Where are you from?

Many older practitioners of Chinese medicine, whose ways I have followed, always asked their patients, “Where are you from?” Is this small talk, similar to our common greeting, “How are you?” The answer is partly yes. Mostly, however, it is to find out what kind of weather and climate predominate in the patient’s native geographic region. This allows the practitioner to recommend specific treatment strategies and diet changes suited to the climate.

Latitude and climate strongly influence local illnesses. This phenomenon was observed and recorded in the first Chinese medical text, the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of internal Medicine, written around 400 BC.

The ancient Chinese noticed that specific illnesses are more likely to occur in specific weather. For instance, in damp weather, fungus grows on trees; similarly, more mucus is generated in the digestive tract, encouraging the growth of fungus and yeast, thus weakening digestion. They also noticed increased inflammation of the digestive tract, rheumatism, allergies, weak and dysfunctional extremities, and fungus and yeast infections in damp weather.

According to the classic Chinese texts, the climate is likely to be cold in northern regions, windy in the east, hot in the south, dry in the west and damp in the center. This corresponds to the climate in China and also North America: the north is cold; the east is windy, with typhoons in China and tornadoes in North America; the south is hot; the west is dry (i.e., the deserts in Arizona) and the center is damp (i.e., Szechuan, Jiang Xi and Hunan provinces in China, the Great Lakes areas in North America).

One symptom that is as common world-wide in hot climates as in cold climates, in dry climates as in damp climates, is constipation. The common treatment strategy is to increase fiber and fluid intake. However, this treatment is not always successful; it does not follow the laws of nature. This is because the underlying causes are totally different in different climates, even though the symptoms are very similar.

The underlying cause of constipation in hot countries and in summer is likely due to the excessive heat. Heat dries up moisture in nature; it has the same effect on human’s large intestine. According to the law of Yin and Yang, heat and dryness can only be balanced by coldness and moisture. Therefore, the fluid and fiber treatment tends to be more successful in hot and dry climates, since water, vegetables and herbs commonly used in such climates, like mint and dandelion, have moistening and cooling effects on the large intestine. This is similar to heating a metal tube, causing the inner space to be narrowed from the expansion of the metal: things can no longer get through. To solve the problem, you have to cool the metal tube to stop the expansion and add more lubricating agents to get things through easily.

Constipation in cold countries and in winter, on the other hand, is likely caused by the excessive cold. The cold freezes and slows things down in nature and has the same effect on human’s large intestine. According to the law of Yin and Yang, cold only can be balanced by heat. Therefore, constipation is more successfully treated in cold climates with foods and herbs that are warm in nature, such as ginger, onion, garlic and cinnamon, because they have a warming effect on the large intestine. This is similar to water freezing in a tube in winter: the more water and lubricating fluid you add, the less things move. Treating constipation by drinking more fluids and taking oil-based supplements can thus only make things worse. The solution to the problem, then, is to increase the heat to melt the ice.

Treating constipation in medicine and solving blockages in plumbing seem like totally unrelated probblems in modern people’s minds. Nevertheless, they both respond to the laws of nature. This is why constipation is more responsive to drinking more fluids and eating more vegetables in warm climates, and less responsive to the same treatment in very cold climates. This common treatment follows a new theory that we have learned in recent times, but ignores the laws of nature. If we follow the laws of nature, is treating constipation so different from solving plumbing blockages? A knowledgeable plumber can also be a reliable gastroenterologist!

–Dr. Thomas Zhang