Chinese medicine’s longetivity has a lot to do with its flexibility in applying general rules. There is always an exception to a rule, even the most basic. One of its more fundamental tenets; “Without proper circulation there is pain, and where there is no pain circulation is functioning properly,” also has exceptions, and as such is no exception to the rule of exceptions. If that’s not completely clear, just read on.

There is a wealth of information on why circulation is a very good thing on the rest of this website, and as such I will not go into too much detail on that side of the fence other than the short explanation to follow.

Why circulation is good

Circulation or more precisely, blood circulation is necessary for the health of the body. In order to receive nutrients and eliminate waste products circulation must be smooth. The body collects nutrients from the lungs (oxygen), from the stomach and intestines (water, protein, calcium glucose, etc.) and from the skin (vitamin D from the sun) and delivers these nutrients to the rest of the body through the blood. The nutrients are food for the tissues of the body and necessary for its recovery and survival. If they don’t reach the tissues, the tissues die.

The body eliminates waste products by carrying them from various parts of the body through the blood and lymph to organs or tissues that ultimately expel them. These are the lungs (expel carbon dioxide and other gases), urinary bladder (expels urea, sodium, and excess water), skin (expels urea, lactic acid, sodium, and water), and large intestine (expels cholesterol and bilirubin through the bile).

The circulatory system first filters wastes through the liver, kidneys, and lymph nodes before they are ultimately expelled through the aforementioned organs and tissues.

So whenever there is a breakdown in the circulation anywhere in the body, nutrients become lacking in various locations, and waste products build up, which negatively affects health. This can ultimately lead to specific symptoms such as pain, numbness, discoloration, confusion, and just about any other objective or subjective manifestation of almost any malady you can think of.

Some say that perfect circulation is the key to immortality.

Why circulation is bad

Now I’m going to take a stance that I haven’t really addressed in any other part of this website, one goal of which is for you to take everything you hear, including what you hear from me, with a course and dense grain of salt. Medicine and health requires flexibility and imagination rather than steadfast adherence to dogmatic principles.

Another principle that runs even deeper than the circulation principle in Chinese Medicine is the principle of balance. Elite practitioners poke fun at earnest students that carefully memorize ancient formulas, herbal interactions, channel pathways that travel internally within the body with no recognized associated points, needle combinations for specific diseases, the different pulse positions and their infinite manifestations, etc, without ever grasping the principle without which none of these things matter. What good is any of this without balancing the yin and the yang?

Circulation is bad in cases when the body has an invader. Invaders can range from bacteria or viruses to parasites or fungi to malignant growths such as cancer. Yes it’s open to discussion whether cancer is an invader or a health imbalance, but let’s take the controversial position that it is an attack on the body for the moment, we’ll have time for poetic meanderings in the future. The circulation of nutrients feeds our body, which is good, but it also feeds these invaders, which is bad.

Often times people catch the common cold (of course, otherwise it would be the uncommon cold, no surprises here). Chinese medicine normally advocates herbal prescriptions, acupuncture point combinations, dietary recommendations, and lifestyle habits which promote overall circulation and build up the strength of the body tissues and organs. In the case of a common cold, however, these tactics need to be modified, because excessively promoting the health of the body also promotes the health of the pathogen (in this case the particular flu virus invading the body).

When a pathogen is in the body it is not a good idea to promote the circulation of good nutrients to the pathogen, because this will only serve to strengthen it. In similar fashion, if two opposing armies were fighting, you would be best off sending supplies to the side that has your best interests in mind. If the opposing side receives the reserves it only serves to strengthen their opposition.

With a cold, ancient texts advocate creating an environment that is somewhat hostile to the pathogen in question, but to do so with balance and care. Otherwise the treatment will be so hostile that the body is damaged in the process. The circulation of hostile substances to the pathogen should be increased, while the circulation of nourishment to the pathogen should be decreased.

In the case of cancer, a malignancy is considered very troublesome if there are a lot of blood vessels leading to the cancer. This excess blood supply nourishes the cancer, providing it with nutrients to grow, prosper, and defend itself from medical interventions. More blood flowing to the cancer means more blood flowing from the cancer, which means more chances for metastases (distal additional cancer sites) to spread through the body. Surgical excision (cutting out) of the cancer is more dangerous as it will lead to a great deal of bleeding.

Hemorrhaging (bleeding), with or without cancer, is worse with increased circulation, as it will lead to more bleeding. More blood movement leads to more blood spillage.

