Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Warm Yourself with Moxa!

What is Moxa? Moxa is an herb (Artemesia vulgaris) that is used in Chinese Medicine both topically and internally to bring heat into the body to improve Qi and Blood circulation (that is the short answer). I will be focusing on its topical application here.

Why would you want to use Moxa, you ask? For many reasons that will shortly become evident.

Moxibustion (the practice of burning moxa on or near the body) is older than the practice of acupuncture.  Acupuncture was used as a supplement to Moxa therapy in about the 2nd century B.C.E.  Today Moxa is used as an adjunct to needles and is commonly used to enhance their efficacy for certain conditions; Moxibustion is powerful enough, however, to stand on its own. In a previous post (Balance of Yin and Yang) I described what it means to have too much or too little heat or cold in the body, and the types of symptoms that might arise because of those imbalances. Moxa can be used when there is either excess cold or insufficient heat, but it can also be used with certain injuries, even when inflammation is present. Moxa is also excellent at treating all types of stagnation, which is why it is so useful when it comes to injuries, be they chronic or acute.
To review, when there is pain present, there is some level of stagnation, where the Qi, Blood or Fluids is not flowing properly, like having a clog in a drain. When the clog is cleared, flow is restored and pain goes away. Heat is one way to get things moving and that is why Moxa can be effective for pain. The different styles of Moxa use different amounts heat to treat the body so some methods are effective to use even when there is heat/inflammation already present. For example, with tennis elbow (extreme pain on the outer elbow, often with referred pain into the forarm) the muscles and tendons of the elbow are inflamed causing pain. Often times, I won't use needles immediately because the area feels so "angry" and needles would just exacerbate the pain. Moxa, like the Ibuki-style Moxa shown above, can calm the muscles and irritation, reducing the inflammation and pain and allowing better Qi and Blood flow through the elbow. Better flow means faster, more efficient healing, since the healing nutrients in the blood can better access the injury.
If I wanted more warming, like if there was Cold in the body, I might use Warming Needle (see photo to the right) to send the heat deeper into the body. This feels really good for people with lower back pain or menstrual cramps (or both!). The Moxa burns longer and sends the heat down the needle shaft, deep into the body. It feels very nourishing to the body and helps those deep aches. I have found it very useful when treating osteoarthritis of the knee, sciatic pain as well as loose stools and digestive problems.
The one downside to Moxa is the smoke. Thankfully there are smokeless versions (which I use in my practice) that are highly effective and better for your breathing that the more traditional forms of moxa. The key is using the right form of heat for each condition. I have yet to meet a patient that doesn't love Moxa!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Omega 3 and Chinese Medicine

Omega 3s get a lot of press these days, and for good reason. They are Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), which means our bodies don't make them, we need to get them from our diet. The reason they are so important is because they do a lot for our bodies: they lower triglycerides; improve heart health and prevent stroke; improve mood and brain function for conditions like ADHD, depression, Alzheimer's and dementia; and most importantly they reduce inflammation which plays a part in many of the above conditions, as well as asthma, allergies, skin disorders, Rheumatoid and Osteoarthritis.

Omega 3s are abundant in many great foods, like salmon, sardines and other cold water fatty fish; flax seeds/oil; chia seeds; walnuts; and krill oil. Ideally they are consumed in organic form, or wild caught for the fish and krill to minimize contamination with pesticides or mercury.

From a Chinese Medicine perspective, Omega 3s seem to do the following things: Clear Heat, Leech out Dampness, Calm the Shen (Spirit),  Clear Phlegm/Open the Orifices and Moisten Dryness.

  • Most sources of these EFAs tend to be oils, so moistening makes sense. They lubricate to improve movement, like with arthritis, they keep the skin moist and supple, and they may also help with constipation by moistening the Intestines.
  • Inflammation is often seen as heat in Chinese Medicine. Signs of heat are when a body part feels hot to the touch or feels internally hot, there is redness (like with skin rashes or boils), fever, or when a condition gets worse with either the application of heat or in hot weather. Cooling the heat makes skin calmer (less red), allergic eyes less red and irritated and stops this type of pain with arthritis (Rheumatoid arthritis often has a heat element).
  • Inflammation can also have a damp quality to it. Damp signs usually have a "wetness" element to them, like joint swelling or skin eruptions with pus. You can also have Dampness in the head creating foggy or unclear thinking or systemic dampness which creates a fatigue where you feel really heavy and sluggish. It is also possible to have both Dampness and Heat.
  • The Shen is the Spirit in Chinese Medicine. It is connected both to the Heart and the Mind, being related to mood and emotions. Good Shen is seen as a "brightness" in the eyes where the person is clear and calm and content. Disturbed Shen can present with a person having a dull look in their eyes or wild "crazy" eyes, like with mania. By Calming the Spirit, you feel less agitated or anxious, less stressed, more relaxed. You feel internally "brighter" and more alive. 
  • When you feel foggy-headed or your brain is not functioning properly (like with dementia) it is almost like there is a veil or clouds blocking your brain from working correctly. In Chinese Medicine that is Phlegm, which is a thicker, stickier level of Dampness. By clearing Phlegm from the Orifices (in this case the Mind and the Eyes--where you see the Shen) you can think more clearly. It is like removing the veil or blowing away the clouds in your Mind. The Brain functions more clearly and appropriately.
The ideas of Dryness, Dampness and Phlegm are all pathologic concepts, not to be confused with normal and natural moisture. In a balanced system there are equal amounts of Heat, Cold, Moist and Dry. Problems arise when there is too much Heat to balance out the Cold, so rather than warming the body you have a radiator that is overheating. If there is too much Cold to balance out the Heat your body isn't cooling itself, it is freezing. When there is too much "Moistness" it becomes pathologic Dampness or in more severe forms, Phlegm. Dampness and Phlegm are no longer moistening the body, they are just clogging up the system.

