Chinese Medicine: How It Works

What It Does

Chinese medicine is a complete medical system that has diagnosed, treated, and prevented illness for over twenty-three centuries. While it can remedy ailments and alter states of mind, Chinese medicine can also enhance recuperative power, immunity, and the capacity for pleasure, work, and creativity.

How It Thinks

Within Chinese Cosmology, all of creation is born from the marriage of two polar priciples, Yin and Yang: Earth and Heaven, winter and summer, night and day, cold and hot, wet and dry, inner and outer, body and mind. Harmony of this union means health, good weather, and good fortune, while disharmony leads to disease, disaster, and bad luck. The strategy of Chinese medicine is to restore harmony.

Each human is seen as a world in miniature, a garden in which doctor and patient together strive to cultivate health. Every person has a unique terrain to be mapped, a resilient yet sensitive ecology to be maintained. Like a gardener uses irrigation and compost to grow robust plants, the doctor uses acupuncture, herbs and food to recover and sustain health.

“I fell of a roof and was unable to walk without sevre pain. I was told I would have chronic arthritis for the rest of my life and never return to my ocupation as a roofer. After the third visit I experienced whole days without pain for the first time in six months. By the fifth visit I walked normally, without discomfort, and within a few weeks I returned to work.” — Angus McKenzie, age 36

Body Constituents (Qi, Moisture, Blood, Spirit, Essence)

Just as Nature contains air, sea, and land, the human body is comprised of Qi, (pronounced chee), Moisture, and Blood. Qi is the animating force that gives us our capacity to move, think, feel, and work. Moisture is the liquid medium which protects, nurtures, and lubricates tissue. Blood is the material foundation out of which we create bones, nerves, skin, muscles, and organs.

Human beings intermingle psyche and soma, Spirit (Shen) and Essence (Jing). Shen is the immaterial expression of the individual; and Essence represents the body’s reproductive and regenerative substance. Chinese medicine appreciates the impact of the unseen upon the visible. Even though it is impossible to touch or measure thoughts or emotions, they are acknowledged as inextricably linked to physiology.

“I was on a seasaw of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs for years until I began acupuncture to stabalize my dosage levels. It occured to me that maybe I could use acupuncture to get off drugs altogether. I got three treatments a week for five months and I’m now free of two very addictive medicines, both of which were prescribed by psychiatrists. I’m relieved to feel back in control of my life again.”–Stphanie Mills, age 35

Organ Networks (Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lung, Kidney)

As Nature is organized by five primal powers- Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water- so the body is divided into five functional systems known as Organ Networks. These Networks govern particular tissues, mental faculties, and physical ativities by regulating and preserving Qi, Moisture, Blood, Spirit, and Essence.

For example, the Kidney Network includes yet extends beyond the job of managing fluid metabolism which we in the West ordinarily associate with the kidneys. The Kidney stores the Essence responsible for reproduction, growth, and regeneration. It controls the treeth, bones, marrow, brain, inner ear, pupil of the eye, and lumbar region, and is associated with the emotion of fear, the will, and the capacity for sharp thinking and perception. So problems such as retarded growth, ringing in the ears, infertility, low back pain, paranoia, fuzzy thinking, weak vision, apathy, or dispair are veiwed as dysfunctions of the Kidney Network.

The Heart not only propels blood through the vessels, but harbors the Spirit and governs the mind. Symptoms as varied as anxiety, restless sleep, angina, and palpitations occur when the Heart is agitatied.

The Spleen is in charge of the assimliation of food and fluids, as well as ideas, so when this Network is disturbed, indigestion, bloating, fatigue, scattered thinking, and poor concentration ensue.

The Liver is responsible for the storage of Blood, flow of Qi, and eveness of temperament- so when the Liver is thwarted, tension in the neck and shoulders, high blood pressure, headaches, cramping, moodiness, and impulsive behavior may follow.

Through the breath, the Lung sets the body rhythm, defends its boundaries, and affords inspiration. A troubled Lung might trigger tightness in the chest, skin rashes, vulnerability to colds or flus, rigid thinking, or melancholy.

