Why heat is central to health in traditional Chinese medicine

For Chinese herbalist and acupuncturist Cara Frank, treating patients boils down to one thing: patterns.

“We have a saying in Chinese medicine and it’s really important,” she says. “One disease can have many causes, and one pattern can cause many diseases.”

Right now, the pattern she’s trying to unravel has to do with the tortured gut of a new patient – 32-year-old Sarah (not her real name), who, for the past few years, has been suffering from debilitating GI problems that include chronic nausea and diarrhea.

“My life has stopped,” Sarah says, fingering a string of wooden beads around her wrist. “I can’t go on vacation; I know every bathroom on the road. I’m going nuts.”

After several rounds of antibiotics, and visits to more than a dozen doctors, Sarah has landed at Frank’s Philadelphia office, seeking an alternative solution.

“I’ve gotten to a point where I’m really frustrated. It’s not normal to have 10, 12,15 bowel movements a day,” she says. “And the fact that every doctor is telling me, it’s just IBS, you have to deal with it, here’s another pill – I can’t do it anymore.”

Frank asks Sarah about her medical and personal history, probes her eating and sleeping habits, and asks about her symptoms. And then she zeroes in on more specific territory – does Sarah sweat at night? Is there mucus in her stool? Does she often feel hot or cold?

Frank, it turns out, has a culprit in mind – internal heat.

“There’s layered patterns in there,” Frank says afterwards, as she ticks off Sarah’s symptoms – anxiety, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain. “And there’s definitely one where there’s heat.”

Internal heat is a central concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, the millennia-old practice on which Frank’s work is based. While TCM is classified as alternative medicine in the West – where it’s become famous for treatments like acupuncture, cupping and herbal supplements – it occupies a prominent position in contemporary Chinese notions of wellness.

[Continue reading at WHYY.org]

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