(Disclaimer: I’m not the right person to give any medical advice, see a doctor instead. This article is largely based on theories that are not proven by modern science, so please read it as a fiction if you want, do not draw any conclusion from it, and do not do anything based on this article.)
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.
– Stephen Hawking
Since the end of 2019, the new coronavirus has caused panic around the world. The number of infections and deaths has been on the rise. The economies of various countries have suffered huge blows, and we do not yet have a specific medicine or vaccine, not to mention the currently known virus mutations casting a shadow over vaccine development based on gene sequence. In fact, viruses have always coexisted with humans on earth. Before the beginning of modern virology, for thousands of years, people of different cultures had their own ways to fight against diseases. Is there any knowledge that we can learn from and get inspiration for the purpose of treating the virus?
It brings to my attention that ancient China had a system that was used to predict virus caused by pathogenic climate change, based on which ancient Chinese has built up theories of how a person can improve his/her body system to prevent virus infection, and there is evidence that the ancient view aligns well with modern medical science. To understand the system, it’s necessary to first understand how the ancient Chinese measure time.
Let’s have a look at how we measure time in the modern age:
A year is the orbital period of the Earth moving in its orbit around the Sun. Due to the Earth’s axial tilt, the course of a year sees the passing of the seasons, marked by change in weather, the hours of daylight, and, consequently, vegetation and soil fertility. In temperate and subpolar regions around the planet, four seasons are generally recognized: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. In tropical and subtropical regions, several geographical sectors do not present defined seasons; but in the seasonal tropics, the annual wet and dry seasons are recognized and tracked. – Wikipedia
The idea of “time” isn’t unfamiliar to us if we look at the description above, however, not many people (including Chinese nowadays) know that ancient Chinese had a time system which was used as a guide for human activities, from weather prediction to individual’s wellbeing, from agriculture to the change of regime. The foundation of this system is the Five Elements Theory and the Stems and Branches Cycle, these two concepts are the keys to study the virus in an ancient way.
The system of Five Elements consists of five conceptual scheme: Fire, Water, Wood, Metal, and Earth, they are the fundamental elements of the material world that ancient Chinese believed, similar to the elemental periodic table we learned in school.
The common nature of chemical elements and the Five Elements is that they all have certain ways of transformation: chemical reactions encompass changes that involve the positions of electrons in the forming and breaking of chemical bonds between atoms, whereas the Five Elements form a “mutual generating” cycle and a “mutual overcoming” cycle:
The diagram below gives you a more intuitive view:
The transformation above is based on people’s observation of the physical world. For example, let’s imagine such a scene: after rain the soil absorbs all the rainwater and when the sun comes out the plants start to grow, this phenomenon implies Earth overcomes Water, as well as Water generates Wood; Another example: we use water to put out a fire while the fire burns all the crops into ashes, this phenomenon implies Water overcomes Fire and Fire generates Earth. Of course, the quantity of each element also plays an important role, suppose we try to put out a big bushfire with a bowl of water, it won’t work and probably will make it even worse. From a chemical perspective, we could explain this as each of the water molecules contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, when put on fire, they split and form separate hydrogen and oxygen, both would aggravate the fire. Due to the abstraction of the Five Elements, it is also used to describe the interactions and relations of a wide range of phenomena. For example, internal organs, see Appendix I for a bit more explanation of this.
In terms of climate, the Five Elements Theory could provide guidance of weather and climate change, to a level of detail that can be used to determine how the environment could influence the health of humans. The system involves another two theories: Sexagenary Cycle and Climatic Vital Energy (a.k.a Five Movement and Six Qi).
On Wikipedia, it states:
The sexagenary cycle, also known as the Stems-and-Branches or ganzhi, is a cycle of sixty terms, each corresponding to one year, thus a total of sixty years for one cycle, historically used for reckoning time in China and the rest of the East Asian cultural sphere.
If the Sexagenary Cycle is an ancient calendar system for measuring time, then Climatic Vital Energy is the ancient “seasons” on top of the time system. How does it differ from the four seasons we know nowadays? We know that (in many places on the planet) summer is hot, winter is cold and autumn is cool, but have you ever noticed that winter in some years is colder than the winter in other years? Summer comes earlier in certain years but later in other years? Sometimes summer has less rain which leads to drought but sometimes it can have quite a lot of water that leads to floods? In fact, the climate of each year is unique in many ways that cannot be simply described by four seasons, the climate system used by ancient Chinese is based on the Five Elements theory extensively, it describes the subtle difference of each year, this system co-exists with their calendar, the Sexagenary Cycle.
