Traditional Chinese Medicine Causes of Illness

Age can be an important factor in determining the cause of illness.

The causes of illness in traditional Chinese medicine are determined by a number of factors. Some of these causes are considered external, as in the six pernicious influences: wind, cold, heat, dryness, dampness, and summer heat. Other causes are considered internal, as in the seven emotions: anger, joy, worry, pensiveness, sadness, fear, and shock. Other factors that play a role in the development of disease are diet, lifestyle, and accidents.

When the body is healthy, its various substances and energies are in harmonious balance, both internally and in relation to the external environment. When this innate vitality (true qi) and immune defenses (wei qi) are strong, it is difficult for externally contracted disease to gain a foothold, especially if the invading pathogen is weak.


 However, an exceptionally strong pathogen can overwhelm even a healthy person, especially if the person has been weakened by stress, fatigue, overwork, or other lifestyle factors. For example, a person with a strong immune system might avoid catching a cold, even if a sick person sneezes on him. However, if he drinks a test tube full of the same virus, his strong immune system will be no match for such an onslaught. On the other hand, a person with very weak wei qi can catch whatever pathogen may be around due to his or her exceptionally weak defenses. This is the reason the elderly and young children are most at risk during influenza epidemics.

This interplay between wei qi (also called good qi) and pathogenic factors (evil qi) determines whether a person gets sick, how the body responds to illness, and how long it takes for health to return.

Go to the next page to learn about the six pernicious influences in traditional Chinese medicine.

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The Six Pernicious Influences

The six pernicious influences, also known as the six pathogenic factors, six excesses, or six evils, are the causes of disease that often arise from outside the body. They are wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, and summer heat. Although Western medicine recognizes only viruses and bacteria as external pathogens, the Chinese observed that the body mirrors certain climatic conditions.

Although a diagnosis of "wind and cold invading the lungs" might sound primitive, this type of diagnosis accurately describes the way a certain type of pathogenic factor behaves inside the human body. The wind symptoms act just like wind in nature: They come and go, often without warning.


Similarly, the cold symptoms act as they do in nature: they cause contraction, they slow functions down, and they make the person feel cold. The high degree of effectiveness in treating this type of disorder (such as with herbs that "repel wind and scatter cold") is proof that the diagnosis is much more than a mere philosophical idea. Although Western medicine might be able to isolate the virus causing this condition, it still has no safe and effective way of treating the virus, other than relieving some of the symptoms it causes. On the other hand, thousands of years of trial and error through observation of nature and the human body have led to numerous effective treatments in Chinese medicine for viral infections that fit this pattern.

When learning about and discussing the various internal "climates" of the human body, it is important to remember that they may not always match the external climate. It is quite common for a person to develop symptoms of cold and dampness in rainy winter weather, but it is also possible to develop heat symptoms under the same weather conditions. Illness is the combination of the particular pathogen involved and a person's unique response to it. It is also possible for the pernicious influences to arise from internal causes. In this case, they usually result from a chronic internal imbalance. Descriptions of the six pernicious influences follow.

Go to the next page to learn about wind, the first pernicious influence in traditional Chinese medicine.

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Wind in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The pernicious influence of wind is considered the major cause of illness in traditional Chinese patterns of disharmony. It combines readily with other pathogens, giving rise to syndromes known as wind cold, wind heat, and wind dampness. This pathogenic factor possesses the qualities of wind in nature, appearing without warning and constantly changing. Considered a yang form of evil qi (a pathogenic factor), it often attacks the upper body, head, throat, and eyes. Wind causes movement, so it is usually involved when there are symptoms of twitching, spasms, or shaking. The organ most often affected by external wind is the lung; internal wind most commonly is related to an imbalance in the liver.

Syndromes of Wind

Wind Cold: In this syndrome, the pernicious influence of wind combines with that of cold. The person experiences symptoms of chills, fever (which is less severe than the chills), no sweating, headache, nasal congestion, and stiffness and pain in the shoulders, upper back, neck, and occipital area (back of the head). Cold causes objects to contract, and its effects in the body are no different. It causes chills, and the shivering causes the muscles to become tight and stiff. Although actual shivering may not occur, the person has difficulty staying warm, even when dressed properly for the conditions. Wind cold is traditionally treated with warm, diaphoretic (sweat-inducing) herbs to disperse the cold and repel the wind.


