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East vs. West: Two Co-existing Views of the Human Body

The Placebo effect: your brain is so powerful that if you think that a treatment will help you, it will. But then why does acupuncture work on dogs?
While acupuncture is gradually gaining acceptance in the United States, there remains a widespread belief that it and other so-called alternative modalities amount to nothing more than pseudo-science, witchcraft, or mystical hodgepodge. When confronted with the efficacy of acupuncture in many cases, the naysayers immediately cite the placebo effect-- the idea that the mind is so powerful that if you believe a treatment will help you, you will get better.

The Gate Theory: explains why acupuncture treats pain, but why can it treat stress, depression, menstrual disorders and more?
However, with more and more patients seeking acupuncture as a means of treating their ailments, Western science has sought to explain within a scientific framework how this ancient form of healing works. Through numerous experiments, it has been shown that acupuncture indeed causes physiological changes in the body and can benefit a wide range of disorders; however, scientists cannot agree on a cohesive, universal explanation for how it works. Some groups embrace the "Gate Theory" - the idea that the brain can only take so much stimulation and needles help block out pain sensations. Others point to the release of chemicals in the brain after acupuncture to explain the calming or euphoric effects of treatment. Even more hypotheses exist, with new ones constantly emerging to refute the old.

Despite all of these conflicting theories, the Chinese have been able to systematically explain for thousands of years how acupuncture and other traditional healing methods work. The key is to look outside of the proverbial box imposed by the modern scientific method and to acknowledge the idea that the body and its functions can be defined in more than one way. This acknowledgement does not mean throwing science away; but rather accepting that multiple methods can coexist without stepping on each others' toes. Can we not define distance in both units of yards and meters? Or temperature in degrees of Fahrenheit or Celsius?

The symbol for yin and yang
Therefore, to explain how Chinese medicine works, we must set physics, chemistry, and biology aside for a moment and begin to look at the body in terms of the opposing and mutually creating forces of Yin and Yang; the vital substances of Qi and Blood; a cycle of five elements; and twelve organ systems. In this way, the body is a microcosm of the universe, whose functions interact in harmony and whose vital substances flourish in abundance and remain in balance with one another. Illness arises from a weakness of these vital substances, the invasion of external pathogens, or functional disharmony.

Treatment, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other means, operates within this same framework. It is allopathic in nature: that is, if the body is cold, we try to warm it; if it is weak, we seek to strengthen it; if it is unbalanced, we try to harmonize it; if its energies have stagnated, we attempt to move it. Instead of treating the symptoms of a disorder, Chinese medicine looks for the root of the problem and tries to coax the body back into harmony.

For example, if a patient suffers from a fever, Western Medicine might say that a bacterial infection caused it. Chinese medicine simply describes the fever as heat resulting from an invasion of external pathogens. The doctor may choose acupuncture points Qu-chi and Wai-guan on the arm; he may also prescribe herbs such as mint and honeysuckle. From a Chinese point of view, the points and herbs will help reduce heat and expel pathogens. And while this might seem odd to many Western Doctors, they might accept that the points are antipyretic (fever reducing) and that the herbs have antibiotic properties.

Dang-Gui helps to nourish blood
Likewise, someone suffering from fatigue may have low blood pressure from a Western point of view. A Chinese doctor might say that the patient has weak blood and suggest the patient take herbs such as Dang-gui and eat foods like beef and spinach. While Chinese medicine believes that these materials help generate and nourish blood, Western science has shown that they are high in iron and encourage red blood cell multiplication.

Taiji practice helps to facilitate the smooth flow of Qi inside the body and can treat depression; Western medicine says that exercise causes the brain to generate chemicals.
As a last example, a psychiatrist may attribute a patientís depression to brain chemistry imbalances. His Chinese counterpart might diagnose the problem as a stagnation of Liver energies. Treatment would be the acupuncture points Tai-chong and He-gu on the foot and hand, respectively; combined with herbs such as Bupleurum and Curcumae; and recommend Taiji exercises. All of these methods seek to smooth the Liver energies so that they flow freely. And while Western medicine has shown that both exercise and the herb Curcumae stimulate the brain to produce certain chemicals, it cannot explain why those particular points and Bupleurum are effective for treating depression.

But just because modern science cannot validate a particular healing method does not mean that the method does not work. After all, just 30 years ago, medical circles decried chiropractic as quackery. Nowadays, it has reached the mainstream and is justified by the relation between spinal nerves and organs. Likewise, as it presently stands, Western science does not have the tools to objectively measure the effects of Chinese medicine. This does not mean that the healing modalities encompassed within do not work, because 3,000 years of experience has shown that they do. It does mean that the question of why it works will require a paradigm shift to answer.