“Eastern medicine” is nothing new. It is a term that refers to the various health systems that have evolved for thousands of years in several parts of Asia, especially in China and India. What is new is the rising interest in Eastern medicine in “the West” as a form or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
You might hear the term Eastern medicine described in contrast to Western medicine. It's important to note that it is difficult to make a direct comparison between the two systems. Although both Eastern and Western medicine aim to restore health and help people feel better, they differ greatly in their philosophies, approaches, training, and terminology.
What they represent fundamentally are two very different worldviews relating to health and well-being.
What is the difference between Eastern medicine & Western medicine?
Various forms of Eastern medicine (sometimes referred to as Oriental medicine) fall into the umbrella term of holistic medicine because they look at the whole person including physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional dimensions of health. You’ll often hear of Eastern medicine referring only to Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM).
Eastern medicine systems can be used as both complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). If a system is used instead of conventional Western medicine it is considered alternative, if it is used in addition to conventional Western medicine it is considered complementary.
The term Western medicine is used interchangeably with conventional, mainstream, orthodox or modern medicine. It refers to a reductionist system of healthcare that arose in Europe and is now the dominant form of healthcare throughout most of the world.
Western medicine makes full use of modern medical technology both for diagnostics (such as X-rays, CT scans, and laboratory testing), as well as treatment such as laser surgery, pacemakers, and radiation.
Western medicine focuses primarily on the physical functioning of the body and uses the scientific method to diagnose. Key elements of Western medicine are that it “reduces” health to the sum of its parts, focuses on the diagnosis of a disease, and often focuses on treating symptoms rather than correcting the root cause of an illness. It is often compartmentalized, with various specialists addressing parts of a person’s body or systems, but not always communicating with each other.
Deduction vs. Induction
The Western medical approach uses hypothetical deduction. This is when you start with a general statement, or hypothesis, and look at symptoms to find a specific, logical conclusion. For example, you start with a hypothesis such as a patient is having trouble breathing, and eventually diagnose a single cause such as lung disease.
In contrast to this, the Eastern approach uses the inductive method. This is when you start with the details and move towards a general idea or ideas about what could be going on. For example, looking at the whole person’s lifestyle including diet, relationships, habits and symptoms, then considering the possible reasons for their symptoms and getting to the root causes of disease.
Perceived Benefits of Eastern and Western Medicine
The benefits of Western medicine are being able to use technologies of modern medicine, evidence-based scientific research, and surgeries. This approach can be very important when it comes to acute issues such as heart attack or injuries caused by physical trauma such as an accident.
The benefits of Eastern medicine are its emphasis on preventative care that promotes healthy diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Another benefit is that many types of Eastern Medicine treatments such as acupuncture and massage are non-invasive and have few side effects. These can be a first line of defense for problems such as lower back pain, as a non-addictive alternative to opioids.
Criticism of Western and Eastern medicine
Western medicine has come under scrutiny for failing to address the preventable diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 Diabetes. Many are concerned about the opioid epidemic, and the powerful influence of Big Pharma, and the widespread use of pharmaceutical medications. Many people notice that pharmaceutical prescriptions that aim to reduce certain symptoms end up causing lots of other side effects and can even lead to bigger health problems over time.
Eastern medicine, on the other hand, has been criticized by some for not keeping up with modern technology. Some are wary that patients will endanger their health by foregoing or delaying surgical or pharmaceutical interventions for serious diseases such as cancer.
Types of Eastern Medicine
Two of the most well-known systems of Eastern medicine are Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Both developed over 3,000 years ago and both incorporate the idea of elements.
Chinese Medicine is also referred to as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).This system is well known for acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, tai chi, and chi qong. Central to this approach is the concept of qi or Chi, which is the body’s life force energy that flows through meridians, which are smaller energy channels throughout the body. The free and correct flow of qi is what allows an individual's physical, mental, and spiritual health to stay balanced. This approach seeks to restore the body’s natural balance and harmony for optimal health.