Wind Heat: Caused by a combination of pathogens, this syndrome is seen typically in the common cold or flu. The person may have symptoms of red face, high fever, sore throat, red eyes, thirst, red tongue, and a rapid pulse. Treatment for wind heat syndrome includes herbs that clear heat and repel wind.

Wind Damp: Arthritis is a manifestation of this pattern. Like dampness in nature, which is persistent and requires time to eradicate, the dampness pathogenic influence is difficult to cure and takes some time to resolve. The influence of wind also causes the pain to migrate from joint to joint, sometimes disappearing for a while only to reappear without warning. Treatment for this syndrome includes herbs that drain dampness and improve circulation of qi and blood through the affected areas. Moxibustion therapy -- the application of heat -- is particularly helpful in this situation.

Wind Water: This is a sudden attack of edema (swelling due to severe fluid retention), usually from allergies, poisoning, or acute nephritis (inflammation of the kidney). Diaphoretic (sweat-inducing) or diuretic (urine-producing) herbs are used along with acupuncture and moxibustion to treat this condition. The herbs help the body eliminate fluid, moxibustion helps the body metabolize fluids and improves circulation, and acupuncture moves stagnant fluids and expels the pathogenic factor.

Wind Rash: This category includes any skin condition that appears suddenly. Since dampness often plays a role in this condition, it can be difficult to treat. Treatment can include herbs that "scatter wind, clear heat, and drain dampness." For example, if the rash is red and burns, herbs that clear heat are also used. Monitoring the diet is always an essential part of treatment. Coffee, in particular, should be avoided in skin conditions, since it heats up the blood, further increasing the wind.

Liver Wind Moving Internally: This is an internal condition of the liver that can result from a long-term imbalance; the usual chronic patterns are liver yin deficiency or blood deficiency. Signs of this condition are various abnormal body movements, such as twitching, shaking, convulsions, and spasms. The liver is in charge of the smooth movement of qi and blood in the body as well as harmonious movement within the body. An imbalance in the liver impairs this function, producing abnormal movement, and the influence of wind stirs this movement at unpredictable times.

Excessive Heat Producing Wind: If heat is too extreme, it can cause a sudden collapse, as in heatstroke. It can also cause sudden convulsions, such as those that occur in children with a high fever. Compare this internal process with what happens in nature when rising hot air causes gusts of high wind.

Blood Deficiency Leading to Wind: Since the liver stores blood, a deficiency of blood affects the liver, leading to wind. This condition can produce numbness and cramping. When the blood is tonified, these symptoms disappear.

Go to the next page to learn how the cold is a pernicious influence in traditional Chinese medicine.

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Cold in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Wind cold can cause tight shoulders and neck.

The cold pathogenic factor is considered a yin evil qi. Its nature is to slow movement down, causing tightness, contraction, stagnation, and impaired circulation. When it is an external pathogenic factor, cold can attack the skin, muscles, and lungs. When it is an internal pathogenic factor, cold can cause an impairment in the normal functions of the spleen, stomach, and kidneys.

Syndromes of Cold

Wind Cold: In combination with the pathogenic factor of wind, cold attacks the exterior of the body and the lungs, causing chills, lack of sweating, occipital headache (pain at the base of the skull), upper body aches, tight shoulders and neck, and a congested nose. The influence of wind causes the symptoms to appear suddenly and affect the upper body, while cold causes the muscles to contract, causing the stiffness and pain. Nasal secretions are clear -- another sign of cold. The treatment principle is to repel the wind and disperse the cold with warm diaphoretic herbs, acupuncture, and moxibustion.


