We've all been there — you're trying to explain to your patient why their green smoothie diet isn't really all that good for them, and you end up starting with "So in Chinese medicine we believe in the energetics of the yin and the yang..." As you continue, you watch your patient's eyes slowly glaze over as they start to wonder what the heck they're doing with this crazy woo-woo new age crystal slinging healer in front of them. Just like that, they're lost.
It took me a while to figure it out, but while a lot of our patients are interested in TCM and even the philosophies that underpin it, most of them don't really want, or need, to understand it. They want to know what's wrong with them, and they want to know it in a way that's familiar.
I find that I get my best clinical results when I can get a patient on board with my treatment plan, and that means that they need to 1) understand what we're trying to accomplish and 2) believe that it will make a difference. In my experience, neither of those things happen until I translate TCM.
Here's a few strategies for translating TCM that I find have worked particularly well:
Talking about organ systems
No matter how much we think it's cool, most people don't want to hear that their liver is stagnant or that their spleen is deficient. What does that even mean? Instead of talking about TCM organ systems, I like to to talk about their allopathic counterparts. A deficient spleen, that just means that your digestion isn't as effective as it could be. A stagnant liver means that stress is affecting your body's ability to produce and metabolize hormones. That deficient kidney is a hormonal imbalance. By understanding and communicating the allopathic effects of organ system issues, we give our patients something they can relate to, even something they can go home and explain to their partner (which means that now their partner can get on board as well).
Qi, blood, yin, and yang
These can be just a confusing for patients, but they're really easy to explain in a way that everyone can understand. Qi is just energy, it's ATP, it's the very basic cellular stuff our body needs to stay alive, change, adapt, heal, grow and thrive. Most people can totally understand this, especially because everyone knows that they feel energetic or not. I always tell patients that they have a bank account of energy that has a finite balance. We need to put more in than we take out, and when we take out too much, we overdraw, and that's when things start breaking down.
Blood is similar. Blood is basically just a measure of the circulating nutrition available to our body. When our food is broken down, the nutrients need to be distributed to muscles and organs and this happens through the blood. This means that it's not just what you eat, but what you can digest, that matters.
Finally, I've found that it's best to talk about yin and yang as a balance of hormones. With fertility, it's pretty easy to do. FSH is the yang component, E2 is yin, etc... If you look at the energetic effects of any hormone or drug, it's really easy to place them in yin or yang categories. BBT is also your best friend here.
I know this is a super quick explanation. Ultimately, I believe that everyone needs to find their own way of relating TCM to their patients. Hopefully, this is just a little bit of a starting point for you. If there's something that you're really struggling with translating, let us know in the comments and we'll see if we can't give you a few tips!
The big picture
Translating TCM isn't just important for your patients, it's important for our whole profession. The more we can talk about what we know, and not sound like total whack-a-doos, the more seriously we'll be taken. I know that this is fundamentally unfair, and that it seems like we're turning our back on tradition, but if we want TCM to continue to thrive, it's important that people understand what we're about. Ultimately, people can't trust you until they understand you.
We've had the great opportunity to write a couple of pieces for MINDBODYGREEN and GOOP over the last year or so (no, we didn't get to meet Gwyneth ;) ). It's our hope that by translating TCM, we can ultimately help our profession to grow and develop, creating new opportunities to help others. Check out the pieces above if you're interested in how we talk about TCM with wider public audiences, and let us know about your approach to translating TCM down in the comments.