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“East” or “West” Medicine: Which to Use and Why?

By Peggy Finston MD:

What do you do when your doctor tells you your tests are fine, nothing is wrong, but you feel so bad you can’t make it to work? Or, your doctor ‘s sorry but your illness is not responding to the usual medications and procedures. Your condition is “treatment resistant” and there’s nothing left to try.

That can be the green light, when many start looking into alternative medicines. That’s what I did. I’m a doctor, now trained in acupuncture, a patient, and a person with family members with illnesses.

Yes, Eastern Medicines can be confusing. How do you know which “alternative” approach might be helpful and in what circumstances? For thousands of years, China, Japan, India, and others have come to different understandings of health and sickness, based on different views of the universe. Their therapies have been refined from concepts that have no counterparts in our culture.

Therapies like acupuncture, herbs, and cupping once seemed far-fetched to me. In India, I received an Ayurveda massage by two women for two hours. Amber oils spilled out from glass jugs and rained on me. Through Western eyes, the treatment could seem inefficient and low-tech, the opposite of what we have come to consider “advanced” and therefore “better.” How do we grasp the validity of these approaches?

Western Medicine is described as “evidenced-based,” meaning it’s a scientifically-proven reality. Yet all medicines reflect the cultures from which they evolved. Even Western medical science, which some accept as the leading global authority, does not represent anything close to absolute truth. How could it? We continue to read how today’s effective medications and devices are recalled tomorrow or how one model of mental illness may be replaced by another.

To answer these questions, we first need to understand some basic differences between Eastern and Western Medicines.
Eastern Medicines: Mind/Body is One

Eastern traditions view the mind and body as coming from the same energy (source), something we cannot see or touch. The body is roughly how the mind manifests in our physical world. This is more than a philosophical issue. Eastern medicine diagnoses and treatments are based on the belief that our (non-physical) thoughts and feelings directly affect our (physical) bodies. Also, changes in our bodies affect our feelings. For example, in Chinese Medicine, soul, spirit and mind are considered different energies that are “housed” in different physical organs.

In the East, both depression and diabetes are deemed “real” and happen to the same unified mind-body. Both are seen as originating with energetic imbalances that lead to physical illnesses.

Western Medicine: Mind/Body Split

In contrast, current Western Medicine considers the mind and body as “split,” meaning two separate, likely unrelated entities. Our medical science mostly concerns itself with what’s on the physical plane, meaning what we can see, hear and touch. In conventional medicine, the mind may exist, but is not relevant to physical health, along with soul and spirit.

Consciousness is problematic for Western Medicine. We know it exists because we are aware of ourselves and others. But it’s not physical. We can’t see, touch or feel this awareness. Because our medical “science’ is a physical one, some authorities attempt to equate the mind with the brain and its chemicals. In my view, this side-steps our ignorance of the “non-material” mind.

Interestingly, our natural sciences, such as quantum physics to climatology have no trouble acknowledging energy as a primary “player” in our lives, even though the energy is invisible. In fact, we all know invisible energy exists from our microwaves, nuclear power plants, and the wind.

Stay Tuned for Part Two: How the West’s Mind/Body Split Effect Patients.

Peggy Finston MD practices Acu-Psychiatry in Prescott, AZ.