“Since my childhood I’d been dependent on inhailers and anti-asthma medicines. along with acupuncture treatments for six months, I eliminated spicy and cold foods from my diet. Now I can play basketball without needing bronchodilators and I only take medicine occasionally if I get a bad case of hayfever.”–Robbie Johnson, age 33

Body Climates (Wind, Dampness, Dryness, Heat, Cold)

In Nature, extreme wind, dampness, dryness, heat, and cold wreak havoc in the world. These same forces can derange balance within the human body, weakening or obstructing the movement of Qi in the organs. As winds shake the trees of the forest, dissasembling leaves and branches, internal Wind manifests as vertigo, unsteady movement, and trembling. As saturated earth generates swamps, so Dampness becomes phlegm and edema in the body. As aridity withers vegitation, so Dryness causes chapping or cracking of mucus membranes. Just as ice inhibits the rush of water in a stream, so internal Cold retards circulation and depresses metabolism. And just as fire scorches the earth, so internal Heat may inflame tissue.

Health and Illness

Qi, Moisture, and Blood circulate within a web of pathways called channels that link together all parts of the organism. Health exists when adequate Qi, Moisture, and Blood flow smoothly. Symptoms as varied as joint pain, headache, anxiety, fatigue, menstrual cramps, high blood pressure, asthma, indigestion, and the common cold occur when thier circulation is disrupted.

All illness is understood as a consequence of either a depletion or a congestion of Qi, Moisture, and Blood. Depletionleads to weakness, lethargy, frequent illness, poor digestion, and inadequate blood flow. Congestion results in aches, tension, tenderness, pain, a distended abdomen, irritability, and swelling.

“My rash was red and itchy all over both legs. In the night I’d scratch and drive myself mad. I tried regular doctors and homeopathy-I tried everything. After six visits it was pretty much clear. then I tried to quit smoking. It’s been a year-and-a half since my last treatment and the rash hasn’t come back, and I haven’t smoked either”–Helena Muscal, age 22


Practitioners assess a person’s health by feeling the pulsations at each wrist and by observing the color and form of the face, tongue, and body.
This information is interpreted in the context of a patient’s present and past complaints, work and living habits, physical environment, family health history, and emotional life.

For example, if Max has red eyes, a yellow coating on his tongue, and a bounding pulse, this indicates Heat and congested Qi. He may be complaining of stomach pain, migraine, nausea, fever, or bronchitis. If Emma has pale lips, brittle hair, a thin pulse, and dry tongue, this suggests deficiency of Blood and Moisture, which undermines the function of the Liver, Heart, and Spleen. Her complaints may be that she feels tense, anxious, and irritable, has been unable to conceive, and has trouble with chronic fatigue, depression, or insomnia. Diagnosis is a way of understanding a problem within the categories of Chinese medicine.


The goal of treatment is to adjust and harmonize Yin and Yang-wet and dry, cold and heat, inner and outer, body and mind. This is achieved by regulating the Qi, Moisture, and Blood in the Organ Networks: weak organs are tonified, congested channels are opened, excess is dispersed, tightness is softened, agitation is calmed, heat is cooled, cold is warmed, dryness is moistened, and dampness is drained.

Treatment may incorporate acupuncture, herbal remedies, diet, exercise, and massage. Duration of treatment depends on the nature of the complaint, its severity, and how long it has been present. Acupuncture is scheduled as often an three times a week or as little as twice a month. Response varies. some need only a few sessions while others need sustained care to reverse entrenched patterns established over time. As symptoms improve, fewer visits are required, individual progress being the yardstick.

“For three years I had no energy, no stamina. I had been diagnosed as both having the AIDS and Epstein-Barr viruses. With walking I got short of breath and felt pain in my chest. In the beginning, acupuncture made me feel spaced out and tired. After two months I felt more energetic, my digestion improved, and I wasn’t short of breath. After eight months of treatment combined with herbal tonics daily, I regained my strength and returned to work and a more normal life-style. It’s been six months since my last treatment but I won’t hesitate to rely on acupuncture if I start feeling sick again.”–Frank Bell, age 31


Acupuncture is based on the assumption that Qi courses through the body just as streams and rivers ebb and flow across the surface of the earth. Every Organ Network has a corresponding set of channels. The acupuncture points are located in small depressions int the skin called “men” or “gates” where the channels come closest to the surface. In ancient times, when cities were fortified by walls, gates were opened to recieve sustenance and closed to keep harm away. With acupuncture, the gates of the body are opened and closed to adjust circulation in the channels and expel noxious influences from them.

