February 2007

Chinese Medicine — A Treasure Both Ancient and Modern

By Elliot Wagner, O.M.D., L.Ac., Doctor of Oriental Medicine

In last month's column I discussed how the early Chinese physicians understood and described the fundamental anatomical structure of the body and related how application of that knowledge resulted in the development of systematic and effective acupuncture.

An equally important aspect of Chinese medicine was the development of the Five Phases. The Chinese viewed physiology within a five-phase dynamic relationship. The Five Phases, or Five Elements, of Chinese medicine (Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire) have been interpreted as basic building blocks of matter, like a primitive version of the chemical elements. Actually, they are the result of a deep investigation into nature and of the part it plays in the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of human nature. On a physiological level the Five Phases have now come to be understood as analogous to the human endocrine system. Although the ancient Chinese knew the body from thousands of dissections, they did not possess the instruments to learn at a cellular level what, for example, blood carried that made it necessary for life, or what precise differences were between arteries, veins, and nerves, because in a dead body they look very much alike. The Chinese also knew nothing of the endocrine glands yet, as we will see, they understood a great deal about what they did.

The endocrine glands were invisible to the Chinese because these glands, which are responsible for secreting many of the hormones which the body requires for normal functioning, are modest in appearance, despite their importance. The pancreas and adrenals were overlooked by the Chinese, who thought them to be fatty tissue. The thyroid and parathyroid were considered to be part of the lung and trachea. The pineal and pituitary glands were too hidden and small to be noticed, etc. Instead they attributed the functions of the endocrine glands to the organs they could see.

One example of this, and of the sophistication of Chinese observation is their view of the liver. In Chinese medicine certain statements of face are made about the liver. The liver is called the "commander-in-chief," and is specifically responsible for "planning and strategy," and for timing and vision. We say in Chinese medicine that the liver "opens in the eye," or "dominates the eye." The liver is said to respond to changes within the body and to environmental conditions, such as wind and seasonal darkness, with changes in mood — either fear and depression, or anger — and we say that "diseases of the liver are relieved in the spring." What does this all mean? Let's compare these statements from Chinese medicine with what is understood in physiology:

Liver metabolism has a diurnal cycle of functioning, activated by daylight and inhibited at night. These events are mediated by melatonin, a neurotransmitter produced from serotonin in the pineal gland, which sits in the brain above the optic chiasm, where the right and left optic nerves cross. It is sensitive to light and is considered the master oscillator, or clock, in the body. It interprets the light levels coming from the eyes and communicates that information in the form of entrained oscillations or cycles to the rest of the body, so that there is order to our waking and sleeping, digestion, hunger, and reproductive cycles. A disruption in this rhythm causes a disruption in the entire system. This is first noticed in the emotions as a change in mood. If these moods are ignored; if, for example, we live in such a way that natural rhythms are disregarded, then we may find ourselves chronically sad and depressed. It is well known that depression may increase in the winter, when there is less available light, and is improved as spring approaches. Or, if we go to bed late and get up late, disregarding the normal day and night cycles, we may feel tired the whole day no matter how long we have slept, because the pineal gland requires early morning light to fully shut off the melatonin required for sleep.

Much of what is known about the pineal gland was discovered in the last fifty years, yet it confirms what the Chinese described more than 2,000 years ago, using only a commitment to understanding the body, intuition and a genius for observation.

Next month will begin a series on how common health concerns are treated by Chinese medicine. Next month's column will discuss the Chinese medical treatment of anxiety and depression.