Obstruction Due to Cold: Traditionally known as cold bi (blockage) pain, this condition typically takes the form of body aches or joint pain that is relieved by warmth. The most common Western diagnosis for this pattern is arthritis. Since the syndrome is caused by cold, the joint may actually feel cold to the touch, and the pain typically gets worse in cold weather. The Chinese treatment principle is to increase circulation and warm the acupuncture meridians through which qi and blood circulate by means of moxibustion, acupuncture, and herbs.

Cold Attacking the Spleen and Stomach: In this externally caused disorder, cold causes digestive symptoms such as abdominal pain, clear vomit, and watery diarrhea. Although it usually accompanies an externally contracted cold or stomach bacteria or virus (what we commonly refer to as stomach "flu"), this syndrome can also be caused by eating cold foods such as ice cream.

Cold Congealing the Liver Meridian: The liver meridian passes through the genital area, and this condition is a manifestation of cold in that meridian. Symptoms include testicular pain or shrinking and hernia pain. Moxibustion, acupuncture, and herbs can effectively correct this imbalance in a short time.

Spleen Yang Deficiency: If a person has an underlying deficiency of spleen yang (deficiency in energy and heat needed in order to digest food), cold can severely impair digestive function. Symptoms of spleen yang deficiency include watery stools with undigested food, cold extremities, edema, and a slow pulse. When a person with this underlying deficiency is also affected by external cold pathogens, the imbalance is especially difficult to eliminate.

Treatment first expels the cold pathogenic factor. Then it tonifies the yang aspect of the spleen and kidneys to bring about a long-term increase in the body's basic metabolism, or its ability to maintain the heat needed for proper digestion, which is known in traditional Chinese medicine as life-gate (metabolic) fire. Spleen yang deficiency is treated with moxibustion and warming herbs that tonify spleen yang.

Kidney Yang Deficiency: Since the kidneys are the source of yang metabolic fire for the entire body, a deficiency in kidney yang can make the individual especially prone to cold. The symptoms of kidney yang deficiency include an inability to stay warm, cold extremities, low sex drive, frequent urination, edema (fluid retention), and pain in the low back. The yang deficiency can be corrected with long-term application of moxibustion and consumption of herbs that tonify kidney yang, thereby increasing metabolic fire.

Go to the next page to learn about heat and dampness in traditional Chinese medicine.

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Heat and Dampness

Heat and dampness, two of the six pernicious influences in traditional Chinese medicine, have opposite effects on the body. While heat causes increased activity, dampness brings stagnation to a system. Each of these influences has its own set of syndromes associated with its effects.


Heat, or fire, is a yang pernicious influence. As in nature, heat causes expansion and in­creased activity. When out of balance, heat can lead to irritability, fever, and inflammatory conditions. By its nature, heat rises, appearing as a red face and eyes, sore throat, and dizziness. If heat affects the heart or liver, anger may result. Heat tends to affect the body fluids, leading to thirst, constipation, and dark urine. Since it can produce wind, heat can lead to spasms.


Syndromes of Heat Wind Heat: This very common condition appears mostly as the common cold and flu. Wind combines with heat to produce symptoms of fever, sore throat, thirst, headache, sweating, rapid pulse, and sometimes a red tip of the tongue. The treatment principle is to repel the wind and clear the heat with acupuncture and herbal formulas.

Excess Heat in the Organs: Symptoms of this yang excess condition are, typically, irritability, thirst, dry throat, concentrated (dark or burning) urine, constipation, red tongue with a yellow coat, and a full, rapid pulse. Other symptoms depend on the organ affected. For example, heart fire produces severe emotional disturbances; stomach fire can cause mouth ulcers; liver fire might stir up extreme anger; lung fire might bring about an accumulation of yellow mucus in the lungs. In all cases, the treatment is to clear the excess heat with herbs and with manipulation of acupuncture points that have an affinity for the organ affected.

Deficiency Heat: This syndrome is caused by a deficiency in the yin, cooling aspect of an organ; the resulting imbalance causes heat to flare up. The general symptoms of deficiency heat are red cheeks, night sweats, irritability, chronic inflammation, red tongue with no coat, and a thin, rapid pulse. Other symptoms depend on the organ affected. When the kidneys have deficiency heat, chronic urinary tract infections can occur; deficiency heat in the lungs -- which can arise from cigarette smoking -- can lead to a chronic dry cough; and the heat from heart yin deficiency can cause insomnia.