Thin, solid, sterile stainless steel acupuncture needles are inserted into acupuncture points to communicate from the outside to the inside. Acupuncture mobilizes Qi, Moisture, Blood, invigorating proper function of the muscles, nerves, vessels, glands, and organs.

“For months my blood pressure was so high that I was dizzy all the time and couldn’t stand up. I was frightened because it was barely under control with medication. Within 48 hours after one of my acupuncture treatments, the pressure dropped so low that my doctor had to take me off medication. It remained normal and I can walk around now without feeling dizzy”–Esther Zipin, age 88

How It Feels

Insertion of the needles goes unnoticed by some, and to others feels like a small pinch followed by a sensation of tingling, numbness, ache, traveling warmth, or heaviness. Sometimes people feel Qi moving at distance from the point of insertion. Needles remain in place for twenty to forty minutes. Usually relaxation and an elevation of spirit accompanies treatment. It is as normal to want to continue resting as it is to be immediately energized. Some notice a relief of symptoms or feel more energetic in the days that follow treatment. Most people are pleased to find that sessions are not uncomfortable and even look forward to them.

“I had been diagnosed as having chronic prostitis and urethritis which antibiotics hadn’t helped long-term. After ten acupuncture treatments my difficult urination and painful ejaculations disappeared.”–Emillio Perez, age 51

What Acupuncture Can Treat

It would be most accurate to say that acupuncture treats disorders of Qi, Blood, and Moisture, and disturbances of the Organ Networks-but this does not correspond to the Western vocabulary of named diseases and conditions.
Acupuncture may be helpful for: Withdrawl from addictions such as sugar, coffee, cigatettes, alcohol, and cocaine; stress reduction; post surgical recovery; chronic fatigue; the signs of aging; and decreased immunity. Some of the many conditions for which acupuncture is considered appropriate are listed by the World Health Organization of the United Nations:

colds and flu

and Neurologic

back pain
stiff neck
Bell’s palsy
trigeminal neuralgia
cerebral palsy

high blood pressure

ringing in the ears
poor eyesight
sinus infection
sore throat
hay fever

and Reproductive

pre-menstural syndrome (PMS)
pelvic inflamitory disease (PID)
irregular period or cramps
morning sickness



Herbal Remedies and Supplements

Herbal medicine is itself a powerful method of healing. Western drugs often control symptoms, but do not alter the disease process ( antibiotics eliminate bacteria but do not improve a person’s resistance to infection; diuretics fid excess fluid without improving kidney function). Chinese herbs treat the underlying condition as defined by traditional diagnosis, and rarely cause unwanted side-effects.

Just as soil becomes depleted through overuse, so the Qi, Moisture, Blood are eroded by overwork, emotional tension, mental strain, too much or too little exercise, and inadequate diet or rest, impairing the capacity of the Organ Networks to do thier jobs.

“The sniffles, scratchy throat, and headache that I expected would blossom into a full-fledged cold never did. Herbs cleared me right up.”–Jake Talman, age 28

How Herbs Work

Since fatigue results from a lack of Qi, herbs that nourish the Qi have an energizing effect. Since blurry vision, restless sleep, and irritability result from depleted Blood, Blood-enriching herbs improve vision, sleep, and equanimity. Since dry skin and dehydration arise from insufficient Moisture, herbs that replenish it soften the skin and relieve an otherwise unquenchable thirst.

Herbs assist the Organ Networks in the performance of thier tasks. Particular herbs enhance the capacity of the Heart to propel the blood and soothe the mind, the Spleen to manage digestion and fluid equillibrium, the Lung to handle respiration and body’s defenses the Liver to maintain resillient emotions an supple limbs, and Kidney to sustain sexual and regenerative power. Some herbal formulas address ailments such as colds, allergies, inflammations, or cramps with dramaic and immediate results, while others fortify body reserves over time.

