Why Western and Eastern Medicine Need Each Other
In Taoism, the fundamental principal to a prosperous life is to practice balance between two dynamic opposing forces (i.e. yin and yang). To a Taoist, everything in life is either yin, yang or a mixture of the two. Day and night are opposing forces. Activity and rest are opposing energies. Man and woman are opposing in nature. And the list goes on. Both opposing natures are vital for existence and one cannot live in harmony without the other. Recognizing which energy to utilize in any circumstance in life is a constant balancing act and wisdom dictates a positive outcome.
I would propose that this is the same with modern conventional medicine and ancient Asian medicine. In reviewing the history of medicine as it arose in Europe, one would find that it grew as a trauma medicine. Continuous wars from the crusades to civil wars to the world wars all required skilled surgeons and medication. Plagues and pandemic flus also required medication and surgeries when necessary. Doctors were trained back then and still today to dispense life-saving medication and procedures and, in doing so, helped the average person’s lifespan grow. Women died less in childbirth. Children diagnosed with genetic diseases survived. The elderly gained 5-10+ years after heart attacks. Vaccines cured terrible inflictions. And so on. The miracles that came from modern medicine are awe-inspiring. Medication and surgery are critical when trauma arises in one’s life. Modern conventional medicine is a powerful force of our times. MDs, by and far today, practice trauma medicine. Their tools are surgery and medication and, for some conditions, they refer patients out to physical therapy. It is the basis of the 8+ years of medical education/residency. And I, wholeheartedly, am grateful for it.
There is just one element in modern medicine that is missing which ancient medicine fills the gap in and that is prevention care. Yes, surgery and medication is extremely valuable. Physical therapy is valuable. But, in many cases, patients didn’t just get into a trauma state suddenly. Exceptions aside, most patients had years of unhealthy patterns before getting to a point where they need surgery/medication. It is these years of preventative measures that could have avoided trauma medicine and that is where Chinese Medicine comes in.
In looking at the history of Chinese medicine, there are two branches. For peasants and the general population, wandering doctors would set bones, prescribe herbal medication and move on to the next village (aka trauma medicine). For the Emperor and extended royalty, medicine took on a whole different approach. The Emperor was often seen as the embodiment of the divine, the direct connection to heaven. By his will, the country prospered. So the Emperors often focused their attention (outside of their daily responsibilities) on living longer. They even sought tenaciously for that one elusive secret to living forever. Royal physicians would fall out of favor if they could not keep the Emperor and his family alive. And the royal physicians would look towards whatever techniques would prevent the Emperor’s family from falling ill. Thus, prevention medicine was born. Royal physicians were meticulous with their notes and they kept them for their predecessors to learn from. Centuries upon centuries, physicians learned what nutritional and lifestyle changes were needed to keep the Emperor alive. Herbal formulas that often held blood moving properties were given daily to royalty to keep their hearts strong and their circulation unimpeded. All foods was lightly cooked to be easy on the digestive system. Royalty learned to rest well and to keep gently moving through tai chi and qi gong. Breathing deep and freely was important. Meditation, a necessity. Anything that kept the body functioning optimally and the mind stress-free was prescribed. And the Emperor and his family historically always lived ripe old ages – a rarity at the time. Today, the Chinese and Japanese (who adopted many of these preventative measures) live well into their 100s. Their lifespan is longer than Americans because they practice prevention medicine.
Acupuncturists are taught these prevention therapies in our four year Master’s program. It is our duty to educate our patients on how to help themselves before they need trauma medicine. Everything that modern medicine is finding out through current research studies as to what the body needs to function optimally has already been discovered and incorporated into Asian culture. It needs to be incorporated into hospitals and as after-surgery care. If a patient has knee surgery, an anti-inflammatory diet of vegetables and fruits should be prescribed. Anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric and cayenne pepper should be given as a supplement. Acupuncture treatments should be given to decrease swelling and promote blood circulation. If a patient has heart surgery, hospitals should keep high carb foods off their menu (breads, pastas and sugar) as high carbs are known to increase arterial inflammation. Doctors should prescribe meditation as people with heart issues generally tend to have stressed-out personalities. If a patient is prescribed medication to treat renal failure, patients should be given recipes that promote kidney health and a list of foods to stay away from. These are all conditions I have seen in my office and these patients were never taught preventative self-care. As a result, their healing was slow and painful.
As vital as trauma medicine is, prevention medicine is equally important. At this time, conventional western medicine does not incorporate prevention medicine and, when it does in the rare occasion, it is just scratching the surface. Conventional medicine does not need to recreate the wheel on healthy living. The Chinese already figured it out. For the sake of our patients, the dynamic opposing forces of trauma versus prevention medicine should be equally incorporated into our health system. And that is why western and eastern medicine needs each other.