I won’t dive into the details of the Sexagenary Cycle, Vital Energy, or Five Movement, and Six Qi. If you are interested, Google should find you a lot of materials on these topics. As a minimum requirement, I’ll briefly talk about how the Sexagenary Cycle works in collaboration with the ancient seasons.
The Sexagenary Cycle consists of two sets of symbols, one set has ten ordinals called the ten heavenly stems, and another set of twelve symbols called the earthly branches, which are based on the orbit of Jupiter whose celestial circle was divided into twelve sections. The first term jiǎzǐ (甲子) combines the first heavenly stem with the first earthly branch; The second term yǐchǒu (乙丑) combines the second stem with the second branch. This pattern continues until both cycles conclude simultaneously with guǐhài (癸亥), after which it begins again at jiǎzǐ (甲子). Each combination resembles a year.
The ancient season system works as follows, in the Sexagenary Cycle:
- Each year has a year-wise elemental effect which is one of the Five Elements.
- Each year has primary elemental influences (PEI), in the order of wood, fire, earth, metal, water. This echos the seasons we know nowadays: spring (warm) - wood, summer (hot/dry) - fire, summer (wet) - earth, autumn (cool) - metal, winter (cold) - water.
- Each year has secondary elemental influences (SEI), running on top of the primary ones, SEI differs from year to year.
- Each year has six primary climatic influences (PCI) in the order of wind, fire, heat, dampness, dryness, and cold. The order stays the same every year, overlapping with seasons: spring - wood - wind, summar - earth - fire/heat/dampness, autumn - metal - dryness, winter - water - cold.
- Each year has six secondary climatic influences (SCI), also consists of wind, fire, heat, dampness, dryness, and cold, but varies from year to year. This is a more detailed climatic feature, it explains why some years have colder winters, some years have hotter summer, in some years winter comes earlier or later, etc.
The ancients believed that changes in nature, such as plant growth, flowering, fruiting, migratory birds, snow, thunder, river freezing, etc, all reflect the process of the transformation of Five Elements, which then manifest in reality one or several climatic characters (wind, fire, heat, dampness, dryness and cold) that would influence the human body, these characters are often called as “six climatic influence”. Modern science also agrees that weather or climate can influence the human body which more or less aligns with the traditional thinking that the atmosphere has an effect on people’s health. For us to understand, we only need to know that both modern and traditional thinking believe that extreme weather or climate can do harm (ie. influence the human body): if the climate is normal, the “six influences” in the human body is also balanced; When the climate is abnormal, the balance in the body is also disordered.
The unbalance of the six climatic influences can affect the incidence of diseases and the prognosis of transmission, due to the disease is biased to certain pathogenesis in the year, such as more dampness, so that certain types of diseases have a higher chance of onset. Using the rule of how PCI/SCI occur in each sexagenary year, we can infer the occurrence of diseases and take preventive measures early.
- Since everything in the world is part of nature, everything carries one or more of the six influences, or characters, no matter it is human, animal, or plants.
- The weight of each influence in a particular body is different, and it can also change over time.
- Different influences restrict each other, e.g. cold vs fire/heat, dampness vs dryness.
In simple words, if we can figure out what are the climatic characters that have a supportive effect on Covid-19, we can probably get some clue from the opposite of that character for curing the virus.
The ancient way to live a healthy life is to strive for a balance between those influences in the human body via food and daily activities. Many of the terminologies mentioned so far may sound like superstition, but they actually exist in our everyday life that we may not be aware of. You may have heard that ginger are warm in nature (which corresponds to the heat character mentioned before), it’s good for people who have excessive cold in the body; If you have been to Asian restaurants, braised fish or pork dishes usually have not only ginger but also star-anise (aniseed) in it, that’s because fish and pork have the character of cold, especially fish that live in water and carry the character of dampness. Both of these can be balanced by a combination of ginger and aniseed where ginger is warm and aniseed as an aromatic plant can get rid of the dampness; Cinnamon is widely used in different types of food and drinks, also carries the warm character, western medical science found its value in treating digestive insufficiency, the reasoning from a traditional perspective is that the warm nature of cinnamon balances the cold character in one’s stomach, thus promotes gastrointestinal motility so that digesting becomes normal. A study suggested that therapeutic concentrations of cinnamon can be used to treat age-related inflammation, particularly in the joints; Western medical providers are increasingly using this spice to treat high blood glucose.
