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By Jenna Beem, L.Ac
Although acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, (TCM) have been around for thousands of years, physics and biology are still attempting to explain the fascinating energetic nature of the body. There are many scientists exploring the possible scientific explanations for the energetic relationships described by the ancient texts. Commonly asked questions in the clinic include, where is this qi flow? How does it relate to the nervous system? Are you stimulating the nerves? Why are you putting needles in my ankle to treat my neck? People are curious about how small needles inserted into the skin can have such a powerful effect.
In this section, we will blend various concepts from several fields to show pictures of how energy flows in the body. To dive deeper into the research of any of these theories, please reference our wonderful bibliography. Each book is full of insight and wisdom. In this section, we will discuss acupuncture channel theory, how current flow affects the body, anatomical mapping with the channels, how circuits are created, and the magnetic fields induced by the flow.
The basis of Chinese medicine lies in acute observations of nature and the body. Observing phenomenon in nature, such as seasons, varying temperatures, day/night transitions, plant cycles, etc., lead to deeper understandings of the body functions. They observed that we not separate from nature. Food choice, sleep patterns, emotional stresses, and maintaining comfortable body temperatures affected health.
Observations lead to curious questions. How do these plants, which appear each spring, affect the body? Why do I get sick in winter after a long, stressful week in the cold weather? Once patterns are recognized, a hypothesis can be created.
The hypothesis must be tested repeatedly to become a theory. Additional observers are needed to test and retest the hypothesis to validate the results. If the results continue to be positive, then a theory is born. The theories continue to be tested as they become accepted as working theories. This is the basis of the scientific method. This is the foundation of Chinese medicine.
The terms yin and yang are commonly used to describe relative opposites. For example, you may hear the clichéd statement, “you are the yin to my yang”. But what does that mean? What is yin? How do you describe yang?
In Chinese medicine, the concepts of yin and yang are fundamental to understanding the dynamic balance in health and nature. Yin and yang are the building blocks of all things in nature. On a basic level, yang is hot and yin is cold. Yang is movement where yin is still. Since they are relative, Yin represents cold, liquid, fluid,
Balancing the yin and yang is a thermodynamic process. It takes work to add energy to the system. When the body ailment is due to cold, we heat it up with yang energy. If the body is too warm, we add cooling yin energy.
First, let’s start with the basics from the foundations of TCM. There is a substance called qi flowing through the channels. Qi is difficult to define. It combines the ideas energy, consciousness, life force, fluid movement, and breath into a flowing substance that permeates the whole body. It connects the mind, body, and spirit of a body.
Qi flows in higher concentrations along channels that come to the surface of the skin at points, called acupuncture points. We understand that there 12 major channels, each associated with organ functions, which flow to the limbs. Each channel is affects emotions stored in the body. How do we look at this energy/life force in terms of physics?
Physics and other science have been theorizing about qi for several decades since western cultures were exposed to acupuncture and Chinese medicine in the 1970’s. What is this energy? How does it move? Which laws of physics are applying to this practice?
It is evident through using the acupuncture system that the body is both energy and matter. We can work with the body mechanically as well as energetically because both aspects are valid. The dualistic description of matter having both particle and wave aspects were first theorized through physics in the 1920’s by Louis de Broglie and Albert Einstein.
Based on their research, all matter possesses both particle and wave properties. Now where does this inherent energy come from?
On a basic level, our bodies are composed of atoms. Each atom is 99.99% empty space.https://genesismission.jpl.nasa.gov/gm2/science/atoms.htm
We are made up of these atoms, which have tiny nuclei surrounded by empty space, with electron clouds disappearing and reappearing on discrete orbits. As the electrons jump from orbit to orbit, energy is either absorbed or emitted. Because the orbiting nature of the charged particles creates an electromagnetic field around each atom, there are boundary conditions inhibiting our ability to fall through the atom even though it is mostly empty space. How does this apply to the body on a bigger scale?
Modern researcher Mae Wan Ho helps us look at qi flow as life-force energy, similar to an electrical current, resulting from moving water crystals along collagen fibers, which are ionized. The moving charge generates a current. It can be theorized that is one explanation of how qi flows. Collagen is everywhere in the body. It’s in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and even blood. This makes it a vast network of fibers that the whole body. If the qi flows along the collagen fibers, it makes sense that it can travel everywhere.
Now if there are 12 main energy channels that are connected in one major circuit (relating to the 24 hour clock) and there are branches, or other connections, between the channels as well, (as taught by Dr. Richard Tan 6 systems) then the whole system works like a parallel electric circuit.
The general equation of a simple circuit is:
Where V is the voltage, I is the current measured in Ohms, and R is the electrical resistance.
There are studies demonstrating that the acupoints have a lower resistance than the surrounding areas at the skin. So if you insert a conductive needle into a current flow at the point of lower resistance, what happens to the circuit? If the body is connected by this qi flow and the needles affect the current movement, how does the acupuncture treatment affect the whole body? Why can we affect the neck at the ankle or the knee at the elbow?
One of the aspects of Chinese medicine that was most intriguing to me as a graduate student was the correlation between the qi flow circuit and the circadian rhythm. We were taught in school that Chinese medicine values being in sync with nature and that means living life guided by the information from this clock. The ideal is to fall asleep before 11pm, Gall Bladder channel time, and allow for dreaming during the wood element, Liver/Gall Bladder channels, 11pm-3am. If you wake between 5-7am, which Large Intestine time, the digestive channels are most active and you can have daily healthy bowel movements. Eating like a king in the morning, a prince in the afternoon then pauper in the evenings is encouraged based on channel activity. Exercising in the yang part of the day, which is morning or midday, is great as long as the evenings, yin time, are a winding down time.