In nature, dampness soaks the ground and everything that comes in contact with it, and stagnation results. Once something becomes damp, it can take a long time for it to dry out again, especially in wet weather. The yin pathogenic influence of dampness has similar qualities: It is persistent and heavy, and it can be difficult to resolve. A person who spends a lot of time in the rain, lives in a damp environment, or sleeps on the ground may be susceptible to external dampness.

Similarly, a person who eats large amounts of ice cream, cold foods and drinks, greasy foods, and sweets is prone to imbalances of internal dampness. Dampness has both tangible and intangible aspects. Tangible dampness includes phlegm, edema (fluid retention), and discharges. Intangible dampness includes a person's subjective feelings of heaviness and dizziness. A "slippery" pulse and a greasy tongue coating usually accompany both types of dampness. In general, symptoms of dampness in the body include water retention, swelling, feelings of heaviness, coughing or vomiting phlegm, and skin rashes that ooze or are crusty (as in eczema).

Since dampness is heavy, it has a tendency to sink downward to affect the lower parts of the body: A person may experience a feeling of sinking or heaviness, and swelling frequently affects the legs. These characteristics are the opposite of wind, which has a tendency to affect the upper part of the body. When dampness combines with heat, the condition of damp heat develops, which can cause such symptoms as dark burning urine, sticky foul-smelling stools, yellow vaginal discharges, and jaundice.

Syndromes of Dampness Wind Damp: This form of the common cold is characterized by chills, headache, afternoon fever, nausea, and diarrhea. A person may describe feeling as if a wet towel is wrapped around the head. Treatment includes moxibustion and aromatic herbs that repel wind and drain dampness.

Wind Damp Joint Pain: This condition is characterized by a dull and heavy pain and numbness that can persist in certain joints. Rheumatic pain that gets worse in damp weather is a good example of this type of imbalance. The condition tends to be chronic and resistant to treatment. Treatment with acupuncture and moxibustion can relieve the stiffness and pain. Herbs that clear wind damp, such as mulberry branches (sang zhi) and cinnamon twigs (gui zhi), are used to decrease swelling and improve circulation, following the Chinese principle of using "branches (tree limbs) to treat branches (body limbs)."

Damp and Toxins on the Skin: This condition includes any skin inflammation that also has a weepy, damp nature, such as eczema, skin ulcers, and allergic reactions that produce a discharge (skin eruptions that ooze or that are crusty). Herbs are used both internally and in the form of topical poultices.

Internal Dampness: Typically due to an imbalance in the spleen, symptoms of internal dampness include bloating, diarrhea, lack of appetite, undigested food in the stools, fatigue, and possible edema in the abdominal area. When a person coughs up mucus right after eating ice cream, it shows that a cold spleen produces dampness. Since excessive dampness in the spleen is stored in the lungs, a damp spleen can often lead to frequent colds and allergies. Treatment of internal dampness focuses on eliminating the dampness with diuretic herbs and activating the spleen with tonifying herbs.

Go to the next page to learn about dryness and summer heat in traditional Chinese medicine.

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Dryness and Summer Heat

Dryness and summer heat, the last of the six pernicious influences in traditional Chinese medicine, both have deleterious effects on the body's moistures. Associated syndromes include constipation, thirst, headaches, and excessive sweating.


Dryness is a yang pernicious influ­ence. It is associated with the autumn season due to the lack of humidity in most areas at that time of year. Its influence on the body is drying and astringent. It can easily deplete the body fluids, causing constipation, dry cough, concentrated urine, dryness in the throat and nose, thirst, and dry skin. Dryness typically enters the body through the nose and mouth, quickly affecting the lungs.


