Autumn and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Image: Kara B via Flickr


Just as the leaves on trees begin to dry and fall, the environment all around us is dry.


In traditional Just as the leaves on trees begin to dry and fall, the environment all around us is dry. Chinese medicine (TCM), dryness is the governing factor of autumn. Your hair becomes more prone to static, and the skin is less plump and vibrant than it was during the summer. When things manifest dryness, wrinkles and lines appear, and in extreme cases cracks open and there is roughness. The moisturiser and lotion you used during the summer may not be enough. Although more layers of clothing are worn, do not forget to moisturise your elbows, knees and heels.


At the beginning of autumn the moistening residue of summer can still be felt, but as we go deeper into autumn and the weather turns cool we start to feel the effects of dry-cold coinciding with flu season. In TCM, the lungs are considered to be most susceptible to dryness. When they lack moisture their functions are impaired and hence there is dry cough or a cough that causes pain in the chest. A warm mug of lemon and honey water every morning during autumn will benefit your system.


After a season of growth the time has come for harvesting. How we prepare during this time helps us during the harsher, colder months.


Now is the time for a two-pronged approach: eat to moisten and to warm. Honey is a marvellous yin tonic and therefore perfect to combat dryness. Be sensible and have only a teaspoon or two at most. Pears and peanuts are also wonderfully moistening. Try pu-erh tea, which can be found in Chinese supermarkets. It’s a dark tea (very dark) and the  flavour is strong but still clean and refreshing.


Have your fill of tomatoes before the winter, and include tofu, pine nuts, peanuts and pork. As the weather turns cooler add some warming foods that you had avoided all summer such as leeks, oats, cauliflower, beef and lamb. Deeper into autumn add garlic, cinnamon, chilli, ginger and onions to help stimulate the circulation of qi and bring the defensive energy to the surface which is important during a time when more people are sneezing on the packed underground.


No matter what season, damp can affect the spleen’s functions, so move away from cold or uncooked food and towards soups and stews


This is a time of nurturing and supporting.Make sure to have a scarf with you in case the wind picks up. Wrap yourself up well, especially around the occipital, the area at the base of your head and neck. If you get caught in the rain a nice, hot cup of chai with some honey can be incredibly warming. Have it with a splash of milk.


As in nature with trees shedding their leaves, autumn is characterised by a gradual decline in yang qi as it ebbs towards stillness.


Enjoy the spectacle of autumn, take in the gorgeous colours of the trees, the red and orange and browns. Soak up the rest of the sunlight during your lunch break. This is the perfect time to start a new activity – health and wellness resolutions are much easier to keep now than in the cold, dark winter months. The start of the shorter days and earlier darkness can affect some people. Try to focus and reflect, and don’t dwell on negative issues. Let go and breathe.


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Can acupuncture help with weight loss?

Image: Advantage Lendl via Flickr


People often ask me if acupuncture can help them lose weight. The fact of the matter is that an acupuncturist can help support your weight loss plan by offering advice based on Chinese food therapy. They can also help improve your general sense of wellbeing and to maintain good health which helps relieve the effects of stress and emotions.


However there is no magical acupuncture point which helps the weight magically drop away. You will still have to exercise and do all the usual hard work, but it can be easier and you will be more successful with the help of traditional Chinese medicine.


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Five misconceptions about acupuncture

Image: Stephen Heron/Steve-h via Flickr


While I am recharging my batteries on holiday, I’m going to share two of my favourite articles. First up is one I wrote for AcuTake, a great source of information on how acupuncture can help you lead a healthier, simpler, more meaningful life.


As an acupuncturist, I do a lot of myth debunking. It’s understandable. After all, acupuncture speaks an entirely different language from the one through which most Westerners learned to see the world. However, with acupuncture continuing to grow in popularity and gain acceptance by mainstream medicine, it’s important to clarify a few myths and misconceptions that have a strong hold in our collective psyche.


Here are the five most common myths and misconceptions I hear about acupuncture.


“Acupuncture is only for pain.”

