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Traditional East Asian Medicine and Covid-19

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

People are often skeptical when told that Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) can treat Covid-19, and this is understandable: if there were a cure, wouldn’t they have heard of it? If a line of research is promising, why isn’t it being pursued? Actually, it is being pursued, mostly in East Asia; it so happens that when the studies reach the states they fall into a media blackout that, under the guise of objectivity, effectively censors any challenge to the biomedical status quo (and pharmaceutical profits). But I digress.

It’s not just the stacked research deck that comes between people and the ancient-yet-never-more-relevant medicine that could be such a boon to them. The bigger obstacle may be conceptual. TEAM is rooted in a worldview that is, after all, profoundly different from modern materialism. Without an understanding where TEAM treatments are coming from, it’s natural for skepticism to arise. 

So let me offer a re-frame. TEAM doesn’t have a cure for Covid-19. It doesn’t even treat Covid, strictly speaking: it treats patients who have Covid. And does so with great success, when skillfully applied. 

Here, in a nutshell, is the difference between TEAM and biomedicine: biomedicine zooms way in, not just to the level of the proverbial trees, but to the cells that compose those trees. With its acute (but sometimes myopic) vision, it wants to know: what kills this virus or stops it from replicating? TEAM, on the other hand, takes a very different approach. It doesn’t pay any attention to the virus at all. All of the focus is on the patient. How is she responding? What aspect of physiology is compromised? The theoretical structures of TEAM offer intricate ways of answering these questions, along with highly-targeted treatments drawing on hundreds (if not thousands) of possible medicinal substances, typically combined in a unique way for every single case. 

Imagine a house with water damage issues. Water is the “pathogen" here, but focusing on the water itself would be shortsighted. It’s important to note how the house has responded or failed to respond to the presence of water. Just as a contractor will assess the actual, on-the-ground situation before deciding how much insulation to tear out, whether to lay new drainage pipe, and so on, a TEAM practitioner assesses a patient's signs and symptoms individually before writing an herbal formula, placing a moxa cone or inserting an acupuncture needle. Different people respond differently to the presence of the same virus.

In any given case, we treat what presents: wind, heat, dampness, cold, or whatever combination. TEAM recognizes that, like landscapes, we have places of flow and places of storage, delicate zones and fertile ones; we each have a unique and changing inner ecology. If one person resembles a desert and another a swamp, it’s no surprise that the same force (the virus) will fare differently in each, and that treatment will differ as well. In one case we might need to bring rain to moisten a parched region; in another to help the sun come out to dry a bog, and in in another to un-dam a river that's swollen to dangerous proportions. If you bring rain to the swamp, things won’t go well, so it’s easy to see that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Nor do we need one. There may be no cure for “the virus,” but there are remedies for what ails any given individual.

This is different from mere symptomatic treatment; rather, TEAM treats the syndrome or pattern, zheng, associated with the particular disease manifestation. For instance, Covid-19 often includes what's called a shaoyang pattern, characterized by alternating fever and chills, nausea or loss of appetite, sore throat, and dizziness. Treating shaoyang conditions (which can arise in connection with many different diseases) doesn't mean suppressing the individual symptoms; it means addressing the pattern that gives rise to the symptoms. Unlike suppressive treatment (taking ibuprofen for fever, for example), this approach helps restore a state of health, moving disease manifestations out, as opposed to just squelching them down to resurface later.

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