Syndromes of Dryness External Warm Dryness: This syndrome is viewed traditionally as the leftover heat from summer teaming up with the dryness of autumn to attack the body. Symptoms include fever, headache, thirst, dry mouth, dry nose, dry eyes, dry cough with scanty mucus, red tongue, and a rapid pulse. Treatment involves the use of moistening herbs combined with herbs that repel wind. Pears are considered healing foods in conditions of dryness; they are very moistening and are readily available in the autumn season.

External Cool Dryness: Traditionally considered an illness of late autumn, this pattern has symptoms of chills, mild fever, lack of sweating, dry cough, nasal congestion, dry and itchy throat, and a wiry and floating pulse. Treatment is very similar to that for wind cold, with the addition of some moistening herbs.

Internal Dryness: In this chronic condition, the body fluids have been depleted over time. It can be both a result or cause of yin or blood deficiency, and it is more commonly seen in the elderly. In its more acute form, internal dryness can result from the depletion of body fluids due to sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, or bleeding. Prolonged internal or external heat usually has a detrimental long-term effect on body fluids, depleting them.

Typical symptoms of internal dryness are dry, itchy skin, thirst, constipation, and a chronic shortage of body fluids. Treatment depends on the particular organ and vital substance affected by the imbalance. Yin or blood tonics are typically employed along with herbs that assist the body in retaining fluids.

Summer Heat

Summer heat is a yang pernicious influence that typically occurs in the heat and humidity of summer. It is "uprising and spread out," meaning it affects the head, causing thirst, red face, and headache, and it causes a person to lie down with the limbs spread out. The excessive sweating also leads to dark, concentrated urine, and depletion of the body's yin can occur. The extreme heat also affects the heart, leading to restlessness or even coma in severe cases such as heatstroke.

When summer heat combines with dampness due to humidity and overconsumption of sugary drinks, such as soft drinks, the spleen is also affected. This leads to a loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. Treatment of summer heat is complex, depending on the organs and additional pathogenic factors involved. Usually, herbs are used that clear excess heat from within the body along with herbs that moisten the interior. Two common foods that are very effective in the treatment of this pattern are watermelon (xi gua) and mung beans (lu dou). There is also a point behind the knees associated with clearing heat; holding ice behind the knees helps the body cool down quickly. When digestive disturbances occur due to a combination of dampness and summer heat, cooling herbs are combined with herbs that clear turbid dampness, such as patchouli (huo xiang).

On the next page, you'll learn about the seven emotions in traditional Chinese medicine.

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The Seven Emotions

Pensiveness can cause stagnation of the qi.

The seven basic emotions related to organ function are anger, joy, worry, pensiveness, sadness, fear, and shock (fright). Although the mind/body connection has been acknowledged only relatively recently in Western medicine, the interaction of emotions with the physical body is an essential aspect of traditional Chinese medicine.

Each organ has a corresponding emotion; imbalance of this emotion can affect the organ's function. For example, prolonged anger can lead to an imbalance in the liver. At the same time, liver imbalances can produce symptoms of anger, often leading to a self-perpetuating cycle.


In discussing the emotional aspect of the disease process, it is important to remember that it is normal to experience the full range of emotions. It is only when a particular emotion is experienced over a prolonged period or with particular intensity that it becomes a source of imbalance. It is obviously important for a person with severe emotional problems to get professional help from a trained psychotherapist. But even in these cases, the therapy is more effective when the corresponding organ imbalance is rectified. Acupuncture is especially effective in treating disorders of the emotions. Even when it is not completely effective in treating a physical ailment, it almost always brings about a state of emotional peacefulness.


Anger is associated with the liver. By its nature, anger causes qi to rise, leading to a red face and red eyes, headaches, and dizziness. This matches the pattern of liver fire rising. Anger can also cause liver qi to "attack the spleen," producing lack of appetite, indigestion, and diarrhea (often experienced by those people who argue at the dinner table or eat while driving).

