• Users Online: 741
  • Home
  • Print this page
  • Email this page
Home About us Editorial board Ahead of print Current issue Search Archives Submit article Instructions Contacts Login 

 Table of Contents  
Year : 2016  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 95-98

Chinese medicine and environmental disease

1 ACA Canton Senior Group, Association of Chinese Americans, Canton, Michigan 48188, USA
2 Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Zhangqiu Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Zhangqiu City, Shandong Province 250200, China
3 Gang-ao Garden, Jinan Lixia District, Jinan City, Shandong Province 250014, China
4 Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics; Department of Immunology and Microbiology, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan 48201, USA

Date of Submission19-Sep-2016
Date of Acceptance21-Sep-2016
Date of Web Publication12-Oct-2016

Correspondence Address:
Kezhong Zhang
Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan 48201
Lei Wang
Association of Chinese Americans, Canton, Michigan 48188
Login to access the Email id

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2468-5690.191981

Rights and Permissions

Environmental diseases represent the major challenge to the modern human health. Despite the increased public health challenges, "Western Medicine," or modern medicine, has limited solutions in regard to the prevention or treatment of environment-associated complex chronic diseases. In contrast, "Integrative or Alternative Medicine," particularly Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), shows promising health benefits in improving the symptoms or even curing some of chronic environmental diseases. TCM defines disease as a disharmony or imbalance in the functions of inner body energy circuit or interactions between the human body and the environment. The principals of diagnosis and treatment of TCM are to identify the patterns of disharmony and restore systemic harmony inside human body and between the human body and environment. These principles are well in line with the etiology and development of modern environmental diseases. In this review, we summarize some progress in using TCM to treat environment-associated, modern human common diseases.

Keywords: Complex chronic disease, environmental disease, herbal medicine, modern human disease, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western medicine

How to cite this article:
Wang L, Qiao K, Zhang H, Zhang K. Chinese medicine and environmental disease. Environ Dis 2016;1:95-8

How to cite this URL:
Wang L, Qiao K, Zhang H, Zhang K. Chinese medicine and environmental disease. Environ Dis [serial online] 2016 [cited 2023 Jun 2];1:95-8. Available from: http://www.environmentmed.org/text.asp?2016/1/3/95/191981

  Introduction Top

In the modern age, environmental factors, such as pollutions, lifestyles, and climate changes, have significant impacts in human health. Modern human common diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, neurodegenerative disease, psychiatric disorders, and cancer, are closely associated with environmental challenges. From a broad perspective, these chronic complex diseases are environmental disease [1] [Figure 1]. Different from the diseases solely attributed to genetic factors, a large portion of the environmental diseases is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental influences. In another word, environmental factors, such as stress, both physical and mental, lifestyles associated with diets and habits, and exposure to pollutions associated with toxins, pathogens, radiation, and chemicals, can drive the development of diseases in individuals that are genetically predisposed to particular pathological conditions. Moreover, unexplained symptoms without common clinically diagnostic or biological markers, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, and sick building syndrome, have been increasingly identified in the modern time. [2],[3],[4] While these diseases are directly attributed to environmental factors, physical examinations and routine laboratory investigations usually fail to identify underlying causes for these diseases or symptoms. "Western" medicine, so-called "evidence-" based medicine, has very limited approach to diagnosis or treat this type of environmental diseases. Instead, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has exhibited a promising potential in dealing with the increased challenges of emerging environmental diseases. TCM is an ancient set of practices originated in ancient China and has evolved more than 2000 years. [5] It operates under the belief that the processes of the human body are interrelated and connected to the environment and utilizes herbal medicines and various mind and body practices, such as acupuncture, massage, exercise (tai chi), and dietary therapy. The understanding and illustration of human body system, as well as health and disease in TCM, are completely different from that of "Western" medicine or modern medicine. [6] Based on the TCM theory, there are two major causes of human diseases: (1) Inside body healthy Qi energy deficiency, and (2) external pathogenic Qi attacks. TCM approaches deal with health and disease issues from a holistic standpoint, emphasizing the underlying imbalances, and disharmonies behind an illness. An important subjective of TCM theory is about "Qi", the energy believed to flow through body channels, or meridians, many of which follow major veins and arteries and connect to the internal organs. Qi embraces all manifestations of energy, from the material to immaterial aspects. A healthy human being is a dynamic, harmonious mixture of Qi that make up who we are. Regulating and stimulating the flow of Qi is a basic tenet of understanding the health and disease states in the body.
Figure 1: Illustration of environmental disease