Ask most people what acupuncture helps with and the overwhelming majority will say pain. It is true that acupuncture can work wonders for back pain, headaches, neck pain, shoulder pain, leg pain, postoperative pain, and pretty much any other kind of pain you can think of. However, pain is just one of many ailments for which acupuncture can provide relief.


Acupuncture alleviates digestive problems, menstrual irregularities, allergies, insomnia, stress and anxiety, asthma, and several other conditions. While many acupuncturists are generalists who treat a wide range of ailments, some specialize. So do a little homework before booking an appointment to find out whether an acupuncturist has experience treating whatever you need help with. The AcuTake Acupuncturist Directory, searchable by condition, is a great place to start.


“Acupuncture doesn’t work because I’ve had it once and nothing changed.”

I hear this one a lot. It’s a myth that is easily debunked by thinking about your car. If you go for years without getting your car checked, when you take it to the mechanic it’s going to require more work than if you had come in for regular tune-ups. Similarly, if you’ve had back pain for six months, it will probably take more than one treatment before you notice results.


After your first treatment, an acupuncturist usually will provide an estimate for how many treatments you’re likely to need. This is always an estimate because response times to acupuncture can vary widely, but it’s a good guideline.


Acupuncture is a cumulative process, much like going to the gym: You don’t start running faster or lifting heavier weights after just one trip. That said, most people notice at least some changes after 10 treatments. If you haven’t seen any improvement after giving it 10 appointments, I suggest trying another acupuncturist.


“Acupuncture doesn’t work because we don’t know how it works.”

This is an understandable misconception. When it comes to concepts with which we are unfamiliar, it’s comforting to have solid proof. Although there is tentative evidence of acupuncture’s efficacy, definitive, Western-friendly proof of how acupuncture works is unavailable.


There is good reason for this. Controlled, double-blind trials are inappropriate for studying acupuncture. Most acupuncture research models look at a standard selection of acupuncture points to determine if they are effective for a certain condition. But from an acupuncture perspective, one condition can have several different causes—and therefore would require completely different point selections.


Researchers are beginning to look at acupuncture using MRI. I believe this method of studying acupuncture is the most promising yet. Rather than concentrating on people’s perceptions, which can be misled by placebos or prejudices, the MRI studies look directly at how acupuncture changes brain activity. These MRI studies also address findings from previous research that show effects from fake or “sham” acupuncture. Through MRI, we know that both real and sham acupuncture relieve pain but that the effects on the brain are considerably different.


We may not know yet exactly how acupuncture works, but we are gaining a better understanding of the therapeutic effect that acupuncture causes.


“Acupuncture hurts.”

I disagree with acupuncturists who say that acupuncture needles are so thin you can’t even feel them. In my experience, most people definitely feel acupuncture.


When needles are inserted in the right places, they often produce a feeling of heaviness, kind of like a dull ache. Since this sensation is unfamiliar for most people who have never had acupuncture before, it’s commonly interpreted as pain.


If I describe this dull-achy feeling to people before beginning a treatment, they are less likely to experience the sensation as pain. They are prepared, which means their bodies are less tense. Often the “hurt” associated with acupuncture can be attributed to anxiety about the unknown.


I also make a point of telling my patients that acupuncture—rarely, but on occasion—can cause pain after a treatment. Sometimes needles in certain acupuncture points, after they’re removed, can cause a residual feeling of ache, almost like a bruise. When people understand ahead of time that this is a completely normal outcome, their perception of acupuncture as something that hurts seems to shift.


“Acupuncture is religious.” (Also known as “Acupuncture is voodoo.”)

I have been told, “I don’t believe in acupuncture because I’m a Christian.” Although it’s becoming less common as the general public gets more educated about acupuncture, the myth of acupuncture as a religion or supernatural phenomenon remains.


Acupuncture is not religious, nor is it voodoo. There is nothing supernatural or otherworldly happening during an acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture is a healthcare modality designed to help balance your body’s various, interconnected systems.


