The 5 elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are 5 aspects of the energy that regulates the material dimension of our lives, our bodies included. They are sometimes referred to as the “energy of earth,” in contrast to the “energy of heaven,” in the sense of cosmic energy. That is why in TCM we are said to live “between Heaven and Earth.”
There are six components of the said cosmic energy. Wind is one of them. It is one of the six environmentally related external causes of imbalance, leading to diseases and disorders of the body. They are also called the “Six Excesses” or “Six Evils” in TCM.
The connection between weather, especially wind, and human health has been very seriously explored in many of the world’s most scholarly traditional medical systems such as TCM, Gaelic, Unani,(1) Islamic and Ayurvedic medicines.
- In Ayurveda, various changes in our natural environment such as wind direction can create numerous issues connected with aggravating our dosha, one of three bodily “bioelements” that make up one's constitution and govern physiological activity.
- The 12 Celtic directional winds tend to correspond with those of American Indian medicine wheels.
- In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (the Nei Jing Suwen), the medical mentor and Taoist monk Qi Bo tells his student, “Pathogenic wind is the root of all evil.”
- In TCM, wind is a Yang pathogenic factor and causes symptoms in the physical body that wander and change. A case of Wind invasion includes symptoms like sneezing, headache, and congestion.
Wind also makes it easier for other illnesses to invade your body because if you are already feeling a little sick and your immune system is low, you are more likely to be vulnerable to other problems.
In TCM, colds and flus can enter the body through the skin. Cold winds pushing against the skin force cold into the body. In order to maintain stasis, the body is forced to work against the cold and wind.
A person may not have enough energy to fight off the wind and the cold. When this occurs, we feel the symptoms of cold and flu coming on.
TCM identifies pathways and channels that travel through the body from the most superficial layer of the body–the skin–to the deepest, most interior parts of the body.
Colds and flu originate at the superficial layers of the body and if we are unable to fight off a wind attack, it moves deeper into the body causing more serious illness.
Among the more superficial channels are the bladder channel (which travels vertically passing through the neck and back) and the small intestine channel (which travels horizontally across the neck and shoulder). These channels provide the most common routes of cold and wind entering the body.
When cold and wind attack through these channels, we may experience a stiff neck, headaches, especially at the back of the neck, an aversion to wind, a lack of sweating, chills, listlessness, fatigue, and a stuffed up nose or head.
“Located on the neck and shoulders, the Wind points are considered both entry points for Wind and areas you can stimulate to expel the Wind and prevent further penetration of the body’s kingdom.”(2)
Ilkay Z. Chirali, author of Traditional Chinese Medicine Cupping Therapy(3) writes how his teacher, a Vietnamese Buddhist wandering monk in the medical tradition, explained to him why a wind attack to the body can be very painful:
“Wind allowed to pass through a narrow opening is ‘poisonous’ because it is compressed and pierces the flesh like a dagger. Its impact is funneled and focused, as if adjusting the nozzle of a hose to concentrate its intensity.”
Conversely, there is the modality of 'cupping’ known in TCM as the ‘capturing of the winds’ which offers positive and healing attributes. Cupping is a Chinese therapy in which heated glass cups are applied to the skin along the meridians of the body, creating suction as a way of stimulating the flow of energy. Many athletes participating in the 2016 Summer Olympics were photographed bearing the marks from their cupping sessions. In July 2005, Gwyneth Paltrow sported her cupping therapy marks at a film festival in New York.
(We’ll be blogging about the topic of cupping next week.)
So if you’re a TCM believer, you’ll want to take this advice very seriously: when it's windy, cover up your neck and shoulders before going outside to prevent colds and flu (and perhaps even more)!
(1) Unani: a system of medicine practiced in parts of India, thought to be derived via medieval Muslim physicians from Byzantine Greece. It is sometimes contrasted with the Ayurvedic system.
(2) Elias, Jason, and Katherine Ketcham. Chinese Medicine for Maximum Immunity: Understanding the Five Elemental Types for Health and Well-being. New York: Three Rivers, 1998. Print.
(3) Chirali, Ilkay Zihni. Traditional Chinese Medicine: Cupping Therapy. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1999. Print.