Click here to view

A key TCM theory associated with Qi is five-element theory that explains the causes of particular diseases and to associate symptoms to particular organs and illnesses [Figure 2]. The five elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water, represent liver/gallbladder, heart/small intestines, stomach/spleen, lungs/large intestines, and kidneys/bladder, respectively. The five-element theory is associated with four main cycles in which the elements (and their associated emotions and physical states) interact. The first cycle is the generating cycle, in which each element serves as a foundation and a generating force to promote the growth and development of the element that immediately follows it. The second cycle is the controlling cycle, through which each element is involved in a counteracting relationship that keeps the associated elements in control. In this cycle, the five elements interact and regulate each other. Health is a harmony of all the elements. The Qi of the elements fluctuates in daily and seasonal cycles. Individual human bodies are characteristic blends of the influences of the five elements. Integrated with the five-element theory is the Ying-Yang theory, another fundamental concept in TCM diagnosis and treatment [7] [Figure 2]. The ancient Chinese observed two phases of constant cyclical changes termed as "Yin" and "Yang", which are coincidently opposite and interdependent, in all the living creatures. Yin refers to manifestations of Qi that are relatively material and substantial. Yang refers to manifestations of Qi that are relatively immaterial and amorphous. Yin constantly changes into Yang and back into Yin again. This can be seen in the changes of the four seasons of natural resources, as well as the changes of human physiology throughout a daily circadian cycle. Within the body, each organ has qualities of both Yin and Yang, although some organs and functions may have more of one quality than the other. Qi and blood serve as resource commuters of Yin and Yang and among the five elements. The primary goal in TCM treatment of illness is to restore the balance, and replenish Qi or blood. TCM practitioners believe that a balance of Yin and Yang is critical for health. The diagnosis and treatment practices developed under these philosophies and the application of natural herbal resources are based on a long history of experience in human health. Herbal medicine, acupuncture, and massage are major approaches used to restore the balance in TCM practice. TCM can strengthen the energy, balance yin and yang, improve circulation, and promote the functional activity of internal organs. The principals and approaches of TCM make it a promising alternative medicine in treating chronic complex diseases emerged under the modern environmental challenges. In the following sessions, we summarized some of the recent advances in TCM treatment of modern human common diseases associated with environmental challenges.
Figure 2: Illustration of five-element theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Click here to view

  Traditional Chinese Medicine and Metabolic Diseases Top

Obesity and type-2 diabetes are two major metabolic syndromes in the modern time. According to TCM, obesity is a result of overeating, and type-2 diabetes is referred as Xiao-Ke which is a consequence of obesity. [5] The traditional name, Xiao-ke, correlates closely with diabetes in most instances. Xiao-ke means "inner wasting" or "wasting thirst" disease according to the historical Chinese medical text book, Huang Di Nei Jing. [5] TCM clarifies three types of diabetes: Upper, middle, and lower diabetic syndrome. The upper type is represented by excessive thirst, the middle by excessive hunger, and the lower by excessive urination. These types are correlated with the lungs, stomach, and kidneys, respectively and all three are associated with Yin deficiency. Distinct from Western medicine, TCM does not simply regard blood glucose levels as the major indicator for diabetic patients. Treatment is individualized by assessing and treating the symptoms that caused by deficiency and disharmony as diagnosed. [8],[9] Acupuncture has been used in the treatment of diabetes to reduce blood glucose levels and normalize endocrine function. Clinical and experimental studies have demonstrated that acupuncture has a beneficial effect on lowering serum glucose levels. Some of commonly used herbs to treat diabetes in TCM include Ginseng, rhizoma coptidis, and bitter melon. It has been proven that Ginseng has antihyperglycemia, insulin sensitizing, islet protection, and antioxidation effects. In some studies, the effects of Ginseng on lowering blood glucose levels and improving mood and psychological performance were comparable to that of placebo. [8] Because TCM views diabetes as a state of Yin deficiency and excess internal heat, diet therapy for diabetes is a common practice in TCM. The principal of diet therapy for diabetes is to consume spinach by strengthening the internal organs, lubricating the intestines, and promoting urination. The foods considered to be beneficial for diabetes include vegetables and grains, such as celery, pumpkin, tofu, sweet potato, tomato, wheat bran, and millet. Fruits that have beneficial effects on diabetes include guava, plum, strawberry, and mulberry.