The Chinese medicine textbooks describe an anatomical clock where each channel, or organ system, is most active for 2 hours out of the 24-hour clock. With my astronomy background, this was intriguing. If the Earth makes one full revolution each 24 hours and the meridians fluctuate based on two hour time segments each 24 hours, how do the two things relate? Which forces and fields from the Earth, moon and Sun are involved with the Chinese acupuncture channel system and our body function? And finally, what commonality does the Sun have with yang, and the moon with yin? The quest for these answers is ongoing.
Before the discovery of fire and artificial light, human beings were dependent on the rising and setting of the sun to distinguish night and day. The 24 hour light-dark cycle is a product of the Earth’s rotation. The impact of the day-night cycle on the human body, the circadian clock, is unknown however, in the past 30 years, scientists have been studying possibilities. From a biological perspective, the internal biological clock originates in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the brain’s hypothalamic region. In the presence of the Sun, the signals to the brain that it is daytime. This indicates a shift in the chemicals the brain puts out.
Somehow the SCN interprets these signals and communicates with other part of the brain therefore influencing various biological processes. Body temperature, sleep/activity, and hormonal output are affected by the amount of light entering the eyes. The SCN communicates with the pineal gland where melatonin is produced during times of darkness. Light suppresses the production of melatonin and can lead to drowsiness. Studies conducted on night shift workers exposed to artificial light at night have shown a correlation between melatonin suppression and light at night.
How did the ancient Chinese people understand this process without the depth of brain anatomy knowledge?
Taking a closer look at how these channels flow through the body along this 24-hour circuit is interesting. Giovanni Maciocia is one of the authors of many valued books in Chinese medicine and he made some correlations between the qi flow in the circuit with kinetic and potential energy. The symmetry of the body is truly amazing. As this qi flow completes a full 24-hour cycle, it passes through the body in three branches. Each branch starts and ends in the chest, near the heart and lungs. Maciocia postulated that when the qi flow is near the heart, in the yin channels, it is at its highest kinetic energy, or active energy. Then as it travels to the limbs out to the fingers, it transitions from yin to yang as it ascends to the head where it is the most yang and highest potential energy, near the brain. Each branch travels down from the head to the toes where it transitions from yang to yin, then back up to the heart.
Comparing this graph to where the qi is in the body, the following image emerges.
Once the basics of qi flow are understood, it is fun to discover how to use that information to create powerful circuits within the big 24-hour circuit. Dr. Richard Tan changed my entire practice by showing me these techniques. I was so fortunate to take classes from him in 2011 and 2012. In 2015, I took his advanced class with his protégés as he fell ill. He passed away at the end of 2015 and I along with the whole acupuncture profession grieve for the lost of such a brilliant man.
Dr. Tan showed me how to use the symmetry in the body to affect change in health. He demonstrated 6 systems of connections between the channels to better understand how each channel is connected to its branches.
The results of the systems are you can create impressive qi flow by creating a Cartesian coordinate system with the body. If the torso is the y-axis, then the top half is for the arms and the bottom part is for the legs. If you alternate yin and yang, connecting paired channels to their branches, you affect balance in the body. This improved my clinic results by 10 fold. Patients can truly feel the depth of the treatment when the circuits are connected. The body drops out of fight and flight into rest and digest. People get deep in the meditation zone. Thank you Dr. Tan!
Because there is symmetry in the body and there are only 12 channels, it made sense that there were a finite number of closed circuits one could create with the 6 systems taught by Dr. Tan. So after class in 2011, I sat down and tried every iteration until I found the symmetry. I wanted to see them all together so I plotted them on the clock, the master circuit. In 2015, at the advanced class, the 12 circuits I plotted were confirmed by his work.
One of my favorite things to share with patients is that the body is a hologram. It is also a fractal, where the holographic patterns repeat on all scales from very large to very small. What does this really mean? Are we an illusion? Is this the matrix? Well, not entirely.
So far, we have explored the theories that the body is both energy and matter. Like all matter composed of atoms, it is mostly empty space. Now we are explaining how it is both a hologram and a fractal. The holographic nature of the body means that all of the information from the inside, the organ systems and qi, is imaged or projected onto microsystems. It is a fractal because the mapping of the whole can be seen on different scale of microsystems from very large to very small.
The large scale holographic mapping starts with using the core of the body from the head to the base of the torso as the “whole”. We can imagine the arm or leg lining up with the torso and head stretched out to the same size. Using this large microsystem of the whole body, we can address different parts of the body at the limbs. For example, the neck can be mapped to the wrist or ankle. The abdomen near the belly button can be mapped to the knee or elbow.
With the image below, you can see how the mapping works across the microsystems. The foot relates to the hand, or head and vs. versa. This mapping system is incredibly effective at addressing the body at external locations.
We can use the smaller microsystem of mapping the different areas of the head to the whole arm or leg. We can also zoom in closer and use the foot and hand.
Now that we understand more about the body, let’s look at how acupuncturist use this information to treat headaches. For this example, let’s assume a one sided headache at the right temple. First we need to assess which channels the headache lies. In this example, the headache is on the Gall Bladder channel.
Using the six systems taught by Dr. Tan, we choose the paired channel to clear the headache from the Gall Bladder channel. Then for global balance, we pick the appropriate circuit.
Lastly, we use the holographic mapping to choose the points that anatomically map to the pain in the head.
Once the needles are inserted, the patient rests for 30-45 minutes as the pain drains away. With the holographic mapping system, the results should be pretty instant. Even if the pain doesn’t clear completely, it should be greatly reduced right away.
This form of acupuncture is retraining the body to let go of old patterns. Repeating the treatment with regular frequency for a few weeks allows the pain free state to hold. It is so much fun to watch patients who came in to the office in pain, leave smiling and feeling good!