What does it mean to be well? You could receive a very different response, depending on where you are and who you ask. In the western hemisphere, a common mindset is to associate health with a lack of negative symptoms, which means many medical professionals take a more reactive approach to health care.

“Current health care works by waiting until symptoms of disease arise, as opposed to spending more time and effort on disease prevention so that those problems do not occur in the first place,” Dr. Ka-Kit Hui, founder and director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, told Explore Integrative Medicine.

Looking for a more holistic way to manage your health? You may want to explore Traditional Chinese Medicine. While the Western medical model focuses on treating and managing diseases, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) not only treats illness — it optimizes overall well-being through a number of holistic treatments.

What exactly does this look like in practice?

Traditional Chinese Medicine 101

Don’t be fooled: though you may be unfamiliar with its principles, TCM has been around quite a while. Dating back 2,500 years, TCM is the official form of medicine in the People’s Republic of China and it’s also gaining stamina in the U.S. with about 14,000 active TCM practitioners. Many Americans choose TCM as a complementary therapy in tandem with Western practices — for example, using acupuncture to help with chemotherapy side effects — but some adopt it as their primary avenue of physical and emotional wellness.

One major draw toward TCM is its holistic mentality. According to the University of Minnesota, Traditional Chinese Medicine “is a way of looking at ourselves and our world that sees everything as a whole and considers everything in context.”

In TCM, everything is connected — that’s why it’s considered a “holistic” practice.

To grasp TCM, it’s important to understand “qi,” the vital force TCM practitioners believe control the workings of the human mind and body. Qi, which flows through the body through channels known as meridians, comes from two primary sources: air and food. Think of qi like a river flowing — when it’s blocked, it can get stagnant, resulting in sickness or disease.

The object of TCM is to optimize health by increasing the flow of qi. That’s where the concept of balance harmony comes in. In TCM, health means the body and its systems are in balance, whereas disease occurs when there’s disharmony in the body’s organs and systems. When bodily harmony is disrupted by either a deficiency of vital substances (namely, qi) or excess (brought on by toxins, negative emotions, or poor diet), we get sick.

In response to — and to prevent — sickness, TCM employs a number of tools, including acupuncture, Chinese herbs, cupping and other changes in diet or lifestyle. Releasing blocked qi through practices like acupuncture and supporting organs with a whole, healthy diet can trigger the body’s healing response, which leads to increased physical wellness and even emotional well-being.

In TCM, health means the body and its systems are in balance, whereas disease occurs when there’s disharmony in the body’s organs and systems.

For example, according to the UC-San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine, “Modern research has demonstrated acupuncture’s effects on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system and digestive system. By stimulating the body’s various systems, acupuncture can help to resolve pain and improve sleep, digestive function and sense of well-being.” For that reason, many people look to TCM to help with conditions like chronic pain, headaches, insomnia, digestive issues and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

The good news is, there’s a lot of scientific literature in favor of TCM. Extensive research has shown TCM to be safe, especially when it is used as complementary therapy under the guidance of a doctor. Specifically, acupuncture needles used in TCM have been FDA-approved since 1996. Chinese herbs, like most other vitamins and supplements, are not FDA-regulated and there aren’t as many studies to prove their effectiveness or safety.

If you are drawn to holistic practices but don’t want to abandon evidence-based models of Western medicine altogether, integrative medicine — using holistic treatments may be a good approach. Whatever you choose, do your research, know your options and work with a medical professional to map out the best plan for your health.

Have you explored TCM or integrative medicine?

Images via Tess Comrie



  1. I have chronic pain and an autoimmune disease. I will not take any narcotics or opioids so accupuncture is my source of pain management. Not only does my natural physician do accupuncture, she recommends dietary and lifestyle changes. I have almost immediate relief after a session. Unfortunately insurance does not pay so I am only able to go when my resources allow. I highly recommend to anyone open to an alternative approach to manage physical and mental health issues.

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