Your health today could be helped by looking back thousands of years. Reach into history and you’ll find an ancient wisdom and practice that you may have heard of, but might not truly understand—Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
TCM is one of the world’s oldest forms of medicine. But in a world predominantly using Western medical science, the popularity of Traditional Chinese Medicine is regaining popularity. Many of the principles and ancient wisdom of TCM are being integrated into holistic strategies for health today.
TCM—also often referred to as “Eastern Medicine”—originated in ancient mainland China. It dates back more than 2,500 years and has evolved and been perfected ever since. Even for those relying on modern “Western Medicine” which, is only a couple of hundred years old. However, there is likely a lot that can be learned from TCM practices.
But what exactly is Traditional Chinese Medicine? An understanding of the premises of TCM starts with the underlying philosophies.
Nature is the primary hallmark of TCM. The basic premise of TCM is that our bodies are a microcosm of our surrounding world and universe. You have probably heard of “yin” and “yang” (or at least seen the symbol).
Yin and yang is the basis of Eastern science and TCM. It is the concept that opposing forces are actually complimentary, essential, and need to exist in balance and harmony for optimal health. Some examples are:
Think about it this way. Shadows cannot exist without light. And the premise of many modern superhero movies—good cannot exist without evil.
The basic underlying premise of yin and yang in TCM is these seemingly opposite forces need to exist in balance and harmony. Harmony between yin and yang is thought to promote health. But imbalance is thought to result in disease.
Qi (pronounced “Chee”), is generally defined as the vital energy that flows through the bodies of every living thing. The literal translation from the Chinese characters means “molded by the energy of the nature”. The Chinese believed that Qi permeated everything and linked their bodies’ to the surrounding environment.
The concept of Qi is deeply rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The concept was first noted in the oldest TCM scriptures, aptly named the ‘Internal Scripture.’ The concept is that vital energy circulates through our bodies in pathways referred to as meridians. Symptoms or overt illnesses are believed to be the result of blocked, disrupted, or unbalanced Qi moving through our meridians.
A properly flowing Qi is believed to be responsible for many aspects of health. Thus, a major focus of TCM practices is often targeted at unblocking and allowing our Qi to properly circulate throughout our bodies.
As mentioned above Qi is the energy that is moving throughout our bodies and the world around us. But there can be other energies that can affect our circulating life force. Early Chinese philosophers and other Eastern practitioners built on this notion of Qi. They further postulated there were sub-fractions of Qi.
Generally speaking, the major subcategories of Qi became:
Together these various Qi are said to form interdependent networks in the body and affect:
Thus, a basic premise of TCM is that a properly flowing and well interconnected Qi is essential for optimal health. This concept has been recently embraced by Western medical science. Systems biology is the study of complex biological systems and the networks that connect them.
These connections can be through nerve conduction, hormones, signaling molecules, electrical impulses, or even external cues like day and night. It is also the appreciation that a single input (diet, exercise, medicines, stress etc.) does not just affect one cell, or one organ, or even one biological system. Rather, an input can have very wide-reaching effects on our physiology—a concept that has been appreciated by TCM for 1000s of years.
The concept of energy moving around and through every aspect of ourselves and life around us has permeated into many aspects of early Eastern cultures; many of which, have become relatively mainstream—or at least heard about—in more modern Western civilizations. These major aspects include:
Another important philosophy in Eastern Medicine are what is known as the “Five Phases” or “Five Elements”. Symbolically these five elements represent all phenomena, including the stages of human life, and explain the functioning of the body and how it changes during health or disease.
The five elements—or phases—of TCM include and philosophically represent:
Ancient TCM concepts emphasize a natural, preventive approach. At the core of the Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy is that corrective, preventative action can help if the right steps are taken. This starts with detailed observation by a well-trained practitioner. They look for disruptions in one of the principals of TCM, and provide actions to take. These practitioners claim to catch problems before traditional Western medicine would.
However, if these early observations are not acted upon, disruptions in one aspect of TCM will lead to disruptions in other aspects of TCM principals and overt disease can manifest. This comes from the ideas of connection you read about above.