The physiology of excess circulation

In the cancer example, what we have in the body is excessive Yang energy, in this case heat, leading to excessive circulation and the build up of a mass which significantly diminishes the future value of remaining the person afflicted with this condition.

Basic physics shows that temperature, as it manifests on an atomic and molecular level is positively correlated with movement. Actually temperature is movement, and vice versa. The hotter a substance, the faster its constituent particles are moving, the colder; the slower. Blood is the substance in question here, and more heat causes more of it to flow, and flow faster, to and from the malignant cells.

A legal side note, back to excess conditions in a moment

Now we (Acupuncturists) can not legally say we treat cancer, we can only say we treat the side-effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

A quick tangent to that tangent: TCM side-effect intervention increases success rates because it makes patients more comfortable and ultimately less likely to give up hope or skip scheduled conventional therapies while simultaneously making the body strong enough to cope with said therapies.

We can, however, legally say that we treat heat, because heat is not a generally recognized condition in conventional medicine and as such is not considered financially relevant. In the same way we can say something arbitrary like, “’I treat outer space gagging candidiasis,” because to the AMA this statement is equally nonsensical and is the equivalent of saying we treat conditions that don’t actually exist. Insurance companies will not pay for a diagnosis of heat.

While most of the population is skeptical about the existence of outer space gagging candidiasis, it is generally acceptable that particles can move either faster or slower given the transfer of energy, and these differences are subjectively recognized as changes in temperature. So hopefully it is not too far out for you to believe in the existence of either heat or cold in the body.

The physiology of excess circulation continued

Back to the cancer example, a prudent acupuncturist would first make sure the patient is aware of the ‘proper channels of care’ such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and make sure to record in their file if they refuse such treatments (we are dealing here with legality again). Beyond that point an acupuncture and herbal treatment plan would be suggested which clears heat as long as other observable signs and symptoms also point to heat.

The intention of clearing heat in this case would be to reduce the amount of blood flow (reduce the circulation) to the cancer. You would be hard pressed to try to get any acupuncturist to admit they are actually interfering with circulation in their treatment intervention, but this is indeed our intention in this case.

We don’t call it reducing circulation however because this appears antithetical to basic Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) principles. We call it instead clearing heat, which is perfectly acceptable given our model, and addresses Yin and Yang, which as I said before is a more fundamental cornerstone in TCM.

The physics of heat in the blood

Here are just a few words so we’re clear on semantics:

Clearing heat is not synonymous with decreasing the circulation in the body. Most of you out there understand that temperature on a microscopic scale positively correlates with movement but sometimes there is an inverse correlation on the macroscopic scale (which means the higher the temperature the slower the movement).

Heat in some circumstances leads to the quickening of the blood flow, in which case clearing heat moderates or reduces the flow. In other circumstances heat thickens the blood (because heating things tends to dry them out as liquid particles are converted to gas). In the second case the heat actually reduces circulation through increased viscosity, and clearing the heat in those cases improves circulation. Thus we have one more reason to believe that the balancing of Yin and Yang is rooted more deeply to disease control than promotion of circulation.

The answer to the circulation conundrum

The examination of the circulation conundrum actually reveals a more fundamental dichotomy, which is the balance between fighting a disease and promoting the health of the patient.

Chinese medicine in the hopes of balance assists the body by providing resources through which it can promote health and prevent disease, but also assists the body in creating an environment which is hostile to invaders without being too hostile to the body.

The reason Chinese Medicine is better described as an art than an exact science is that with every patient there must be a balance between promoting good qi flow to the body, but not so much that some of this good energy spills over into the hands of the body’s invaders. At the same time, the invaders must be eliminated, but not so excessively that the body’s tissues suffer as a result.

There is no exact formula for maintaining this sweet spot in health intervention; it can only be done through careful monitoring of the patient’s signs and symptoms and adding a touch of this, taking away a touch of that.

Contrast this to conventional therapies such as Western Medicine’s Chemotherapy, which attacks the body and the cancer simultaneously, leaving not much room for the promotion of the immune system. If it doesn’t kill you first chemotherapy will definitely kill the cancer, and if it does kill you then the chemo succeeds in that you take the cancer with you.

A final word on exceptions to rules

Maybe in the future we’ll talk about the conditions whereby the idea of yin and yang is actually a fundamental error, and that a deeper truth exists. Perhaps if you ask me nicely, for now let’s start examining and questioning all our preconceived notions.

Live well and fall into balance with your mind and body. All the best.