I believe some of the misinformation surrounding acupuncture’s origins and intentions stems from the word “qi,” which is often described as “vital energy.”


A better interpretation of what ancient Chinese practitioners meant by qi is simply oxygen. They understood that oxygen and nutrients were needed throughout the body in order for it to function properly. They called it qi and Blood, but acupuncture is merely a tool for moving the oxygen and nutrients our bodies need to thrive.


You don’t need to believe in acupuncture in order to experience its benefits because there is nothing to “believe” in.


If you’re wondering about any other beliefs about acupuncture, check out the AcuTake Acupuncturist Directory, where other acupuncturists from around the world debunk common myths about acupuncture.


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Summer and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Image: Audrey/audreyjm529 via Flickr


After its gradual rising during springtime, yang qi is now in full swing in the summer, like the noon sun.


In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) summer is the season of the big yang and is characterized by the fire phase and summer-heat. While the British summer doesn’t immediately bring to mind images of sweltering heat, you can still take advantage of TCM nutrition and dietetics.


When the sun is blazing, barbecues and beer and Pimms in the park are popular. Unfortunately these things can be quite “heaty” for the body so don’t over do it, and balance things out with lots of fruit and vegetables which are in abundance during the summer. Seek out cooling food like salads, green tea, cucumber, tomatoes and spinach help disperse heat and calm the system.


Don’t confuse cooling with cold. Cold foods can impair the function of the spleen according to the theories of traditional Chinese medicine. When the spleen is weakened its ability to transform and transport the nutrients from your food is also disrupted and it could lead to symptoms like indigestion, loose stools, lethargy or dizziness.


The spleen functions best when it’s given warm, nourishing food that’s easily digested. It is summer though, and who wants stews and soups in the heat? Eat light, both in flavours and in portion-size.


You can have your ice cream and eat it too, but don’t overindulge and have five in a row. One of my favourite summer-time salads consists of little boiled jersey potatoes, stir-fried asparagus, cherry tomatoes and tuna all on a bed of salad leaves – served at room temperature.


While sunshine is a wonderful thing, we should still enjoy it responsibly and with respect. Remember to wear SPF, a hat and sunglasses. Always have a bottle of water with you, especially if you travel on public transport. There is nothing worse than being stuck on a packed train or bus in the heat without any water to sip. Heatstroke is a very real thing that isn’t only seen in the tropics. Avoid being in the sun at its strongest (noon – 2pm) and go to a cool, shady place if you feel tired, or a sharp, “stabby” headache coming on.


Growing up, summer was a vast shadow stretching before us, the days spanning into weeks and then into months. What a luxury it was for my friends and I to have such a long period off school to indulge our imaginations and play to our hearts’ content.


The world today for many of us is a lot more complicated. There are many things whirring in our heads, what with all the caps we wear for the different roles in our lives. Use this time to remind yourself of what you love best and maybe, just take a step back and breathe. Sometimes we forget to do that, but it’s an awfully nice feeling to remember.

 
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pointspace’s June roundup | How important is sleep?

Image: Jenny Pansing/jjjj56cp via Flickr


June has been quite an exciting month on the weather front. Londoners have experienced rain, sunshine, wind, rain, stronger wind, two hot days and then more rain. It is all very confused.


1.  The wind though has been spectacular. I haven’t actually seen a small child being blown away but I’m sure there were near-misses. Besides playing havoc with perfectly coiffed hair and Marilyn Monroe-esque skirt moments, the windy conditions we’ve been experiencing can have a larger impact on our wellness than you think. Fellow acupuncturist, The Acupunc, takes a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) look at the invasion of wind and offers a soothing tea recipe.


2. The furore of New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to ban gigantic buckets of fizzy drink continues with cries of nanny-state and loss of liberty. In case you missed it, here’s my blog post about the soda ban.


3.  Do you drink tea? You should, it’s a good way to keep hydrated if water is a bit too plain for you. Everyone touts the benefits of green tea, but I would also recommend seeking out pu-erh tea. The flavour is much stronger but still clean and refreshing. Read more to see why tea is good for you.


