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When Science Catches Up To Traditional Knowledge

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

Yesterday I read an article from the Smithsonian about when scientists "discover" what Indigenous people have known for centuries. It details observations made in 2017 of kites and falcons intentionally carrying burning twigs to spread fire which causes insects, rodents, and reptiles to scatter, thus increasing feeding opportunities. This is something Native people of the region have observed for hundreds of years. The article also talks about how scientists are consulting with Indigenous people to inform their research on topics such as anthropology, ecology, history, and archeology.

This got me thinking about the ways we place the same value system on Western medicine and Traditional medicine, like Chinese medicine. How has our history of colonization and European-centered value structures impacted the way we as a culture view Traditional medicine? What are some examples of Western medicine confirming what Chinese medicine has known for hundreds or even thousands of years?

Emotional Well-Being & Heart Health

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the heart is described as the emperor/empress and not only is responsible for circulation, but also houses the mind or spirit. All emotions and thoughts the body experiences - the good and the bad - affect the heart. In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, written around 2,200 years ago, the heart is "sovereign of all organs and represents the consciousness of one’s being. It is responsible for intelligence, wisdom, and spiritual transformation.”

Recent studies have shown many emotions can damage the heart. "People who feel lonely, depressed, and isolated are many times more likely to get sick and die prematurely - not only of heart disease but from virtually all causes - than those who have a sense of connection, love and community," Dean Ornish, MD, tells WebMD. You can read the rest of the article quoted above here.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Clinical studies looking at the effect of the intestinal microbiome on mental health have spread across the medical community like a storm. While physicians have known for a long time how anxiety and depression have an impact on gut health, studies are now finding the health of your gut can have an impact on your mental health too. To read more about this, check out this article.

In TCM the organs influencing digestion are intricately connected to the mind and intellect. When there are imbalances in the digestive system in TCM, we often look for imbalances in mental health such as excessive worry, anxiety, depression, mania, anger as well as difficulty with focus and memory. As an example, a formula written about 2,000 years ago, called Da Cheng Qi Tang is used for severe constipation and abdominal pain, but also treats mania, irritability, delirium, and hallucinations.

The Skin, Lungs & Immune Health

Before the world even knew about microbes - bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc. - Chinese medical texts described the relationships between the lungs, the skin, and wei qi. Wei qi, or defensive qi, allows us to fight off "external pathogenic factors" which can present almost exactly like the symptoms of an infection or common cold. While it is clear to us now that bacteria or fungus which enters our body through our skin, or through our nasal passages and into our lungs, causes illness, the Chinese were writing about these patterns in 1150 AD - some 500 years before microbes were discovered.

Hearing Loss & Kidney Disease

In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, a Chinese medical text written between 220 BC and 220 AD, it is said “kidneys control the ears, their apertures are the ears.” Thus, the relationship between imbalances in the kidney and the resulting symptom of hearing loss is one of the core tenets of TCM. It wasn't until 2010 that researchers studied hearing loss in folks with kidney disease and found, "a strong tie to (chronic kidney disease and hearing loss.) The link can be explained by structural and functional similarities between tissues in the inner ear and in the kidney. Additionally, toxins that accumulate in kidney failure can damage nerves, including those in the inner ear."

Although they seemingly exist worlds apart, Western medicine and TCM share common ground in their pursuit of understanding the intricacies of the human body. TCM is founded on thousands of years of observation, inference, prediction, verification and repetition. These are the core attributes of modern scientific studies. One of the biggest differences between the two fields is that TCM isn't universal. For example, when someone comes in with high blood pressure, our diagnosis, treatment protocol, and herbal prescription are totally individualized to their particular body. This is one of the main reasons it is really difficult to adequately study TCM treatment with the Western medicine standard of double-blind experimental design.

To wrap up, here is a quote from the end of the Smithsonian article mentioned above. It does such a great job of summarizing the complex relationship between old knowledge and new discoveries: "There are partnerships developing worldwide with Indigenous knowledge holders and Western scientists. But it is nonetheless problematic when (Indigenous) knowledge, which has been dismissed for so long by so many, becomes a valuable data set or used selectively by academics and others. Western scientists (are) finally (catching) up with Traditional Knowledge after several thousand years."


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