Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine ● Longevity Nutrition

Traditional Chinese Medicine

A few weeks ago I published an article about Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Origin of Scientific Thought.  Part of its emphasis was discussing Five Element Theory which marked the beginning of scientific medicine and a departure from Shamanism.  The following is a discussion of the interconnected systems of soil biodiversity, plant ecology, gut microbiology, and human health and evolution. 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each of the Five Elements, fire, Earth, metal, water, and wood “symbolize five different inherent qualities and states of natural phenomena” including five movements and five phases in the cycle of the seasons.  People are often stumped by the fact that there are four seasons but five elements. Being the source of all life on this planet, Earth was the fifth, and viewed as the source of all the other elements.

The ancient Chinese scholars identified the digestive system to be an extension of and our connection to the Earth.  After all, it is where the elements of Earth are taken in as food and are transformed into a living being.

The bacteria and fungi present in every square millimeter of soil ultimately act as the digestive system or Earth element for plants.  They fix nitrogen and break down soil nutrients and minerals into forms that can be taken up by the plants’ roots. When we eat plants, we also take in some of the bacteria and fungi present in the soil.  These become part of the incredibly complex ecosystem of the gut.  

Each and every organism present in digestive system is a reflection of the organisms present in the soil.  Each one creates its own unique signals and immune responses that literally determine our state of being on EVERY level. 

We are already aware of the anti-inflammatory and immune boosting benefits of acidophilus and bifidus which are being marketed in several yogurt products.  A more interesting example of this appeared in the journal, Neuroscience, in May of 2007.  Researchers found that the presence of the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae (which is common in soil and not pathogenic to humans) created an immune response that stimulated serotonin sensitivity in the certain parts of the brain.  A couple of things to take note of here:   First, not all immune responses are bad.  They are simply signals.  Secondly, this bacteria’s presence in the gut results in actual behavioral modifications via serotonin which has a happy, calming effect.  Further investigation suggested that this is one reason gardening makes us happy.

Another example is the pathogenic fungus, Rhizopus arrhizus. This fungus is also common in the soil and in trace amounts in our digestive tract.  Like an ecosystem, the richer and more diverse, the more resilient.  As long as our digestive ecosystem is diverse and healthy this fungus remains at low, non-threatening levels and actually serves many beneficial biologic functions.  For example, if you eat anything from the yam family this fungus converts some of the phytochemicals it into the hormone progesterone which is then taken up into the blood via the lymphatic system.  It’s also used very effectively in German Biologic Medicine as a low-dose suppository to stimulate the body to break up its own blood clots and vascular congestion.

A broader example is the influence of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes and weight gain in humans.  An article that appeared in Nature  demonstrated a strong correlation between a low level of Bacteroidetes and obesity.  Conversely, thinner people had higher levels of Firmicutes.  Further research showed that these bacteria directly alter carbohydrate metabolism in the digestive system. 

Ultimately the bacteria in the soil determine what types plants can establish.  However, after a plant establishes itself, it creates its own local pathogen controls by promoting rhizobacteria.  When we eat plants and their roots the immunity from the rhizobacteria are passed on to our own digestive systems. From the soil, to the plant, to our own digestive system and back again.  They are not separate.  They are one system.  The foods we eat have a direct impact on the preponderance of the various bacteria and fungi present in our gut.  This, in turn, determines the signals and immune system responses.  As a very simple example, too much sugar results in an overgrowth of some fungi like candida albicans.  (more information on this in the future)

The emerging field of gut microbiology has incredible potential for treating disease.  However, after all the research is done, I believe the ultimate conclusion will be that eating food grown in healthy soil with extensive biodiversity will manifest as a healthy, evolving human community.  With our current technology we have only been able to culture between 0.1 and 1% of the soil fungi and bacteria.  The rest is completely unknown to us. 

It is important to consider the impact of microbial deprivation (via the use of bacteriocides, fungicides, irradiation, triple washing and chlorination of our food and water) on the human health and evolution.  There is a growing body of evidence that suggests the immune system problems we are seeing in the younger generations are a result of insufficient bacterial and viral exposure.  Furthermore, because plants determine the presence of specific bacteria, it’s important to consider the impact that monocultures have on soil biodiversity and how this affects human health.

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The emergence of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Five Element Theory in 476 BCE “…marked the beginning of what one might call “scientific” medicine…”  Healers began to depart from Shamanism and looking for supernatural causes of disease.   “Instead they began to observe Nature and, with a combination of inductive and deductive method, they set out to find patterns within it and, by extension, apply these in the interpretation of disease.” (G. Macciocia)

Despite modern misunderstanding, they didn’t believe that everything was “made” of the Five Elements, fire, Earth, metal, water, and wood.  They assigned each element to “symbolize five different inherent qualities and states of natural phenomena” including five movements and five phases in the cycle of the seasons.