  Traditional Chinese Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases Top

TCM is increasingly used to treat cardiovascular disease in China and some other Asian countries. [10] TCM practitioners view cardiovascular disease as a consequence of Qi deficiencies in heart and/or spleen or Qi stagnation in the liver and/or blood. TCM believes that the functional blood circulation is driven by Heart Qi, smooth flow of liver Qi, transportation of blood and body fluids, or spleen Qi under the control of Yin and Yang balance. Qi is the commander of blood, and blood is the resource of Qi. Based on this theory, TCM treatment is aimed on the root causes of cardiovascular diseases. Acupuncture, herbal medicine, and massage are the three major TCM approaches to treat cardiovascular diseases. For example, for the patients diagnosed as Heart Qi deficiency, the treatment strategy is to strengthen Heart Qi, warm Heart Yang, and expel coldness. [11] Herbs, such as Ginseng and Huangqi, are used in the formulas with other herbs to treat the patients with Heart Qi deficiency. Acupuncture is also used to warm Yang and strengthen Qi in the heart. In most cases reviewed, TCM treatment was associated with significant improvements in hypertension, coronary heart disease, and heart failure.

  Traditional Chinese Medicine and Neurodegenerative Diseases Top

The prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease (AD), Parkinson's disease (PD), and multiple sclerosis (MS), is increasing rapidly in the modern time. Environmental factors play a causal role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases. In "Western" medicine, effective treatments for neurodegenerative diseases are lacking. In China, TCM has been used to treat a variety types of neurodegenerative diseases. Many studies have confirmed the efficacy of TM in treating AD, PD, and MS in both clinic and experimental models. For example, a group from Shanghai University of TCM demonstrated that TCM combined together with "Western" medicine can improve sleep disorders and life quality of PD patients. [12] The same group also demonstrated the effectiveness of TCM in improving behavioral and psychological symptoms of AD patients. [13] A research group from the Oregon Research Institute of the USA demonstrated that tai chi training can reduce balance impairments and increase functional capacity in patients with mild-to-moderate PD. [14] TCM exhibits promising protective effects or slow the morbidity of these diseases. While no effective treatment for a complete cure of neurodegenerative diseases, TCM, in combination with Western medicine, has shown promising effects in improving the symptoms and the quality of life of neurodegenerative disease patients.

  Traditional Chinese Medicine and Depression Top

TCM is a holistic medicine that integrates both physical and mental factors in diagnosis and treatment. TCM doctors diagnose and treat depression based on TCM's five-element system. [15] TCM practitioners regard that three 5-element types, including earth, water, and wood, are associated with depression: (1) Earth deficiency - this type of patients often experience digestive problem and overwhelmed and are susceptible to anxiety and body weight gain; (2) water deficiency - this type of depression is associated with aging or chronic disease conditions; and (3) wood bunched up - this type of patients are easy to anger. Depression is largely related to the stagnation of liver Qi. The liver is the major metabolic organ responsible for circulating Qi or energy of the body. When a person is in low mood, the flow of Qi is repressed within the body that leads to liver Qi stagnation, resulting in the symptoms of depression. The principle of treatment for depression is to increase the patient's energy, move stagnation, and calm the spirit based on patients' symptoms and diagnosis. [5] In "Western" medicine, depression is often treated with antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, and Wellbutrin. [16] However, depression could be due to many different types of causes. Not all of them will be helped by taking antidepressants. Because of minor side effects, TCM is ideal for psychiatric medications. Recent studies suggest that acupuncture has immediate effects on improving depression, especially when combined with psychotherapy. Acupuncture treatment for depression focuses on circulating the Qi and balancing the flow of energy to relieve specific symptoms. Moreover, TCM views depression as imbalanced states that are associated with "spirit," the conditions that are in conscious awareness, emotional, and elusive. TCM treatment is to restore the balance of five elements and calm the spirit at the same time.

