Yin and Yang Demystified

There can’t be many people who have not seen at some time the Chinese Yin-Yang symbol. There are many versions of it, and I have chosen this one with fish as it is attractive, different, and I have always liked fish!

According to Chinese philosophy everything that exists is a product of two mutually antagonistic but complementary forces, Yin and Yang, which by feeding on each other keep each other in check. You most probably know this already. If you do not, please see here.

I am assuming that much is known, because I don’t wish to spend words on the basics here. What I want to do here is to demystify Yin and Yang. Much that I see written on Traditional Chinese Medicine insists on using Chinese words, or literally translated terms that obscure what are actually very practical and ordinary ideas. The context I am going to use to demystify Yin-Yang is the human body (and mind) in health and disease.

In the human organism for Yin think:

  • Substance: flesh and bone, blood and fluids.
  • Nourishment1 for the above.
  • Stillness.
  • Slowness.
  • Hardiness.
  • Cooling down.
  • In the mind think groundedness, stability, resilience, calmness, practicality.

In the human organism for Yang think:

  • Energy2: activity (movement), heat.
  • Reactiveness.
  • Intensity.
  • Speed.
  • Transformation.
  • Heating up.
  • In the mind think creativity, movement, responsiveness, emotionality, expressiveness.

You can be born more Yinny or more Yangy. After forty years of age these tendencies may start to cause health problems. If you are very Yin, you may gain weight and slip into obesity. This may have knock-on effects like wear-and-tear on your knee joints (osteoarthritis) and diabetes. If you are very Yang you may have begin to experience troubles of excess like stomach acidity and high blood pressure.

Yin-ness and yang-ness can also be acquired by lifestyle patterns or choices. For example a hectic life with too much to do and long hours causes Yang-ness: much mental activity, physiological changes like having a lot of adrenalin flowing, and reactiveness to situations like your heart racing. This will soon lead to depletion of Yin. But Yin provides the nourishment, the fuel for your activity, so you will be running around anxious to get things done but with insufficient physiological resources to do it. Burn-out.

A lack of Yang in your life (e.g. no movement, sedentariness, no physical exercise) will lead to Yin problems like weight gain, osteoporosis, fatty deposits in your arteries (atherosclerosis) and lack of motivation.

Yin and Yang symptoms and diseases have more or less the same characteristics as those listed above, or extensions of them. Yin ones have the characteristics of coldness or getting worse in the cold (e.g. arthritis), stillness and/or stagnation (e.g. swellings), solidity (e.g. tumours) stability (symptoms that don’t move and last a long time, chronic diseases), withdrawal (e.g. depression). Lack in any form in any form is also considered a Yin symptom, e.g. lack of substance (atrophy), lack of strength (paralysis), lack of resilience (susceptibility to infection, small physical or mental traumas).

Yang symptoms and diseases are hot (e.g. acute inflammation, fever) or get worse in hot weather, movement (symptoms that involve movement, e.g. tachycardia, or which move around the body like shifting pains), tension (e.g. tight muscles, intestinal colic, tension headache), pressure (hypertension) reactiveness/intensity (e.g. severe pain), excessive mental activity (e.g. anxiety, mania).

If you think about it, this is all fairly intuitive, right. Personally I regard Yin and Yang not as actual forces in the universe, but as metaphors people use to understand and talk about the world. Yin and Yang represent broad categories of things which people intuitively (if not always logically) see as opposites.

And it is common sense (as well as scientifically accurate) to say that health is defined by balance and is not favoured by extremes.

1 There are two basic kinds of nutrients: those which provides the physical building blocks of life and fuels for their activities – proteins, fats and carbohydrates; and those which catalyse metabolic and other chemical reactions in the body – vitamins and minerals. The former are Yin (flesh, nourishment), the latter Yang (heat, movement, transformation).

2 I was tempted to avoid this word as it is over-used and much misunderstood. Substance too stores energy, in chemical form. However, in common parlance, we all understand what it means to be “energetic”. I use the word in this way here.

Copyright © Robert Hale 2021.

Image of Koi carp from Wallpaperflare.com.

Acupuncture and Pain

Acupuncture and its allied technique, moxibustion (the application of heat to acupuncture points), have been used to treat pain for thousands of years. Until recently, scientific evidence for its effectiveness was lacking. However, in recent years, the sheer numbers of people who have reported gaining relief from pain through acupuncture have stimulated a tsunami of research to find out if acupuncture really works and if so, how.

