"The sages of antiquity did not treat those who were already sick, but those who were not sick... When a disease has already broken out and is only then treated, would that not be just as late as to wait for thirst before digging a well, or to wait to go into battle before casting weapons?" (Nei Jing)
These words, from a classic Chinese Medical text written 4601 years ago, express the primary importance of Preventive Medicine. They are proof positive that Chinese Medicine has long valued Preventive Medicine above emergency disease intervention.
Historically in China, each village was under the care of one doctor. In return, they took care of him (fed him, clothed him, etc.). What's so different about this from the exchange that goes on in modern healthcare? The traditional Chinese doctor's job was to keep the village from getting sick in the first place. Once people got sick, they were unable to support the doctor. It made more sense for him to keep them well than to wait until they were sick.
The most prestigious position for a Chinese doctor was to become the Emperor's personal physician. However, if the Emperor got sick, the doctor could end up executed. The best physician in China was blessed and cursed; for him, preventive medicine was a matter of life and death!
Traditional Chinese doctors were rewarded for preventing disease, and punished for allowing their patients to get sick. Western Medicine is only rewarded if there are sick patients to cure. If no one got sick, most of our health care industry would quickly go out of business.
These cultural influences may be one reason why Chinese Medicine put so much into developing its complex and effective understanding of the causes of disease. If you've had much experience with Western Medicine, you've probably heard the word 'idiopathic' come up a lot. Idiopathic means literally 'unknown cause.' If you ask persistently, you'll find out that in Western Medicine, quite a lot of diseases are considered idiopathic. I'll refrain from concluding, then, that Western Medicine is 'idiodic.' :) There may be some understanding of the underlying pathomechanisms (the ways the disease progresses from nothing to something), and the untangling of the human genome holds great promise, but for now Western Medicine must admit there is much they do not understand about the causes of disease. This explains their blank-spot in terms of the ability to deliver preventive care.
In Chinese Medicine, the only idiopathic disease is the one you have not properly diagnosed. The advantage of CM's simplicity is its ability to lucidly explain, in its own terms, 99.999% of disease processes, and then to right away be able to suggest preventive solutions. Wouldn't it be nice, if you had a family history of diabetes, cancer, or stroke, to have a Chinese Medical Practitioner suggest preventive solutions for your specific constitution and lifestyle?
This is quite a contrast from our conventional Western Medicine and health care system. M.D.'s enjoy a great deal of respect and prestige. We are fascinated with the saving of lives in dramatic situations. And it's comforting to know that these capable docs are there when we need them. It is not coincidental that the most popular medical TV show in history focuses on the ER. We are interested in action and human drama, and the Emergency Room provides plenty of that! But imagine for a second a TV show about Preventive Medicine. What would the storyline be? Our hero, John Q. Healthy, goes to work (but not for too long), comes home and plays with the kids (showing a great deal of heart), eats moderately and healthily (no fast food), takes time out for spiritual devotions, and connects genuinely with his friends, coworkers and spouse. Not too sexy, is it? Doesn't possess the excess, violence, or drama typical of American culture, does it?
But, forget about TV. Forget about fiction. Let's talk about you... yeah, YOU! Do you want to die of a heart attack? Smother to death in advanced emphysema from a lifetime of smoking? Lose your legs to diabetic neuropathy because of your fascination with rich foods? I hope not!
Fortunately, Chinese Medicine (CM) contributes a great deal to our Western understanding of risk factors and behaviors. Because CM was practiced for over 4000 years without lab tests or visual studies, it developed other methods of disease detection. We are able to catch subtle manifestations earlier, and to reverse imbalances quickly instead of allowing them to worsen over years into life-threatening illnesses that finally show up as a blip on the Western Medical screen. Once we know the nature of your imbalance, we can suggest foods, habits, exercises, and herbal medicines that will stop the disease process in its tracks, or at least slow it down.