4.  Lack of sleep can leave you tired and cranky which doesn’t do well for concentration but new research shows that lack of sleep can also lead to unhealthy food choices.


5.  And now for the catch-22: more studies show that obesity and depression are the root causes of daytime sleepiness. The common denominator seems to be that weight is definitely a factor with sleep issues, but is being overweight causing sleep disorders or does sleepiness and fatigue result in weight gain?


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Food for thought | Mindful eating and Chinese medicine

Image: Nina Matthews Photography via Flickr


Patients often ask for nutritional advice using TCM (Chinese medicine) theory that would complement their treatments. I am always glad when a patient embraces the idea of taking their treatment outside of the treatment room, and I do believe it gives it a larger sense of purpose and responsibility.


Often what I see in my practice is yin deficiency and I often suggest they take some honey in warm water every day to help nourish their yin. Goucizi (or goji berries) also make quite a good yin tonic. It should never be taken longterm though, day in day out, as its very yin-tinkering properties also make it very damp-inducing which is a whole other kettle of fish. I recommend taking it for two weeks (steeped in a glass or two, daily) then having a rest.


If you’re kidney deficient (back pain, knee pain, frequent urination, fatigued or just running on low energy) you can try kidney beans or black beans.


Sometimes though, patients nod when I give them recommendations, but seem more interested in a list of what they can’t or shouldn’t eat. This is when I sometimes go blank because it’s not such a straightforward answer.


TCM relies on a constant flow of change, an ebb and tide to maintain homeostasis. If you’ve overindulged in a portion of salty chips, you’ll naturally feel thirsty and drink some water.


The same goes with our bodies. If you have an excess condition we aim to reduce it, if it’s a deficiency syndrome we tonify your system. Once you’ve reached the balance again, continuing the exact same treatment means we’ll tip on the scale again and you may end up with a deficiency after too much reducing method for too long.


The same goes for foodstuff. Unless it’s an acute symptom like a cough (eat less phlegm inducing food like clementines or mandarins) it’s usually best to learn what you should be eating rather than what you should be avoiding.


Avoidance only makes that thing seem more desirable. How many have failed with a fad diet because they had to cut out something? Harvard nutritionist Lilian Cheung discusses what she calls mindful eating. By not making food an adversary that you need to avoid unless you want to feel guilty and fat, you promote awareness to the things you put in your body. It’s not a matter of dieting or about giving anything up – it’s about experiencing food more intensely.


This is something TCM has known all along. Taking time to eat properly is beneficial for your whole system. Eating on the go, or eating while thinking or worrying damages the organs’ functions in TCM. I suggest sitting down to eat at a table (not your work desk), but you could also easily stand against the kitchen counter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal setting, but the idea is to make your food the main focus of the moment. Munching through a bag of popcorn is a lot harder when you’re not sitting on the sofa watching TV.


On a social level though it helps promote interaction with others or gives yourself some quiet time. You don’t have to practice monastic silence at meal times; turn off the TV and have a conversation. Try it and see the difference.


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How time of day affects your health

Image: Ernst Vikne via Flickr


In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) time has always been an important consideration.


While looking at the whole picture during an initial consultation I have to take into account the:

  • time of day a symptom presents: Night urination? Night sweats? Loose stools early in the morning?
  • Time of the year: Lower back pain in the colder months? Stress during the holidays? Stuffy nose during spring?
  • Time in your life: Have you just started puberty? Menopausal? 30s? 70s?


When something occurs has just as much significance as the symptom itself. Take frequent urination. If it’s during the day, is it simply because you’re taking in a lot of fluids? If so, is it out of habit or because you’re thirsty? Does the fluid intake help quench your thirst or are you still feeling a bit parched?


If it’s frequent urination at night, do you have any accompanying symptoms like back pain or weak knees? I would look at your chart to check your age, because it is more common to see night urination in the young and the elderly. What if you were 25? I would look into your lifestyle, accompanying symptoms and past history to see why your kidney yang or kidney yin wasn’t pulling its weight.