For example, Jake’s stuffy head and cloudy senses are relieved by herbs that dispel Heat and Wind. Herbs that strengthen the Lung and Qi will increase his resistance to colds and flus. Kate experiences menstural distress as a result of congested Qi, Moisture, Blood in the abdomen-a traffic jam that results in sore and swollen tissue, a puffy face, irritability, lethargy, and cramps. Herbs that invigorate her circulation can dislodge the pile-up, relieving her symptoms.

Linda is concerned about the signs of aging that occur as Essence and Blood diminish. Herbs that nourish the Kidney and Liver replenish Essence and Blood so that healthy bones, supple skin, shiny hair, and an even temperament prevail while the fading of sexuality or hot flashes are prevented.

“I stopped estrogen replacement therapy because of the side effects-bruising and water retension-but I was desparate for help with my irritable mood swings and hot flashes. Acupuncture plus herbs helped me tremendously. Now, three months later, I feel fantastic-much better than I did on estrogen.”–Julia Wisner, age 56

Formulas Combine Benefits

Chinese herbs are usually combined in formulas to enhance thier properties and actions.Symptoms and signs are matched with therapeutic effects, reflecting the particular conditions and needs of each patient. Tonic formulas restore eroded body resourses; regulating formulas decongest the Qi, Moisture, and Blood , relieving discomfort; and purging formulas eliminate adverse climates, inviting clear weather.

Formulas are available in a variety of forms: crude herbs to be boiled into tea, liquid bottled extracts, ground herbs packaged in pills, and powders. Herbs, more like foods than drugs, can suppliment our diet and fortify our constitution as well as prevent or remedy ailments. Sometimes long-term use of herbs is desireable whereas extended use of pharmaceuticals would not be healthy.

“Tommy missed a lot of school due to perpetual ear and sinus infections. Changes in his diet along with acupuncture and herbs has made him more resilient than his friends, and his learning disabilities also faded away.”–Tommy Hansen, age 7

How Western and Chinese Medicine Differ

Because Chinese medicine views people as ecosystems in miniature, it seeks to improve our capacity to balance and renew our resources. Chinese medicine can minimize the erosion of our soil by enriching it, maximize the flow of nutrients by increasing circulation, and help prevent bottlenecks that obstruct movement.

Often Western medicine intervines only after crisis arise, whereas Chinese medicine anticipates problems by sustaining our interior landscape. By correcting depletion and stagnation at earlier stages, greater problems later on are avoided.

Sometimes Western medicine has nothing to offer for nagging chronic complaints that Chinese medicine can help. The two are not a substitute for each other. They are often complementary. Whereas Western medicine may heroically rescue us, Chinese medicine can protect and preserve our health day to day.

Regulation of Practice

The regulation of health care practices differs from state to state. Since 1976 California has licensed qualified acupuncturists as primary care providers through its Board of Medical Quality Assurance. Safe an effective practice standards have beed established by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists (NCCA). All practitioners certified by this Commission or the state comply with strict requirements for sterile needles. Many health insurance policies elect to cover acupuncture treatment.

“As a result of chemotherapy, I suffered mild heart failure and kidney shut-down, preventing me from qualifying for another series of chemo treatments. Three weeks after I began acupuncture and herbal therapy, I stopped being short of breath and my kidney funtion labs improved dramatically. My oncologists were very impressed.”–Barbara Landin, age 34

Is Chinese Medicine for You?

Chinese medicine can effectively treat acute and chronic conditions and provide preventive care. To discover whether Chinese medicine is helpful for you, try it.

To learn more read:

Between Heaven And Earth:

A Guide to Chinese Medicine

by Beinfield, Harriet & Korngold

Ballantine Books, 1991

What is it that we want? To fully experience our aliveness.
To feel in our bodies a streaming, like the rush of a river over stones.
To be awake, alert, and responsive in our limbs and sensitive in our fingertips.
To feel as if our inner ond outer reality is congruent and that our efforts are
rewarded by a sense of satisfaction. We aspire to have our private lives nestle
within the valley of a public world which we can affirm. We long to feel
connected with each other.
We want to be able to embrace and be embraced.

We want to live the life of our bodies and
want our bodies to permit us to fully live our lives.

Chinese medicine is a beginning.”

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Written by Efrem Korngold LAc

Explore Wellness in 2021