The Five Phases in Chinese Medicine: Treating Both the Mind and Body

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Having been raised by the practices of western medicine, the five phases that form the basis of Chinese medicine can be judged as less scientific or effective in the treatment of illness. Further inquiry into the five phases, which dictate and explain so much of the Chinese philosophy and culture, can provide a healthy alternative to treat disorders in patients that might otherwise be unnecessarily medicated. Chinese medicine leans toward a more rational approach with the use of plants, herbs, and natural remedies. An understanding of the five phases of Chinese medicine in conjunction with what we know from western medicine provides a wholesome approach to treating common ailments and a basis for a progressive method to practicing medicine, particularly in regards to how we treat depression.

A thorough comprehension of the five phases requires a rather intensive study; however, even an overview of this philosophy as it applies to health and the human body is illuminating. Much of what the five phases can teach us is the importance of balance within our bodies and our lifestyles, an important point that we often overlook in western medicine that seeks to provide a cure from without, i.e. medicine, while the Chinese tradition looks within, i.e. correspondence between the five phases in the patient.

In Chinese medicine, the five phases correspond to all natural phenomena including, cosmology, nature, and, of course the human body. The five phases, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water together comprise nature as five networks of human organs of the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lung, and Kidney organize human life (Korngold i). Additionally, individuals are placed into one of five categories that dictate the relationship between bodily systems and dominant qualities, as Korngold describes (i). He writes that individuals are classified “as one of five unique types, each of which embodies a different pattern of core organizing characteristics. The practice of psychodynamic psychotherapy is particularly well-suited for the use of this context-driven framework” (Korngold i). What the author is referring to here is an alternative approach to treating mental illnesses such as depression. This condition is highly prevalent and treatment often criticized for its over-usage of drugs with potentially dangerous side effects, particularly for young adults who may become more depressed or suicidal, as we are constantly hearing on television commercials.

Chinese medicine and the five phases offer a holistic approach to treating depression that is much less invasive and seeks to treat the entire person--a maintenance of bodily balance--as opposed to targeting tiny receptors in the brain such as with anti-depressant medications like Prozac used in the West (Korngold). The Western model for treatment of both physical and mental illness is reductionist in that it seeks to “[identify] specific symptoms and interventions for localized symptom relief,” while in contrast “the Chinese medical paradigm postulates that illness is the result of multiple bodily, psychic, and environmental imbalances, which require a more comprehensive and inclusive assessment and intervention” (Korngold 2). This offers an alternative and hopeful approach to treating mental illness like depression that is so often non-respondent to popular Western medical treatments.

By assessing the entire, unique individual as suggested by the practice of the five phases of Chinese medicine, we might be able to incorporate findings from such research into the treatment of depression and other mental illnesses that could be much less invasive and safer for young adults suffering from these conditions. While those who are used to Western medical procedures might be skeptical of the application of the five phases for treating such conditions, certainly any alternative, particularly a holistic approach that has proved successful in other instances, is worth a try. Application of the five phases to treat mental illness could shed light on what often seems an elusive medical problem and unrelated to other bodily conditions, which has the potential to be disproven by the Chinese philosophy.

Work Cited

Korngold, Bear. "Chinese Medicine's Five-Phase Theory in the Western Clinical Context: A New Conceptual Model for Understanding Depression." Order No. 3211848 The Wright Institute, 2006. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.