In Eastern Medicine, inflammation is as ever present and multi-sourced as it is in Western Medicine. To help understand the most common ways of interpretting it I want to talk about the various forms and sources of pathological heat in our bodies, and on the uniquely Eastern concept of Blood.
Heat is a natural occuring phenomenon in the body. It is our yang nature and gives to us things such as our metabolism and digestive fire, it keeps us warm so we don't need an external source of heat like a reptile does. And, it is the source of the movements throughout our body. So clearly not all heat is bad. It is only when heat becomes out of balance that it is a pathological influence in the body. That imbalance can come from either external sources or internal sources, It can come from conditions of excess or of deficiency. Let's explore this.
When heat comes from an external source, excess amounts of heat are fairly easy to understand. Think about inflammation, images of redness, heat, swelling and pain quickly come to mind. All of these words describe the external, excess pathogen of Heat. Imagine sunburn; red, hot and painful, sometimes swollen. It's definitely a form of inflammation, and easy to imagine how it is pathogenic heat on the body. To much heat from the sun has caused too much heat in the body. Easy to see, easy to understand. We can apply topical cooling herbs (think of aloe vera) and the heat is cleared, the inflammation is gone. Easy. The theory holds up in other cases. Think of a fever that comes with a virus or bacterial infection. A pathogen, bearing or creating heat, enters the body, our immune system responds with heat - fever, sore throat, mucus. We respond with antiviral or antibacterial herbs that are cooling, maybe we needle an acupuncture point or two that are known to drain heat, we can clear the inflammation. As long as we can recognize the "sun" or the "virus" that is creating this heat, our job is pretty easy.
When the source of heat moves to internal sources, things get more complicated and this is when understanding whether heat is from too much or too little becomes important. Let's first talk about internal, excess (too much) heat.
In a healthy body, Qi moves easily through the energetic channels of the body. Five organ systems function to manage all of the duties of the body. Each organ system has a yang aspect to it that draws on and generates some level of heat. Because this body is healthy the movement of Qi and the yang functions of the body remain balanced. But when any of this gets out of balance, an internal source of heat can be generated. To illustrate, imagine that an injury has occured, someone sprains their ankle. Perhaps, during the injury, the gallbladder channel becomes blocked by the sprain. As the Qi tries to make its way through that channel it meets a roadblock and a back up occurs. Qi is dynamic/yang in nature so as it begins to acumulate it generates heat. Think of what happens when you try to run your blender through too thick of a smoothie. The motor runs, unsuccessfuly working to move the blades. The motor gets hotter and hotter as its effort goes nowhere.
Internal excess heat can also arise if one or more of the organ systems gets out of balance. This is a bit more complicated but to describe it simply, imagine there is a system in your body whose job it is to direct all of the energy of your body. Think of it as a traffic cop magically whistling and waving the traffic of your body into rhythmic compliance. Imagine what would happen if that traffic cop, who normally managed 100 cars a minute, was suddenly asked to manage 200, 300 or even 500 cars. Traffic jams, accidents, honking, shouting...heat or inflammation in a New York minute!!! This is what stress and too much effort looks like in our bodies, through an Eastern medicine lens. And its a quick reference to how too much work, or worry, or food, or alcohol (just to name a few) might lead to inflammation in the body.
Sometimes its not too much, but too little, that results in inflammation. This is the case of an internal and deficient source of heat, and it is where I introduce the concept of Blood. In my world, Blood includes the red fluid running through our veins, but it also includes much more. Blood is what nourishes us, what cools us, what calms us, what keeps us flexible in our body, mind and spirit. It is the Yin to our Qi, or dynamic energy's, Yang. It is where our parasympathetic nervous system is housed.
Blood is generated by the Eastern equivalent of our digestion and respiration. It must continuously move to remain healthy and that circulation, as in Western medicine, is provided by our Heart system. When it is not circulating it is warehoused by our Liver system in a way that replenishes and restores it much like our biological liver cleans our blood through its multitudenous detoxification processes. All of these systems must be working efficiently for our Blood to offer its cooling, nourishing services to our bodies. When one or more system weakens and Blood is diminished, the balance of heat and cool lists towards heat and inflammation occurs. This isn't becasue there is too much heat in the body, its because there isn't enough cool. This is what we call a deficient heat pattern.
Clearing a deficient heat pattern in the body is much different than clearing an excess pattern. We can't simply find the source of the heat and clear it. With a deficient pattern, we look for which system, listed above, is out of order. And, how is it out of order? Because the systems are interlinked, often times its more than one system that needs attention. Once identified w work with to restore each system so that it can go back to ensuring that the body is cooled and nourished.
No doubt, this internal and deficient source of heat is the most common pattern of inflammation that I see in my clinical practice. When you stop to think about how much we think, and do, and consume, and absorb in our daily lives, and that all of this draws from our ability to stay balanced, cool and calm, the epidemic of inflammation in our lives starts to make sense. Our remedies don't stop with herbs, acupuncture and other medicines. We need to change our diets, lifestyles, anti-stress practices and sleep. We need to stop the insanity.