Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Power of Plants

March 26, 2020 8 min read

This article was reviewed by two practitioners:

  • Karen Levine, Licensed Acupuncturist, Diplomate of Acupuncture, Diplomate of Chinese Herbology Graduated in 1987 from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland Oregon.
  • Douglas Kennedy, DC, Lic. Acup. Chiropractor. Graduated from Western States Chiropractic College in 1988. Certificate in acupuncture: 1999

When you think of Traditional Chinese Medicine, sometimes referred to as TCM, the first thing that comes to mind maybe acupuncture. What you may not know is that this needle treatment is only a small component of a much larger system of medicine that dates back over 3,500 years.

One of the oldest known healing systems, the goal of TCM is to balance the body’s life force, known as Qi. Qi (Chi) is a “pure essence” that has a “strong influence” on the body’s health and wellness. This is similar to the concept of prana in Ayurveda and yoga practices. The methods used to balance Qi include meditation, movement and exercise, diet and nutrition, astrology and cosmology, geomancy and Feng Shui, bodywork, herbology, acupuncture, and moxibustion.

If you’re curious to learn more about this ancient system of healing and the way CBD fits into it, read on.

A System that Strives for Balance

When you go to your doctor’s office, you usually present a specific complaint: you have flu-like symptoms, a rash, or a sore lower back. Your Primary Care Provider (PCP) may address your immediate symptom by prescribing you a treatment for those coughs and sniffles, or may send you to a specialist who knows even more about your specific ailment, like a Pulmonologist or Allergist.

As illustrated above, Western medicine can focus on dividing the body into parts. In contrast, TCM is characterized by its focus on the whole. The goal of all TCM practices is maintaining a balance between opposing forces so that all bodily systems achieve homeostasis.

If two patients come into the same TCM practitioner with the same basic symptom—say, racing thoughts before bed—they may not get the same diagnosis or the same treatment. Instead, the TCM practitioner will look at other objective diagnostic signs (tongue color, pulse, palpation, and more) to identify what might be out of balance, and from there, be able to determine what’s at the root of the problem.

TCM strives to create a balance between the following 8 Principles:

  • Yin/Yang
  • Cold/Hot
  • Excess/Deficiency
  • Interior/Exterior

Next, let’s take a look at these 8 Principles in-depth.

Yin and Yang

One variance TCM seeks to balance is between yin and yang. You’re probably familiar with the famous Yin-Yang symbol already: two halves - one black, one white - with each containing a small amount of its opposite. Have you ever learned what it means? In Healing with Whole Foods, Paul Pitchford explains that

“…all objects in the universe can be understood as limitless pairs of opposites (yin and yang which interact)… The yang principle is active while the yin is passive, yet nothing is purely yin or yang.”

Let’s take a closer look at the way the system views these opposing forces. Yin is associated with:

  • Passivity
  • Earth
  • The Body
  • The feminine
  • Darkness
  • Cold
  • Deficiency

In contrast, yang is associated with:

  • Action
  • Heaven
  • The Mind
  • The masculine
  • Light
  • Heat
  • Excess

To keep an equilibrium, the Universe needs both of these qualities in balance. And each human life is a microcosm of that Universe: we need periods of rest and of action; to focus on our bodies and our minds, and to live in an environment that is never too hot or too cold.

Physical activities, foods, and herbal medicines, including CBD, can all introduce more yin and yang into our lives.

Cold and Hot

This is a distinction applied to the nature of a particular disease and/or the general tendency of a person. For example, a cold-type disease has a deficit in metabolic activity, and the person feels cold, chills, dull pain, watery discharge, lethargy. Hypothyroidism is a good example. A hot-type disease is characterized by fever, sharp pain, thick discharge, and hyperactivity. Most bacterial infections are hot.

Internal and External

The organs and organ systems are the Internal; everything else is considered the surface. Disease is seen to affect the surface first, then works its way deeper.

Deficiency and Excess

When it comes to diet and herbal medicine, TCM often identifies another pair of yin and yang principles: deficiency and excess. When we have too much of anything in our diet or our lives, it creates an excess. When we have too little, it creates a deficiency.

A person with deficient Qi may experience fatigue, sluggishness, depression, fear, and a sickly condition. They need nourishment and tonification of Yin and/or Yang. But excess Qi is also an issue and may manifest as anger, high blood pressure, hyperactive mental activity, dry skin, and more. Treatment involves stimulating eliminative processes using dispersive substances.

TCM seeks to treat deficiency and excess, but often through an even more in-depth analysis of where in the body the deficiency or excess exists. This is where the five elements come in.

The Five Elements

A key principle in TCM is that every person is entirely unique and the central way that an individuals’ ailments are diagnosed is through the five-element system. The world is made up of more than yin and yang, and the five element system is another way of understanding the forces that keep both our external worlds and our internal worlds in harmony. The five elements are:

  • Wood
  • Fire
  • Earth
  • Metal
  • Water

These elements are all intrinsically linked to each other: burned wood creates fire, and the ash disintegrates into the earth. The earth is mined to source metals, and once the melted metal cools, it creates water. Water grows trees, and so on.

According to TCM, these elements exist not just in nature, but in our bodies and organ systems. Each element corresponds to one or two major organs, as well as an energy meridian in the body. According to S. Dharmananda, “Like Yin and Yang, the concept of Five Elements utilizes the patterns of interdependence defined by nourishing (supporting) and controlling (suppressing) relationships. For example, Earth nourishes Wood, but Metal controls Wood.”