It is important to have just enough of one to balance the other, as is with the priciples of Yin and Yang. It seems that Omega 3 Fatty Acids help you maintain that balance.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Save Yourself From Stress Part 5--Trauma: Big and Small

I recently attended the Veterans and Trauma conference at The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY (wonderful place, I highly recommend it). I listened to speakers from all different modalities (Western as well as Holistic) speak about different ways to treat trauma, as well as new research being done to help returning soldiers (and previous war veterans) cope with reintegration and PTSD.

One of the speakers, David Feinstein, Ph.D., spoke about Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) which is a mind/body technique that employs tapping on acupuncture points to help "rewire" the brain to release the fear or trauma that is trapped in the body. The body holds onto trauma (whether big or small) and can cause either big or small drains of energy that you may or may not be aware of. The idea is to tune into these traumas and tap on them so they are no longer sucking your energy and preventing you from moving forward in your life. The traumas can be big, like a rape or exposure to war, or small(er), like your parents divorce or a minor fender bender. Each of these events will impact you on some level if you never fully processed them when they originally happened.

During the session with Dr. Feinstein a woman got up who had a significant phobia that was a 10 on the 1-10 scale. After 1 round of tapping it dropped to a 5, after the 2nd round it was a 3, then after the 3rd round it was a zero. She was searching for the fear within her and could no longer feel it. While she was tapping on herself, we, in the audience, were tapping on ourselves and my personal issue went from a 6 to a 1. Even though as a group we were focusing on the woman with the phobia, we all received benefit. Interesting stuff.

This was not my first experience with EFT; I've been using it (with a coach) once or twice a month for the last couple of years. Over that time I've felt like my emotional life has improved more and more. The "baggage" I've carried around with me my whole life is releasing and I can move on with a little more freedom, less fear, less anger, more strength and more confidence. Interactions that would previously trigger me into rage or fear no longer have that power over me.

I like to use the image of a garbage can for how we deal with our "stuff": we all have garbage cans inside of us where we put emotions and memories that we don't want to deal with. If they aren't dealt with and processed, they have to go somewhere so we stuff them in The Can. Over time The Can fills and we keep stuffing more and more in there. At some point The Can overflows and you need clean up the mess. That mess can often show up as physical pain (neck, shoulders, migraine, lower back, sciatic, etc.) or other symptoms (insomnia, anxiety/depression, stomach upset or irregularity, chronic fatigue). It gets to the point where your body is screaming out for you to deal with your "stuff."

In terms of Chinese Medicine, that emotional baggage causes stagnation of Qi flow; often times this Qi has been stagnant and perhaps dormant (or deep lying) for many years or even decades. Emotions can cause all sorts of stagnation and imbalances that can wreak havoc in our lives, overtly as physical symptoms (as I mentioned earlier) or subtly as drains to our energy. It is like leaving your phone charger plugged into the wall even though there is no phone attached; these tiny drains over time wear you down. When you can "unplug" them you feel lighter and more energized and your related symptoms start to dissipate.

Undoing these triggers can take time, but if you suffer from any chronic conditions, it might be another way to help you feel better; the body and mind are connected after all.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Save yourself from Stress part 4--Sex!

Originally I was going to write about how unexpressed emotions play into our perception of stress, but I pretty much covered that in Express Yourself!  (feel free to check it out if you are interested in how emotions can affect health). Sex is something that is not really talked about very often with regard to health, unless you are having a problem (like vaginal dryness or erectile dysfunction). This post will not be a "how to" lesson on relieving stress with sex (sorry). Sex can be either a positive or negative thing for the body in terms of its energy.

