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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While I am recharging my batteries on holiday, I’m going to share two of my favourite articles. This second one is from the blog that you may have missed.


I have been embracing my culture. More precisely I have been trying to read the historical novel Three Kingdoms which is widely popular in China and neighbouring countries. Think King Arthur but older and grander.


I remember one Korean 12-year-old re-enacting excitedly a scene which involved sending covered boats down a river in the dark of night, camouflaged by mist. The enemy, thinking they were being attacked, aimed all their arrows at the boats and let fire. The boats were eventually recovered by the good guys, which were now completely covered with arrows they so desperately needed. This was one of the turning points for their fortunes and an example of strategy genius that has made many boys (and men) go into slight crises.


I had no idea what he was talking about.


So now, after almost a decade of trying, I’m finally midway through the book. I have been lucky enough to find a very good English translation (which is oh so important) and despite there being 15 characters introduced in the first chapter alone (some with other names they sometimes go by) I have to admit it’s been quite good so far.


To be honest, I dusted this book and gave it another try this time because there are just too many epic martial arts movies that are based on these events. There have been two which are particularly well choreographed with enough horsemen to scare off the “Lord of the Rings” series, but everything was just too complicated without any knowledge on the history behind it. So, bring on the original novel!


In chapter ten, Kongming, a counsel for one of the good guys (Liu Bei) was fighting off criticism for why his side hadn’t overthrown the enemy if they were as good as they said they were. Liu Bei’s men and resources at this point were vastly outnumbered by Cao Cao (one of the bad guys) and they were covering ground at a snail’s pace. Kongming retaliated:

“When a man is gravely ill, he must be fed weak gruel and medicated with mild tonics until his internal state is readjusted and balanced and his condition gradually stabilizes. Only then can meat be added to his diet and powerful drugs used to cure him. Thus is the root of the disease eradicated and the man’s health restored. If you do not wait until breath and pulse are calm and steady but precipitately use powerful drugs and rich food, the attempt to cure the patient is sure to fail.”


This brilliantly summarises the theories of Chinese medicine (and strategies of warfare so it seems) but it can also be applied to other things.

The main concept is not one of wait and bide your time, but of building a strong foundation:

  • A ballerina does not jump right into the Swan Lake, she spends years at the barre perfecting her technique.
  • The head chef doesn’t get to that level without knowing how to slice carrots thinly and quickly with dangerously sharp knives.
  • The accountant running the London Marathon for the first time will have spent months preparing for the event.
  • After recovering from a serious injury, the patient needs to undergo relentless physical rehabilitation before they can take those first steps again.


Nowadays with the constant access of information available 24/7, people’s perception of time seems to be somewhat warped. I get frustrated if I’m still waiting to be connected to a customer representative until I look and see I’ve only been on the phone for 54 seconds. I’ve spoken to people (not my patients) who don’t think that acupuncture / TCM / massage / physiotherapy / (delete as appropriate) worked for their chronic condition when they’ve only had two sessions.


Sometimes we should just take a step back and realize that a house built carefully and with consideration is the strongest house on the street.


How else can you apply this thought to everyday situations? Let me know, and if you enjoyed reading this, feel free to forward it on.


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pointspace’s July roundup | How to train your brain to be more optimistic

Image: Elena Gaillard/orchidgalore via Flickr

 
I may be slightly biased, but July is my favourite month. Sure there is my birthday (the excitement doesn’t wear off with age, I assure you), but it’s also the most relaxed month of the year. As a child, it’s when you finally settle into the long summer vacation and as an adult it’s when most of us take a little break to recharge and refresh.

 
This particular July has been quite dreary and grey in London. The constant drizzle and decidedly un-summery weather means
I still haven’t retired my scarf and coat. My poor arms haven’t seen the sun in ages!

 
Since the weather isn’t pulling its weight, I have been cheering up the flat with colourful flowers and fruit; the nectarines this year have been exceptionally delicious and juicy.

 
1.  Some brave souls have rebelled against the climate and are waltzing around town in flip flops (well, at least they won’t get wet socks). Unfortunately, these extremely flat shoes (including fashionable sandals) just aren’t that good for our feet.

 
2.  The damp we’re all feeling can be quite tiring, literally. In TCM too much damp can affect your body, and a weakness in your system can lead to damp, a bit of a catch 22 situation. One way to ward off the effects of damp such as lethargy, a sense of heaviness, headaches etc, is to strengthen your TCM spleen which really dislikes cold and damp. Fellow acupuncturist Carlo St. Juste Jr. describes 5 ways to prevent spleen qi deficiency.

 
3.  I’m optimistic the weather will turn though. As Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England writes: “Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough. Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.” Read more on how to make optimism work for you or as Dr Fox calls it: how to strengthen the “sunny” brain, and weaken the “rainy” brain.

 
4.  While short term stress can be good and have beneficial effects, chronic stress is bad and can siginificant harmful effects on our bodies and health. We can’t eliminate stress from our lives, but you can shift bad stress into good stress. Dr. Firdaus S. Dhabhar, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford, explores how practicing compassion could prove effective in reducing or eliminating chronic stress.

 
5. For my birthday treat this year, I got to see the exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of the human body at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. It is truly awe-inspiring to see such detailed and thoughtful sketches that are 500 years old.

The muscles of the shoulder and arm, and the bones of the foot by
Leonardo da Vinci at the Royal Collection, Queen’s Gallery

The foetus in the womb by Leonardo da Vinci at the Royal Collection, Queen’s Gallery

You can see all the images here but if you’re in London, I urge you to see the actual exhibition in person.

 
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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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Rethinking disease with systems medicine

Image: Hartwig HKD/h.koppdelaney via Flickr


There’s an insightful and ironic quote about medicine from an unknown author which goes like this:

A Short History of Medicine.

2000 B.C.  “Here, eat this root.”

1000 B.C.  “That root is heathen, say this prayer.”

1850 A.D.  “That prayer is superstition, drink this potion.”

1940 A.D.  “That potion is snake oil, swallow this pill.”

1985 A.D.  “That pill is ineffective, take this antibiotic.”

2000 A.D.  “That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root.”


It got a few chuckles out of me but it does show you how healthcare and medicine have come full-circle and we are slowly but surely understanding the importance of (w)holistic medicine.


As an acupuncturist, it comes with the territory that I don’t see a symptom as an isolated case separate from the rest of the body and the person. Why does this person have insomnia? Is it because of a back pain or frequent urination keeping them awake at night? Or is it because of stress at work so the overthinking makes it hard for them to fall asleep? Rarely does a health problem arise without other accompanying symptoms. They may seem unrelated but in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) these are all clues just waiting to be noticed by the detective.


So it was with great delight that I saw a short video by Dr. Mark Hyman where he talks about “systems medicine”. Hardly revolutionary in the TCM and acupuncture world, his idea is that “historically we just try to find a drug for the bug or a pill for the ill, instead of really finding out how to treat the body as a system.”


Dr Hyman goes on to say:

“We’re moving from the idea that diseases are things, like bacteria that need to be treated with a drug, like an antibiotic, which was a wonderful paradigm for 20th century illness, but it’s not a good paradigm for chronic lifestyle-driven diseases. We’re looking to choose drugs over lifestyle to treat diseases that are really lifestyle-driven illnesses… The future of medicine is systems medicine. It’s predictive, preventative, it’s participatory and it’s personalised.”


It certainly sounds very familiar to TCM theory, doesn’t it?


Click here to watch the full video.


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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


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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