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Ask The Vet: Holistic Veterinary Medicine by Dr Cynthia Easton
August 9, 2016

Using a holistic approach in evaluating health and disease means understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Instead of a collection of separate organ systems, a healthy body if viewed by the holistic practitioner as an integrated collaboration of functions both spiritual and physical.  there is not only an acknowledged connection between the mind and the body but also more attention paid to external influences such as diet, stress, pollution, vaccines, heredity and sometimes even the weather.  Cumulative health outcomes and interventions over the life of the pet are considered along with these external factors to determine the imbalance that is present.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is one of the holistic modalities gaining popularity in veterinary medicine.  Chinese medicine views a healthy body as one in harmony with its environment.  As the environment changes, the body adapts.  The ancient paradigms which developed were the concepts of Yin & Yang and the theory of the Five Elements.  These doctrines were metaphors for explaining and understanding what was being observed both in the natural world and in human or animal conditions.  In veterinary medicine, successful assessment of an animal's health from a TCM perspective allows detection and treatment of underlying diseases, prevention of disease progression, improves quality of life and allows treatment to be tailored to the individual.

The forces of Yin and Yang (equal and opposite forces) compose everything in the world.  The balance of these forces (Yin=female, cooling, weaker; Yang=male, hot, stronger) determine health vs. disease.  Disease will result from a marked imbalance.  When Yin and Yang merge, they produce a "life force" or Qi.  Qi flows in specific acupuncture channels.  Thus, TCM works at balancing energy (Qi) in the body through acupuncture stimulation of meridians or channels that course through the body.  Chinese herbs can also be used in a similar way to influence Qi, Yin and Yang.

The theory of Yin/Yang is ancient and evolved based on peasants' observations of the cycles of the natural world (night/day, change of seasons, growth/decay, etc).  The theory of Yin/Yang was applied to medicine in China hundreds of years BC, before there was modern technology.  Yin and Yang are opposite but intertwined as there is a constant cycling back and forth between the two.  Yin forces are more active at night, when quiet restorative functions are occurring in the body.  Yang dominates the daytime, where activity and energy expenditure occur.  Optimal health occurs when the relative levels of Yin and Yang are appropriate and dynamic to the situation at hand.  The function and structure of the body's organs are either Yin or Yang.  Every symptom can be analyzed in light of Yin-Yang theory.  Every food has a yin or yang energetic quality.  Diet, exercise, work, emotions, and weather also play roles in the Yin/Yang balance.  When an imbalance is present, the practitioner can influence Yin and Yang by the use of herbs and acupunture.  Specific acupoints on the surface of the body can support Yin or Yang when stimulated with needles, pressure or electricity.

Five Element Theory is another ancient doctrine used to characterize inherent qualities of people/pets and their ailments.  The elements are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood.  There are tastes, colors, temperature/climates, personalities and organs associated with each one.  Some animals have a personality, set of symptoms and medical history which tends to group them under one element category.  In a complex inter-relationship likened to parent, grandparent and child, one element controls a different element and is controlled by yet another element.  Therefore if one element is out of balance (too much or too little), this will affect the other elements.  Each element has particular acupuncture points the practitioner can use to rebalance that system.  Two organs, one Yin and one Yang belong to each Element.  In this way, both Yin/Yang theory and Five Element theory are combined to develop a point prescription.

Certain breeds tend to fall into a particular element.  for example, most Labradors are the earth element.  If the elements represent tendencies for particular medical conditions, this characterization of a patient, if accurate, can improve the success of the treatment because the imbalance may be easier to recognize.

Meridians are channels of energy that flow around the body and can be accessed just below the skin surface.  Acupuncture points are areas along these channels that have been found to have a higher density of nerves and blood vessels compared to non-acupuncture points on the skin.  There are 12 major meridians that course throughout the body.  Half are Yin and half are Yang in nature.  Each meridian has a different number of acupuncture points on it, ranging from less than 10 to over 60.  Sometimes these channels develop an energetic blockage so that information is not flowing freely around the body, sometimes resulting in pain or tumor formation.  Acupuncture can be used to re-establish energy flow through the meridian.  Since each meridian is associated with an organ system and the meridians are coursing all over the body, this is how all the organs communicate and influence each other.

Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic systems were the first to view food as medicine.  They view most or all health problems as having diet as the root cause.  In veterinary medicine, we are increasingly recognizing a similar connection between nutrition and disease.  Because most pets are fed out of a bag or can, sometimes with the same brand and variety for years, nutritional content becomes even more important.  In the same way that diet can be a cuase of poor health, it can be used to improve health.  As mentioned previously, all foods have an energetic quality to them as it relates to Yin, Yang, Qi, and even the meridians.  There are books which outline these food qualities so that a diet change can be used along with herbs and acupuncture to ensure a return to optimum health.

When a patient is presented to a veterinary acupuncturist, there is an in-depth assessment which occurs to determine the exact nature of the problem from a TCM perspective.  The outcome of this assessment results in a Chinese "pattern diagnosis".  The veterinarian will perform a complete physical, which will include some unusual details such as the color, size, shape, and coating of the tongue.  The smell of the breath, strength of the pulse, and presence of heat, cold or sensitivity along the spine are other areas of focus.  The diet, medical history, personality, temperature preferences and thirst level are all details which complete the picture of that individual.  Once the pattern diagnosis is identified, this determines which acupuncture points, herbs and diet might be helpful in treatment.

An example of pattern diagnosis is Kidney Yang Deficiency.  This patient will be cold and have issues related to the kidney element such as renal failure.  Warming foods, acupuncture points along the bladder and kidney meridians, and a Chinese herbal formula containing warming herbs such as cinnamon might be incorporated in the treatment plan.  In the beginning, acupuncture treatments are usually performed once or twice a week for a few weeks, as it often will take awhile to elicit an energetic change in the body when a chronic condition is present.

Compared to conventional medicine, using a holistic approach to treatment may result in more long lasting success and true health restoration as it attempts to dig deeper to address root causes of disease and individual imbalances rather than a "one size fits all" palliative approach.

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