Like exercise (see Save yourself from Stress part 2--Exercise), it is possible to overdo it. Sex, and reproduction in general, is connected to the energy of the Kidneys. We are all born with a certain amount of Jing, or Essence, which is the foundation of our Kidney energy and our basic life force. The amount of Jing we get is determined by our parents' Jing at our conception (it is inherited, like DNA), but how long our Jing lasts depends on how we live our lives. Have you ever noticed that people age at different rates? Two people can be the same age but look years or even decades apart. That is a visual reflection of Jing. In terms of how it feels and how we use it, burning the candle at both ends or pulling all nighters is much easier in your 20s than when you are 50. You can get through the day much easier on no sleep when you are younger; when you are older you tend to feel the repercussions much more strongly and it takes you much longer to recover. This is also a reflection of the amount of Jing you have: we have more when we are young--it gives us a little extra boost of energy when we need it. We have less when we are older so we don't get quite the same boost. It is like our energy savings account-- it is there for back up when you need it, but you try not to dip into it too often, because if you do it (and you) will become depleted much more quickly.

On the plus side, sex (and love in general) create a surge in Kidney and Heart Qi and encourage general flow of Qi and Blood throughout the body. There is also the sharing or transfer of Qi between you and your partner that encourages heat and warms the body. It can improve mood and reduce stress by inducing relaxation. Used wisely this is good for your health and well being.

Ejaculate and vaginal secretions are a physical manifestation of Jing. The more sex you have, the more you excrete. Supportive behaviors like proper diet, sufficient rest and relaxation, stress reduction, proper exercise can enhance one's ability to hold onto one's Jing. The less you dip into the savings account the longer it will last.

The types of behaviors that drain our Jing: over exercising; excessive use of alcohol, recreational drugs, or some prescription drugs; too much stress with insufficient sleep; long term poor diet with too much caffeine, sugar, chemical additives and/or artificial sweeteners; too much stress in general; too much sex.

So how much is too much?

That varies according to a person's age and how healthfully they live their lives. The key is to check in with how you feel. If after sex you feel exhausted for more than one day, have lower back aching or instability, depression, headaches, hot flashes or night sweats, chances are you are having too much sex (I suppose there are worse problems). You want to make sure you are not draining your Jing unnecessarily, since the more you drain the harder it is to bounce back. Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal therapy can help you recover some or much of your Kidney energy, but once your Jing is gone, it is gone.

The key is to have just the right amount of sex for you. The fun is in finding out what that is for you!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Save Yourself from Stress part 3-- Sleep

Beginning the day we are born, sleep is essential. Sleep is when the body repairs and restores itself; sleep improves your energy and sleep literally keeps us sane. But in this day and age with being constantly on the go, daily stress, email, texting and social media taking up so much of our time and energy, many people find it difficult to turn off at the end of the day. When you don't "turn off" (i.e. your nervous system doesn't return to a state of calm) that means that you are always "on" which adds stress to your body and mind. People who lack sleep are often irritable, where the littlest thing can set them off--stress. They often eat more because they are tired-- stress. Little things become completely overwhelming--stress. Unfortunately stress makes it hard to sleep and lack of sleep increases stress.

An Eastern perspective:

Insomnia, either trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, is caused by the Liver being unable to contain the Shen or Spirit (that which animates us). At night the Shen is supposed to go into the Liver to rest for the night. With insomnia, instead of resting, the Shen is up "walking around" which prevents us from being able to fall asleep; if we do, we wake in the middle of the night and often can't get back to sleep. This is also the reason for restless sleep but to a lesser degree. The Liver is vulnerable to stress, anger, frustration and unfulfilled desires and when the Liver goes out of balance, one of the things that can be affected is our sleep. Other signs that the Liver is imbalanced are irritability, short temper, headaches/migraines, menstrual cramps, premenstrual breast tenderness and/or excessive sighing.

So the question is, "If I'm stressed and can't sleep how do I decrease stress so I can sleep?"

1. Have a regular sleep time. Predictability is good for good sleep (and the Liver). By training your body to be tired at the same time every day, it begins to expect it and then it is easier to fall asleep. Being in bed by 10p or 10:30p is ideal so that you are asleep by 11p, when Gallbladder time begins. Each internal organ has a 2-hour period when its energy is at its peak and its nadir. Since the Gallbladder is the Yang pair to Liver's Yin it is essential to give it rest so that it doesn't further strain the Liver.

2. Shut down all electronic devices at least an hour before you go to bed. And PLEASE get them out of your bedroom. This includes TV, smartphones, ipads, computers, anything that  EMF radiation. Although we are not all consciously aware of it, EMF does affect us on a cellular level and can add stress to the nervous system. This stress can impair our ability sleep and deteriorate its quality. These machines use a kind of light that is similar to sunlight in terms or how it affects our brains. When the brain is exposed to this type of light it releases chemicals that make us awake. Only when we are exposed to darkness does our brain start to make melatonin which allows us to sleep. But if we've been "staring into the sun" for too long, it takes awhile for our brain to transition and it will take awhile to fall asleep.