In a more long-term view, suppressed anger or frustration often causes liver qi to become stagnant; this might result in depression or menstrual disorders. It is interesting to note that people who take herbs to release stagnant liver qi often experience bouts of anger as the stagnation is relieved. The anger passes as the condition clears. Similarly, anger and irritability are often the determining factor in diagnosing liver qi stagnation. Many people are relieved to know their rage has a physiologic basis. It is essential to avoid drinking coffee when treating anger-related liver disorders, as coffee heats the liver and greatly intensifies the condition.


The emotion of joy is connected with the heart. A disorder related to joy may sound perplexing, since most people want as much joy in their life as possible. The disorders from this emotion are not caused by happiness; rather, the imbalance comes from too much excitement or stimulation, or sudden good news that comes as a shock to the system.

When evaluating stress levels, psychologists look at all sources of stress, both positive and negative. Clearly the death of a spouse or a job loss is a significant source of stress. However, a marriage or job promotion, while a happy occasion, is also a source of stress. A person who is constantly on the go, partying, and living a life of excess can eventually develop heart imbalances with palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia. A person with heart imbalances may also exhibit emotional symptoms, since the heart is the seat of the spirit (shen). A person with extreme disturbances of heart shen might be seen chattering happily to himself with outbursts of laughter.

Such behavior results from the heart organ's inability to provide a stable resting place for the spirit. This type of imbalance is treated with acupuncture along the heart meridian. Herbal treatments consist of formulas that nourish heart blood or yin. If heart fire disturbs the spirit, herbs that clear heat from the heart are used.


A very common emotion in our stress-filled society, worry can deplete the energy of the spleen. This can cause digestive disturbances and eventually lead to chronic fatigue: A weakened spleen cannot efficiently turn food into qi, and the lungs are unable to extract qi from air efficiently. A person who worries too much "carries the weight of the world on her shoulders," a good description of how a person feels when her weak spleen qi leads to dampness. Treatment would include moxa and herbs that strengthen the spleen, allowing a person the energy to deal with life's problems instead of dwelling on them.


Too much thinking or obsessing about a topic can also deplete the spleen, causing a stagnation of its qi. A person with this condition may exhibit such symptoms as poor appetite, forgetting to eat, and bloating after eating. In time, the person may develop a pale complexion from a deficiency of spleen qi. This can eventually affect the heart, causing the person to dream about the same subjects at night. Students are often affected by this imbalance; the standard treatment is use of herbs that tonify heart blood and spleen qi.


Sadness or grief affects the lungs, producing fatigue, shortness of breath, crying, or depression. Treatment for this condition involves acupuncture to points along the lung and kidney meridians. Often, herbal formulas are used that tonify the qi or yin of the lungs.


The emotion of fear is related to the kidneys. This relationship can readily be seen when extreme fear causes a person to urinate uncontrollably. In children, this can also manifest as bed-wetting, which psychologists have linked to insecurity and anxiety. Long-term anxiety due to worrying about the future can deplete the kidneys of yin, yang, and qi, eventually leading to chronic weakness. Treatment involves tonifying the kidneys with yin or yang tonics, depending on the particular symptoms.


Shock is especially debilitating to the kidneys and heart. The "fight or flight" reaction causes an excessive release of adrenaline from the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys. This causes the heart to respond with palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia. Chronic stress from shock can be very debilitating to the entire system, causing a wide range of problems. Severe shock can have a long-term effect on the heart shen, as is evident in victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Treatment involves psychotherapy, herbs that calm the spirit and nourish the heart and kidneys, and regular acupuncture treatments.

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Poor Dietary Habits

Consumption of cool liquids can disrupt the digestive process.

Poor dietary habits are a major cause of disease. Since food is the medicine we take most often, many illnesses can be quite difficult to treat unless changes occur in a person's diet. Some of the eating and drinking habits that can lead to disease are explained below.

Irregular Times and Amounts: It is important to consider the time it takes food to pass through the stomach. Simple fruits and vegetables can leave the stomach after about 20 minutes, while more concentrated proteins, starches, and fats may take 4 to 5 hours. If the stomach contains partially digested food when the person eats another meal, the digestive process can be seriously impaired. This would be similar to getting a small fire started with kindling and then dumping a load of logs on the fire. Even though logs are good fuel, the fledgling fire was not ready for so much fuel.