  Summary Top

A large portion of case reports and research efforts with human patients has confirmed the prominent effects of TCM on human modern complex diseases associated with environmental factors. Different from "Western" medicine, TCM has the unique understanding of the diseases and the principals for the prevention and treatment of the diseases. However, the development of TCM to a world-class medicine to treat modern human disease suffers from lack of modern or Western standardization and precise quality control system. The above descriptions on TCM were only based on the reported literatures on the surface. In China, there is still a great deal of unexposed or unrecognized TCM therapeutics spreading among the lay people. These unexposed TCM may have unprecedented therapeutic effects on complex chronic diseases. This is certainly an important subject to be explored in the future.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Zhang K. Environmental diseases. Environ Dis 2016;1:1-2.  Back to cited text no. 1
  Medknow Journal  
Bested AC, Marshall LM. Review of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: An evidence-based approach to diagnosis and management by clinicians. Rev Environ Health 2015;30:223-49.  Back to cited text no. 2
Kerr KJ. Gulf War illness: An overview of events, most prevalent health outcomes, exposures, and clues as to pathogenesis. Rev Environ Health 2015;30:273-86.  Back to cited text no. 3
Norbäck D, Edling C. Environmental, occupational, and personal factors related to the prevalence of sick building syndrome in the general population. Br J Ind Med 1991;48:451-62.  Back to cited text no. 4
Aichun G. Huangdi Neijing Suwen Jiao Zhu Yu Yi. Tianjin, China: Tianjin Science and Technology Press; 1999.  Back to cited text no. 5
Unschuld PU. Medicine in China: A History of Ideas. Berkeley, California, USA: University of California Press; 1985.  Back to cited text no. 6
Manfred P. Theoretical Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States: MIT Press; 1978.  Back to cited text no. 7
Covington MB. Traditional Chinese medicine in the treatment of diabetes. Diabetes Spectr 2016;14:154-9.  Back to cited text no. 8
Yin J, Zhang H, Ye J. Traditional chinese medicine in treatment of metabolic syndrome. Endocr Metab Immune Disord Drug Targets 2008;8:99-111.  Back to cited text no. 9
Hao PP, Jiang F, Chen YG, Yang J, Zhang K, Zhang MX, et al. Traditional Chinese medication for cardiovascular disease. Nat Rev Cardiol 2015;12:115-22.  Back to cited text no. 10
Wu X. Traditional Chinese Medicine for Cardiovascular Health. Available from: http://www.vitalitymagazine.com/article/traditional-chinese-medicine-for-cardiovascular-health/. [Last accessed on 2016 Oct 09].  Back to cited text no. 11
Pan W, Kwak S, Liu Y, Sun Y, Fang Z, Qin B, et al. Traditional Chinese medicine improves activities of daily living in Parkinson′s disease. Parkinsons Dis 2011;2011:789506.  Back to cited text no. 12
Pan W, Wang Q, Kwak S, Song Y, Qin B, Wang M, et al. Shen-zhi-ling oral liquid improves behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia in Alzheimer′s disease. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2014;2014:913687.  Back to cited text no. 13
Li F, Harmer P, Fitzgerald K, Eckstrom E, Stock R, Galver J, et al. Tai chi and postural stability in patients with Parkinson′s disease. N Engl J Med 2012;366:511-9.  Back to cited text no. 14
Kou MJ, Chen JX. Integrated traditional and Western medicine for treatment of depression based on syndrome differentiation: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials based on the Hamilton depression scale. J Tradit Chin Med 2012;32:1-5.  Back to cited text no. 15
Cameron DH, Rapoport MJ. Antidepressants and driving in older adults: A systematic review. Can J Aging 2016;35 Suppl 1:7-14.  Back to cited text no. 16


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2]


Similar in PUBMED
   Search Pubmed for
   Search in Google Scholar for
 Related articles
Access Statistics
Email Alert *
Add to My List *
* Registration required (free)

  In this article
Traditional Chin...
Traditional Chin...
Traditional Chin...
Traditional Chin...
Article Figures

 Article Access Statistics
    PDF Downloaded366    
    Comments [Add]    

Recommend this journal