The Theory Behind Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine

The Theory Behind Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine

Dec 1, 2019 by Jason Gauruder

Categories: Educational , Information

In today’s post we want to talk about the theory behind the medicine and clear up some of the terminology that we hear floating around when we talk about acupuncture or herbal medicine. Chinese isn’t always translated into English in the most elegant way; a quick Google search of funny Chinese English signs will comically confirm this for you. The two biggest problems I come across on many websites or articles are the mistranslation of acupuncture as energy medicine and an inability to define Chinese Medical theory in words the western reader understands from a biological sciences background, so let’s clear a lot of that confusion up today!

In our last blog post we discussed the early origins of Chinese Medicine, especially one group who came up with vessel disease as the root cause of sickness. The exact date isn’t known but from this group a comprehensive medical theory was conceived and written down around 100BCE titled The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. This work has survived until today and gives an extensive and detailed account about physiology, anatomy, health hygiene, the cause of disease, and how to treat it.

The work was written to correct earlier mistakes about vessel theory and also to set itself apart from the supernatural schools of thought. In a time before microscopes and using rudimentary dissection techniques, they were able to discern the function of major organs, named the nutritive factors required for cellular function, and understood that disease enters the body from the environment as well as from behavior that affects our inner well being. It is clearly understood in this book that blood flows in a circuit through blood vessels in the body in which the heart is the organ responsible for this. The lungs breathed in air from the outside, the digestive organs took in food, and the kidneys and bladder removed water.

Of course, the detail isn’t as elaborate as today’s physiology textbooks, but its authors were clearly centuries ahead in understanding how our bodies work holistically. A few interesting notes were the grouping of endocrine and hormone secreting glands with its nearest organ. Thyroid and immune function was seen as part of the function of the lungs, pancreas, and spleen were seen as one organ (possibly due to one shared artery) and worked with stomach for digestive function, and the adrenal glands were paired with the kidney (probably due to proximity), so a duality of kidney action is often cited in Chinese medicine.

The function of the body was at its simplest explained through the prevailing philosophy of the time yin and yang theory. We’ve all seen the swirling image of the Tai Ji, the white portion representing light and the black representing darkness. This symbol in my opinion is really the first theory of physics. It was conceived by watching the natural world around us and seeing the interaction between warmth and cold, light and dark, hard and soft. The early philosophers understood that life existed because of the interaction between these forces and that the separation of them leads to death. In the western mind it’s easily explained through physics. Yang being the utmost energy, like a light photon traveling through space, whereas yin is solid dense matter – cold and motionless. It is the interaction between these forces that allows kinetic energy in organic form to take shape. Even at a molecular level the interplay between positive and negative atomic forces allow the bonds to exist that keep molecules and structures in place that make up the water world around us.

The Chinese were able to see the world around them, and the stars in the heavens, but deduced that the macrocosm and microcosm were intrinsically linked. Too much yang or heat would create a desert, too much yin or cold would create a frozen tundra. Neither hospitable for life. The same would apply to the environment of the human body. Too much yang leads to fever, dry skin, and mania. Too much yin would lead to cold limbs, poor mobility, and depression. Yin & Yang was then applied to each organ to explain how manifestations of symptoms patients commonly complained of were related to a physiological cause.

So how did Chinese Medicine get so misinterpreted? Well a French diplomat in the 19th Century by the name of Soulie Mourant was a frequent visitor to the Chinese court and translated many texts for the French to understand China. Unfortunately, when he came across Chinese Medicine texts he had no background in western medicine or anatomy so was unable to translate the texts to an adequate western equivalent, so instead he made up words. Many acupuncture texts talked about pricking spots on the blood vessel pathways. Mourant not knowing anatomy decided that there was a network of invisible lines in the body that carried a magical energetic substance called Qi (chee) throughout the body and by using acupuncture one could activate it. From this point on acupuncture was known as an energy medicine, and despite the work of modern scholars it has been very difficult to alter the public understanding of acupuncture and even that of some acupuncturists, which allows for a reasonable critic of acupuncture to dismiss the practice. Now for my readers who are big energy medicine proponents I say there’s nothing wrong with your belief in energy anymore than anyone else’s spiritual practice. However, it is incorrect and a complete misunderstanding of Chinese history and culture to summarize the medicine as metaphysical energy. Yogic traditions and meditative practices may explain energy, however, these theories were independently conceived in India, and wouldn’t reach China until the later Han dynasty, a few hundred years after the Yellow Emperor’s Classic was written.

So what is Qi then? The Chinese character for Qi气 by itself means vital air or vapor not energy. In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic Qi is actually given context in physiological terms. The first being the pathogenic Qi. The Yellow Emperor’s advisor tells that disease comes from the environment as 邪气 exogenous Qi enters the body from the outside and makes a person ill. So even though the Chinese couldn’t see bacteria or viruses, they understood something was there not visible to the eye and the importance of being clean as well as bundling up. The other types of Qi were those essential to sustain life. It’s clearly written that 清气 vital air qi is taken in through the mouth into the lungs. Again, a rudimentary understanding of oxygen. 谷气food nutrition qi comes from the food we eat and is taken from the stomach and intestines. 原气 vital essence is given to us from our parents and determines our vitality. Much like our understanding of DNA and RNA expression. These 3 substances are combined in the body to create 正气 upright Qi and then distributes throughout the body to nourish the bones, muscles, tendons, and skin.

The Chinese also differentiated the blood and qi. Qi was seen as an active substance like metabolic energy, and blood was seen as a structural substance like red blood cells. The upright in the blood vessels was subcategorized as 营气nutritive qi that flowed with the blood to nourish the body and keep the body fluids healthy to ensure strong bones, muscles, and healthy skin. The upright qi outside the vessels below the skin was called 卫气defensive qi and was our protective force against the exogenous Qi from the outside. It helped open the pores to vent out heat and sweat, but also fight pathogens. So clearly, the early Chinese had an understanding of base physiology of metabolic energy and immunity. The understanding was that health was dependent on highly oxygenated and nutritious blood coursing through the body without obstruction or inhibition from an outside pathogen. I would say that theory still holds up as a model of health! 

Chinese Medicine of course has many parts we will continue to explain over the coming months, but the simple take away is that for millennia Chinese physicians have understood the key principles of health and have been improving on clinical methods to promote longevity. Whether that’s cooling a feverish body, draining edema, removing blood vessel obstruction that’s causing pain with herbs or acupuncture, a comprehensive and completely natural system exists that understands how the body works.

If you are interested in learning more about the topics discussed here today, my favorite text is Dao of Chinese Medicine by Donald Kendall. It’s extremely informative and one of the only texts peer reviewed and published by Oxford University.

 In Health,

Jason Gauruder RAc – Garuda Health

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