3. Cut out caffeine. Not reduce, but cut it out. Caffeine stresses the adrenal glands which are working overtime when you are stressed (and not sleeping). Weakening the adrenals can actually make it harder for you to stay asleep. Also, caffeine can stay in your system for up to 8 hours. That afternoon cup of tea or coffee that keeps you going will also prevent you from falling asleep many hours later. Caffeine withdrawal usually only lasts a couple of days so if you can get through a day or two of headaches (increasing your water intake can help) then you are home free.

4. Calming herbs or teas can help put you in a better space before bed. Chamomile and Valerian root are two calming herbs. Rescue Remedy by Bach Flower Essences makes Rescue Sleep which can also help. Just put a few drops under your tongue either before bed or if you wake in the middle of the night. It works like homeopathic medicine so there are no side effects or groggy feelings after. Meditation or gentle yoga or stretching can help as well. Slow deep breathing calms the nervous system to prepare you for sleep.

5. Acupuncture and/or Chinese Herbal Medicine is useful if you suffer really chronic sleep problems. A licensed acupuncturist and herbalist can prescribe the right formula for you and your specific sleep problem. There are no side effects if properly prescribed, and can be taken as a tea or pills depending on your particular needs. Unlike Western pharmaceuticals, Chinese herbal formulas are tailored to you, not just your condition and can be altered as your needs change. See a local practitioner for help.

Getting your sleep in shape will improve your ability to deal with life stresses and will reduce the overall stress that your body experiences, thus improving your life, health and longevity.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Save Yourself from Stress Part 2-- Exercise

We all know exercise is important for maintaining a healthy mind and a healthy body. But the kind of exercise you do is just as important to your health because exercise can either reduce or add to your overall stress load. It all depends on your state of health and your internal balance.

You may notice that sometimes exercise is energizing and other times you feel exhausted afterwards. This is because exercise moves your Qi. Your Heart pumps your blood faster, you breathe more air through your Lungs, Qi is moving! If your Qi is stuck, moving it is good and you feel better. If your Qi is weak, moving it will make you feel worse.

If your Qi is stuck, exercise will break through the stagnation and get things moving and flowing again, thus energizing you. Stagnant Qi can present emotionally as stress, depression, short temper or irritability. Physically it may present as tight neck and shoulders, headache, fatigue, TMJ, PMS and sighing (just to name a few symptoms). When you exercise it can often relieve many of these symptoms, thus reducing stress and making you feel better.

If you fall into the Stagnant Qi category, your exercise should be more vigorous, like running, biking, swimming, dancing, jumping rope, intense hiking, vigorous yoga (astanga, vinyasa, power), cross-country skiing, you get the picture. Get your sweat on an move your Qi!

However, if you feel more tired after exercise, it may mean that your Qi is weak, and that the exercise you are doing is depleting you further. In this case, the exercise is actually INCREASING stress your are straining your system to keep up your current pace. Qi weakness can present as fatigue, lack of appetite, lack of motivation, lower back ache, loose stools or constipation, weak voice, among other symptoms. In this case, the exercise you choose should have more of a restorative quality to it to improve your Qi, which will then reduce your stress.

If your Qi is weak, your exercise should be more restorative, like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, gentle yoga (svaroopa, restorative, hatha), walking/strolling, these types of things. Or you enjoy more vigorous exercise, just do it in much shorter spurts, like 5-10 minutes once or twice a day depending on how depleted you are. Play with how you feel after exercise and gauge how your body responds. Focus on eating good foods (see last month's entry: Save Yourself from Stress Part 1--Food) and getting sufficient rest.

For those of you who see exercise as drudgery, selecting the right exercise for you can help. Exercise is about making you healthy, it shouldn't be just about losing weight or getting six-pack abs. When you focus on the external result, you miss the internal benefits. If you focus on the internal benefits, you may also get the external results, but in the end it won't matter, because you will feel better. Exercise should be fun, something you look forward to. If you enjoy it, you will stick with it. And it doesn't have to be in a gym for it to count.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Save Yourself From Stress Part 1-- Food

Food. One of my favorite topics when it comes to health. There are two ways to look at food: something to stop hunger or something to fuel and nourish your body. When it comes to health and battling stress, the only way to look at food is for nourishment.

There are all kinds of foods out there, many delicious, but not all good for you. When you are hungry, it is common to just grab anything to satisfy the hunger; but unless you are really health conscious, this food might not be something that is actually nourishing (like a bagel, potato chips, fast food, brownies, etc). This is why such a huge percentage of the country is overweight or obese. When you see food as fuel, rather than something just to stop the gnawing in your belly, typically you make better choices and reduce the overall stress on your body.