Traditional Chinese Medicine’s preventative focus makes it a good pair with Western medical science. This mixing of philosophies can create synergistic results for your health.
And the crossover between Western medicine and the teaching of TCM goes even deeper. Just look at the use of reishi mushrooms to support protective Qi. Western scientific research has found that the beta-glucans—a complex carbohydrate often found in certain plants, fungi, and bacteria—in these mushrooms play a role in immune health through cell signaling.
TCM had the knowledge, remedies, and history of success, and Western medicine found the biological underpinnings. Together this gives us a complete picture of the benefits and an understanding of why something works.
TCM has crept into literally every society around the world. But it can go by a number of different names. Some of the most popular names are: complementary and alternative (CAM) medicine, integrative medicine, Eastern Medicine, functional medicine, holistic medicine, and alternative medicine.
But whatever you call it, practitioners use a variety of protocols to treat what is believe to be at the root of an underlying health condition. These can include interventions around nutrition, diet, herbal remedies, and various mind/body practices. These treatments can include acupuncture, cupping, therapeutic massage, scrapping, reflexology, bone setting, chiropractic techniques, breathing, exercise, and self-defense trainings.
More recently, incorporation of modern and conventional techniques, such as pharmaceuticals and surgery, can also be incorporated into Traditional Chinese Medicine approaches or vice versa. Think about how breathing techniques, massage, or acupuncture can supplement and enhance a modern, Western medical approach.
Today you have television, mobile phones, cars, and all the trappings of modernity. So how can an understanding of medicine from thousands of years before the Internet—or even the microscope—help you today?
It’s all about connection.
TCM is based on your connection to the world around you. And the principles of Qi—the flowing of energy through you—is based on the connectedness of your whole body.
You don’t have to memorize the terms or lists of remedies to connect your modern life to traditions that have stood the test of time. The observations and treatments might be something for you to explore. And things like therapeutic massages and martial arts exercise are fairly common today.
But you don’t even have to go that far. Understanding TCM and incorporating the principles into your life can be simple.
Start by taking a holistic approach. Strengthen your connections to the outside world (with things like gardening or forest bathing) and those connections that exist inside you. Think about how your intellect, emotions, and physical being are tied together, for instance. That’s a simple way that Traditional Chinese Medicine principles can help you strengthen your holistic health and wellness. It can guide you as you develop a healthier lifestyle that connects the pillars of physical, emotional, environmental, nutritional, and spiritual health.
Health is often understood as the absence of disease or sickness. While this definition is valid, it lacks the comprehensiveness of a broader approach. So start assessing your holistic health and wellness on a wider spectrum. This means wellness depends on more factors than simply avoiding the flu each year.
Holistic health and wellness is sustained by eight pillars: physical, nutritional, emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, financial, and environmental.
The pillars will give you a sense of how to work toward your optimal wellness, but it’s by no means prescriptive. The path to wellness is not one-size-fits-all. The journey is unique and different for each individual.
Your biology, personality, and environment will determine what wellness means to you. That’s why your approach should be personalized. The common thread for everyone is that wellness requires a holistic approach.
So, let’s learn more about each pillar and how you can strengthen each one.
Most people immediately think of exercise when they hear “physical wellness.” Regular physical activity is an important part of the equation that can’t be ignored. But it’s not the only aspect deserving of attention.
Your body needs more than movement alone. Physical wellness also includes appropriate sleep, hygiene, and a healthy diet (more on this in the next section). If you’re evaluating your physical health, ask these questions: Are you getting enough quality sleep? And if not, what barriers keep you from achieving regular and restful sleep?
Researchers published an update to The National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations for adult sleep requirements. Their study reaffirmed the idea that adults should get at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
For college students, parents, and workaholics, this can be a tough number to meet. But simple strategies can ensure the sleep you get comes easily and goes on uninterrupted.
Though nutrition is intimately tied to physical health, it’s so important and must be represented by its own pillar. This is especially true because nutrition must be personalized based on age, sex, activity level, and body chemistry.
A balanced diet requires that you consume nutritional foods that feed your body and mind. The USDA recommends that during meals, adults fill half of their plates with fruits and vegetables. The other half should be dedicated to mostly grains, along with a modest portion of protein and a side of dairy.
