Plants and holistic practices are used all over the world to promote health and vitality. And though there are numerous herbal traditions unique to each region of the world, there are three major ones that have stood the test of time: Western herbalism, Ayurveda, and traditional Chinese medicine.
Obviously, it would take a whole book (or several) to fully explain traditional Chinese medicine, but this will give you an overview of how it originated as well as common practices and herbs used by practitioners.
A Brief History of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (commonly shortened to TCM) originated thousands of years ago. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when it first solidified into a holistic practice with different sources putting it between 2500-5000 years old.
The earliest glimmers of Chinese medicine go as far back as the 15th-11th centuries BC, although foundational medicinal texts are usually dated back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220).
Not surprisingly, TCM existed mostly within its country of origin and some surrounding nations for many years.
However, it eventually made its way to the U.S. and other western countries via Chinese immigrants. It didn't come to attention in the west as an alternative medicinal system until about the 1970s but has since becoming increasingly popular because of its holistic, individualized approach to health.
What is TCM? The Basics
There are a few core concepts that will help you understand what traditional Chinese medicine is all about.
Perhaps the most important is qi (pronounced "chee"), which is essentially the invisible life force within us. It's associated with movement and air and is said to circulate throughout the body in pathways known as meridians.
Xue (pronounced "shui") or blood is also very important to health. Like qi, it must be flowing correctly for full vitality, and stagnation or improper movement of either one can contribute to ill health or disease.
Another very important concept in TCM as a whole is the belief that your body is completely interconnected (mind, emotions, spirit, body structures/organs) and also connected to nature. Any shift in any part of you or in the outside world can bring about imbalance.
That brings us to the familiar concept of yin and yang or opposing energies. You can see it represented in opposites like hot and cold, wet and dry, or rest and stimulation. As a whole, yin-yang must be in harmony for good health.
Finally, many TCM practitioners also recognize five core elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. These elements are present in different amounts within each of us and also make up everything else on the planet. When one is present in too high an amount, an opposing element can be used to restore balance.
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Herbs play a big role in traditional Chinese medicine, but it's important to note that it's not a matter of "take this herb for this disease". Instead, herbs are used to help restore balance in the body so that it can heal itself or to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.
Each herb has specific qualities and is often considered based on which "adverse climate" it clears: wind, heat, cold, dryness, or dampness.
Most herbs also have an affinity for a certain organ or body system (liver, stomach, spleen, lungs, etc.) and one or more body constituents (qi, moisture, or blood).
Practitioners may consider the properties of an herb when searching for the right one(s) as well, whether they are dispersing, consolidating, purging, or tonifying.
To put it all together, someone experienced in TCM will consider the constitution of the individual, all the aspects of their condition, and which herbs will best restore balance and health.
Often, TCM practitioners prefer to work with herbal formulas rather than single herbs, but it really depends on the circumstances.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Herbs List
It would take up far too much room to list all of the herbs used in TCM, but here are some that are key in Chinese medicine and used often:
- Astragalus- immune booster
- Ginseng- adaptogen
- Eleuthero root- adaptogen, energy
- Licorice root- strengthens action of other herbs
- Polygonatum- tonifies qi and moisture
- Schizandra- adaptogen
- Ginger- digestion soother
- Dan shen (red sage)- circulation
- Andrographis- immune booster, supports lungs and liver
- Dong quai- hormone balancer
- Agastache- digestive support
- Reishi- mushroom, adaptogen
- Fo-ti- supports liver and kidneys
Other Traditional Chinese Medicine Practices
Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles into specific points on the skin/body to restore the flow of qi. It should only be done by a skilled professional but can be very effective when performed correctly.
Acupuncture is often used as a complementary therapy alongside the use of herbs, changes in lifestyle, etc. It has shown special benefits for pain relief and chronic pain management, improving hormone balance, relieving stress, and stimulating the immune system.
Food is very important in traditional Chinese medicine. It's not something that is enjoyed only for the flavor but is an integral part of health and a way to restore balance and vitality when health is failing.
While the western world tends to look at food as a variable mixture of protein, carbs, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, Chinese medicine focuses on the specific qualities of a food and whether it is good for an individual during a certain season of the year or for a particular health condition.
For example, a raw food diet is considered cooling, which can be beneficial for someone who has too much heat but may aggravate cold conditions or constitutions.
In a similar way, spicy foods are warming and tend to be drying. They may not be appropriate for someone who already has a lot of heat and dryness or during the hot, dry months of the year.
Different foods also support different organs and systems within the body and can either supplement or decongest qi, blood, and moisture.
Perhaps at the heart of the way TCM views food is that what is good food for one person may not be good food for another. It's all very individual and based on your body's unique needs at the present moment.
There is a place for exercise in traditional Chinese medicine, although it tends to be much more gentle than running, HIIT workouts, and so on.
Tai chi is probably the most familiar form of movement that comes from Chinese tradition. It consists of a series of movements and poses that are gone through in a smooth flow. There are many different variations of tai chi but all are beneficial for body and mind.
Qigong is a lesser known practice that is similar to tai chi but generally less complex. It often consists of a single movement that is repeated over and over for a specific benefit (lung opening, for example).
Massage and Cupping Therapy
Therapeutic massage, also known as tuina, helps to improve blood flow and stimulates the flow of qi. It's often used in conjunction with other therapies like acupuncture, cupping, or moxibustion.
Cupping therapy, which has recently become popular with athletes, uses heated glass cups (traditionally heated by fire) placed on specific areas of the body. It's frequently used for pain relief and injury recovery but has also been used for numerous conditions like respiratory issues and stagnant qi.
The Ancient Wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine has stood the test of time and remains as relevant today as it ever has been. People continue to be drawn to its ancient wisdom and principles based on the unique needs of each person rather than a standard one-size-fits-all approach.
Hopefully, this has given you a glimpse of the various core aspects of TCM. If you want to go deeper, there are many resources out there, including books, course, and TCM practitioners you can consult with!
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.