Yin and Yang in East Asian Medicine

Yin and Yang in East Asian Medicine

Yin Moon

The theory of Yin and Yang is one of the central philosophies in East Asian medicine, and a guide for diagnosis and treatment in acupuncture, herbal treatment, and Asian styles of massage.  It is a way of looking at nature and the human body as pairs of opposite, but complementary features.

“Yin-Yang theory is based on the philosophical construct of two polar complements, call Yin and Yang.  These complementary opposites are neither forces nor material entities.  Nor are they mythical concepts that transcend rationality.  Rather, they are convenient labels used to describe how things function in relation to each other and the universe.”

Ted Kaptchuk, The Web that Has No Weaver

Yang Moon

The idea that all phenomena can be considered in terms of Yin and Yang was first referenced in the I Ching,or Book of Changes, from approximately 700 BC.  It is a way of viewing objects and actions in relation to one another, or to a larger whole.  This system of looking at things in terms of relationships rather than as isolated phenomena developed from observing the environment, particularly the cyclic nature of day and night, and the progression of seasons.


The Chinese character for Yin


The character for Yin indicates ‘hill’ and ‘cloud’, meaning ‘the shady side of the hill’.  Yin characteristics tend to be dark, cold, dense, and still.


Character indicates ‘sun’, ‘over the horizon’, and ‘rays of light’, or ‘the sunny side of the hill’.  Yang characteristics tend to be bright, warm, light, and active.


The Chinese character for Yang

“Yin and Yang are two stages of a cyclical movement, one constantly changing into the other, such as the day giving way to night and vice versa.” 

Giovanni Maciocia 

Yin Yang
Dark Light
Moon Sun
Shade Brightness
Activity Rest

Health is a state of homeostasis, or balance, between yin and yang, heat and cold, action and rest.

Yin Symptoms Yang Symptoms
Chronic Acute
Gradual Onset Rapid Onset
Slow Changes Rapid Changes
Cold Heat
Fatigue Restlessness
Pale Red
Quiet Loud
Not Thirsty Thirsty
Weak Pulse Strong Pulse

In East Asian medicine, Yin and Yang are diagnostic tools that are helpful in looking at a person’s constitution and array of symptoms.  Yang qualities tend to occur with other Yang qualities, and respond well to Yin treatments, while Yin qualities tend to occur with other Yin qualities, and respond to Yang treatments.  For example, a person with a tendency to feel cold (Yin), will also tend to suffer from fatigue (also Yin), and respond well to Yang treatments, such as a warming herb like ginger.  Yin and Yang are useful as paradigms to understand symptoms and disease, and act as guides to which treatment will be most effective for each patient.

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The 5 Elements at a Glance

The 5 Elements at a Glance

Throughout the history of medicine, healers have classified qualities of health and disease according to ‘elements’.  Hippocratic medicine had the ‘4 humors’ of earth, air, fire, and water that corresponded with the 4 seasons and qualities of emotion, colors, and type of disease.  Ayurveda adds a fifth element, space, to its paradigm, and assigns attributes such as softness, stability, subtlety, and warmth.  The ancient Chinese embraced the concept as well, and assigned characteristics to the elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

Each of these medical systems consider health to be a manifestation of balance.  When one of the elements becomes stronger or weaker than the others, disease results.  Therefore, medical treatment is aimed at bringing each of the elements back into harmony with the others.

In the Chinese system, each of the elements is associated with its own organs, emotion, flavor, climate, and season.  This fantastic graphic by angel b. lee shows the 5 element system at a glance.  Have fun finding the qualities that best describe you.

Acupuncture Lessens Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Acupuncture Lessens Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Cancer patients who receive chemotherapy treatment for their condition must withstand numerous side effects of the drugs, which interfere with work, daily and family life, and quality of life.  Some side effects, including nausea and vomiting, and chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), or nerve pain, can be severe enough that life-saving treatment must be suspended.

3 to 4 of every 10 patients who undergo chemotherapy will develop nerve pain.  CIPN typically begins in the hands and feet, and causes tingling, burning, or shooting pain that travels up the arms and legs.  The pain can interfere with simple daily tasks such as buttoning a shirt and walking.  CIPN is one of the most common reasons patients delay or cut short their cancer treatments.

Small nerve fibers (fluorescent green) in the skin. The bottom picture shows nerve damage from chemotherapy.