You may wonder, isn’t this all about Chinese medicine? Not exactly, we are not talking about Western or Chinese medicine, but rather focusing on a broader categorization of natural characters for the sake of studying Covid-19. For instance, the cold character isn’t a specific term of either Chinese medicine or western medicine, it’s a physical attribute of the world we are living in. From a physical point of view, cold makes fluids more viscous, so cold is considered to be the main cause of poor or obstructed circulation. Reflecting on humans, people with cardiovascular diseases have a high chance of feeling uncomfortable in winter. Since many diseases are related to cold, this factor was highly regarded in ancient times. People with excessive cold show pale complexion, cold hands and feet, chills and fear of cold, as well as body weakness; while those with excessive heat may manifest themselves as dry eyes, dry mouth, constipation, tinnitus, etc.
People often say “you are what you eat”, if we want to balance the influences in our body via food, how do we know what food has which kind of influence? For plants, the law of conservation of energy states:
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed - only converted from one form of energy to another. A system always has the same amount of energy, unless it’s added from the outside.
During the lifetime of a plant, if it needs relatively more water and less sunlight, it’s likely to carry more cold character; On the other hand, if a plant can grow well with little water but requires lots of sunlight, its character will likely be warm. And different parts of the same plant may have different weights of influences, for instance, cinnamon usually refers to the dried bark of Cinnamomum Cassia, whose character may be different from the leaves of the tree.
The influences carried by animals are determined by their activeness, and for obvious reason, animals in water usually carry the influence of dampness. Beef is relatively warmer than pork, lamb is warmer than beef, birds are even warmer. The same animal can carry different influence based on their activity, for example, wild chickens (ie. pheasant) are much warmer than captive chickens.
With the theory of all the above, now let’s look at a few other diseases which characters or influences they have.
Viruses with the Same Character
SARS-CoV, a virus that was first identified in late 2002 / early 2003, belongs to the same coronavirus family as Covid-19 (ie. SARS-CoV-2), the table below compares the time when they were first reported:
|Disease||Georgian||Sexagenary Year Span||EoY||PCI||SCI||Next PCI||Next SCI|
|SARS||Nov 2002 - Feb 2003||壬午 - 癸未||Wood - Fire||太阳寒水 Water/Cold||阳明燥金 Metal/++Dryness||厥阴风木 Wood/Wind||太阴湿土 Earth/—Dampness|
|Covid-19||Late 2019 - Now||己亥 - 庚子||Earth - Metal||太阳寒水 Water/Cold||少阳相火 +Heat||厥阴风木 Wood/Wind||少阴君火 -Fire|
EoY - Element of Year PCI - Primary Climatic Influence SCI - Secondary Climatic Influence
(don’t worry if you don’t understand the years in Sexagenary Cycle - you can consider them as symbols representing different years in a different calendar)
From the above table we can conclude:
- the heavenly stem of 2003 has the elemental influence of fire, which has an overcoming effect on metal; Since metal corresponds to lung, theoretically during that period of time lungs would be specifically vulnerable to external intrusion, which corresponds to the fact that lungs were widely believed to be the target organ of SARS.
- the end of 2019 has the primary influence of water/cold, which is, unsurprisingly, winter; But the secondary influence at the same time was heat, which translates to a warm winter, it created a supportive environment for virus growth.
- soon after 2020 begins, the climatic influence became “less fire” (-fire), and the virus would carry less heat but more cold.
- the change of heat/cold over time to adopt season change, along with its highly infectious nature suggests it may not have a natural origin.
We don’t need to dive into more details, and the climatic influences in the above table are only applicable for Northern Atmosphere around East Asia; however, there is enough evidence that SARS-CoV-2 carries climatic characters of dampness and cold/hot, the term “cold/hot” implies the influences the virus carries can change over time, from heat to cold, and now it’s probably back to heat again due to summer and autumn. I’m not sure if this kind of transformation corresponds to the mutation of the virus that scientists have found. Another virus, influenza, carries similar character of dampness, its treatment, Tamiflu, has an active ingredient of Oseltamivir originally extracted from Chinese star anise, which is often seen in Asian recipes with pork and fish. It effectively balances the cold and dampness character in the meat. This aligns well with our theory that balancing excessive influences can have a positive effect on one’s health.
