Modern Medicine, Ancient Knowledge

Originally posted June 11, 2005

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the constitution of a mother while pregnant will have lifelong effects upon her child.

For example, a mother who is severely depressed or experiencing extreme sadness during her pregnancy may suffer some lung ailments: Sadness effects the energy and tonality of the lungs. Ergo, her child may end up having problems with asthma.

Interestingly, Western Medicine is beginning to find the same correlation the Chinese had discovered so long ago.

Mothers who suffer from major depression or anxiety disorders are more likely to have children with asthma and other allergy-based conditions, according to a US study. The association was only found for biological children, supporting a “shared genetic liability” theory.

Ramin Mojtabai, a psychiatrist from Columbia University in New York, US, assessed the relationship between parental psychopathology and childhood allergy in more than 9000 parent-child pairs from the 1999 US National Health Interview Survey. Most of the parents were biologically related to their children, but 554 of the pairs were non-biological.
Mojtabai says it is unclear why the children of mothers with depression had a higher risk of allergic disorders, but he speculates that it might be related to mitochondria – which are inherited through the maternal line – as mutations in mitochondrial DNA have been reported in both atopic and other skin disorders and in bipolar mood disorder. “Or it could be to do with genetic imprinting – how some genes are expressed when received from one gender, but not the other,” he says.

“Other studies have shown a shared genetic risk for allergy and mood disorders in twins, and that people with depression are themselves more likely to suffer from asthma, although we didn’t find any strong evidence for that,” Mojtabai adds.

I love finding stories like this.
Western Medicine is wonderful, and I would not try to live without it – it is the hardware of the science of human wellness, health and recovery. But sometimes I think Chinese medicine (and some folk medicine) is the software of that same science. (Prayer, of course, should suffuse and accompany both.)

Although Western medicine is relatively young (150 years or so) and the other medicines are ancient, they both have value, and I’m always amused when someone pooh-poohs an Eastern remedy that has been around for thousands of years, simply because it is NOT a new Western treatment. Many people don’t realize that well before the discovery of penicillin, Oriental doctors were making compounds of mold and deeply green leaves (chorophyll) to fight infection. So when I find stories like this, which have even the barest suggestion of bringing West and East together, I like to highlight it.

I can tell you that I was robust and hearty with my first pregnancy and my elder son is never sick. I was much less so with Buster (threw up for 9 straight months, almost from the moment he was conceived until the very morning of his delivery) and he has seemed, from the start, to have a more delicate constitution and more penetrable immune system. That’s a mere anecdote, I know, but it is interesting, when reading Chinese Medicine, to think back to all the times you have experienced great sadness or grief or stress in your life, only to have it followed by upper respiratory situations.

Knowing what I know about the Chinese theories of sadness and the lungs, it was not a great surprise to me to find that 12 weeks or so after the death of my brother (while on vacation, when my body was finally starting to relax) my lungs and immune system were so amenable to laying me out with pneumonia. My husband, too, was hacking away, although he managed not to go all the way into the bark-wheeze-and-gag which made 7 days at sea so much fun! My poor father-in-law -a gentle man who holds all of his feelings in- has had one lung ailment after another since S died.

Interesting stuff. The Web that Has No Weaver is a particularly good book if you’re looking for accessible reading on Chinese Medicine.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • tim maguire

    Despite agreeing that it is superior as a general matter, I find two shortcomings to western medicine and discussions about alternatives.

    One is an almost religious belief in the double-blind study method. This method is great for things quantifiable, but it is not so great for things not quantifiable. Pain levels and degree of relief, for instance.

    Coupled with this is a tendency to regard an effect as not real until it is scientifically proved to be real (as though the scientific method itself is part of the treatment).

    Another problem is the tendency to dismiss an effect if the explanation given is not accepted. For instance, I’m a believer in acupuncture for some ailments. I don’t believe in “chi” and for most western medicine adherents, that’s enough to dismiss acupuncture. The explanation of why it’s real doesn’t make sense so it must not be real.

    But whether chi is real or not, there are many health issues that can effectively be addressed through acupuncture. The effect is not dependent on the explanation for the effect.

    Sure, I know, data is NOT the plural of anecdote. But that does not justify ignoring anecdotes. Anecdotes are real and if you get enough of them, only a fool would ignore them regardless of whether or not they can be reduced to a spreadsheet. If prayer makes you feel better, then it makes you feel better. Even if it’s just the placebo effect, the placebo effect is real. There’s a reason it’s got a name.

    In fact, the placebo effect is one of the most powerful drugs in our health care arsenal.

  • tim maguire

    If I could edit that post, I’d note that “placebo effect” could easily be argued is a synonym for “the hand of god”.

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  • Hantchu

    There are lots of things I like about Chinese medicine, particularly the focus on balance, and the pleasures of acupressure, which is at least symptomatically and psychologically effective.

    My own anecdotal evidence regarding maternal wellbeing and mood and child health tends, however, to contradict the theories you mention. After 5 kids, I’m inclined towards my upstairs neighbor’s theory that “the worse the pregnancy, the nicer the kid”, but that’s not scientific.