Conversely, if a person waits too long between meals, secretion of digestive juices stops. This would be akin to letting the kindling go out before putting logs on the fire. We need to eat when the stomach signals true hunger. Consumption of liquids is also an important cause of imbalance. If a person drinks a large glass of cold water after a meal, the digestive juices become diluted. (The stomach secretes just enough enzymes to digest a particular meal.) Also, the stomach needs a certain amount of heat for the chemical reactions of the digestive process to take place; cold liquids slow the reaction. It is best for the contents of the stomach to be a soup-like consistency, since too much dryness can also disturb digestion.

Achieving this consistency can be accomplished by sipping liquids, preferably warm, along with a meal. In China and other Asian countries, it is common to serve soup with almost every meal. If a person desires cool water, the water should be consumed at least half an hour before a meal or three hours after a meal, when the stomach is empty.

Consuming the Wrong Types of Food: Foods have different energetic qualities; something appropriate for one type of person or climate might be unhealthy for another body type or weather pattern. For example, cold and raw foods are very healthy in hot weather or for a person who has too much internal heat. Conversely, these foods can deplete the spleen qi and yang and cause dampness in cold weather or in persons who have too much internal cold. In coastal California, for example, residents experience all four seasons in a twenty-four hour day. It might be foggy and cold in the morning, making a breakfast of hot grains or soup an appropriate choice. By midday, it can be sunny and hot, a good time to consume fruits and salads.

Similarly, spicy food is appropriate for cold weather or persons who are yang deficient, but it can cause imbalance in hot weather, especially in persons who have internal heat. This goes to show that no food is always healthy; it is a matter of choosing foods that match the internal and external climates. Certain foods, such as sweets or alcohol, are meant to be used infrequently and in small quantities; overconsumption can cause a wide range of problems.

Overeating or Undereating: Malnutrition due to undereating can lead to a chronic deficiency of qi and blood. While more common in developing countries, this condition is also seen in developed countries in conditions of poverty and in persons who suffer from emotional imbalances and substance abuse. Treatment includes herbs that tonify qi and blood, along with an improvement in nutritional intake. In the West, overconsumption is a far more common problem, leading to a high incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is used to reduce cravings; dietary and lifestyle counseling are also important.

Food Cravings and Addictions: The human body is designed to process a wide variety of foods to meet our needs. Fad diets or addictions to a narrow range of foods can be debilitating. Some essential nutrients are likely to be missing from a narrow diet. By eating a wide assortment of different-colored vegetables, whole grains, and proteins, we can receive the nutrition we need to function at a high level of wellness.

Contaminated Food: Although more common in developing or tropical countries, parasites are a problem all over the world. They can wreak havoc on the digestive organs, damaging the qi of the spleen and stomach. Herbs that kill parasites are quite strong, so it is important to have an accurate diagnosis through a stool test before beginning treatment. Other sources of contamination are toxins produced by bacterial contamination in the course of processing food. Meats are especially susceptible to this sort of pathogen; you should always cook meat thoroughly to kill virulent microorganisms. Water-borne pathogens are another source of disease, and water of questionable quality should always be boiled.

Treatment of pathogenic microorganisms depends on the type of pathogen involved. In general, gastrointestinal distress caused by microorganisms can be treated with herbal medicines. Although herb formulas can be remarkably effective, they should be considered a first-aid measure until a person can see their health care practitioner.

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Lack of Exercise

A balanced life, with both exercise and rest, is important for good health.

Too little exercise can lead to stagnation of qi and blood and, subsequently, a variety of degenerative diseases, including obesity, cancer, and heart disease. Moderate exercise strengthens the heart and lungs and stimulates the flow of blood and lymph, the body's filtration system, which filters out toxins. In fact, exercise is the only way to pump lymph through the body, since lymph isn't powered by the heart. Some of the traditional Chinese ideas about lack of exercise are expressed in the ancient texts:

"Sleeping or lying down too much hurts the qi." When a person oversleeps, he typically feels tired all day.