Living preventive health doesn't sound like much fun. You don't live fast and hard. You might not get to eat all the rich, greasy, or sweet foods you want. You might have to give up coffee (maybe I'll join you...) and alcohol. You might have to choose a job that doesn't pay as muchl so that you have more time to relax, to enjoy, to nurture yourself and your friends and family. You might not get the vacation in Tahiti. You might not need it. You might choose to move to Tahiti instead. Preventive medicine calls us to re-examine every aspect of our lives, our choices, our values, and our plans.
But relax! The good news is that you don't have to change everything all at once. Don't even think about it. Our goal is to make progress rather than attain perfection. If you choose to embrace Preventive Medicine, you are bucking your culture, the mainstream media, the marketing messages that come from some of the richest and most powerful companies out there. And you are joining a growing society of health. Baby Boomers in particular have flocked to Alternative Medicine... so much so that M.D.'s are following us now! They have changed their schools to put more emphasis on compassion, rapport, and the human side of medicine. They take courses in acupuncture. They are writing books about spirituality.
It's clear that, as challenging as it may be to live healthily, Americans are sick of being sick. They want more life, more happiness, and more health. They want solutions. Practical ones. The kind of solutions that two-thirds of the world's population has already gotten from Chinese Medicine. As more and more qualified practitioners flood a starving American healthcare market, Chinese Medicine (acupuncture and chinese herbs) will play a huge part in that solution.
7 Practical Steps to Preventing Disease with Chinese Medicine:
1. LOCATE a practitioner near you.
2. Give them a CALL. If you have more than one to choose from, interview them. Check on their license. Find out about their education and experience (The requirements vary from state to state; many states rely on the National standards. Other states, like California, have higher standards.). Find out if the practitioner was educated in the formulation of chinese herbs. And, make sure they are a good fit for you personally!
3. VISIT your practitioner a few times, at least. The first visit is usually long, perhaps an hour or more. We're quite thorough - we like to get all the information before making a diagnosis. We can treat effectively with acupuncture before herbs (but of course, it depends on your condition). It takes a pretty accurate diagnosis to get the right herb formula.
4. Get a personalized HERBAL FORMULA for your imbalance, and take it regularly. Get Acupuncture as often as they suggest. You may have a talk with them about your financial constraints, if any. Hopefully it is your practitioner's goal to get you well as quickly as possible. Then, (in #6 below) you can negotiate how frequently you visit for maintenance and prevention.
5. Some practitioners are extreme- they want you to change everything right away, re-arrange your diet, stop eating all the 'bad' things, take lots of herbs, and see them weekly so that they can regularly shame you into healthy living. As a self-confessing coffee addict and former smoker, I understand how difficult it can be to change dietary and lifestyle habits. My belief is that acupuncture, herbs, and dietary therapies exist to help you make the transition from imbalance to well-being both possible and comfortable. Real change takes time; moving too fast can lead to short term mega-progress but ultimately result in relapse and a net gain of zero. My point: take your time, change a few things, and stick with it. Be nice to yourself not only in
committing to your own well-being, but also in allowing yourself to progress imperfectly, to be human, to make mistakes. But even if your practitioner nags you a bit, you still might get something out of it. Or you might want to have a talk, or try a different practitioner.
6. Work with them until you feel you have hit a PLATEAU. After achieving a new level of health, it's time to talk about your progress and where you want to go next. Perhaps your insomnia is gone but you want to work on your occasional
7. At some point, you may experience total well-being; you might feel that you are functioning optimally. In that case, to prevent illness, return to the practitioner on a seasonal or other basis (for example, if you are a teacher, you might want to return right before school starts to make sure the new stress doesn't knock you down. Just before the Holidays is another time to get in good shape to prevent vulnerability to stress and dietary excess).
Best wishes in your journey of health!
Brian Benjamin Carter is the Editor of The Pulse of Oriental Medicine, a writer for Being Well (a monthly e-newsletter), and an Intern at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Brian lives in beautiful San Diego, California and is shamelessly addicted to double espressos.
The Pulse of Oriental Medicine