November 11, 2022
Kasey Thompson

Understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory

Understanding TCM
TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is an umbrella term that includes a variety of ancient medical practices originating in China; acupuncture needling, cupping therapy, gua sha, chinese herbal medicine and more. You can read more about these modalities on our Acupuncture and TCM page. Traditional Chinese Medicine theory includes microcosms, tongue diagnosis, pulse diagnosis, yin and yang deficiency and more. We will explain a bit more abut these concepts below.

What Is A Microcosm?

A microcosm is defined as “a person, place, or thing regarded as encapsulation, in miniature, the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger”.

​A commonly used microcosm in medicine is the menstrual cycle as a microcosm of the lunar cycle: A healthy menstrual cycle is about 28 days in length, there is a movement towards ovulation as the height of the cycle and the period as the culmination of the cycle, just as the moon seemingly grows to be a Full Moon and then tapers off, culminating in the New Moon all within a 28 day span.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we use microcosms a lot! First and foremost, be believe that the individual human is a microcosm of the universe at large. We equate phases of the human experience, the functioning of the organs, and even the ebb and flow of thoughts and emotions with different seasons and cycles in the natural world.

We also use microcosms when treating the physical body. We use the hand and forearm as a reflection of the head and spine, we use the abdomen as a reflection of the internal organs, and most famously, we use the ear as a reflection of the whole body. At first glance, these may seem like arbitrary designations, but the ear is an excellent example of how these microcosms work.

If you look at the average human ear next to a picture of a fetus head-down and ready to be born, you will notice a very similar shape between the two. With this in mind, it starts to makes sense that the acupuncture points in the ear associated with the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, brain, and brain stem are all located on or adjacent to the ear lobe. Since the ear lobe would correspond to the baby’s head, this suddenly begins to make sense! The outer rim of the ear corresponds to the spine and limbs, and as you go deeper into the ear you find points associated with the internal organs and the Central Nervous System.

Microcosms are extremely helpful for the average Acupuncturist. They allow us to treat the whole person mentally, physically, and emotionally safely and effectively. After all, actually needling the brain stem would most likely prove fatal, whereas, needling the brain stem area of the ear is quick, easy, safe, and highly effective!

What Are Yin and Yang?

Yin & Yang, also called the Taijitu, is two halves that together complete wholeness and are the starting point for change. When something is whole, it is unchanging and complete. So when you split something into two halves – yin/yang, it upsets the equilibrium of wholeness. Both halves are chasing after each other as they seek a new balance with each other. It represents a constant state of dynamic balance; the movement of adaptation. Living things are always in a constant state of change because we are alive and are reacting to our environment, to things we ingest, to our surroundings and more.

The word Yin means “shady side” and Yang “sunny side”. Black and white; two extreme ends of the continuum, the rest of which is infinite grey. We see examples of Yin and Yang daily, such as night (Yin) and day (Yang), female (Yin) and male (Yang). Over thousands of years, quite a bit has been sorted and grouped under various Yin Yang classification systems.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, moving towards the extreme ends of any continuum is considered imbalance or illness. Maintaining the general middle area of any continuum is considered healthy. ​There are 8 principles of diagnosis that a TCM practitioner would use:

  • Yin/Yang
  • Hot/Cold
  • Internal/External
  • Excess/Deficiency

Yin Characteristics: passive, negative, darkness, earth, north slope, cloudy, water, softness, female, moisture, night-time, downward seeking, slowness, consuming, cold, odd numbers, and docile aspects of things. When the yin is balanced, the skin is smooth and elastic, soft and youthful.

Yin Deficiency presents as dryness and can affect the thickness of the blood and other body fluids and therefore restrict flow. This fluid tends to stagnate, which would result in Qi deficiency. When the yin is tonified, the thick fluids flow more easily which improves circulation and elimination. For example, thick mucus that is not expectorated easily will improve with damp (vapour) inhalation and drinking thin fluids. Its not uncommon in western medicine to be advised to drink lots of clear liquids or breath in steam when you’re congested, though the reasoning is a bit different. TCM is about treating you as a whole which includes more than just needling.

For Yin Deficiency your acupuncturist may recommend:

  • Drinking Thin Fluids: water, herbal tea, clear soup, watery fruits
  • Add salt to your food to retain water (unless there are other health reasons not to)
  • Eat raw foods, especially vegetables (not in the evening) to cool the body
  • If possible, nap around mid day

Yang Characteristics: active, positive, brightness, heaven, south slope, sunshine, fire, hardness, male, dryness, day-time, upward seeking, restless, producing, hot, even numbers, and dominant aspects of things.

