled foods and raw onion are thought to be very “hot” foods to be consumed in moderation, if at all. Bananas, cauliflower, crab, asparagus, eggplant, cucumber, pineapple, tangerine and tofu are considered “cold” and equally contraindicated in large quantities. Examples of “warm” foods, at the center of the chart, are rice, broccoli, green beans, yams, fish, ginger, garlic, soy milk, spinach, scallions, carrots, nectarines, pears, corn, and bread.

Flavors are important because different flavors have specific effects on the internal organs. For example pungent foods, such as green onion, ginger and parsley, act on the lungs and induce perspiration. Sweet foods, such as sugar, chestnut, beef and banana, act on the spleen and stomach and can cause weight gain — not only because of high calories, but because they can improve digestive functioning. Salty foods, such as kelp, can soften hardness, which is why these foods can be useful in treating tuberculosis and congested lymph nodes.

In Chinese Medicine, “diet” is a standard part of any therapy, and not just about a weight loss program. For example, people with respiratory conditions should eat small meals and avoid grains and dairy, which can cause congestion through mucus (“Phlegm”) build-up. Those suffering from bladder infections should eat diuretic foods such as cucumber and watermelon. Both chronic and acute kidney problems benefit greatly from well cooked mung beans seasoned with mint. Raw vegetables, meat and sugar should be avoided by those with diarrhea. Instead, eat apples and rice or barley soup.

The best known aspect of Acupuncture in the West, the part people are often most nervous about, is the use of extremely fine “needles” or filaments which arequickly inserted through the skin to tap into the vital force (Qi), and restore it to fully flowing balance. Very few patients experience discomfort with the needling; what is more startling at first is the sensation of one’s own vital force — it’s strong and can feel for a moment or two like a dull, distending ache.

In general, pain in TCM terms can be thought of as “stagnant” Qi which is not flowing smoothly through the meridans, but stuck somewhere, often at a joint (elbow, knee, shoulder) or at the site of an injury. Qi can also be stagnated in various of the internal organs, causing circulatory, respiratory or other systemic problems. The practitioner undertakes to look at the patient’s tongue, feel their pulses and come up with a Traditional Chinese Medical diagnosis. The treatment follows according to the individual diagnosis. All 400 plus acpuncture points along 14 major and 8 “extra” meridians have specific therapeutic functions, not necessarily related directly to their proximity to the injury. Distal points are often used very effectively to provide relief at the other end of the body. A point on the top of the foot, for example, can help with hepatitis or other liver problems. A point in the web of the thumb works wonders for headaches, toothaches and sore throat. Most practitioners of Acupuncture use disposable needles; others may choose to autoclave the needles for re-use only with the same patient. In the United States all Certified Acupuncturists (CA) or Licensed Acupuncturists (LAc) take a minimum of three years training, have clinical supervision in the treatment of at least 400 patients, are thoroughly trained in clean needle technique, and pass national licensing exams (NCCA). Make sure to ask your Acupuncturist about her/his training. Many medical doctors are eligible to practice needling without adequate training.


  • Lecture notes from Dr. Xiang Cao, Bastyr College 1989-1991
  • “Zang Fu: The Organ Systems of Traditional Chinese Medicine” by Jeremy
  • Ross, Churchill Livingston, publisher, Edinburgh 1985
  • “Chinese System of Food Cures: Prevention & Remedies: by Henry C. Lu, Sterling Publishing Co., New York 1986