Acupuncture is a promising treatment for CIPN.  It decreases pain symptoms, improves quality of life, and may allow patients to continue chemotherapy.  A small study published in Acupuncture in Medicine shows that acupuncture benefits chemotherapy patients who develop nerve pain.

The study was conducted by Sven Schroeder, MD, from the HanseMerkur Center for Traditional Chinese Medicine at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany.  Patients received 10 weekly acupuncture sessions.  Following acupuncture treatment, the patients reported an improvement in their pain symptoms.  Nerve conductions studies, looking at the health of the nerves, also showed improvements in both speed and intensity of nerve signaling.

“These findings are of special significance since peripheral neuropathy is otherwise almost untreatable, but seems to respond to treatment by acupuncture,” Dr. Schroeder said.

This study is one of many showing acupuncture to be a valuable complement to chemotherapy in cancer patients.  Previous studies have shown acupuncture to be effective for chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, and multiple cases studies have also indicated acupuncture’s effectiveness for nerve pain.

Read more about this study at Medscape, or more about CIPN at the National Cancer Institute.

Complementary Alternative Medicine Use Highest Amongst Health-Care Workers

Complementary Alternative Medicine Use Highest Amongst Health-Care Workers

Recent research shows that health-care workers are more likely to use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) than the general public.  According to the article published in Health Services Research, three out of four doctors, nurses, healthcare technicians and administrators, reported using some form of CAM in the previous year.

For the study, the authors looked at data from 14,300 people on their use of acupuncture, massage, yoga, herbal medicines, and other alternative health practices.  What they found was that not only were healthcare workers in general more likely to use CAM than the general public, but that those who work in a clinical setting were twice as likely to seek out CAM practitioners for care.

Many patients are reluctant to talk to their doctors about the herbs or supplements that they take, or that they’re interested in using acupuncture to treat their complaints.  This is understandable, given the reactions many doctors have had in the past, and some even today.  However, this is information that doctors need, and as this study shows, are more receptive to than ever.

Lori Knutson, one of the study’s co-authors says “In general, Western culture has believed that complementary services and techniques aren’t as well-researched and evidence-based as conventional medicine, but that is certainly no longer the case. And so what I hope comes from this insight into practitioner use of complementary options is an opening up of the conversation between providers and patients about the use and potential of alternative medicine.”

More from US News.

Diagnosis in East Asian Medicine

Diagnosis in East Asian Medicine

East Asian medicine operates in a very different paradigm from conventional medicine. A Western medical diagnosis is typically a determination of the factor causing the patient’s symptoms, but what an individual patient is experiencing is irrelevant to the diagnosis. An East Asian medical assessment looks at the patient’s symptoms and constitution, placing the emphasis on an individual’s experience of disease, and this is the guiding factor in choosing acupuncture points or composing an herbal formula.

The Flu
According to the Western model of diagnosis, the flu is a disease caused by the influenza virus. Whether the patient has breathing problems, stomach upset, or aching muscles, it is still the flu. Treatment may include drugs to destroy the virus and treatment for the symptoms until the patient recovers.

To an East Asian medicine practitioner, the patient’s symptoms guide diagnosis. If the main symptoms appear in the lung, it will be treated as a lung disorder, or if the symptoms primarily affect the stomach, it will be treated as a stomach disorder. While Eastern medicine recognizes the presence of germs, the questions asked tend to revolve around the patient: ‘Why did this person get sick while other people did not?’; ‘Why is this patient feeling nauseated while another has a sore throat?’; ‘Why is this person not recovering quickly?’. All of that person’s symptoms are taken into account, painting a full health picture for that individual. Often, symptoms that are considered irrelevant to Western doctors fit easily into an Eastern medical model. Feeling the pulse at the wrist and examining the tongue fill in the rest of the picture, giving the practitioner clues as to the underlying constitutional factors in that person’s illness.

How Diagnosis Guides Treatment
Treatment in Eastern medicine is similarly focused on the patient. Acupuncture points, herbs, and accessory techniques are chosen to treat the overall picture and relieve specific symptoms. Just as multiple symptoms can fit into one coherent picture, individual acupuncture points and herbs work together in harmony. No two patients are ever the same, and no two treatments are the same. The practitioner’s goal is to compose a treatment that forms a perfect complement to the patient’s health picture, guiding that person toward recovery.