What you should know about Chinese Medicine: The Lingo

September 17, 2013 — 2 Comments
source: favim.com

source: favim.com

There was a point in time where I felt deeply disempowered about my health. It was a time I was broken, physically, emotionally, mentally. It’s gravely concerning when you think about it, that we are not taught how to live our lives in a manner that keeps us well, outside of murky, generic and often contradicting information. If we want to help ourselves, then it’s left to just that – ourselves. That’s probably what’s brought you here, now.

Concerned with prevention rather than cure, Chinese Medicine is based off an entirely different model to evidence-based Western Medicine. Medicine as we know it here in the West has it’s limitations. It’s amazing at diagnosing and treating what is already broken, at which point – the tumour, high cholesterol, diabetes, autoimmune disease – is already a long way down the path of ill health. See, no one spontaneously gets diabetes. There is years of warning signs beforehand and we’re just not taught to look for them or know what to do about it. Enter, Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Expecting TCM to fit neatly into evidence based model can be a massive fail. Which doesn’t imply TCM is not a credible medicine model – that would be like comparing oranges to apples. TCM has had 2,000 years (some say 5,000) of empirical evidence, based on human trials. The ancients weren’t studying rats in a lab, doctors were practicing on themselves. And some died in the process, needless to say, giving us very valuable information. They were the sacrificial lambs to medicine.

In a gesture to bridge the gap between our Western thinking and Eastern medicine I’ve pulled together this overview of TCM lingo. Keep in mind, it’s hard to fit such an enormous subject with deep philosophies into a brief blog post…it takes us practitioners years to grasp, pouring over very fat text books. Hopefully though, it will help clear some of the mystery so you can feel empowered again.


TCM is a culmination of the following philosophies:

  • Yin Yang – A really cool theory of relativity that is much deeper than it seems. Optimal health is a balance between Yin and Yang and what is restored with acupuncture, herbs, diet, lifestyle.
  • Five Element – my favourite theory because it beautifully ties in all things in nature, including our health. See below for a snapshot.
  • Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism – I wont even begin to explain these philosophies in a sentence or two. That would just be impossible for my level of comprehension.

TCM didn’t always exist as one cohesive big bucket of theory – it is evolving over time and knitted together through the works of modern academics and a big push by Mao Tse-tung. So forget linear thinking and learn to trust in the laws of the universe which may even go beyond your comprehension.

Main terms

  • Meridians – are like blood vessels, but invisible, where energy travels instead of blood. This is what acupuncture needles tap into, in an effort to manipulate where energy flows to improve your health.
  • Qi – is energy that travels the meridians and more. Qi is in all animate things. Qi is what our body extracts from food and gets distributed through the body.
  • Blood – has both an physical component and an energetic component. Blood and Qi are closely related, and we can see evidence of Blood’s relationship to energy also in Western Medicine (think anaemia where lethargic is a symptom). We make blood through food and air and when we’re asleep between 10pm and 12am.
  • Body fluids – This is a huge subject on it’s own, so much so my mentor, Steven Clavey, has written a book solely on body fluids. Basically, body fluids and Blood are related in the obvious sense and an energetic sense. We will often refer to body fluids as Yin.
Five Element Theory

Five Element Theory

Organs of our system

  • Yin organs – Heart, Pericardium, Spleen, Lung, Kidney, Liver
  • Yang organs – Small Intestine, Triple Warmer (an energetic organ in TCM), Stomach, Large Intestine, Urinary Bladder, Gall Bladder

These organs are Yin Yang paired – see the Five Element Theory above.

Terms of Pathology

Our state of being is defined in terms of what pathology is plaguing what organs. Everything – from anxiety to infertility to that lump on your foot to a common cold – can be defined as one or a combination of the below terms:

  • Deficiency
  • Excess
  • Stagnation
  • Damp
  • Dryness
  • Stagnation
  • Heat
  • Cold
  • Wind
  • Internal
  • External


Through reading the tongue, listening to the pulse, questioning and observation we form an idea of a patient’s pattern (see pathological terms above) to then be able to treat accordingly, and individually. It takes many years to master the art of diagnosis. Some doctors are so good, they can tell the accurate health of your parents through your own pulse. I take my hat off to that kind of skill.

Some of the types of tongue qualities.  Note: I've lost the source of this so apologies for the lack of credit.

Some of the types of tongue qualities.
Note: I’ve lost the source of this image so apologies for the lack of credit. Will recitify asap.

What effects health

  • Emotions
  • Diet
  • Lifestyle – by this we mean balance between activity, rest, exercise, sleep, intoxicants etc.
  • Environment
  • Seasons
  • Physical trauma

Notice how I listed emotions at the top? That isn’t an accident. But I’ll save that for another post.

Pulling it together

Now we can start to link it all together. Your TCM doctor will diagnose you and form a pattern of your health status, linking organs and pathology to the theories. it will sound like this:

  • Liver Qi stagnation
  • Stomach and Large intestine heat drying out the lungs
  • Spleen Qi deficiency
  • Kidney Yang deficiency
  • And so on….(this is by no means a definitive list of patterns, just a small example)

Furthermore, any number of patterns can cause a singular symptom, like a headache for example. This is where it starts to get confusing at this early stage of comprehension, and I’ll stop right here.

So where to from here? I think it’s vital that we all put preventative medicine treatments on our radar, just like we would get our car serviced every 3 months. That’s not to say everyone should be seeing a TCM doctor. It works wonders for me, and many others, but don’t feel bad if you find better results with Chiropractic, Naturopathy, Meditation, Kinesiology to name a few. The main point is to be an active participant in your own wellbeing, and know that there’s help out there. And I hope that by providing this information, you are a little more at ease with TCM.


2 responses to What you should know about Chinese Medicine: The Lingo


    Great post Becki – cool tongue chart
    Thank you!

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