Chinese Medicine and Stress


The theories of Chinese medicine resemble those of Hans Selye, the biological scientist who first employed the term stress in his seminal book, The Stress of Life. Selye articulates the theory that most chronic illness is due to a deterioration of the organism’s capacity to adapt to stress, whether physical or psychological. He emphasizes the primary role of the adrenal and other endocrine glands in mediating the body’s response to all forms of stress, arguing that it is only after these mechanisms fail to restore homeostasis that the characteristic features of disease begin to appear in accord with the unique predispositions and acquired weaknesses of each individual.

It seems that both Hans Selye and Zhang Zhong Jing agree that people initially become sick in similar ways, but if recovery does not occur quickly enough, they become chronically ill in more diverse and idiosyncratic ways. They also agree that it is the body’s intrinsic ability to recover its own equilibrium that sustains health and prevents the development of chronic illness. In other words, the adequacy of Qi equals the adequacy of adaptive reserves–referred to by modern neuro-physiologists as the competence of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The physiology of the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands and their roles in producing the hormones that regulate all psychological and physiological functions corresponds closely to the functions of the Kidney Network as described in Chinese medicine.

It is the Kidney Network that is responsible for maintaining the body’s vital primary functions such as: mental alertness, sensory responsiveness, respiration, circulation, blood pressure, osmotic pressure, temperature, fluid balance, and for conserving the body’s material substrate–sometimes referred to as protoplasm or ground substance–called Essence, the primordial form of Qi.

It is Essence that generates the fundamental material components (marrow, semen, synovial and cerebrospinal fluid) and structural matrix (collagen, the delicate, elastic lattice of bone and connective tissue) of the body as well as its ability to maintain proper temperature, pressure, solidity and fluid balance. Without these basic elements in place, immunity to pathogenic organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and resistance to physical or chemical stressors such as changes in weather, altitude and pressure, dust and pollens, or chemical contaminants in air, water, and food is very difficult to maintain.

In addition to the Kidney Network, those of the Spleen and Lung are crucial to preserving strength and immunity. It is the Spleen Network that governs the processes of digestion and assimilation from which we derive the nutrients that generate the Qi, Moisture, Blood, and Essence required to sustain the activities of daily life. It is the Lung Network that invigorates the body with the essences of air (oxygen, invigorating fragrances, moisture) and governs the skin and mucus membranes that constitute the body’s protective boundaries. Finally, it is the integrated functions of these three Networks that comprise our psychological vigilance and physiological immunity–the power to resist the damaging effects of noxious substances, invading microbes, strenuous physical demands, mental weariness and emotional strain.

Chinese medicine does not absolutely distinguish between diseases induced by external, internal, and behavioral factors. It considers all sickness to be a product of the organism’s inability to preserve its own equilibrium in response to constant and inexorable fluctuations, inwardly and outwardly.

An individual may appear restored, feeling relatively well for many years after being exposed to extremely stressful events such as contact with pesticide sprays, physical injuries, extreme emotional or physical violence, fright, or prolonged weakness following an infectious illness, without recognizing the ensuing fragility of bodily resistance due to the depletion of adaptive reserves–the shrinking reservoir of Qi. It may be the next destabilizing event, whether inhaling paint fumes, a sudden emotional shock, a severe bout of flu, or even food poisoning, that can trigger the rapid emergence of a disabling malady.

It is the overarching goal of Chinese medicine, in accord with its own medical concepts and methodologies, to invigorate the individual’s power to function in a natural and integrated way. By utilizing the methods of herbal medicine (the use of natural botanical, animal, and mineral substances combined into specific formulas to be taken in the form of extracts, teas, powders, pills, and tablets to strengthen the body and antidote pathogenic influences); acupuncture (the insertion of thin, sterile, stainless steel needles at specific locations along the channels traversing the surface of the body in order to regulate Qi and restore physiological and psychological equilibrium); or dietary therapy (the use of special combinations of foods and herbs to nourish and strengthen the body and antidote pathogenic influences), the Chinese medicine provider seeks to enable the organism to become self-regulating, self-correcting, and self-sustaining.

While a condition of robust health is not always completely attainable, these gentle and non-invasive methods will almost always result in improved immunity, vigor, and functionality. In addition, Chinese medicine can help to prevent or reverse many of the harmful effects of modern Western medical treatments such as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and other pharmaceutical therapies that may be deemed necessary and appropriate to preserve and prolong life. Combining Western biomedicine with Chinese traditional medicine enhances a person’s ability to withstand the impact of aggressive interventions while maintaining strength and immunity, accelerating the rate of recovery and increasing the probability of long term survival.

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