Is Acupuncture effective in treating pain?

Now we have evidence that acupuncture helps with pain, and that evidence is rated “good” or “moderate”, depending on the kind of pain. The kinds of pain for which there is good or moderate evidence of effectiveness include spinal pain, sciatica, headaches, shoulder pain, tennis elbow, osteoarthritis of the knee, heel pain, pelvic pain, and jaw joint pain (see the table below).

From: McDonald J and Janz S (2017). The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review. Published by the Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd.

How does acupuncture help pain?

The plain truth is that while we know that it does, we are not all that clear about how, at least in Western medical terms. Traditional Chinese explanations focus on the circulation of Qi (vital energy) around the body. Pain can occur in an area if this circulation is blocked or altered, for example if there is too much Qi gathering in an area causing stagnation, or if there is not enough Qi circulating to an area. Pain can also occur if our normal flow of Qi is blocked or shocked by invasions of energy from outside the body, such as heat, cold, damp or wind.

In the Western scientific view, it is believed that acupuncture changes the way pain signals are produced, transmitted and processed by the nervous system. For example, it may reduce pain by stimulating the production in the brain of our own natural pain-killing chemicals such as opioids and cannabinoids. It can also work by reducing muscle tension, thus releasing joints from strain, and it can de-activate “trigger points” – small areas of excessive sensitivity in muscles, tendons and ligaments that produce pain and maintain muscle tension.

So, we know now that acupuncture can help relieve pain, and there is some evidence pointing to mechanisms by which this effect is achieved.

Copyright © Robert Hale 2021.

(Photo de Adobe Stock Images.)

La Acupuntura y el Dolor

La acupuntura y su técnica aliada, la moxibustión (la aplicación de calor a los puntos de acupuntura), se han utilizado para tratar el dolor durante miles de años. Hasta hace poco, faltaba evidencia científica de su efectividad. Sin embargo, en los últimos años, la gran cantidad de personas que han informado de obtener alivio del dolor a través de la acupuntura ha estimulado un tsunami de investigación para descubrir si la acupuntura realmente funciona y, de ser así, cómo.

¿La acupuntura es eficaz para tratar el dolor?

Ahora tenemos evidencia de que la acupuntura ayuda con el dolor, y esa evidencia se califica como “buena” o “moderada”, según el tipo de dolor. Los tipos de dolor para los que existe evidencia buena o moderada de efectividad incluyen dolor de columna, ciática, dolores de cabeza, dolor de hombro, codo de tenista, artrosis de rodilla, dolor de talón, dolor pélvico y dolor en la articulación de la mandíbula (consulte la tabla a continuación).

De: McDonald J and Janz S (2017). The Acupuncture Evidence Project: A Comparative Literature Review. Published by the Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association Ltd.

¿Cómo ayuda la acupuntura con el dolor?

La verdad es que, si bien sabemos que lo hace, no tenemos tan claro cómo, al menos en términos médicos occidentales. Las explicaciones tradicionales chinas se centran en la circulación de Qi (energía vital) alrededor del cuerpo. El dolor puede ocurrir en un área si esta circulación está bloqueada o alterada, por ejemplo, si hay demasiado Qi acumulado en un área que causa congestión, o si no hay suficiente Qi circulando en un área. El dolor también puede ocurrir si nuestro flujo normal de Qi está bloqueado o impactado por invasiones de energía del exterior del cuerpo, como calor, frío, humedad o viento.

Desde el punto de vista científico occidental, se cree que la acupuntura cambia la forma en que el sistema nervioso produce, transmite y procesa las señales de dolor. Por ejemplo, puede reducir el dolor al estimular la producción en el cerebro de nuestras propias sustancias químicas naturales analgésicas, como los opioides y los cannabinoides. También puede funcionar reduciendo la tensión muscular, liberando así las articulaciones del estrés mecánico, y puede desactivar los “puntos gatillo”, pequeñas áreas de excesiva sensibilidad en los músculos, tendones y ligamentos que producen dolor y mantienen la tensión muscular.

Derechos de autor © Robert Hale 2021.

(Photo de Adobe Stock Images.)