The 8 Branches of Chinese Medicine


By Aaron Banfield, R.Ac.

When I say to you, “Chinese Medicine”, you instantly think of acupuncture, right?  Maybe, if you ponder a little more, you remember there might some strange herbs involved too.

That’s all true, and boy are there ever some weird herbs we use (powdered hornet’s nest, anyone?), but there’s a lot more to the Chinese medical tradition.  In this post, I’ll take you through everything the classical doctors considered important for the maintenance of health.

8. Acupuncture.  For the uninitiated, acupuncture is the gentle and precise insertion of very fine needles into specific points on the body in order to relieve pain and stimulate healing.  By the way, the World Health Organization considers acupuncture a valid and effective treatment for over 300 medical conditions.  However, in classical China acupuncture was considered number 8 of 8, as in the least important.

7.  Herbs.  Chinese Herbal Medicine theory is extraordinarily sophisticated.  Each herb is categorized by flavours, energetic temperature (ginger is hot and mint is cool, for example), and the organs of the body it most affects.  And they are almost never used solo; there are synergistic formulas for almost every illness condition.  Some formulas are powerful and short-term, like those to relieve colds or headaches, while others are more like supplements and nourish the body in particular ways.  We even have herbal formulas for the mind to treat stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.  Herbal medicine is a great accompaniment to acupuncture treatment.

6. Massage.  In Chinese Medicine we view massage as a very important contributor to health, and all practitioners are expected to have proficiency in it.  We say that massage improves qi flow and can resolve areas of blockage and stagnation.  In classical China, most people learned basic massage skills to relieve tension and assist the healing of injuries.  We distinguish two types of massage: tui na which is intense and therapeutic, and an mo, which is gentle and relaxing.  Both have their place depending on the situation.

5.  Feng Shui.  That’s right, Feng Shui.  The arrangement of objects in your home and office is considered vitally important in Chinese Medicine.  I won’t go into too much detail (you’re welcome to ask me some time), but essentially the idea is that the subconscious experience of our environment has a subtle but profound effect on our overall vitality.  Think about how you feel when your home is messy-  everything feels a bit chaotic, and you can’t quite relax, let alone be nourished and inspired by your space.  In Chinese Medicine, we see this as very important.

4. Living in Harmony with the Seasons.  In Chinese Medicine we believe that your diet, activities, and goals should vary with the changes in the world around you.  For example, in Summer we recommend eating a lot of fruit, vegetables, and a good amount of raw food.  In Winter we recommend eating roots and grains, with lots of soups and stews.  In Summer we say vigorous exercise that challenges your capacity is best, while in winter we advise to focus on meditation and restorative exercise. Spring is the time for visioning and new ideas, while Fall is the time for reflection and introspection.  In these ways, we say that the dynamics of our life are in harmony with the changes of the world around us and balanced health will naturally result.

3. Exercise.  In Chinese Medicine, as in all other medical traditions, regular physical activity is considered vital for wellbeing.  We say that if you are not exercising, your qi (vital life force) will stagnate and diminish.  When this happens, aches and pains will develop and not resolve, and your basic energy level will decline.  Eventually, this can affect the organ systems  and the mind.  Central to Chinese Medicine is the concept of appropriate exercise.  For some people, those who are highly stressed and hold a lot of tension, typical gym workouts are considered unbalancing and will aggravate the person’s situation.  For these people, gentle and mindful exercise such as yoga or walking in nature is most beneficial. 

2. Diet.  Chinese medicine’s dietary theory is, like its Herbology, quite detailed.  In the absence of  advanced chemistry, the old doctors simply ate different foods and observed how they felt afterwards.  Over the centuries, this became refined, standardized and codified.  With modern science, we of course accept molecular nutritional theory; we simply see vitamins and minerals as being the things that create the foods’ energetics.  In addition to flavours, we categorize foods into different inherent temperatures (like with herbs above), and can use these theories to recommend foods to add, emphasize, remove or limit from a person’s diet.  In Chinese medicine, we believe that the energetic qualities of the foods we eat become the energetic qualities of our being- we literally are what we eat.

1. Mind.  That’s right, the most important determinant of health in Chinese medicine is the Mind.  We believe that without mental health, it is much more difficult to accomplish all the other factors.  When we are busy and stressed, we tend not to practice self-care.  When we are unhappy in life, we often engage in emotional eating or other activities that satisfy us in the moment but have a long-term harmful effect.  Chronic anxiety depletes the adrenals, and anger taxes the heart.  I’ve worked with many people who have a strong desire to improve their health, but engage in self-sabotaging behaviours due to sub-conscious stories around failure or self-worth.  Healing and cultivating the Mind will allow the obstacles to health to fall away, and will give us a clear and empowered perspective to create and maintain our well-being.