Chinese medicine stems from philosophical views including micro within the macro, the harmonious flow of energy through the body, the balance between opposing forces, and the five elements. For example, if the opposing forces of yin and yang are out of balance, they can block energy and cause disease.
Important concepts of Chinese medicine include:
- maintaining and promoting health
- preventative imbalances and blockages that cause disease
- balance among the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water)
- circulation of chi (life-force energy)
- therapies that balance the body’s natural functions
- balance between yin and yang
Ayurveda developed in ancient India over 3000 years ago. It is based on the concept of universal interconnectedness. This system helps individuals to identify their body's constitution, known as prakriti and the life forces or bio-elements known as doshas.
Ayurveda is known for helping individuals understand the way the three fundamental bodily bio-elements work to influence health. The doshas are Pitta (fire and water), Kapha (water and earth), and Vata (space and air).
The main intention of this system to cleanse and restore balance to the body, mind, and spirit. Ayurveda is known for incorporating diet, exercise, breath, meditation, and herbal medicines.
Important aspects of ayurveda include:
- reducing symptoms
- building resistance to disease
- eliminating impurities
- reducing worry through meditation and awareness
- promoting harmony throughout the body
In addition to Chinese medicine and ayurveda, yoga has also become widely popular throughout the world for its health and spiritual benefits. Yoga means “union” in the ancient Sanskrit language. It is a group of practices that originated in ancient India and unites mind, body and spirit.
Yoga is considered a “sister science” to Ayurveda because they are both rooted in ancient Indian spiritual philosophies. Practitioners of yoga often incorporate Ayurveda into their lifestyle.
Although many people associate yoga with only the physical poses (asanas) or as a workout routine, it is actually much more than that. Yoga has eight limbs with only one being the asana. The other seven limbs relate to meditation, concentration, virtues, observances, turning inward, bliss, and mindful breathing.
There are many other styles of yoga, and specialties such as prenatal, aerial, and acroyoga. Some of the most popular styles of yoga include Iyengar, Hatha, Kundalini, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Yin Yoga.
Combining East and West for better health
It is becoming more and more common for Western medicine to incorporate Eastern medicine under some circumstances. Individual physicians, hospitals, and health centers are turning to Eastern medicine therapies within the conventional system. Some aspects of Eastern medicine have been the focus of scientific research that has been published in major medical journals. Studies on meditation, acupuncture, and yoga have made the news and bolster support for the use of Eastern Medicine within conventional settings.
Holistic approaches such as integrative medicine will often combine selected eastern medicine therapies in addition to conventional treatment. Recent scientific research is beginning to examine some Eastern medicine therapies and practices. In some cases, such as acupuncture and meditation, research is not only showing that these practices can help, but actually helping us to understand how and why they work.
Recent research is only beginning to look into the importance of interstitium, the “superhighway” of fluid throughout the body, and fascia, the connective tissue found under the skin and encases all of the body’s, nerves, muscles, bones and organs. These findings may help modern science better understand how eastern medicine practices such as acupuncture actually work.
Slowly but surely, new scientific technologies are being used to show what Eastern medicine practitioners have known all along — that the whole body is interconnected in more ways than we know.
How to find a holistic provider
It is in your best interest to find experienced, well-trained, and licensed holistic health practitioners who use best practices to protect your health and safety. For instance, the Professional Wellness Alliance (PWA) Community includes an online directory with thousands of licensed practitioners who provide a variety of holistic services like Eastern medicine.
Do Eastern medicine practitioners need to be licensed?
Although some people may offer Eastern medicine services such as reflexology or yoga without a license, they are doing so at great risk to themselves and their clients. It is important to always make sure that your holistic health provider is licensed.
The PWA Directory shows whether or not a provider is licensed and has had their qualifications verified by the Professional Wellness Alliance. These two distinctions give you the added confidence and show that a holistic health provider cares about your safety and has the proper qualifications.
Are you a holistic practitioner?
Join the mission to support holistic health and learn how the PWA License Program can protect you from state regulatory board crackdowns.