I came across a research article recently from China documenting impressive modern biomedical evidence that acupuncture had positive effect on bone density in patients with osteoporosis. You might ask yourself how that could be possible. Aren’t bones hard and solid, things of substance? Isn’t bone density a matter of calcium intake? How can sticking needles in people have any impact on that kind of thing?
To answer this question, we have to take a step back and look critically at some beliefs we hold near and dear.
Our world consists of
relationships between things,
or what we might call “form and function”.
Unfortunately, our present-day attention is very skewed. We are almost entirely focussed on the things and ever so slightly concerned with the relationships between the things. There are a lot of historical, cultural and philosophical reasons behind how things got this way. We won’t get into them here. But it is this way – and it has profound implications for how we manage everything, including medicine, healthcare and our health.
For example, consider ‘dietary supplements’. The whole rationale for supplementation is based on the notion you don’t have enough of something. This is typically our very first thought when things go wrong with our health. It is our default thinking. Bone density problems? I must be short on calcium. I’ll drink more milk and eat more cheese. Anemia? I’ll take iron supplements and eat more red meat. Or maybe I will take vitamin B12 supplements. Hypothyroid? I will take thyroid hormones. Even our first reaction to ‘moisture issues’ is skewed this way; dryness? I’ll drink more water.
It is interesting to consider how seldomly we think of the functions, the processes, the relationships or at the very best, how they take a very minor back seat in our thinking. When you or your doctor think about bone density, the go-to thought is calcium intake. Much less attention is given to the physiology behind why your body may not be effectively or efficiently converting your dietary intake of calcium into good bones. Do you think of asking your doctor those questions? Does your doctor even think of those questions? The whole conversation is heavily weighted towards the thing, in this case, the calcium intake, and not the process or the physiology of calcium absorption and desorption.
But seriously, at least here in the West, we are the most overfed people in the history of humanity. I would suggest it is highly unlikely in modern society that anyone (except the very poorest and most malnourished among us) is not getting enough Calcium. It’s just not very likely. At all. Much much more likely, in the matter of bone density is that something to do with the process of bone health itself is not functioning optimally. This is a physiological process.
This contrast between things and relationships is particularly stark in the case of bones. Bones look like such static things. They are dense, solid and just hanging there. Looking at bones is not like looking at a river or an ocean. We don’t ‘see’ movement. We don’t think easily of bones being a process. But they are. Very much so. Bones are continually and dynamically engaged in a process of change, absorbing and desorbing.
An ever-so-tiny but growing edge of modern medicine is recognizing this need to redirect attention to functions and away from things. They call themselves ‘functional medicine’ and it’s certainly a very welcomed development in the world of medicine. But let’s be clear. In the big picture, this is not so much an innovation as it is a long overdue redressing of a major deficit entrenched in the mainstream medicine that has developed within a culture and consciousness obsessed with materialism. Functional medicine is not an innovation because a very long time ago, brilliant ancient Chinese physicians assembled an entire, sophisticated and rich functional medicine framework which has since then, been subjected to many centuries of successful clinical application in all corners of the world.
Those of us practicing Chinese Medicine have in our hands, what I would call a true crowning achievement of humanity in the functional medicine category. When a patient has dryness, sure, we may ask, are they drinking enough water. But we also devote a lot of attention to the mechanisms, the processes, the functions that distribute moisture around the body, to the skin, the mouth, the eyes, and what may be blocking or compromising those processes. And there are a lot of possibilities there, all of which are investigated and addressed by a good professional acupuncturist.
When a patient has bone density issues, practitioners of Chinese Medicine focus on the physiology of bones. Not, ‘are you getting enough Calcium?’ (again, highly unlikely), but what is hanging up the processes in your body by which healthy dense bones are produced. It is very interesting, for example, to note that a well known acupuncture point for influencing the bones, the 11th point on what is called the Foot Tai Yang acupuncture channel, a point called ‘Da Zhu’ in Chinese, is located just behind the parathyroid gland, a gland we now know plays a fundamental role in Calcium metabolism within the body. Of course they did not know about this two thousand years ago when acupuncture was developed – yet they somehow figured out that stimulating this point was beneficial to bone health. We can now suggest it is very likely that stimulating this acupuncture point influences healthy functioning of the parathyroid gland and hence, the physiology of Calcium and in turn, bone health.
So, getting back to the modern-day research showing acupuncture to be of benefit to bone density; it’s not because of the things, the calcium and the bones, it’s because of the physiology, the flows and the processes between the things (Calcium and bones) that acupuncture works so well to optimise.
If I only have ten seconds to say something insightful about acupuncture, I simply say ‘it’s all about flow’. And my job as a professional acupuncturist is to do my best to investigate and discover what flows in your system are not working up to full potential and to then use the tools and techniques I have to optimise those functions.