The Five Branches of Health: The Reemergence of Ancient Health Wisdom in Modern Functional Medicine
Traditionally, the Five Branches of Chinese medicine referred to five unique strategies for restoring health. When combined these five branches create a synergistic and complete therapeutic and lifestyle driven solution to both the root cause of disease and its symptomatic manifestations. Because these strategies represent a comprehensive holistic approach to health they have existed in various forms in almost all traditional medical systems. Although still in its infancy, modern Functional medicine shares the strategy of traditional medical systems of treating the entire organism from a systems based approach. As such, we are seeing these traditional five branches reemerging in Functional medicine. By honoring the spirit of each of these timeless strategies we can create a comprehensive treatment plan that is exponentially more effective than a more limited plan.
The Five Branches and their modern interpretation is as follows:
- Nutrition: long dismissed by conventional medicine, proper nutrition has always been viewed as absolutely critical in the treatment of disease by Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Nutrition has traditionally been a targeted therapy, with different diets being employed for different health imbalances. Functional medicine has embraced this “food as medicine” approach, with different dietary strategies targeted to the individual based on lab results.
- Herbal Medicine: This branch refers to the careful administration of targeted herbal ingredients that address both the underlying physiological imbalance (root), but also the symptoms (branches) of disease presentation. This same strategy is at the heart of Functional medicine. Traditional systems based diagnostics have been replaced with cutting edge modern lab testing. However, at the core of Functional medicine is the prescribing of therapeutic supplements that address the underlying physiological imbalances. This emphasis on the root cause of disease is reflected in the Functional medicine saying of “test don’t guess.”
- Exercise: Chinese medicine has always understood the profound benefits of exercise and how exercise needs to be targeted for the specific patient. Therapeutic exercise traditionally ranged from gentle forms, such as yoga (Tao Yin), to strength training and high intensity forms reflected in the martial arts. In modern Functional medicine exercise is prescribed based on measurable biomarkers, such as stress hormone status and mitochondrial function.
- Meditation: Traditional medical systems, such as Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, have always put a high emphasis on meditation for health. Chinese medicine even has a meditation system called medical Qi Gong, which treats specific disease processes through the combination of meditation, breathing exercises, and gentle movement. Functional medicine has been quick to adopt meditation as an important lifestyle intervention,as the scientific evidence is strong across the board. Specifically, the emphasis on restoring proper HPA-axis function requires retraining the sympathetic/parasympathetic balance through targeted relaxation.
- Acupuncture: Most traditional medical systems have some modality to treat pain and inflammation. Traditional Chinese medicine has acupuncture, which is a neurological modality used to modulate inflammatory signals and restore homeostasis. The larger point with this strategy is that it is vital to treat pain. If pain and inflammation are left untreated they hormonally dysregulate the stress response and drive oxidative damage. Functional labs allow us to gain insight into the imbalances that can drive inflammation and pain and, thus, target treatment. However, it is always important to treat pain.
Here at Origins Medicine we are always considering all of these therapeutic branches when putting together a treatment plan for our patients. Proper treatment always addresses the symptoms AND the root cause. When proper lifestyle education is combined with therapeutic treatments the result is exponentially more powerful.
Duncan Macdoanld. L.Ac.
Thanks for the list and for the explanations as well.