Medicine has been an ever-evolving subject in the history of humanity — from early human civilizations purportedly using clay to treat their wounds to the establishment of Eastern medicine and the invention of Penicillin in the early 1900s. Eastern medicine, however, is the longest-standing, documented medical system in the world.
Eastern medicine dates back thousands of years and can be traced back to ancient Egypt. It encompasses the use of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda techniques in disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. This article aims to help you understand the meaning of Eastern medicine, how it works, how it differs from Western medicine, and its benefits. Read below to learn more.
What is Eastern Medicine?
Eastern medicine is also known as Oriental medicine or Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is one of the oldest medical systems in the world and is commonly used to refer to the different medical practices that started in Asia. This system of medicine dates back more than 2,000 years and is based on two main principles: Qi and Yin-Yang.
Qi: Qi is the vital life force that flows through the body of every living thing. It flows along meridians (channels) in the body and keeps a person’s spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical health in balance. It is always on the move and ever-changing. The force maintains harmony in all the faculties, and any imbalance can lead to illness and disease. This imbalance typically arises from any alteration that interferes with the Yin-Yang forces.
Yin-Yang: These are opposite and complementary forces that describe the quality of Qi. They represent dualities that also exist within the universe — for example, day and night, warm and cold, male and female, positive and negative. The underlying belief is that everything has an equal opposite side, and balance is the key.
According to Eastern medicine, the balance of Yin-Yang and Qi means you are healthy; if they are out of balance, you are unwell. Thus, all Eastern medicine practices are focused on promoting and maintaining the flow of Qi and harmony between Yin and Yang. If someone’s ill, Eastern medicine practitioners inspect the tongue and pulse to determine where Qi flow is blocked in the body. They then prescribe the best treatment, ranging from acupuncture, herbal medicine, and tuina (remedial massage, among others).
Forms of Eastern Medicine
- Acupuncture: In acupuncture, practitioners stimulate specific body points known as meridians, which control the flow of Qi in the body by inserting thin needles through the skin. Acupuncture is believed to stimulate the body and release the body’s natural painkillers, which results in reduced pain, increased blood flow, and overall well-being.
- Traditional Chinese Medicine: Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest Eastern medicine practices where practitioners use plant-based preparations with medicinal benefits. The herbal preparations might be in the form of pills, capsules, tablets, concoctions, powders, and pastes, depending on the intended use. All herbs have specific and unique properties which affect and nourish different body parts.
- Eastern Nutrition and Dietary Therapy Practices: In Chinese medicine, food isn’t just an energy source. It is a means of maintaining balance and harmony within the body. Yin-Yang and the Five Phases (sweet, acrid, sour, bitter, and salty) are used to determine the foods that are best for each person. Yin-Yang describes opposites like hot and cold, wet and dry, while the Five Phases give shape, color, and character to the diet. Since food and our bodies do not remain constant, the diet also changes to accommodate an individual's state, like dampness, heat, and cold. It is also modified according to season, lifestyle, climate, and environment.
- Tuina: Tuina is a restorative massage that has its origin in ancient China. It’s thought to be the oldest system of bodywork, and it stimulates Qi flow in the body resulting in balance and harmony. It uses the same principles as acupuncture to stimulate specific meridians in the body.
- Tai Chi: This is one of the most distinctive and recognizable forms of Eastern medicine. However, most people might not associate it with medicinal value and treatment. This practice uses very particular gentle movements, postures, breathing, and mental focus to restore balance within the body. It improves balance and stability in older people, helps with pain, supports circulation, promotes quality of life, and boosts moods.
- Cupping: Cupping dates back to 1550 B.C. In this technique, the practitioner places different-sized cups on the skin to create suction. The cups may be made of glass, bamboo, or silicone. This practice is great for relaxing the muscles, drawing out dampness and heat, releasing wind and cold, improving the flow of Qi, promoting circulation, and managing inflammation.
- Moxibustion (moxa): This ancient healing method has been used for thousands of years and involves burning a dried Chinese Mugwort herb on specific meridian points on the body. This practice is beneficial for managing pain, improving circulation, supporting fertility and reproduction functions, nourishing the body, and improving overall well-being.
Benefits of Eastern Medicine
Eastern medicine is widely used in Asia and is gaining popularity in the west because of its undeniable benefits. Compared to processed medicine, it’s natural, has few side effects, and focuses on treating the root of the issue, not the symptoms. Let’s take a more in-depth look.