Hydroxychloroquine is a controversial treatment for Covid-19, the study published on 1st of July in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases (Conklin, 7/3) suggests that “in a strictly monitored protocol-driven in-hospital setting, treatment with hydroxychloroquine alone and hydroxychloroquine azithromycin was associated with a significant reduction in mortality among patients hospitalized with COVID-19”; Also, a team at Henry Ford Health System in southeast Michigan said their study of 2,541 hospitalized patients found that those given hydroxychloroquine were much less likely to die. (Fox, Cane and Cohen, 7/3) On the other hand, there are numerous findings showing its side effects and/or lack of effect. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases looks into whether the drug that seemed promising at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic really works. (Erb and Wells, 7/3)
If we forget about Covid-19 for a moment, Hydroxychloroquine is in a class of medications that was first used to prevent and treat malaria, and today it’s also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Hydroxychloroquine is a synthetically manufactured drug, developed based on the chemical structure of quinine, whose bitter taste suggests that it carries the opposite character of heat, which explains from a traditional point of view that why it works for treating malaria when the symptom manifests the character of heat. Malaria is “caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans”, with symptoms of “high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness”, these symptoms are a good example of heat - cold alternating pattern (ie. chills - fever) that many other diseases also have, including Covid-19.
Fevers aren’t actually caused by the infection or illness people have, but are a part of the body’s immune system response, when one is having high fever, his/her body is working against the infection. From a traditional perspective, this is the body’s heat factor trying to balance the cold intrusion - no matter if it’s a virus or something else; Similarly, when the body’s heat factor is exhausted, the plasmodium begins another attack and the body then becomes cold dominant. The traditional idea is to have enough heat in the body so that the virus, in this case, plasmodium, can never take effect. This is the signature difference between two types of medical sciences, one targets the virus, sometimes tries to kill the virus, or prevent its growth based on its genome sequence, whereas the other one focuses on a broader influential term to make the human body not suitable for the virus to survive. Based on this logic, if we correlate malaria’s heat/cold alternating pattern to Covid-19, we can see something interesting. As its name suggests, the disease was first reported at the end of 2019 in the Northern Hemisphere, when the PCI was dampness and cold, with an SCI of heat, resulting in a warm winter. Soon after entering 2020, the climatic influence turned from heat to cold, which could lead to effective treatment that targets heat becoming less effective. Also, during the treatment of an infected person, the person also carries certain climatic character which could change based on the treatment itself, for example, after a number of infusions, the body that was heat dominant could turn into cold dominant, the reason for this is similar to how we determine the climatic character of plants, mentioned previously; Furthermore, if we think about the previously mentioned theory that whether an animal is cold biased or warm biased depends on its activeness, it actually corresponds well to the fact that epidemiological data suggests the virus is less severe in young adults than older adults and recovery among people in their 20s and 30s is usually rapid and complete.
While this article is mostly based on theories with very limited references, it opens up a new perspective into the treatment of virus from a traditional point of view. Let’s hope the world could overcome the virus soon so we can get back to our normal life.
a bit more on Five Elements, Organs and Tastes
You may have seen the graph below in Asian massage businesses:
It is believed by ancient Chinese that each of the Five Elements could correspond to an internal organ of the human body, and each of these organs is also linked to a flavour which can have an effect on that particular organ. This can be considered as an abstraction that describes how internal organs work in a similar way of the generating and overcoming cycle of Five Elements.
For example, ancient Chinese considers the spleen is responsible for digestion, including functions of transformation, transportation and absorption of nutrients from food. Unbalance influences in spleen cause problems for general wellbeing and sweet is the flavour that helps improving spleen. Note, here the important word is balance, while sweet has a positive effect on spleen, taking excessive sugar could cause other issues and some of them can be fatal. Also, fruits and whole grains are better sources of sugar than plain sugar or sweets.
Another example related to this, we know that sugar causes tooth decay due to acid (produced when digesting sugar) removing minerals from the tooth enamel, so taking good care of tooth is recommended. However, ancient thinking has taken one step further: apart from acid, sweet has a positive impact on spleen whose element is Earth, its overcoming pattern restrains Water which corresponds to the kidney, and a health kidney directly relates to good oral health, including teeth. See this chain effect? Modern science also found there’s a link between oral health and kidney function, an article published on Clinician Reviews titled “Kidney Disease & ‘Bad Teeth’” states that “patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD) are predisposed to oral lesions and tooth decay related to dryness of the mouth”.
One more example, studies found food with pungent flavour could support the lungs in different ways, such as slowing lung cancer progression.
Lastly, I want to repeat again that the most important thing is to have a balanced influence inside one’s body, do not make anything excessive.
Managing a great nation as you would cook a small fish: don’t overdo. - Lao Tzu