Alma Schwartz, M.D.

Traditional Chinese Medicine: Ancient Holistic Healing

Traditional Chinese Medicine consists of five healing branches, namely: These modalities were used to treat diseases, prevent diseases, and to keep a person in balance and harmony in ancient times in China. It has withstood the test of time as evidenced by the fact that at present Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is still largely used in Asia, is widely practiced in Europe, and is seeing an increase within the United States.

For Westerners, TCM – specifically Acupuncture – is baffling as to how it works. So, to demystify this ancient medicine, we need to understand some TCM concepts that are foreign to us.

The Concept of Qi

The first medical book of Chinese Medicine was compiled and written circa 3000 B.C., and the title was Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, translated as The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. The principles in treating diseases were outlined based on the concept of Qi (closest translation is Vital Force, Energy). Ancient Chinese sages postulate that everything in the universe has Qi – and human beings as part of the big universe also have their own Qi. In the human body this Qi can be accessed through the channels and collaterals as acupuncture points.

The Concept of Yin-Yang

Yin Yang diagram

TCM postulates that everything in the material universe is composed of Yin/Yang, and that Yin/Yang is the material basis of the universe. Human beings as part of nature and the universe are also composed of Yin and Yang. The state of balance of Yin and Yang determines the health of the person. Yang literally means the sunny side of the mountain, and Yin literally means the shady side of the mountain. Anything that is hot, light, bright or like fire is said to have a Yang nature. The opposite – anything dark, heavy, and cold like water – is said to be Yin in nature. In application to TCM when Yin and Yang are not balanced, it would manifest in various diseases. For example, if Yang is in excess, then heat also is in excess clinically as possibly hot flashes, hypertension, irritability, and in extreme cases coma or mania. So in Chinese Medicine the principle of treatment would be to decrease heat. This is accomplished by needling acupuncture points that will disperse heat and balance the Yang aspect of the patient.

The Concept of Five Elements

The ancient Chinese physicians had also developed the concept of the five elements as a means of balancing the body. These 5 Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water in that order or cycle.

Five Elements diagram

Supporting Relationship     Controlling Relationship    
Wood supports Fire Wood controls Earth
Fire supports Earth Earth controls Water
Earth supports Metal Water controls Fire
Metal supports Water Fire controls Metal
Water supports Wood Metal controls Wood

5 Elements Correspondence
Season Spring Summer Late summer Autumn Winter
Direction East South Middle West North
Weather Wind Summer-heat Dampness Dryness Cold
Color Blue (Green) Red Yellow White Black
Taste Sour Bitter Sweet Acrid Salty
Zang organ Liver Heart Spleen Lung Kidney
Emotion Anger Joy Over-thinking Grief Fear
Voice Shouting Laughing Singing Crying Moaning
Spirit Hun (Ethereal Shen (Mind) Yi (Intellect) Po (Corporeal Zhi (Will)
    soul)     soul)

These relationships are again based on natural phenomena and have clinical correspondences within the human body. The concept has correspondences with, for instance, the season, direction, internal organs, emotion and spirit. In TCM, the relationship of the 5 Elements is that of supporting and controlling each other. As illustrated, wood corresponds to the Spring Season, East Direction, Anger Emotion, Hun Spirit, and the Liver. In our biomedical model these represent a form of homeostasis.

The Wood Element

A person can be imbalanced in terms of excess wood, deficient or unrestrained wood. Wood corresponds to the Liver, which means that any imbalance would affect the liver function. If the imbalance is that of excess that means liver Yang is increased and heat will develop (manifested as red eyes, irritability, insomnia, hypertension). Since it has a supporting relationship with the fire element (the heart) this can cause cardiac fire since heat from the excess liver Yang can be transmitted to the heart (manifested as tachycardia, further insomnia, palpitations and restlessness).

The relationship of Wood to Earth is somewhat opposite in that Wood controls Earth. Since Wood is hyperactive, Earth is being over controlled or subdued. The Earth Element is our source of nutrition and digestion and when weakened can then be manifested as indigestion, belching, no appetite, gastritis, acid reflux and bellyache. In treating patients, the knowledge of the 5 Elements concept is very important in ascertaining the disharmony of any organ function.

