an introduction to Chinese medicine and acupuncture

What is Chinese Medicine?

Chinese medicine is a complete medical system that dates back 3000+ years. Within this system there are various treatment modalities, the most known being acupuncture. Lesser known, but equally as important modalities include, Chinese herbal medicine, cupping therapy, gua sha, moxibustion (heat therapy) and diet/lifestyle coaching. There are written texts on Chinese Medicine that date back over 2000 years, the first and most important text that mentions acupuncture is the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing), written 2200 years ago. Since then, doctors and scholars have documented millions of cases and findings, and have written thousands of medical texts, creating a medical system with a profound understanding of the body and its relationship to its environment. These cases have helped direct and confirm the medical theories that are the foundation of Chinese medicine today.

One of the most important aspects of Chinese medicine is its emphasis on treating the root of the disease rather than the branch symptom whenever possible. Another emphasis is placed on the relationships within our body; how organ systems are affecting each other, how our mental-emotional health is impacting our physical body and how a disease progresses in its impact and depth within the body. Knowing the aetiology of a disease (how it came to be), as well as understanding how the disease expresses differently depending on someone's constitution and the status of their internal physical and mental health, is key before we can differentiate and choose a treatment strategy. 

When comparing Chinese Medicine to allopathic 'western' medicine, it is helpful to imagine medicine as a language of healing the body. Though the intention of each medical model is often the same (to alleviate dis-ease and to promote health), the path, the process, the aetiology and the treatments can be vastly different. Trying to translate different medical models is a lot like trying to translate languages using Google translate, sometimes it works....and sometimes it is non-sensical. It doesn't mean that the original sentence was incorrect, it just means that words, concepts, cultural understandings, and medical models, can't always be directly translated.

Nature vs nurture? The advent of epigenetics.

Since time immemorial, we have debated nature over nurture. Is it someone's genes that matter, or the environment in which they were raised? And since Charles Darwin and his 'survival of the fittest' theory of evolution (nature over nurture) is synonymous with advent of modern medicine and biology, you can guess which side won the debate. However, an emerging branch of scientific research called epigenetics has given us a new answer to this debate, and the answer is; BOTH.

Where we used to believe that our genes were set in stone, the concept of epigenetics has, in most cases, disproven that theory. Epigenetics is the action or ability of the body to turn on or off gene expression. Epigenetic changes do not change your DNA, but they can change the way your body reads a DNA sequence.

What this means for our fertility, pregnancy and overall health.

Improving the health of our sperm, eggs, uterine environment and our overall physical and mental health, can not only improve the chances of and speed to conception, it can also improve the health of the child well into adulthood.   Harvard University put out a wonderful infographic on why high-quality care during pregnancy, as well as for infants and toddlers, “can quite literally affect the chemistry around children’s genes”. I would include that the 4 months leading up to pregnancy can also greatly impact the epigenetics of the future child, which is why I advocate for preconception care when possible.

Chinese medicine looks at how our body is interacting with external factors like diet, environment, external stressors and social environment, as well as internal factors like physical, mental and emotional health. It is only once you look at all of the factors affecting a person's health, that you can you make a decision on how to address that person's health concerns. This is the foundation of Chinese medicine and why Chinese medicine offers a different and additional lens to address the many concerns around reproductive and mental health.

It's okay to be bilingual.

There is a strong adversarial image of western/allopathic medicine vs Chinese medicine, but the reality is that the two medical models work very well together. It is not an either or situation, in fact, there is robust evidence to show that integrative care models can improve overall health outcomes in pregnancy, fertility and mental health (along with many other health fields as well). I studied and continue to study both medical models, not to merge them together, but to understand each 'language' and know when to utilize their unique strengths. 

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is the insertion of thin filiform needles (single use, surgical steel) into specific points on the body. Acupuncture points are nodes where information passes through in the form of Qi (pronounced chee). Each point has its own functions. Depending on the combination of points stimulated, specific actions in the body are elicited. Because information travels through channels along the body, much like nerves, blood vessels and fascia, acupuncture points are often not in the same location of where the problem might be (to put it simply, I don't have to stick a needle in your uterus to affect the contractility of your uterus....and thank goodness for that!). Most acupuncture points are located on your arms, legs, hands and feet, as well as some on your abdomen, back and head. 
Acupuncture points can be stimulated via acupuncture needle, acupressure (manual pressure) or moxibustion (heat therapy). 

Most people find acupuncture extremely relaxing and often take a nap (dubbed the acu-nap) during their treatments. 

From a modern scientific view, acupuncture promotes endorphins, purinergic signaling, mu opioid receptor binding, electron transfer, autonomic balance and may help regulate dysfunction in the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis (HPOA).