One of the more interesting concepts to emerge from Five Element Theory is called “The Doctrine of Signatures”.  Its premise is, if something contains a certain quality of one of the elements, it can be used to restore balance to something that is lacking or has lost that quality.  The following are some examples of uncanny medicinal coincidences that have emerged from The Doctrine of Signatures.

Walnuts – If it looks like a brain, it must be good for the brain.  Walnuts are one of the few nuts that are a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s become common knowledge in conventional medicine that omega-3 fatty acids  play a crucial role in brain development, growth and function.

Ophiopogen – this herb is in the asparagus family and maintains lushness in dry climates.  Because of this quality it was assumed that its roots would be especially effective for cooling and moistening. It’s traditionally used for conditions where inflammation has parched various tissues which often leads to consumptive disorders like COPD.  It turns out ophiopogen contain nuatigenin-type steroids which ongoing research is revealing to suppress proinflammatory cytokines in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and COPD.

Earthworms were traditionally used to treat conditions where something was severely blocked such as paralysis from stroke or congestion from asthma.  Applying the doctrine, earthworms can burrow and penetrate.  Modern research has revealed the presence of an enzyme called lumbrokinase that is extremely effective in hydrolyzing fibrin, a clotting factor that can cause strokes.  Lumbrokinase is widely available in supplement form and is used by naturopaths and some progressive physicians for the treatment and prevention of stroke.

*Being “modern” medicine there are efforts to genetically modify goats so that they can produce lumbrokinase  in their milk.  Perhaps the presence of health-giving chemicals is not a sign that we should isolate, concentrate or produce these molecules in a way that is inconsistent with Nature. Perhaps it’s more of an indication of how our diets evolved and what we should still be eating. By the way, earthworms would serve as a great protein source that is really low on the food chain. For expansion on the subject of insects as an evolutionary protein source see “Protein, Human Bodies and Missing Links in the Ecological Model”

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In Traditional Chinese Medicine, pernicious anemia falls under an extreme example of the category Blood deficiency and Spleen Qi deficiency. The conventional medicine explanation is a deficiency of vitamin B12 either from an inability to absorb it or simple insufficiency.  The ensuing drop in red blood cells hinders the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to tissues. The resulting symptoms include shortness of breath; dizziness, especially when standing up; headache; coldness in hands or feet; pale skin, gums, and nail beds; heart palpitations and arrhythmias.  Over time, the body will tap into reserves from the bone marrow and nerve myelin resulting in more severe symptoms such as neuropathy, wasting and tremors. 

This is not an uncommon condition in elderly people and conventional physicians will often prescribe B12 injections.  The problem is that many of these people no longer make the enzyme, intrinsic factor, which necessary for B12 absorption.  In this situation, no amount of B12 will rectify the situation without replacing this crucial enzyme which is made in the stomach. It’s possible that formulas like Gui Pi Wan offer some improvement of pernicious anemia perhaps by enhancing the production of various enzymes including Intrinsic Factor. 

When treating pernicious anemia adding B12 with intrinsic factor to any Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment protocol is like magic!  Unless there is an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks intrinsic factor, there will always a significant improvement.  As a general rule, any time you see a case with symptoms of Blood deficiency, B12 supplementation will almost always produce fast and marked improvements. 

General Recommendations

  • Cyanocobalamin – 2000-3000 mcg per day for six weeks
  • Intrinsic Factor 20mg per day
  • Always include at least 800 mcg of folic acid and 25mg of B6.
**It’s important to keep in mind that B12 works with folic acid and vitamin B6 for effective methylation and detoxification in the liver.  If there is a deficiency of B12 there is likely a deficiency of folic acid and B6 as well and I recommend including both of these. 
  •  If you are dealing with a patient who clearly had lack of development as a child (smaller body, hands, cognitive or learning disabilities etc) there is likely an absorption problem along with a conversion problem in the liver.  In these cases, I find hydroxocobalamin 3000-5000 mcg for six to eight weeks then a smaller maintenance dose to be very effective. 
  • If the condition has resulted in nerve symptoms such as tremors or neuropathy a combination of methylcolbalamin and cyanocobalamin 3000 mcg of each per day for six weeks.  Then 1000-2000 mcg of each per day until the condition has resolved. 

If the patient is on ProCrit, I have found no problems with adding the above. 


Along with your primary formulae here are some helpful guidelines.

  • Small doses of Suo Yang and Bu Gu Zhi can be very helpful for quicker recovery
  • Dang Gui and Huang Qi combination in doses from 15-30g are extremely effective
  • Caution with He Shou Wu – this is often thought of as a blood tonic but in this case where you have poor methylation in the liver, He Shou Wu can actually be a little toxic and may result in unexpected problems.  In this case it can actually result in elevated liver enzymes.
  • Ji Xue Teng – Strange herb.  Very helpful if you are seeing signs that the body is tapping into its marrow reserves BUT if the patient is already having dizziness when standing, this herb can exacerbate the problem.  In elderly people I would use this with extreme caution and start with small doses.  Do not use this herb if they are on blood thinners.
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