Parallels between Contemporary Functional Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine

After my recent retirement from around 40 years of traditional Chinese Medicine clinical practice, I was drawn towards the contemporary western practice of what is called Functional Medicine, or Lifestyle Medicine. The attraction was due to the fact that both traditional Chinese Medicine and contemporary Functional Medicine both have a common foundation based on lifestyle.

Both are focused on proper diet and nutrition, adequate movement, stress reduction, emotional mastery, healthy mindset and thoughts, sense of purpose, and meaningful relationships. Both forms of medicine focus on finding and treating the root cause, as opposed to management of symptoms.

In Functional Medicine, allopathic treatments (in the form of synthetic chemical drug-based medications) take second place to healthy lifestyle. Similarly, in Chinese Medicine, treatments based on the extracts of natural herbal preparations (containing natural chemicals) take second place to proper lifestyle and obeying what is regarded as the laws of nature. Although both forms of medicine may in some instances of serious disease employ both a lifestyle approach and chemical approach concurrently.

In China, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen) is one of the most highly regarded and influential medical text books in existence. Some genealogists ascribe the period of 2697-2597 BC to the Yellow Emperor, which would date the contents of the book to in excess of four thousand years old.

My many years of formal Chinese medicine studies in the 1970s included a formal two year project of in-depth analysis and understanding of every sentence of this ancient classic. The version I had was translated by Ilza Veith M.A., Ph.D., Lecturer in the History of Medicine at The University of Chicago.

The concept of longevity was always of prime importance to the ancient Chinese. The Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen attributes longevity to living in harmony with heaven and earth, Yin and Yang, and the four seasons. Basically being cognizant of nature, how we are part of it, what it provides for us, and adjusting our lives to its changes. This was seen as a logical foundation, as we are regarded as products of heaven and earth.

In terms of treatment of disease, the Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen clarifies five methods of treatment as follows: –

  1. “The first method cures the spirit” – this relates to adhering to the basic rules of nature, or ‘spiritual alchemy’ practiced in a modest and retiring way of life, in the avoidance of all excesses, and in being an example to others in one’s true devotion. In the contemporary Functional Medicine model we can interpret this as stress reduction, emotional mastery, cognitive function, healthy mindset and thoughts, sense of purpose, and meaningful relationships.
  2. “The second gives knowledge on how to nourish the body” – this is a direct parallel to proper diet and nutrition that we see in Functional Medicine today.
  3. “The third teaches the true effects of medicines” – medicines were seen to be effective because they represented plant based concoctions originating from nature. They were to be harvested at only the appropriate time, and prepared in a particular way. It was imperative to understand their ‘true effects’ on the body. Because they are prepared as concoctions they are potentially very concentrated. Therefore knowledge and care of their reactions in the patient is essential. This draws somewhat of a parallel with contemporary allopathic medicine.
  4. “The fourth explains acupuncture and the use of the small and the large needle” – confidence in the therapeutic value of acupuncture is closely connected with the belief in the forces that created the world (yin and yang) and whose interaction causes the balance within the universe and within the body. These forces, Yin and Yang, are theoretically supposed to balance each other completely but are, in reality, in a constant state of conquest and defeat, of ebb and flow, as it is expressed in nature in the change from day to night. Within the body, too, the distribution of the two elemental forces is uneven. When there is stagnation in certain parts of the body and hence a deficiency in others, the result is disease. So acupuncture has the ability to influence and bring about balance in the body and throughout the cells of the organs, by manipulating the ebb and flow of the energy associated with the organ systems and removing stagnation. Acupuncture has no parallel in Functional Medicine, or in western medicine.
  5. “The fifth gives instruction on how to examine and to treat the bowels and the viscera, the blood and the breath” – this relates to the entire physiology of all the organs and the flow of blood and energy, as defined by traditional Chinese medicine. There is a very relevant parallel here with contemporary Functional Medicine which looks at the function and interaction of the various interdependent systems of the body which include:
    1. Assimilation – Digestion, Absorption, Microbiota/GI, Respiration
    1. Defense & Repair – Immune, In­flammation, Infection/Microbiota
    1. Energy – Energy Regulation, Mitochondrial Function
    1. Biotransformation & Elimination – Toxicity, Detoxification
    1. Transport – Cardiovascular, Lymphatic System
    1. Communication – Endocrine, Neurotransmitters, Immune Messengers
    1. Structural Integrity – from Subcellular Membranes to Musculoskeletal Structure

In ancient China physicians were supposed to keep their community healthy to enjoy long life. So a preventative approach was employed. A quote from the Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen reinforces this as follows – “The superior physician helps before the early budding of the disease. The inferior physician begins to help when the disease has already developed; he helps when destruction has already set in. And since his help comes when the disease has already developed, it is said of him that he is ignorant.”