Everyone has stress. For many people, outside stress is not something you can control. What you can control is how you respond to it. If you feed your body high quality foods it is easier to combat the effects of the outside stress on your body and you will feel better. If you are feeding your body foods that were made in a laboratory (full of chemical additives, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors), your food is contributing to your body's overall stress load and will break down much more quickly. These "foods" do not benefit your body, they cause increased stress on your Kidneys and Liver to break them down. Not all of them break down and stay in your adipose (fat) tissue and your organs, eventually causing severe health problems, like cancer.

Stress was meant to be short term, from an evolutionary perspective. You got this rush of adrenaline to escape the saber toothed tiger chasing after you and then when the danger passed, your body returned to normal. In modern life that is not usually the case; stress is more of a chronic rather than acute condition.

Your body perceives stress on a physiological and chemical level, not just emotional. When we feel emotional stress there are physical reactions that happen-- increased heart rate and blood pressure, decreased immunity, decreased metabolism and digestion, decreased libido, increased muscle tension, shallow breathing and increased breath rate. Short term all of these things are fine; long term this causes a significant decrease and breakdown of overall health.

According to Chinese Medicine, stress causes Liver Qi Stagnation. Since one of the jobs of the Liver is to move the Qi through the whole body, when it stagnates, it affects all systems. Muscle tightness, headaches, digestive upset--either acid reflux or loose stools, breast tenderness, menstrual cramps and increased blood pressure are a few symptoms that can happen when Liver Qi stagnates. With regard to food, the Spleen and Stomach take the food that you eat and make it into Qi, Blood, immunity (Wei Qi), and other substances that the body needs to function properly. When Liver Qi has stagnated the Liver can attack the Spleen/Stomach and you see digestive complaints: bloating, stomach upset, loose stools or constipation, irregular bowel movements, acid reflux, belching, bad breath. These are symptoms that tell you the digestive system is not working properly.

The food that you take in will increase these symptoms or calm these symptoms. Here are some suggestions.

Acid reflux-- Licorice, in the deglycyrrhizinated form, otherwise known as DGL. It soothes the esophagus and gets rid of the burning without the harmful side effects of antacids.
Bloating-- Mint, peppermint. You can either drink it as a tea or eat the leaves after eating.
Constipation-- dried fruit, especially prunes and figs. They are moistening and will help ease things along.
General digestive or bowel complaints (like IBS or other inflammatory bowel diseases)-- probiotics. Stress kills off much of the digestive flora. These beneficial bacteria help you digest your food and absorb its nutrients. Without them, even if you diet is great, you can't fully absorb all the nutrition and you will be vitamin and mineral deficient.
Nausea-- Ginger. Dried is more warming than fresh, but both are very helpful when consumed as a tea.

The best overall foods for the Liver are dark green, bitter leafy vegetables (kale, dandelion greens, mustard greens); cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts); lemon; garlic; onions and beets (root and leaf).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

#1 way to suppress your immune system

 The #1 immune suppressant out there is...Stress.

But I'm not going to talk about the most common and well known types of stress. It goes beyond just work stress or financial stress or life stress. The stress in this discussion boils down to the following things: diet, chemical exposure (often connected to diet), exercise, sleep quality/quantity/timing and emotional history.

Each of these 5 elements can increase or decrease your stress levels, depending on how you use them, thereby strengthening or weakening your immune system, making it more or less likely that you get sick. (whew)

Let's start with diet. Foods that will add stress to the body are foods that disagree with you on a physical level--refined sugars, refined flour, fast food, drugs, excessive alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants, foods not grown on a farm but instead made in a laboratory, artificial sweeteners-- you get the picture? Foods that don't nourish the body will cause it stress that can eventually lead to heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer. These foods can be temporarily satisfying on an emotional level, but usually leave you feeling tired and bloated. Food that was grown on a farm and is eaten in that original form, i.e. whole foods, will nourish the body, supporting it in its daily endeavors, provided that you don't have an underlying allergy or sensitivity to them. Ideally food is organically grown, pasture raised and not treated with any sort of growth hormones, antibiotics or pesticides. The more chemical exposure you have through your food, the harder your body, especially the Liver and Kidneys, have to work to filter it out. Even prescription medication adds to your chemical and stress load to the body. I'm not saying to stop taking your medications, you need to speak to your prescribing doctor about that. I'm only saying that  ingesting chemicals made in a lab will add to your overall stress load and you might want to seek alternative ways to manage your health problems.

Chemical exposure is not just limited to food. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the products we use on our skin and hair all add to our chemical load. Not to mention plastic containers that can leech chemicals into our food and water. Even BPA free containers contain Bisphenol S which isn't good either. The higher your overall chemical load, the more strain on the body, impairing its ability to function properly. Use glass containers for food and try to buy skin and hair products that contain ingredients that you would consider eating. Whatever goes onto your skin gets absorbed into your blood stream; if you wouldn't eat it, you probably shouldn't put it on your skin.