For example, wood corresponds with the liver. The liver meridian runs from the big toe up both medial sides of the legs, the front of the pelvis to the ribs, and dives internally to ascend up to the throat and top of the head. Acupuncture treats liver imbalances by placing needles on the liver meridian to aid the flow of Qi. And if there is a liver imbalance, it affects not just the liver, but all the other parts of the body, since this system is circular.

Each element corresponds with an organ and a meridian, and with each meridian, a group of ailments can arise. The correspondences are as follows:

  • Wood corresponds with the liver, and symptoms of imbalance can manifest in the eyes, tendons, or as anger issues.
  • Fire corresponds with the heart, and symptoms of imbalance can manifest as depression, insomnia and unhappiness.
  • Earth corresponds with the spleen and symptoms of imbalance can manifest as poor digestive health, worrisome thoughts or nervousness.
  • Metal corresponds with the lungs, and symptoms of imbalance can physically manifest as skin and hair issues or emotionally as grief.
  • Water corresponds with the kidneys, and symptoms of imbalance include issues with hearing, bone health, or excessive fearfulness.

Does this seem complex? It is! Any one of these five elemental organ systems can be affected by either excess or deficiency.

Next, we’ll take a look at some popular plants in Chinese medicine and their uses so that you can gain a better understanding of this system.

TCM and Herbal Healing

Because TCM is all about the individual and their imbalances, the same symptom may require different treatment in two different people. This is determined by the Chinese Medicine Herbalist using Tongue and Pulse Diagnosis, extensive questioning, palpation, smelling and listening to the patient’s tone of voice.

  • If someone is nervous, cold and fatigued because of an earth/Spleen imbalance, they may need to eat cooked “warming” foods. They will be instructed to avoid “cold” foods. The primary treatment would include herbs to tonify the Spleen.
  • However, if someone is nervous, cold and fatigued because of a water/Kidney imbalance, they may need to eat nourishing and warming foods, and avoid a different set of “cold foods.” Again, herbs would be prescribed to warm and tonify the Kidneys. A TCM practitioner would also prescribe these two people different herbal blends in the form of capsules, powder, or tea. It is the herbs that have the “horsepower” to make a change rapidly, and the daily foods and habits that sustain the improvements.

However, there are still some herbs that crop up again and again in medicinal cures. These include:

  • Ginseng – improving Qi deficiency, soothing nerves, and targeting the stomach, heart, and lungs
  • Cinnamon – assisting digestion and promoting the Yang/heating principle
  • Ginkgo – improving lung function, and cleansing and clarifying Qi
  • Ginger – promoting the circulation of Qi

While databases of resources like Me and Qi provide ample information on individual plants and their properties, it’s important to restate their warning: “Please note that you should never self-prescribe TCM ingredients. A TCM ingredient is almost never eaten on its own but as part of a formula containing several ingredients that act together.”

Traditional Chinese Medicine and CBD

If you’re interested in herbal medicine, there’s probably one plant extract that’s already on your radar: CBD. This cannabinoid extracted from the hemp plant is known for its benefits, including:

  • Soothing bodily discomfort
  • Helping with nervousness
  • Improving mood
  • Aiding with healthy sleep
  • Improving overall health and wellness

In particular, CBD oil’s ability to improve whole-body functionality through its interaction with the Endocannabinoid System might make it seem like the perfect match for TCM with its emphasis on balance and homeostasis.

Interestingly enough, researchers E. Joseph Brand and Zhongzen Zhao share their findings in Frontiers in Pharmacology:

“Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae) has a long history of utilization as a fiber and seed crop in China, and its achenes (“seeds”) as well as other plant parts have been recorded in Chinese medical texts for nearly 2000 years.”

Their research further shows that all parts of the cannabis plant appear in Chinese medicine, including stalks, seeds, and other non-flower parts that contain little-to-no THC. Because the cannabis plants found in Eurasia today are already low in THC, it is very likely that people experienced the plants' benefits without THC in the past, too.

What ailments did ancient Chinese physicians treat CBD with? You guessed it—physical aches, difficulty sleeping, and more.

TCM Today

As CBD oil products become increasingly popular, TCM practitioners around the world are figuring out how to reintegrate the cannabis plant into their practice. Some acupuncturists now use it to soothe any little pricks from needling, and others are incorporating the benefits of CBD into their herbal prescriptions.

In Acupuncture Today, TCM practitioner Christine Cannon shares that she now uses CBD oil in her sessions with patients. She notes that CBD acts on the heart and the liver to produce a calming effect throughout the body: “Mood and sleep improve within a week of beginning daily doses… and anger becomes more manageable.”

Cannon also notes that there are few contraindications (when medicine could be harmful rather than helpful) for CBD, especially if it is administered with a high-quality oil. However, she cautions that higher doses of THC may have adverse effects and take away from the plant’s medicinal benefits.

Plant People CBD

If you’re looking to integrate the benefits of CBD into your plant-based healing routine, you’ll want high-quality, full-spectrum CBD products. Some products on the market contain less CBD or more THC than advertised. Plant People’s wide variety of CBD products are made with 100% organic hemp so you can experience the balance you’re looking for.

Sources

  • Paul Pitchford. Healing with Whole Foods.
  • Acupuncture Today. CBD & Chinese Medicine. https://www.acupuncturetoday.com/digital/index.php?i=733&a_id=33618&pn=48&r=t&Page=48
  • Me and Qi. https://www.meandqi.com/
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation. Five Major Organs. https://www.tcmworld.org/what-is-tcm/the-five-major-organ-systems/
  • Acupuncture Today. The Spirts of the Points. https://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=32527
  • Frontiers in Pharmacology. Cannabis in Chinese Medicine: Are Some Traditional Indications Referenced in Ancient Literature Related to Cannabinoids? https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphar.2017.00108/full

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