Yang Deficiency presents as coldness and clamminess of the skin. Coldness can also be a symptom of blood deficiency. Yang deficiency is often seen after a cold or an injury, when the body is over strained and during the menstrual cycle. If fluids are not metabolized efficiently, edema and swelling may occur. Body metabolism is slower and it’s easy to gain weight or hard to lose weight. Other signs include puffiness, overweight, lethargy, low libido, no motivation, lower back pain, pain in the knees and legs which feels worse with cold weather. Your acupuncturist may recommend:

  • Eating a warm diet, cooked foods, nutrient or calorie rich such as protein and carbohydrates
  • Avoid ice-cold drinks and cold foods like ice-cream
  • Add spices like ginger, shallots, cinnamon, cayenne, chillis
  • Stimulants like coffee are favorable because of the adrenal stimulation they provide, however if consumed in excess can have a negative effect called false yang, which consumes your reserves rather than stimulating them

There can also be an excess of Yin or Yang, which would present with different symptoms.

We do not recommend that you try to self diagnose based on this information. It is actually much more complicated and this is just a glimpse of one concept to help you understand the thought process. Leave it to the professionals to make personalized recommendations for you.

5 Element Theory/ Cycles of Movement and Flow

Thousands of years ago, ancient Chinese philosophers observed the natural world to find ways of describing how we are similar but also unique. They discovered that pretty much anything in the world could be broken down into five energy types, which they called the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. In Chinese medicine they are used to diagnose and determine a treatment plan that will either emphasize a weak element or sedate an excessive element to restore balance and order in the body.

Wood Element: Trees will compete aggressively with the other trees around them for resources when growing. Similarly, Wood Element is the aspect of ourselves that makes us determined, to seek out challenges and do well under pressure. Our sense of competition, adventurous risk taking, our need to push through obstacles to reach goals. It draws us to new beginnings, growth and possibilities which is what makes spring such an appealing time of year for people with a strong wood element.
Wood element is most easily disrupted by our flow being disrupted such as by stress and frustration or literally being interrupted. This may present as irritability, frustration and impatience. It can be associated with certain health problems such as PMS, high blood pressure, tight muscles and headaches.

Fire Element: described as energetic, passionate and dramatic, fire types love to talk. They are known to be eloquent and expressive but can be emotionally volatile. They have a tendency to talk too much or too quickly. They are energetic, charismatic people who approach life with an enthusiasm that is infectious. They make great leaders because of their ability to “fire up” other people.

Fire Characteristics: Summer is their favorite season, filled with heat, fun and excitement. When in balance this person is filled with joy, invites intimacy and makes connections easily. When out of balance this person can become anxious, suffer from insomnia and palpitations, overheat easily, develop skin rashes and acne. The heart is the organ most associated with fire types, so they can be prone to circulatory problems.

Earth Element: nurturing, practical, grounded people who also nourish others and known to be reliable. They are drawn to harmony and like to feel a connection to other people. They often go into caring professions, arbitrate disputes or negotiate agreements because of their compassionate and empathetic nature. They’re favorite season is late summer. They love the harvest and are often enthusiastic gardeners as well as crafters such as knitting and quilting. They love cooking and being in nature.

Earth Characteristics: They are typically thoughtful, but when out of balance can be obsessive, intrusive and prone to excessive worry. They value being needed and can sometimes seek out codependent relationships, giving too much of themselves and becoming depleted. The digestive organs are associated with this type, so if they get run down they will have digestive problems like loose stools, fatigue and food allergies. They are also prone to craving carbohydrates and can put weight on easily.

Metal Element: sharp, intellectual type with a tendency toward strict self discipline, success and perfectionism. Thrive on structure, organization and methodical planning. They are highly creative and detail oriented with an uncanny ability to “get to the point.” They are problem solvers and make excellent lawyers, teachers or counsellors.

Metal Characteristics: fast metabolism and rarely have problems with their weight. The lungs and skin are their organs, which means they can be prone to respiratory problems like athsma or skin problems like eczema and psoriasis. Their season is fall, which is the season associated with grief and with slowing down. They prefer small groups rather than being in a large crowd. When out of balance they can allow grief and past experiences to damage their present relationships which can make it hard for them to bond. They may turn to material things instead.

Water Element: they go with the flow while also having a strong will and like to get things done. They are determined and self-sufficient. They achieve their goals not by force, but by being adaptable and determining the best path through a situation. They prefer anonymity and are often introverts. They can be wise beyond their years and philosophical. Their preferred season is winter which is ruled by solitude, stillness, tranquility and quiet reflection.

Water Characteristics: When out of balance they are prone to dark circles under their eyes. They’re associated organs are the kidneys and bladder, so they are prone to urinary tract infections, water metabolism issues and edema. They will often have sore joints and back problems. The emotion associated with water is fear and when out of balance they can become timid, fearful and indecisive.

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