Diversifying your plate with appropriate amounts of each food group will help you acquire the necessary macronutrients for day-to-day energy, muscle growth and recovery, and other bodily processes.
Unfortunately, in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nationally, 76 percent of adults didn’t meet the recommendations for daily fruit intake. Even more—87 percent—of adults didn’t meet daily vegetable requirements. When meeting the suggested five cups a day becomes difficult to do, supplementation can help restore the necessary nutrients in your body to appropriate levels.
Strengthening this pillar requires careful attention to your diet and appropriate supplementation. Life’s stressors and time commitments can make these tasks difficult. But nutritional improvements will help strengthen the other seven pillars of holistic health and wellness.
Emotional wellness encompasses the ability to navigate your feelings. This means identifying, assessing, and effectively sharing those feelings with others.
Why is this important? The ups and downs of life can take you on an emotional rollercoaster. But the better you understand, process, and manage those feelings, the smoother the ride will be.
Social wellness is about connecting with others to form positive relationships. And if those falter, it’s about dealing with any conflicts appropriately.
Social relationships create support systems that can carry you through life’s struggles. Harvard’s Study of Adult Development ran for 80 years, collecting data on hundreds of participants. A recent study on a subset of this population—surviving octogenarians—investigated the connections between marital satisfaction, social lives, and happiness. Researchers found that participants who spent more time with others reported greater levels of happiness.
The impact of surrounding yourself with those that care for you can’t be understated. When the demands of life increase and stress mounts, the ability to turn to someone for support and understanding is powerful. Building and maintaining these networks take time and energy, but the work is worth the effort. And it will continue to serve you throughout your life.
The spiritual pillar will look different for everyone because it’s such a personal piece of overall wellness. It will play a stronger role in one person’s life more than another, depending on how each person defines it.
Spirituality is commonly viewed as a sense of purpose, direction, or meaning, without which, values can slip to the wayside, upending life’s balance. Many cultivate their spirituality through meditation, prayer, or other activities that foster a connection to nature or a higher power.
Maintaining your spiritual wellness will look different for everyone. It’s not about a specific religion or belief system. Spiritual health is about personalizing your journey. Some people might practice mindfulness as a way of checking in with their intentions, guiding their actions, and maintaining a values-based approach to life. How you choose to strengthen your spiritual health is up to you.
Intellectual wellness is strengthened by continually engaging the mind. Doing so can help you build new skills and knowledge that inspire and challenge you, and help you grow. You might choose different ways to keep your mind sharp—depending on your mood. For some, that’s brain games and puzzles, or scholastic endeavors. Even simply engaging in intellectually stimulating conversations and debates can strengthen this pillar.
Some experience intellectual boons through self-discovery and personal advancement. Academic efforts, involvement in community activities, or other avenues of personal growth are just a few you can try.
To be financially well is to live within your means and plan for the future appropriately. It can be tough to accomplish, but small steps can pay off big-time in the long-run.
Financial wellness might sound the least exciting. But pursuing betterment in this area will surely strengthen the other pillars of holistic health and wellness. After all, financial troubles are one of the top stressors that Americans report. Taking small steps to control spending and save money can really lighten the burden on your everyday life.
Environmental wellness is concerned with your immediate personal surroundings and the larger community where you live and work. Specifically, environmental wellness is determined by the reciprocal relationship between an individual and their environment. How do you support your environment? And in return, how does your environment support your health, well-being, and safety?
The effects of strengthening your environmental wellness can be felt personally, and by your larger local and global communities. The more you care for and respect your natural and built environments, the better they can support and sustain your daily life.
Wellness means different things to each individual. And being well gives each person the ability to reach their personal goals. After all, when your body, mind, and soul are cared for holistically, you’re able to pursue and meet your goals with less resistance.
To determine your personalized approach to wellness, reflect on the eight pillars of holistic health and wellness. Figure out which ones most require your attention. And remember, strengthening each one will provide a great foundation for living your best, healthiest life.
Special Thank You to Jenna Templeton
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