Traditional Chinese Medicine and Promoting our Holistic Health

20 Jul

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Maintaining Homeostasis

The most accepted homeostasis definition is the body’s ability to maintain a stable state of healthy function. Homeostasis is how your body maintains a steady temperature pattern, a stable flow of blood through the body, which provides optimal nourishment and oxygen to the cells while effectively whisking away toxins, and how your body maintains a healthy intake of oxygen and disposal of carbon dioxide. Essentially, homeostasis is the whole of your body’s efforts to maintain optimal health and proper balance.

Recently, I read the book, ‘Healthy Aging’ edited by Ping-Chung Leung. The book is a compilation of studies and articles published in the Annals of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). While this book is dedicated to aging, the approach of health maintenance is for everyone. The translation of the Chinese system of health promotion is offered as ‘Natural Healing’ and another is the maintenance or promotion of Wellness. I offer also ‘Maintaining Homeostasis’ to try to capture the overall spirit of the Traditional Chinese approach which refers to the maintenance of health without specific drug or other means of treatment. Instead, health promotion uses natural means in the physical, physiological and psycho-social aspects of living through careful planning of food intake, life style and exercises. This complete system of self-regulated health maintenance which began in Ancient China is uniquely Chinese.

In this blog I will highlight ideas that I found to be useful in especially differentiating a TCM approach to health promotion vs. the common western approach. I have been doing t’ai chi, qi gong as well as other Chinese internal exercises for many years.

In an ancient classic of Chinese Medicine, Ne-jing, the goal of excellent health and longevity is accomplished by maintaining a perfect state of physical and physiological health and a harmonious state of psycho-social wellbeing. These three components are all interlinked. While the concepts Ying and Yang and Qi are essential in understanding the Traditional Chinese approach, this blog won’t explore their complexities for space reasons. Instead, I want to look at the practice of maintaining homeostasis.

The ‘Natural Healing’ of TCM has a broad approach which covers health maintenance, wellness and prevention of falling ill. To only give a very brief overview here regarding food, western nutritional theory emphasizes the macro- and micro-nutritional contents of foods, such as proteins, fat, sugar, minerals, vitamins and fiber. By contrast TCM food theory is based on a system of ancient medical theories with classification of four natures (cool, cold warm and hot in terms of the response of the body) and five tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and acrid in terms of flavor when ingested). The food choice depends on a number of considerations i.e., the body constitution, climate, geographical location and health and/or illness circumstances. The very basic principles of balanced nutrition means a regular diet of simple food according to need (never over eat), choice of a balanced diet devoid of rich (fatty) varieties and a smart choice of vegetables and fruits which possess both nutritional as well as health promoting value.

Two common practices of maintaining homoeostasis are T’ai Chi and Qi Gong. To first talk about Qi Gong, it helps to harmonize three important components: Qi, Jing (balanced secretion) and Shen (spiritual esteem). Qi Gong consists of stretching movements and respiratory control using extra-long inspiration and extra-long expiration simultaneous with the stretching movements. Diaphragmatic breathing and other combinations are used while also squeezing the anal sphincter at will.

TCM considers the harmonization of the physical, humoral and mental activities indispensible so meditation is also considered an essential component. The skillful practitioner attains tranquility of the mind while stretching is performed with controlled breathing. These three aspects work together and support one another. This ‘moving meditation’ rests the central nervous system, frees it from motor and sensory inputs (except from the comforting limb movements), relieves it from complex memories, and protects it from emotions and problem solving requirements. The assumption is: with this tranquil mental state, a reorganization of neurological activity can take place that initiates a neurological establishment of harmony and re-organization of the humoral state.

T’ai Chi consists of the same three components (stretching, controlled breathing and meditation) as qi gong but instead of the qi gong individual postures, t’ai chi uses a system of set chained activities. The T’ai Chi symbol shows the Yin-Yang natural law of the universe which possesses perfect harmony and balance. Therefore, practitioners obey the law of balance between light and heavy, slow and fast, weak and strong, (etc), maintain well controlled breathing, avoid jerky motions, over strenuous movements, etc. Every movement is synchronized with respiration. The concerted contractions of the muscle groups requires gentle oxygen intake and then join together and converge into a state of qi establishment.

Both qi gong and t’ai chi practice have been medically evaluated for their health promotion benefits and in this book several studies are cited. Results indicate that both improved musculoskeletal strength, balance, cardiac function, respiratory function, cardiovascular function, type 2 diabetes, hemoglobinA1c mental ability, bone health and density, cardio-pulmonary function, hypertension, immune function, some hormone deficiencies, and mood.

TCM Natural Healing or, as I call it, maintaining homeostasis is different from most western approaches as a promotion of wellness and longevity. TCM health promotion can be achieved by a relatively easy, regular, low cost, and freely modified innovative practice of stretching exercises, controlled breathing and meditation. Wellness is certainly available to almost all.

Aerobic exercise, as well as weight training, is popular in Western countries and engages a comprehensive training of muscle-skeleto-cardio-and pulmonary function, these are all normal day to day physiological functions. Differently, t’ai chi and qi gong produce extra-ordinary neurological stimulations which are very beneficial in a number of ways. Also, strenuous aerobic training has been shown to create joint and cartilage damage while qi gong/t’ai chi doesn’t. In my opinion, another significant difference between a strenuous western workout and the TCM workout is the emphasis on balance and harmony which is so important to Chinese exercise but not in a Western workout. The TCM emphasis creates a very beneficial attitude not only toward one’s body/mind but also one’s interaction with the world/environment.

A Western attitude toward exercise is crude, mainly emphasizing the major muscle groups and pulmonary-circulation system. It is mainly competitive both towards one self and often others. The attitude then is harsh and in a way ascetic, perhaps reflecting a Christian attitude toward the body. For many fitness practitioners, the body is viewed as an instrument to manipulate and govern. No wonder so many exercisers use drug enhancement to exploit the body into unnatural growth. Also, this domination attitude is clear by many Westerns turn to extreme sports to “push the body to its limits” as a personal testimony of ego prowess. However, in the end this attitude and practice is damaging to the body, even fatal.

On the contrary, TCM encourages a harmonious practice towards the body, the mind, the world and even spirituality. It promotes balance, mind/body unity and a holistic understanding of the complete person which includes the maintenance of harmony with the outside environment and society. Any use of herbs is done only in a holistic understanding that when you introduce a strong substance into the body, one must be aware of the interactional effects on the complete system. TCM is a systems approach to health promotion and maintenance. This reflects major cultural differences between the Western and TCM approaches. TCM is an approach that makes much more sense to me especially in the light of modern discoveries in biology and science that strongly supports system, ecological and holistic thinking. Since health promotion is also illness prevention the need is not to focus only on single pathologies but the focus includes an individual’s genomic make-up, psychological state, personal habits, social behavior and environmental situations that are important for the maintenance of harmony.

As a clinical psychologist I am also familiar with the burgeoning research on the health benefits of meditation. The mind/body approach is being accepted and used much more in psychology as a viable theory for understanding and treating psychological and physical disturbances. The TCM approach is difficult for many westerners to accept because it is culturally very different. However, I believe now that TCM and maintaining homeostasis, in all its complexity that I cannot go into in this short blog, has much to offer everyone – not only in maintaining physical health but spirituality and psychological wellbeing since these are all intertwined. So homeostasis should also be understood as that condition for the body which maintains health through spirituality, physically and psychologically – looking not only at the internal interactions of the body but also holistically and in an ecological and systems perspective.


One Response to “Traditional Chinese Medicine and Promoting our Holistic Health”

  1. Fashionable Librarian July 20, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on Concierge Librarian.

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