Exercise is an interesting subject. Everyone should exercise, 3-6 times per week ideally, but there is more to it than that. Exercise should energize you; if it doesn't, it is causing harm to your body. Ideally moderate exercise is best, including some form of strength training and cardiovascular workout. What you do isn't important as long as it is fun and you are inspired to continue for life. Some people need more intense exercise to burn off excess energy they have or to help them deal with their daily stresses. Others need milder exercise because they are systemically energy deficient. These latter people will often feel exhausted after more intense exercise and this will add stress to their bodies. These people need to focus on gentler exercise or maybe intense but for shorter periods of time. You need to adjust your exercise regimen to how you feel when you are done. It may take a little playing with but you want to find an type of exercise that you like and makes you feel good afterward. This will support your immune system.

Sleep is immensely important to health, not just quality and quantity, which are more obvious, but when you sleep is important too. Studies have shown that people who work the graveyard shift have shortened lifespans because they are working against normal circadian rhythms. Being awake when it is dark and asleep when it is light is unnatural and works against the body's production of melatonin (the sleep chemical in the brain) which is only produced when there is no light. Ideally you want to be asleep before 11pm and then sleep between 7-9 hours (more for kids and teens); ideally you should wake up without an alarm clock feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. Sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, poor mood and lower coping skills. The increase stress on the body from lack of sleep can also lead to heart disease, higher susceptibility to colds and flu and slower healing. Sleep is when the body heals and restores itself; if you are not allowing that to happen sufficiently, it can cause damage to build up over time.

Lastly emotional history can play a part in stress to your body and mind. Holding grudges, history of trauma or abuse, constant worry, inability to let go of grief, these can all be stored in the body and affect your health. Anger, frustration, fear, worry, grief, sadness and joy are all normal natural emotions to have. However when they are not processed and released, they can actually harm the body. How these work is a bigger discussion for another time, but let's just say that if you don't deal with your "stuff" your body sends you louder and louder signals until you do. Holding onto what is unnecessary or what no longer serves you will hamper your immune system by causing undo stress.

Stress management alone can help cure most modern diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Stress leads to inflammation which is really the underlying cause of all of those diseases. The more you can do to help yourself feel better, the longer and healthier your life will be.

Over the next few months I will be going into more depth on each of these topics. Feel free to leave comments here or email me at about any specific questions that you would like answered and I'll do my best to answer them.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Achoo! The TCM view of Allergies.

You know the signs: itchy, watery eyes; runny nose; sneezing; coughing; itchy, scratchy throat, rashes. Springtime allergies are in full force. But why do we have to suffer through seasonal allergies?

Environmental allergies happen when we are exposed to something that our body sees as foreign. According to the Western view, the immune system surveys anything that enters the body to see if it needs to be dealt with or not. Whole organic food, for the most part, is something that comes in and is seen as safe so the immune system stays quiet. Bacteria and viruses are seen as foreign and unsafe so the immune system mounts a defense. Allergens are an in between entity that should be seen as safe, but for some reason the body views as foreign so it mounts a defense. There are many theories about why this happens to some people and not to others, ranging from excessive over exposure to a particular allergen to history of excessive vaccinations. Basically it comes down to how strong your immune system is: a weaker immune system doesn't function as well as a strong one and may react to allergens because it can't differentiate "friend" from "foe."

That is similar to the Eastern view. The Wei Qi is the most superficial Qi in the body and protects us, like a force field, from external invading pathogens; it is the Eastern concept of the immune system. As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, the ancient Chinese doctors didn't know about viruses and bacteria causing illness, they viewed illness as an invasion of the elements--Wind, Damp, Cold, Heat, Dryness or Fire. How your body responded to a particular illness told them which element or elements had invaded and they treated accordingly. They focused on treating the body, helping the it get rid of the illness rather than treating the illness itself. With allergies it is the same concept, but is usually limited to Wind, Damp and sometimes Heat; it is possible to see other elements as well, but these are the most prominent ones. When your immune system, or your Wei Qi, is weak, it is like someone poked holes in your force field and the elements can then invade your body and cause symptoms.

In terms of allergies, a Wind invasion causes itching and twitching, as well as a scratchy throat and runny nose. Damp shows as the presence of phlegm (thicker congestion, runny nose, post nasal drip, coughing up sputum), but can also cause foggy headedness and fatigue. Heat is often seen as red and irritated eyes, a sore throat (more than just scratchy), or as rashes and hives (this is often combined with Wind and/or Damp depending on the presentation of the rash).

Through a combination of diet, acupuncture and/or herbal medicine, you can repair the holes in your Wei Qi so that less Wind, Damp and/or Heat can invade, thus making your allergies much more tolerable and can eventually cause them to disappear. Ideally you want to start strengthening 2-3 months before allergy season hits, but even in the middle it can help your sypmtoms go away.

