Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine is a time-tested One Health paradigm that has been around for thousands of years.
According to the CDC, “One Health is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach — working at the local, regional, national, and global levels — with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.”1 There is much talk these days of multidisciplinary approaches between human medicine, veterinary medicine, and a variety of other disciplines. I propose that we have a ready-made, time-tested, One Health paradigm that has been in our midst for thousands of years: Traditional Chinese Medicine/Veterinary Medicine (TCM/TCVM).
THE “ORIGINAL FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE”
We are most familiar with TCVM through its best known treatment modality of acupuncture, but this approach to veterinary medicine is much more than that. Acupuncture is just part of a system of medicine, wellness, and lifestyle that aims to maintain balance and harmony within the body, and between the body and the external environment, including the social and physical environments. TCVM does not separate physical ailments from emotional, psychological or spiritual ailments, but sees them as interwoven pieces of a microcosm, which in turn is a reflection of the greater macrocosm of our ecosystem, climate, planet, and cosmos.
In our modern world, we have the habit of taking a single element from another culture that looks promising or works really well, and leaving behind the background, philosophy, and cosmology of which it was a part. By doing so, we lose out on much of its potential. So let’s explore the philosophical system underlying acupuncture and TCM/TCVM — that of Taoism.
COSMOLOGY OF TAOISM
TCM/TCVM is rooted in the philosophical cosmology of Taoism, which is based upon recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment. The ancient Taoists developed their cosmology by witnessing and closely observing the natural world around them and the inner world of their bodies. They saw the body as a microcosm of the greater macrocosm, or universe, around it.
The totality of the Universe was called the Tao. They divided it into two polarities, Yin and Yang, male and female, dark and light, which exist in a state of dynamic balance. The dance between these polarities creates the Five Elements, which are energetic processes whose interplay goes on to create material reality.
The Taoists proposed that the universe works harmoniously according to “its own ways”, which they mapped out in a diagram of the Five Elements (see figure below). It illustrates the interrelationships and cycles of creation, control, and destruction. In the creation cycle, each element nourishes and supports the following element. The Taoists recognized that there are limits to growth in nature, so they included a control cycle, where one element controls the next. If the creation cycle is reversed, it becomes the cycle of destruction, when things are completely out of harmony and balance, and when harmony is attempting to restore itself.
The Five Elements maintain a state of dynamic balance between one another. If this balance is disrupted, disease results. The goal of the TCM/TCVM practitioner is to help the individual return to a state of harmony, both within and without.
The Five Elements act as a correspondence chart, a map of the interrelationships between aspects of the macrocosm and the microcosm. Everything, including the cycle of the seasons, the compass directions, the climate, hours of the day, the life cycles of living things (birth, growth, maturation, aging and death), the energetics of plants and herbs, and food energetics can be mapped out using the Five Elements (see chart above).
TCM/TCVM does not separate the physical from the emotional, mental or spiritual. Emotions, tastes, colors, mental states, and even parts of the soul can be categorized according to the Five Elements. And of course, organ systems and body parts are included.
Another fascinating application of the Five Elements involves looking at constitutional types determined by the dominant element within an individual. All Five Elements exist within each individual human or animal, but one is usually predominant, describing personality, likes and dislikes as well as disease predisposition and weaknesses. TCM/TCVM practitioners can treat the constitution of an individual, strengthening it and enriching the environment, thus reducing stress and the likelihood of future disease.
TCM/TCVM offers eight different branches of treatment that illustrate its broad depth:
- Herbalism: plants as medicine
- Food therapy: nutrition
- Tai chi/qi gong: exercise
- Tui-na: massage, bodywork
- Feng shui: environmental placement
One can see how it is not just about treating disease, but about living a harmonious lifestyle with the inner world in a state of dynamic balance with the outer world, emphasizing health, wellness, and longevity.
The correspondences of the Five Elements can guide us in formulating diets based upon the season of the year, the individual’s constitution, and the organs that may be struggling. Herbal remedies can be selected based on the constitution or elemental imbalance present, often treating imbalances before they become overt disease. Lifestyle choices, such as types of exercise and social activities, can be made based upon the stage of life and the individual’s preferences. The effects of climatic factors on the body can be taken into account before they create disharmony and resulting illness. Even the colors of fruits, vegetables, and herbs in bloom can give us clues as to how to use these foods to bring the body into harmony with seasonal changes.
A BROADER PERSPECTIVE
Western scientific thought has allowed us to zoom into the microscopic, molecular level of nature and its inhabitants. The materialistic reductionism of modern science is excellent at breaking things down into their component parts, all the way past the atom to electrons and subatomic particles. Yet it loses the perspective of the whole picture, of the forest and the planet, and our place in the universe.
Interestingly enough, traditional indigenous populations, those still living close to the land and ecosystem they inhabit, know they are a part of a greater whole and are aware of the dynamic balance between all those parts. They map out their activities based on the cycles of nature, realizing their survival depends upon the survival of the world around them.
In our information-overloaded modern times, we tend to gloss over history and theory, going straight for the practical method or result. By doing so, we miss the nuance and the wider applicability we might find if we took a wider perspective and looked at the forest instead of just the leaves on the trees. Traditional Chinese Medicine/Veterinary Medicine, with its foundation in Taoism, can allow us to zoom out and get a broader perspective of our place in the world. It has actually given us a map to follow of the energetic processes and interrelationships between the microcosm and macrocosm, and how to maintain a harmonious balance so all lifeforms may thrive on this beautiful planet we call Earth.
1One Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated September 30, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/ index.html.