"Too much sitting hurts the muscles." This refers to the fact that lack of exercise causes the muscles to atrophy.

"A running stream doesn't go bad." Stagnant water easily becomes spoiled, and stagnant qi and blood can lead to many different illnesses.

On the other hand, too much activity can hurt the body. This is especially true if a person is fighting a cold or is already depleted and in need of rest. In these cases, almost any exercise can drain the qi. Some of the traditional ideas about excessive activity:

"Using the eyes too much hurts the blood." Since the eyes are intimately connected with the liver, excessive use of the eyes can drain that organ. The liver stores the blood, so stressing it in this way depletes the blood supply.

"Too much standing hurts the bones." People who must stand all day at work, especially on a concrete floor, can vouch for the truth of this statement. Some of the conditions that can be caused by standing too much are sore feet, painful joints, and varicose veins.

"Too much walking hurts the tendons." Tendinitis is a very common condition, especially among runners. Computer work and repetitive stress injuries are also frequent causes of tendon injury.

"Too much work for the heart injures the spirit (shen)." Since the heart is the seat of the mind, too much mental work affects the spirit. It is important to get sufficient physical exercise to avoid this imbalance.

"Too much work for the liver hurts the blood." The liver blood can also be depleted by too much work, as can be seen in marathon runners who no longer have menstrual periods. When they ease up on their workouts, their menstrual periods usually return.

"Too much work for the kidneys hurts the essence (jing)." Each individual has a different capacity for sexual activity, depending on their age and their constitution. Overindulgence in sexual activity, however, can lead to a depletion of the kidneys, causing fatigue and chronic pain in the low back.

Go to the next page to learn about other causes of illness in traditional Chinese medicine.

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Other Causes of Illness

Ephedra is a traditional Chinese medicine herb that can have both positive and negative side effects.

There are other causes of disease that don't fit within the categories of the six pernicious influences, the seven emotions, exercise, or nutrition.

Predisposition to Disease

We inherit our prenatal qi and essence from our parents. This genetic inheritance is outside our control, and it can be the determining factor in a number of ailments. For example, if a man's grandfather and father both died of heart disease in their 40s, he will be much more likely to develop heart disease than a person with a similar lifestyle whose ancestors lived into their 90s. It is necessary for a person with a weak inherited constitution to pursue a very healthy lifestyle to avoid disease.


Accidents and Injuries

These causes of disease are self-explanatory. However, a person with strong qi and blood will recover from injuries much faster than a person who is deficient in these vital substances. Traditional Chinese medicine is especially effective in treating injuries of all types.

Side Effects of Medical Treatments

This is especially common with Western medicine, where the list of possible side effects for a drug might fill two pages of text. A recent study found that in some hospitals, as many as 30 percent of patients at any given time are receiving treatment for the side effects of the drugs they're taking. Herbal medicine can be very helpful in reducing many of these side effects; cancer patients in Chinese hospitals, for example, are routinely prescribed herbs to help counteract the side effects of chemotherapy.

Although herbal medicine is exceptionally safe, side effects can occur, although they are rarely serious. For example, many herbs are hard to digest and can cause loose stools. An herbalist takes this into account when preparing a formula for a patient, adding specific herbs to counteract these side effects. If herbs are improperly prescribed, on the other hand,the side effects can be more severe. For example, a person who suffers from high blood pressure should never be given the herb Ephedra (ma huang), since it can cause a rise in blood pressure. For this reason, traditional Chinese medical texts also list formulas that are used to counteract the effects of improper treatments.

For more about traditional Chinese medicine, treatment, cures, beliefs, and other interesting topics, see:

Bill Schoenbart has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) since 1991, when he earned a Masters degree in TCM. He teaches TCM medical theory and herbalism at an acupuncture school in California, and also maintains a clinical practice.

Ellen Shefi is a licensed massage technician, licensed acupuncturist, and registered dietician. She is a member of the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the American Herb Association, and the Oregon Acupuncture Association.