What causes your immune system to weaken? Stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spring has Sprung

Can you feel it? That feeling of not wanting to, but NEEDING to go outside and become one with the beautiful weather? Spring has sprung. Unlike the internal energy of Winter, Spring's energy moves outward and encourages us to do the same. The period of hibernation is over people, shake off those cobwebs and start moving. Remember those New Year's resolutions that I suggested putting aside (see my previous post Resolution or Reflection)? Now is the time to start implementing them. Let the energy of the season support your desire to quit smoking, soda and sugar (just suggesting here). Go with that feeling of going outside and exercising! Go for a walk with your kids or a friend or by yourself! Play in the park, go for a swim, a run, or a bike ride. Dust off those rollerblades and get out there! Name your activity, go do it and do it often.

If you are not feeling motivated by the season, chances are your Qi is stuck and that stuckness is slowly building as you (unintentionally) resist the movement of Universal Qi (the Qi --or energy-- of the environment around you). When you don't "go with the flow," so to speak, a little stagnation becomes a lot over time. Think of it like a clog in the drain--the clog is preventing the free flow of water through the pipes. The pressure builds up from water trying to get through and not being able to. As soon as the clog is cleared, the pressure is released and water can flow freely. The same goes for your Qi.

The organ of Spring is the Liver (the Gallbladder is its Yang counterpart). One large role the Liver plays is to move the energy smoothly through the body. When the Liver is not functioning properly it can't do this job and the Qi stagnates. Because of this, certain conditions related to the Liver "spring up" in this season: migraines, menstural problems (cramps, breast tenderness, irritiability) and depression just to name a few. When energy doesn't flow right it often causes pain; the amount of stagnation dictates the amount of pain. When you can get yourself moving, it helps the Qi flow; unfortunately when you are emotionally stagnant, like with depression, it is often hard to get yourself moving, so start small. You may also need a little assistance from the food you eat, acupuncture or Chinese herbs.

Even in this season of outward movement, the best changes are made a little at a time. You want changes in your life to be permanent. Rather than dieting, make changes to improve your overall diet so that eating well is not a finite thing. It is great to give something up, like soda, for lent, but try to keep that going even when lent ends. Good eating habits should continue through your life. I always like to make changes by adding things, rather than taking them away. For example, in honor of Liver's color being green, add some green vegetables to your diet. If you already eat them (great!!) add some that you don't normally eat. Broccoli rabe, kale, asparagus and collards (all organic of course) are all wonderful greens that support the Liver Blood and Yin. You can steam them or stir fry them and they complement chicken, fish or tempeh very nicely. Once it becomes "normal" to eat more green veggies, then you can make other changes, like trading soda for water (1 can at a time); coffee for tea (or at least for organic coffee); artificial sweeteners for stevia; cooking in rather than eating out; things like that. Every small change will have large positive consequences for your health in the long run.

In terms of exercise, try to do some form of enjoyable exercise once a week for a couple of weeks. When that becomes "normal" add a second day. Eventually you will look forward to moving your body on a regular basis and you will find that you miss it when you don't. The key is to do something you enjoy doing. I recently had this talk with a young patient of mine, an 11 year old boy who would roll his eyes and emotionally shut down at the mention of exercise. When I told him it didn't have to be in a gym to qualify as exercise, he perked up a bit. I asked him what he liked to do. He wasn't interested in sports or walking or riding a bike, but he liked to swim. I suggested that he go swimming. He didn't even need to do laps, just play in the water for awhile. With the pressure of "exercising" off of him, he agreed. Now, a few months later, he is swimming laps consistently 2-3 times per week, for about 30-40 minutes each time, and actually enjoying it. When it isn't laborious, you will look forward to moving, you just need to find something you like and go do it.

Small changes are good. Let the movement of Spring inspire you to make positive changes in your life. Clear some clutter, both externally and internally to encourage your Qi to flow freely.  Some "Spring cleaning" for your mind, your body and your health!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Understanding Chinese Medicine in five minutes or less

I've been thinking a lot about how to explain Chinese Medicine to Western minds. Trying to describe the non-linear thinking of TCM to very linear thinking Western minds is very challenging. I gave a lecture recently at a local public library and while I was talking I realized that what I was saying was probably very confusing since acupuncture theories require looking at the body (and mind and emotions) in a perspective that is foreign to Western minds (plus I saw the perplexed looks on everyone's faces). After talking for about 45 minutes I asked "is everyone sufficiently confused now?" to which the audience laughed and I went on to answer questions.

But this begs the question: How do you get across the vital information without it becomeing too overwhelming? Patients try so hard to understand how acupuncture or Chinese herbal medicine is helping them to feel better and I try very hard to explain it to them, but at a certain point, you hit information overload. What is useful information and what makes that information confusing? The basic language of Chinese medicine uses words with which we are familiar, but in ways that are new to us. A Spleen in the Western concept of anatomy and physiology is very different from how acupuncturists view the Spleen. Rather than being a lesser organ that the body can survive without, TCM views the Spleen as a vitally important organ, not just in and of itself, but because of how the body functions as a whole. You cannot have one weak link and expect everything to just go on as usual.