- All Natural: Eastern medicine uses a pharmaceutical-free approach to deliver treatment and relies on natural herbs, nutrition, and practices. This is in contrast to Western medicine, which utilizes pharmaceuticals for treatment. With Eastern medicine, every prescription is organic and minimally processed.
- It’s All About Balance: Eastern medicine takes a holistic approach to treatment and treats the body as one organism with interconnected functions. On the other hand, Western medicine focuses on treating the symptom of the disease and specific organs without considering how medication might affect the body's overall functioning. Chinese medicine not only treats the body but also focuses on harmonizing the mind and spirit to ensure they are balanced and communicating effectively for optimal health.
- Reduces Stress and Anxiety: Chinese medicine promotes mental well-being with practices like acupuncture and tuina. Stimulating key points and channels in the body help release negative energy and tension that may contribute to our overall well-being. This helps return harmony and balance within the body, which results in reduced muscle tension, better circulation, and improved sleep.
- Supports Chronic Pain and Headaches: Acupuncture, a 3,500-year-old practice, is believed to help with pain from headaches, joint concerns, neck and back pain. It is also believed to address concerns from stress and injury.
According to research, when combined with other Traditional Chinese Medicine practices like nutrition, tai chi, and acupuncture can help patients suffering from chronic headaches and tension issues.  In research done at Memorial Sloan Kettering, patients who received acupuncture were reported to have fewer neck muscle aches and pain, osteoarthritis, and chronic headaches compared to patients in the control group. 
- Preserves Muscle Strength, Flexibility, and Balance: According to Harvard Medical School, regularly practicing tai chi can help improve muscle strength, maintain flexibility, increase balance, and improve circulation. A study conducted by Harvard researchers reported that 12 weeks of tai chi helped older patients build a “healthy body, strong heart, and sharp mind.” 
- It Has Very Few Side Effects: Pharmaceutical prescriptions have side effects that negatively affect how our bodies function. However, Chinese medicine prescriptions have very few side effects.
Eastern vs. Western Medicine
The National Cancer Institute describes Western medicine as “A system in which medical doctors and other health care professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists, and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation, or surgery.”  It is also known as conventional medicine or mainstream medicine. Western medicine is the basis upon which modern systems of medicine operate, and it normally involves prescribing particular drugs for specific concerns.
On the other hand, Eastern medicine is a holistic treatment system that originates from Asia and isn’t a part of standard medical care in Western countries. It is the oldest system of medicine in the world and is also referred to as complementary and alternative in comparison with Western medicine.
Eastern medicine focuses on treating the individual as a whole compared to Western medicine, which just treats the symptoms of the disease. It approaches diagnosis, treatment, and prevention holistically by embracing techniques to heal the mind, body, and spirit. Western medicine separates organ systems and symptoms with a systemic approach to determine the best treatment.
When investigated further, conventional medicine uses hypothetical deduction, while Chinese medicine uses an inductive approach. Western medicine separates health from disease, but Eastern medicine views health as a balanced state and disease as an unbalanced state. Western medicine concerns itself with changing the environment, while Eastern medicine adapts to the environment.
How Eastern Medicine and Western Medicine Complement Each Other
Both Eastern and Western medicine can be advantageous and disadvantageous depending on the perspective you take. But is there a place where we can enjoy the benefits of both systems? A middle ground where they can be complementary?
There is an increase in the uptake and incorporation of Eastern medicine into mainstream medicine. For example, rather than just prescribing medication to treat mental health issues, we see medical practitioners using Chinese practices like meditation as part of treatment. There’s also a significant body of scientific research documenting how beneficial Traditional Chinese Medicine may be in treating some health concerns, though limited and inconclusive.
A 2020 study reported that acupuncture might be beneficial in supporting lower back pain. The review also reported that combining acupuncture with other forms of mainstream treatment was more effective than stand-alone conventional treatments.  In another study, it was reported that combining tuina with conventional treatment resulted in improving irritable bowel syndrome symptoms.  Perhaps there’s something we can draw from both systems to improve our health and well-being.
Eastern or Traditional Chinese Medicine is great and has so many benefits, but like anything, it also has some disadvantages. For instance, it may not be fast-acting compared to Western medicine, and sometimes we do not have the luxury of time when treating serious diseases. That being said, Eastern medicine takes a holistic healing approach and is a strong medicine system with thousands of years to back it up. It can be used as a complementary therapy in treatment but should not be misconstrued as a replacement for conventional treatment, especially for serious conditions. When combining Eastern medicine with your routine treatment, please be sure to inform your doctor or Traditional Chinese Medicine provider.