TCM’s View of Disease Part I – Draining the Swamp


Middleton Place Swamp by Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia CommonsImagine living next to a swamp. There are pools of stagnant water, moss-covered trees and swarms of mosquitoes. Most of the time your doors and windows stay closed and that keep them at bay but every now and then a door gets left ajar or a window screen develops a crack and they find a way inside. You wake up the next morning covered in itchy red bumps. So you get out your trusty can of bug spray and use it to kill all of the mosquitoes that have gotten into your house. It smells bad and makes you cough, but those are just the unpleasant but necessary side effects of the solution. No more mosquito bites for you. At least until the next time they get inside.

Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners spend a lot of time talking about the individual’s constitution. The theory, developed over centuries of clinical observation, is that everyone is prone to a certain set of illnesses. One person may be prone to digestive complaints, for example, while another is more likely to suffer insomnia and palpitations. To put it in more familiar terms we could say that constitution is an outcome of the complex interplay between genetics, lifestyle and environment that predisposes an individual towards a certain set of disorders.

Swamp House by Patrick Johanneson via flickrReturning to the analogy in the first paragraph, your constitution is that pesky swamp. Most of the time the body’s natural defenses—the doors and windows of the house—keep illness at bay. But when we get worn down, overworked or stressed out the defenses fail and a pathology begins to develop. Western medicine is incredibly adept at killing the mosquitoes—at alleviating symptoms and controlling the acute situation. TCM states, however, that as long as the swamp is present then problems can continue to arise.

Aerosol via Wikimedia CommonsTraditional Chinese Medicine uses acupuncture, herbs and lifestyle modifications to address a patient’s underlying constitutional imbalances. If the swamp is drained, the mosquitoes lose their home and then, even if a door is left open you don’t wake up with itchy red bumps the next morning—a disease doesn’t get a chance to begin because the environment it needs to flourish doesn’t exist. Draining a swamp does take more work than reaching for a can of bug spray, but the results are more permanent and profound.

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