The biggest idea that people have trouble with is that the whole body works as a unit. Not only is the "knee bone connected to the thigh bone" but the Heart, Lungs, Kidneys, Liver and Spleen all work together as well. Often times when people come to see me there is not just one thing "wrong" with them, but a cascade of issues, each interrelated in some way. I see the big picture, while they see the parts and pieces. Getting a patient to understand how the parts and pieces fit together is my challenge; some patients don't care and just say "stick me" but many want to know what I'm doing and what is going on.

So how do you explain such a complex medicine to someone who essentially speaks a different language? It took me years to learn this medicine in a way that made sense, how can I expect my patients to understand it in a 5 minute conversation?

The short answer is: I can't because they won't.

And that is kind of the point. The podiatrist can explain to you why your foot hurts (and I probably can too) but she's only looking at your foot, not how your foot connects to the rest of your body. And it does. How your foot hits the ground will affect how your back and neck feel on a regular basis. The podiatrist does not set out to heal your neck pain, but might by helping your foot.  Explaining how insomnia, anxiety, dry skin and lower back pain are connected is what I do, but it is not always simple. Over time, my patients start to learn my language. Because acupuncture works cumulatively, I typically see each patient multiple times. Over the course of weeks or months or even years, they start to have a better understanding of what this medicine is all about. The big "take away" is that all the parts and pieces make up the whole and that is why living one's life in a balanced way leaves you feeling more balanced, and why sometimes one health complaint can morph into many.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

To Cleanse or Not To Cleanse: a TCM perspective

This time of year people tend to make big changes in their lives (or try to anyway--see previous post). A topic that comes up a lot in my practice this time of year is the issue of "cleansing." Patients often ask me my opinion on doing various cleanses, ranging from Kidney flushes to Liver and Colon cleanses, each having a varying degree of fasting or juicing involved, as well as taking various herbal supplements. Do I think cleanses are a good and beneficial thing to do?

The short answer: Not really, no.

The Liver, Kidneys/ Bladder, Intestines, Lungs and Skin are our built in "cleansing" organs. They filter out the bad stuff that we put into our bodies and help us get rid of it so that we don't poison ourselves and make ourselves sick. In theory, Cleansing works by encouraging these organs get rid of the bad stuff, but often in ways that are too extreme as well as unnecessary or potentially harmful. One of the issues I have with cleansing is that many people cleanse to make up for bad eating and lifestyle habits, kind of like taking vitamins and eating only fast food. In the grand scheme of things the cleanse won't really make much of a difference in your long term health. Even weight loss that occurs with a cleanse is only temporary. Go back to bad habits or even regular eating and the weight comes back. Plus, many toxins and metabolites are stored in fat cells. When the body uses and loses fat in this rapid and extreme way, those toxins flood into the blood stream and can cause you to feel sick or flu-like.

If you want to be healthy, you need to eat well. Period. No amount of cleansing will make up for poor eating habits.

The biggest problem I have with cleansing is that it is usually pretty extreme. Anything that is extreme is not going to bring the body into balance, it will just swing you out of balance in another direction. Juice fasting, for example, puts a lot of raw food into the body all at once. Raw is cold in nature, so you are basically infusing your body with cold (not ideal during the Winter when there is snow outside), not to mention an extreme amount of nutrients that your body cannot handle all at once. Would you be able to eat 3 lbs of carrots in one sitting? Me either. So why would your body need that much beta carotene all at once? We don't. Juicing as part of your diet is one thing; being on a juice fast where you consume nothing but raw fruit and vegetable juice (and water typically) is quite another. Not to mention the lack of fiber for proper elimination. Juicing to add fruits and vegetables to your diet can be good, but is probably better during the spring and summer when there is warmer weather, or if you live in a warm climate.

Chinese Medicine is all about balance, finding the middle ground. By simply changing your eating habits for the positive you will start to heal and your health will improve. You will be supporting your Organs of Elimination (OoE) so that they will be doing their job the way they are supposed to (as compared to having to process the toxic overload from too much sugar, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, "food" chemicals from processed foods, smoking, etc.). When your OoE are overloaded, they often "speak" to you with sypmtoms (chronic sinus congestion, skin problems, irregular bowel movements, menstrual symptoms and irregularities, etc). Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables in their natural form can help you "cleanse" without needing to go to extremes.

For people who already eat well, there is no need to Cleanse, your internal organs are already doing that on a regular basis. Good quality whole foods support the internal organs so that they can do the job they are meant to do. And if you are also exercising to sweat, deeply breathing in and out, and moving your bowels on a regular basis, all the better.