The concept of constitution in Chinese herbal medicine


Established readers : this is one of many reposted articles you will see in the coming months.  It is part of the redesign process.  I hope you agree that all of these articles are worth another look!

I have to admit to some weirdness around the concept of “constitution.” This is absolutely unfounded, I have no clinical or theoretical information to back up my feeling. I think I’ve just seen this concept be misused. Once you get an idea in your head that a patient is a “Chaihu person,” or a “Bladder CF,” or a “Shaoyang patient,” it seems to be a little difficult to think outside that box. It offends my desire to meet the patient where they are without preconceptions.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that this is part of what WE DO in Chinese medicine in particular and natural medicine in general. We look at the gestalt of the patient, and we make a helpful generalization about their condition and the treatment that is likely to rectify it. We look into past and future and consider how the patient came to be where they are and where they might be going, and treat them based on all of this information. I have no problem with that. But, I find myself a little worried when I persistently think about a person as, say, a “Chaihu” person, even before they come in – and use that lens to view whatever it is they might be presenting with in the current moment.

Before you click on the comment button prematurely – know that this is an attitude that is changing for me. The more patients I see, the more I see really weird cases. These cases involve patients who present with a certain picture that so strongly speaks to a particular treatment strategy but for whom that treatment strategy does not work. Searching for a remedy usually guides me in a very unexpected direction. In retrospect, looking through the patient’s case, I usually see a certain pattern emerge.

Here’s an example from my time in the student clinic.

A patient presenting with very serious symptoms (serious blood stasis, ongoing memory loss, digestive chaos, emotional instability and more) also had a *very* excess pulse – pounding, tight and wiry at all depths with some choppiness throughout. A dong (flicking bean) pulse was found on both sides between the first and second positions. A lot of stasis in the tongue. The supervising doctor and I discussed the case for a while, trying to seek out the best formula. For the next six or eight weeks, we used some variation of Taohe Chengqi Tang + Zhishi Xiebai Guizhi Tang with some incorporation of Guizhi Fuling Wan. We wanted to treat the most excess, the most “outward” of the symptom picture first.

As the treatment progressed, however, it… uh, didn’t. The patient’s symptoms didn’t lessen much, the pulse picture didn’t change. We decided to work from another direction. Following the recommendation from one of my mentors, I used a modification of Shenqi Wan with some additional blood movement incorporated. The patient found almost immediate improvement and continued to improve for the next several months. Later acute episodes found us changing our formula strategy a bit, but Fuzi has always been involved and when the Fuzi is removed, the patient worsens.

Now part of this is just my clinical immaturity and maybe my inability to see signs that, for a more experienced practitioner, would seem obvious. I’m sure there are several of you in the audience shaking your heads sagely – ah yes, of course, Fuzi. But, one could easily see something about “constitution” in this case. I’ve had similar experiences otherwise. It’s not always obvious in the pulse, it’s not always clear in the history, but when you go with it – improvement is found on all levels.

There doesn’t seem to be something that binds these cases together in every case. For instance, I am in no way convinced that if a different person with a similar presentation as above were to come to the clinic that I would be able to resolve their situation in the same way. But, I may be able to look at this person and – over time – learn some basic characteristics that help me to identify patients who might need this approach… this is, to me, constitution.

I’ve been reading the blog over the last couple of months.  I’ve also read through the book the blog is affiliated with, Ten Key Formula Families in Chinese Medicine.  I enjoyed reading it.  One thing I couldn’t quite get into was the classification of people based on their body type.  While I, of course, pay attention to body type – I don’t think I’ve gone as far as thinking that a person fell into a certain class of formulas because of that body type.  I’d love to hear from anyone who has used, or currently uses, this type of classification.  Have you found it works all the time?  90% of the time?  Something else?

This is a fascinating topic, in general, and one that I know has a lot of traction out there.  So, even if you haven’t read the book above, I’d like to hear your thoughts.  What do you think about constitution?  Where is the classical support for this method? What have you been learning in your classes and seminars about constitution?

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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