What Comes First: Symptom or Disease?

For thousands of years, TCM practitioners have practiced with the belief that everything IS energy. This level of reality impacts the physical world we see, including our own bodies. It’s a view that has enormous implications for achieving true wellness. So, in line with the old riddle: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? We now ask: Which comes first, the symptom or the disease?

From one perspective, people might say that the symptom causes the disease. But that is only one perspective. There’s another.

When it comes to symptoms and disease, TCM looks at human health with a unique lens, which has two separate components: the Five Element framework and an understanding of Qi.

The Five Elements places everything in nature into five interacting patterns: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. This gives TCM practitioners a framework to understand all types of phenomena: from seasons, time of day, internal organs and sensory organs to emotions, colors, tastes, and on and on, including a limitless number of correspondences.

Qi is Universal energy that runs through everything in Nature, including us. Qi gives all things life, and it is through Qi that all things are able to communicate at the speed of light.

So how does TCM use the Five Elements and its understanding of Qi on a practical level? Let’s look at a common springtime ailment: allergies. Spring is associated with the Liver and the Wood element. The innate nature of Wood energy is to rise upward and outward—just look at a tree for inspiration!

Many people experience eye issues in spring: watery eyes or itchy, puffy eyes. These symptoms get labeled an “allergy,” caused by pollen bursting forth from budding flowers. All parts of this description of the health issue are external and visible—the pollen, the eyes, the allergy. If everything is energy, how does a common allergy come into play? Viewed from a TCM perspective, this health issue occurs because there is an imbalance in the individual’s internal, invisible energy, or Qi. “Health problems begin as a function disorder first,” says Grand Master Lu, adding, “then they manifest in our physical reality.”

So, in the Five Element framework, the root cause of the problem is internal. The symptom is just the end result of the internal imbalance. We ask again, Which comes first, the symptom or the disease? The true TCM answer is neither! The symptom and the disease are always the result of internal, invisible energy imbalances that, if allowed to continue over time, ultimately produce a physical symptom.

Viewed this way, we can be grateful for each and every symptom we encounter. They are an expression of the innate wisdom of our bodies. If we become aware of these signs and understand our amazingly intelligent body language, this is a pathway to vibrant health and well-being for each of us.