The role of Emotions in TCM: Traditional Chinese Medicine has long recognized the negative effects of prolonged and excess stress / emotions on one’s health. The seven emotions are the following: Under normal circumstances, the body’s reaction to these emotions does not harm one’s health. It is when one emotion is excessive, prolonged and constant that it will confuse the Qi dynamics, disturb the Yin-Yang balance and alter the blood physiology. The Nei Jing states: "Anger injures the Liver." So it causes direct injury to the internal organs. In the Five-Element Theory each internal organ corresponds to a particular emotion: Ultimately all of these emotions can also disturb the heart. In Chinese Medicine the heart is the seat of consciousness where the Shen (spirit) resides and as such needs to be tranquil and serene. For example, if a person is constantly stressed out (manifested as anger, frustration and irritability) this person could also have physical manifestations, such as red eyes, insomnia, indigestion, high blood pressure. If this particular person consults a traditional Western physician, he would get prescriptions to alleviate his symptoms, i.e. blood pressure pills, sleeping pills and medications for indigestion. However, if this patient consults a Traditional Chinese Medicine physician, these problems would be addressed differently. A TCM physician placates the patient’s emotions by treating the liver Qi excess and/or stagnation brought about by the constant stress. The TCM physician then treats specific acupuncture points. Furthermore, lifestyle changes are also advised, like a form of physical exercise or dietary prescription or both, to help with restoring balance.

The Concepts of Jing, Qi and Shen in TCM

In TCM, Jing, Qi and Shen are regarded as the three treasures. They are very important in maintaining the person’s well being. The basic priority to nourish and protect the three treasures, Jing, Qi and Shen, is the responsibility every person who wants to be healthy, productive and full of Spirit in his or her lifetime.

TCM Physician Treatment Description

An intensive interview involves the following: After the interview comes a physical examination with an emphasis on the patient’s Pulses and Tongue and the general appearance of the patient, according to the practitioner’s ability to discern signs and symptoms. With all of the information gathered, the TCM physician will formulate a diagnosis, prescribe appropriate acupuncture points, and insert the acupuncture needles for the treatment. The needles are retained anywhere between 20-45 minutes, depending on the diagnosis. The degree of disharmony determines the number of treatments needed; a common recommendation for a long-standing condition consists of 10 weekly treatments. Each week the patient’s response is evaluated and treated accordingly. Then other modalities may be prescribed, such as herbal medicine, dietary advice or possibly exercise recommendations. The first session lasts between 45 minutes and 1˝ hour, with subsequent sessions lasting approximately 30-40 minutes.

Most patients experience relaxation and calmness during needle retention, and most patients sleep while being treated. Only sterile needles are used, and they are disposed after a single use.


Benefits of acupuncture treatments are numerous. Since it is based on energy disharmonies, it can treat various kinds of diseases as described by Western medicine. In China and other Asian countries, it is used to treat pediatrics, internal medicine, gynecology, obstetrics, and chronic conditions, such as arthritis and gastritis. A list of diseases that are amenable to acupuncture based on studies by The World Health Organization and compiled by West TCM, Vancouver Canada, is available from

Contraindications in Acupuncture

In very acute, emergency cases, such as severe hemorrhage, shock, septicemia, heart attack, surgical emergencies, etc., patients should seek immediate care by Western medical methods.

Types of Acupuncture

Acupuncture is one component of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but there are also different types of Acupuncture available in the U.S. There is Korean, Japanese, Worseley’s 5 Elements (England), American, French and Vietnamese. To find a practitioner, word of mouth is best, or phone book ads, or try a website, such as Or contact the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine,

It is best to interview and talk to the physicians or practitioners regarding their training and experience. In the United States, most acupuncturists are non-physicians. Patients need to ask regarding training, certification, and experience since, as mentioned above, there are various kinds of acupuncture, and practitioners should be comfortable in treating various conditions.

The cost of treatment may vary anywhere from $40-$100 for the acupuncture portion of the treatment. Some or all of it may be covered by insurance.


Of the various types of acupuncture, the most comprehensive is the Traditional Chinese Medicine, which originated from China and is extensively practiced in China and other Asian countries. The various concepts of Yin-Yang, the Five Elements, Qi (Vital Force), Shen (Spirit), and Jing (Essence) have to be understood in order to treat and prevent diseases. The harmonious balance between man and nature can be attained by these principles of TCM. Lifestyle changes should reflect all these concepts in order to maintain balance, health and longevity within ourselves.

Suggested Readings

Asian Health Secrets, by Letha Hadady.
Chinese Medicinal Teas, by Zong Xiao-fan and Gary Liscum.
Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tsu, several translations are available.
Fundamentals of Acupuncture & Moxibustion, Liu Gongwang and Akira Hyodo, eds. Tianjin Science & Technology Translation & Publishing Corp.: Tianjin, P.R. China, 1994.
Fundamentals of Traditional Chinese Medicine, by Dr. Li Zaicong.
Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, trans. Ilza Veith.
The Way of Herbs, by Michael Tierra.
The Web that Has No Weaver, by Ted Kepchuk.

Works Cited

Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, trans. Ilza Veith.