Student Blog: Overview of Ancient Eastern Medicinal Perspectives in Modernity
By Brianna Vo
When I was young, I saw my dad suddenly keel over in pain in the middle of his work with a customer. He was driven to the hospital and diagnosed with dangerously high cholesterol levels at the root of his severe abdominal pain and regular digestive issues. He was offered surgical options as well as prescription medication but decided against it at the time. He had grown up in Vietnam and this influenced him to choose the common Eastern focus on herbal remedies instead.
A week later, we were in the dual home/workplace of a medicine man who had similarly immigrated from Vietnam. I remember the looming plants surrounding the home and dimming the natural light streaming in from the windows. Several hours of consultation yielded a vile-looking, juniper green liquid encased in reused water bottles. In the months to come, regular intake combined with the medicine man’s advice on an improved holistic lifestyle resulted in gradual improvement in my dad’s health. And years later, while devising a biology research investigation, I thought about the herbal medicine’s impact, the Kalanchoe pinnata or “leaf of life” (Vietnamese translation) growing in my backyard, and the complex dynamics between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ medicinal approaches dating to ancient times. It is a question of folk traditions and efforts towards evidence-based legitimacy regarding millennia-old Oriental practices, namely acupuncture.
Oriental medicine can generally be traced to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which has been practiced for over 3000 years. Paralleling the universe’s laws of nature, the human body houses an energy system based on the assumed concept of qi, which is likened to “energy” but can encompass information, consciousness, and other factors beyond the modern Western “energy” concept. The human energy system, simultaneously linked to the material system, is dynamic and influences all bodily activities (e.g. exothermic heat production from food and chemical energy released by mitochondria) at microscopic and macroscopic levels. Nutrient qi flows inside the vessels of the non-physical meridian system while defensive qi flows on the body’s surface. Thus, the external “macrocosm” is closely tied to internal “microcosm” and prolonged imbalances in the overall energy system manifest as physical symptoms diagnosed as disease. This explains one important distinction between Eastern and Western methodology: TCM is optimal for preventative treatment and diseases that have only slightly affected the body whereas Western physicians are trained to care for, distinctly, disease detection and proceeding therapy.
The way in which vital energy occurs in the human body and the universe relates to foundational TCM principles like Yin-Yang and Five Elements as well as Zang-fu organs and meridians. As a generalized note, the ancient Chinese Five elements, or Wu Xing, include Wood, Fire, Earth, Water, and Metal that embody and apply the Yin-Yang paradigm, the balance of which impacts health.
Interestingly, there is an ancient Greek counterpart in the theory of the Four Elements – fire, earth, water, air – that influence the Four ‘Humours’ – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – whose imbalance was said to affect one’s health. In TCM physicians are tasked with improving “internal defensive power” and adaptive abilities unique to the individual in order to combat or adapt to environmental changes, resulting in a peaceful balance within oneself and with the environment.
Overall, there may be major benefits to integrating select TCM ideologies or adapting new alternatives to Western medicinal practices. Recent efforts continue to expound on TCM intervention’s treatment potential and ideological validity. Recalling the story of my dad and his successful herbal remedy treatment, an investigation targeting young patients from eleven hospitals in four different Chinese provinces sought to compare the effectiveness and safety of Maxingshigan-Yinqiaosan and Oseltamivir in fever reduction concerning H1N1 influenza. Twelve herbs constitute Maxingshigan-Yinqiaosan, a combination of two classical TCM formulae known for “diaphoretic and heat-clearing” properties. Oseltamivir is part of the medicinal family named antivirals used for treating infections caused by viruses. The four tested groups include Oseltamivir treatment only, Maxingshigan-Yinqiaosan only, Oseltamivir and Maxingshigan-Yinqiaosan, control group. The study proved that, over the course of five days, the time to fever reduction was comparable for use of Oseltamivir and
Maxingshigan-Yinqiaosan either together or alone, and both were more effective than the control. Importantly, this demonstrates that TCM formula is as effective as Oseltamivir and that their combined usage is safe. Thus, the TCM could be used as a cheaper alternative in necessary situations and is applicable for the common practice of ingesting Western and Eastern medicines for augmented effect. Not only a hallmark for Eastern practices, but herbal remedies also occur in indigenous populations’ traditions globally, resulting in a manifold repository of employed plant species, preparation techniques, known benefits, and target demographics. For example, the Kalanchoe pinnata plant is known as saiao or coirama in Brazil, hoja del aire in Peru, lá sống đời in Vietnam, and more.
But many Western treatments employ plant-derived compounds in pharmaceutical drugs and their benefits are more scientifically substantiated than acupuncture, which is an integral oriental therapy. Recent experimental efforts, therefore, strove to provide increased anatomical and physiological basis for the meridian system. In the 1960s, Professor Bong-Han Kim first proposed the anatomical system later named Primo Vessels System (PVS) composed of Primo Vessels (PVs) that corresponds to the meridian system and acupoints. “Primo fluid” circulates in the sub vessels within, alongside blood flow based on heart beats. Although it was largely ignored by the scientific community, a Seoul National University research team recently discovered a staining method using select dyes including fluorescent nanoparticles and Hema color, finally proving the existence of PVS akin to the other anatomical systems. The PVS is a micron size and is associated with vessels and nerves found in loose connective tissue, adipose tissue, the hypodermal skin layer, the tissues of organs, etc. As it follows such nerves and vessels, it forms a highway that influences body systems and organs. This may be the factual basis for the meridian system and the subsequent effectiveness of the popular TCM treatment of acupuncture.
Steps are being taken to solidify the surviving, often invisible Eastern traditional ideologies and methodologies alongside the characteristically Western standard of tangible proof. Ranging from the actual anatomical substantiation of the Primo Fluid System to improved understanding of herbal medicine alternatives, Eastern medicine demonstrates the effectiveness of establishing preventative, holistic care towards the goal of balance. Where health meets disease and is not separated from it, perhaps these ancient perspectives have something to offer to our modern, Western concept of medicine striving towards the nuanced, ever-evolving goal of “health” within and outside the human body.
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