Patients always seem intrigued that I spend time asking about their bowel movement and even more time clarifying the actual time of day it occurs. The same goes for a cough, is it most persistent at night or during the day? These little (well quite big, actually) details can reveal so much.


Now it seems western science is starting to pay attention to time as well. Yale professor Erol Fikrig said a ‘direct molecular link between circadian rhythms and the immune system’ had been found, which could have ‘important implications for the prevention and treatment of disease’. As a result drug companies have started screening drugs at different times of the day.


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Put a spring in your step

Image: mozzercork via Flickr


Spring is a wonderful time when the days get longer and everyone steps out of the shadows of the dark days we’ve had. As much fun as the festive holidays and the New Year brought us, seeing daffodils in bloom do wonders to help shake the mental cobwebs.


With the warmer weather, qi and blood flow freely and towards the surface of the skin. Just like a bear coming out of hibernation, our yang qi is also coming out after having gone deeper into the ground during winter. This is a time of growth and development as the yang qi flows easily through our bodies.


Cast your mind to the first spring bank holiday – the great British Easter escape. Encouraged by glorious weather and a few days of rest, many choose this time to have a well-deserved break. Like yang qi, everyone flows along towards the main arteries of the country via cars, trains and planes. The extra surge of people (and possible engineering works and other delays) results in traffic jams and crowding. It’s all very frustrating.

 
In our bodies, traffic jams and crowds mean stagnation or obstruction of qi. Qi stagnation can cause pain and the organ in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that detests stagnation the most is the liver. Liver qi stagnation can cause irritability, a sense of frustration or just simple crankiness. Add on additional lifestyle stresses like relationships or work, and it’s a sure-fire recipe to lashing out or feeling overwhelmed.


Physically, you may experience headaches (especially behind the eyes), dizziness or hypochondriac pain (tightness or sharpness along the side of your ribcage). You may feel thirstier than usual and occasionally have a bitter taste in the mouth.


Acupuncture can help “soothe” or “smooth” the qi in your body just as you would smooth out the creases when you make your bed.


In the spring you should aim to give your body’s qi full rein to flow freely so that it can support the growth it needs. To help your body awaken from its deep sleep (a gentle alarm is better than cold water in the face) try these tips to have an enjoyable spring:


1.  Go outside and get some fresh air. If you’ve been cooped up indoors all winter only to brave the underground, now is the perfect time to get off one stop early and walk to your destination. The weather can still be a bit temperamental though, so do make sure you don’t under dress and end up feeling chilly.


2.  Smile, de-clutter and plan. Just as you would spring clean your home now is also a good time to dream and plan for what you want in your life. Think about things you want to rid (physically or mentally) and do it! Organising during this time of year gives it a great sense of adventure – it’s no coincidence that many high school teachers prepare their students for university decisions during these months. Have a moment and think about what you would like to change.


3.  A whole array of fruit and vegetables are in season again. Get in your dark leafy greens such as spinach and sprouts, but also have fennel and rice which are mildly warming. Just as you would start to put away your winter wardrobe, lamb, ginger and hot spicy foods should also give way to fresher, greener meals. The changes in the weather (chilly then warm then windy) mean you shouldn’t abandon warming foods completely and spring onions (and some ginger) are good to have in your kitchen.


4.  Do some gentle stretching to keep the joints and tendons supple. Now is also the time to take up your favourite exercise again if you had been disheartened by the cold, dark days.


5.  If you’re prone to seasonal allergies, take care of them now instead of waiting till the symptoms arrive.


6.  Take care of yourself. Some people have a tendency to give it their all when spring comes around and then overtax themselves. Just remind yourself (because you do know yourself best) that you don’t have to take on the new hobby and marathon training and start that new class just because it’s the season of birth and growth. In the same token if you feel like you do have a little more to give, then definitely go for it.


7. Get a maintenance acupuncture tune-up. Even if you only have acupuncture a few times a year, a new season is a great reminder to have one to help rebalance little niggles, address existing issues or adjust your body with the outside environment.


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