PREVENTIVE MEDICINE: THE HEART OF TCM
Health maintenance and illness prevention
While Chinese medicine may be used in the treatment of acute conditions, the great strengths of this system, particularly in comparison to Western medicine, are in the areas of prevention and health maintenance as well as providing support for patients with chronic conditions.
In the ancient Chinese classic on medicine, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Nei Jing) this philosophy of preventive medicine was clearly articulated:
‘In the old days the sages treated disease by preventing illness before it began, just as good government was able to take the necessary steps to avert war. Treating an illness after it has begun is like suppressing revolt after it has broken out. If someone digs a well when thirsty or forges weapons after becoming engaged in battle, one cannot help but ask: Are not these actions too late?’
Nei Jing, Chapter 2
Health is more than the absence of disease.
The key to maintaining health and living a long productive life is to understand and live in harmony with nature. Indeed, the starting point of TCM is a profound concept of health that encompasses a person’s physical, mental-emotional and spiritual well-being. In the traditional literature, normal harmonious conditions of the body and mind are described in terms of digestion, circulation, harmony of mind and body, harmony of the emotions, self-discipline and personal responsibility .
Healthy digestion and circulation
The digestion of nutrients and elimination of wastes are proper according to the body’s needs. The capacity of the stomach and intestines is sufficient to ensure an adequate supply of nutrients for the formation of Qi, Blood, etc. as well as to ensure efficient elimination. The circulation and movement of the Qi, Blood, etc. throughout the body is free and even, maintaining the activities of life, keeping balance within the body and excluding invasion by pathogens from the outside. The essential substances are kept enclosed within the body and not allowed to escape; while pathogenic factors are excluded. This is achieved while maintaining normal intake of nutrients and excretion of waste materials.
Harmony of body, mind and emotions
The mind is calm, even tempered and undisturbed by extremes of emotion.
Balance is maintained among bodily functions as well as mental and emotional functions. In addition, there is an harmonious balance between body and mind.
The vital substances are replenished as they are used up, and this continues in an orderly way; the bodily cycles of activity harmonise with those of the environment (e.g. sleeping soundly at night, waking refreshed and being active and productive during the day).
Empowerment of the individual: taking responsibility for your health
There is a voluntary maintenance of physical, emotional and mental hygiene, self-discipline, moral ideals and the practice of self-cultivation; striving to live in harmony with the natural order. These ideals were described in the first chapter of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Nei Jing) and have come to underlie traditional thinking about health and disease:
‘In the past, people practiced the Dao. They understood the principle of Yin and Yang, as represented by the transformation of the energies of the universe. Thus, they practiced various forms of self-cultivation, both physical and mental, to promote the Qi and to maintain mental balance, striving to be in harmony with the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from indulgences of all kinds. They maintained well-being of body and mind; thus, it is not surprising that they lived over 100 years.’ Nei Jing, Chapter 1.
High level health and well-being
In ancient times, the Chinese doctor was paid a retainer to keep his patients healthy, and if a patient became ill, the doctor supplied medicines and gave treatments without any payment until the patient recovered. Thus, the major function of the traditional Chinese doctor is that of teacher and educator. Treatments, such as acupuncture and herbal medicines, were originally given when the first signs of imbalance were detected. These would be administered together with advice about diet and lifestyle, tailored to the individual needs of the patient. In this way, serious illnesses were prevented and an optimal state of health maintained.
Nowadays, we pay all our TCM practitioner’s consultation fee! However, we can still avail ourselves of the important role that a skilled practitioner can provide in terms of health maintenance and disease prevention. Because of the unique features of traditional diagnostic methods (see ‘Diagnosis in TCM’), a TCM practitioner is able to detect imbalances at an early stage, and also gain a clear picture of an individual’s constitutional strengths and weaknesses. With this knowledge, potential and early stage disorders can be addressed before they develop into illnesses, which would require more lengthy treatment. More importantly, a series of visits to a TCM practitioner, while one is free from disease, may provide the first steps to a lifetime of high level health and well-being.