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Why do we get sick? – A Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

The starting point of looking after our health and curing disease is to know, what harms us, so that we can adjust some of our behaviour to pursue better health.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine there are 3 possible causes of disease.

  1. External cause. This refers to an attack from the environment in form of weather or climate. In modern terms this category corresponds to infectious diseases.
  2. Internal Cause. Diseases that are generated by unbalanced or harmful mental or emotional states.
  3. Neither external nor internal/ miscellaneous causes. This category includes factor such as constitution, diet, inactivity, overwork, sexual behaviour and sleep.

In this article I will address only the first cause, “external cause/exterior pathogenic factors”.

Throughout history, infectious diseases have been the number one cause of premature death, at least until the twentieth century. Plague, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, influenza and many other kinds of fevers have wiped out children and adults. Since infectious diseases were always the greatest risk to life and health, early Chinese medicine made it a priority to develop understanding and effective treatments. Although viruses and bacteria where not yet known, Chinese Medicine was able to create sophisticated approaches to treating many of their symptoms and after-effects.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) infectious diseases are seen as exterior causes, also known as exterior pathogenic factors, sometimes called “the six evils”. They are attacks of the body by weather and climatic conditions in form of wind, cold, damp, dryness, heat and fire.

The notion that weather and climate can injure the body is found in every traditional culture. In English we “catch a cold”, while in Chinese they describe the same illness as “attacked by wind” (in combination with heat or cold).

Recent findings have discovered, that about a quarter of our DNA changes in response to the seasons. There has been various research undertaken, revealing a close relationship between environmental factors & disease. A 2005 study, for example, found that one in seven people who sat with their feet in the cold water for 20min developed a cold within five days, compared to one in twenty who sat with their feet in an empty bowel.
In TCM this would be interpreted as cold-damp entering the body through the feet.

How to protect ourselves from external pathogens?

First of all, it is important to mention the dynamics between healthy Qi and disease Qi.

Qi in TCM is the vital force/energy every living being has.

When our Qi is strong (strong immune system), we have greater resistance to harmful influences. Even if the pathogenic Qi (the disease) is strong, some people’s Qi is strong enough to avoid certain diseases. When we are weak, we are more vulnerable. Even weak pathogenic Qi can harm a person with weak Qi.

So strengthening our Qi, which includes our immune system, is imperative to reducing the risk of getting sick. Wholesome & healthy food, adequate sleep, exercise and a positive outlook on life are all ways to support the healthy Qi /our immune system.

Other ways to protect ourselves from external pathogenic factors entering our bodies in TCM, that may not be all familiar to us include:

  • Avoiding exposure to cold, damp and wind immediately after exercising or taking a hot bath or shower. At these times pores are said to be open and vulnerable.
  • Avoiding wearing clothes that are wet or damp, not matter if from rain, mist or sweating. All exposure to damp, including lying on damp ground, is considered to increase the risk of developing muscular aches and pains, rheumatism and arthritis.
  • Avoiding prolonged sitting on cold damp surfaces such as bare ground or walls, and avoid getting the legs and feet cold and wet. The pelvic organs, especially the bladder and the uterus in women, are especially vulnerable. Menstruating women should keep warm, avoid cold in general. Cold can congeal the free flow of blood and lead to pain and other gynaecological disorders.
  • It is especially important to avoid living in damp housing. Mouldy and damp houses can lead to health issues such as respiratory infections, allergic rhinitis and asthma.
  • Those with stomach and bowel complaints should avoid cold, especially cold wind, on abdomen, as well as chilled food and drink.

Based on Peter Deadman’s Book “Live Well, Live Long. Teachings from Chinese Nourishment of Life Tradition”

Dr Caroline Alison Nichols (TCM)

To book an appointment with Dr Caroline Anne Nichols please call 9754 2062, or book online.

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