There are three main syndromes—spleen qi deficiency, phlegm qi stagnation and blood stagnation—that describe or explain the condition in Chinese medicine. They are often interlinked. The spleen in Chinese medicine turns food into blood and energy—qi. It keeps things in place, governs how we process things and it clears out garbage. You could say that like a concerned parent, it feeds you and makes sure you are ready to go to school.
When its function fails for some reason, your energy goes down, including your ability to sleep properly; your appetite is affected, things begin to lose their tone, so they prolapse or swell. You find it harder to process thoughts and actions, and garbage collects inside you. Your sleep patterns alter, you may eat the wrong foods, or eat at a time when your body isn’t able to digest food properly, muscles along your digestive tract lose their tone, food isn’t digested well and it results in collection of garbage that is phlegm.
Phlegm has a special place at the heart of Chinese medicine. It turns up all over the place, in different forms. If you see a practitioner of Chinese medicine or acupuncture who, after you've explained your problem, looks sort of broody, he is probably diagnosing phlegm. It gets blamed whenever he can’t quite work it out. (Mind you, it could be damp.)
Putting on weight and inappropriate flesh (fat) is regarded as a form of phlegm. It’s also that stuff you feel embarrassed about spitting out. If you get nodules or fatty cysts under your skin, that’s a form of phlegm too. Phlegm is said to collect in the breathing passages or around them, and this is pretty close to Western Medicine’s (WM) diagnosis of fatty tissues surrounding the larynx and throat. It also represents what blocks your nose.
Qi stagnation is a big subject and it can have many causes, not the least of which is emotional. If qi stagnation has developed in you over a period of time, one of your zang-fu most affected will be the spleen. Spleen qi stagnation leads to an increase in the problems mentioned above, but with tension in the muscles too, often a lump is felt in the throat.
That lump may or may not be tangible phlegm-catarrh, but the genius of Chinese medicine is to realise that whether or not a lump of catarrh exists, one can treat it as such. So treatments for sleep apnea (in Chinese herbal medicine or acupuncture) often include action to clear phlegm and soothe away qi stagnation.Blood stagnation is another big subject. The idea behind it is foreign to WM, although WM recognises its effects. If blood fails to circulate properly, then your tissues cannot be repaired properly.
There are many (bad) consequences of having blood stagnation. These include poor circulation, and stopping qi moving as it should. This then prevents the qi of your lungs flowing properly, causing sleep apnea. Blood stagnation seldom cures itself and may need extensive treatment to ‘cure’.
The author is Head of the Department of Acupuncture, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi.
This treatment is now being made available in India at his clinic in Delhi.