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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Five days of acupuncture

Image: sarniebill1 via Flickr

Do acupuncturists have acupuncture treatments? You bet we do.

Last week, I had five acupuncture sessions in five consecutive days. I must admit, this is quite an indulgence even for myself, but it felt ever so good.

Spring always catches me off-guard, especially spring in London. The weather is ridiculously unpredictable: the sun teases you with her rays and then the wind appears to show you who’s the boss. Having grown up in Greece where a sunny day equals a warm day, I still get caught out by the bright glare outdoors to discover that it’s not quite tropical weather just yet. This isn’t helped by the number of overenthusiastic people parading about in short sleeves already. They may have an abundance of yang qi, but I definitely don’t and I pay for it if I don’t continue with my layers.

I don’t know what is about the spring but I always feel under the weather, which is so annoying when the world is coming alive again with the flowers pushing through the earth and the ducks and geese squawk and honk merrily. Whereas most people feel sluggish at the first signs of colds and flu around September and October time, my own body finds the emergence of yang qi out of winter mode more difficult to handle.

So instead of having my usual maintenance session this month, I had five, all in one week. It was difficult to squeeze them all in, but once I had committed and marked the appointments down it became a non-issue. I had mine in the beginning of the day as I work late, but oh how I would’ve loved to have my sessions in the evening.

During the first two treatments I was completely knocked out, sleeping on the treatment bed as soon as the needles were in, with the dull sense of de-qi keeping me company. On the third treatment I was sleepy but awake and by the end of the week I could feel the acupuncture changing from having a restorative and tonifying effect on my body to an invigorating and balancing one.

It was wonderful, and the little moments of calm during my week were sublime. How are you preparing yourself for spring?

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Health and Wellbeing | My bathtub story



I have been having some plumbing issues. That is not a euphemism by the way, I’m a lot more ladylike than that. The problem is my bathtub. It began with a somewhat slower-than-normal draining, as if the shower water was a glum teenager dragging her heels and shuffling slowly to the drain, but recently the water movement has decelerated dramatically. A pensioner on a zimmerframe probably moves faster than the water exiting my bathtub. There is nothing that wipes away the cleanliness effect of a nice shower than standing in a puddle of soapy water. Make that ankle deep in a lake of soapy water.


Whoosh- blocked pipes be gone!


It is partly my fault, I didn’t attack the drains with all my weapons the second I noticed. Although to be fair, I did spend quite a fair amount of time after I noticed researching the problem online, as you do. So last week I purchased some baking soda and white vinegar (ironic since neither ingredients were readily in my kitchen cupboards despite the forum thread being “things you can use do with household items readily available in your home”) and poured the correct amounts down the tub.


Quite a bit of fizzing occurred, like the volcano we made in the third grade, and I was quite impressed. But the lake in the bathtub remained, so I poured some more down the drain the next day.


Blocked qi in the channels.


My boyfriend and I finally gave up on the quaint Little-House-on-the-Prairie approach and went to our local home improvement store. The range of choice is unbelievable from the mild to the truly scary where they all but told you to wear a NASA spacesuit when using the product.


Our bodies are like houses, clothes are like furnishings and moisturiser is like wallpaper. Beneath it all is qi flowing through our channels like water through the pipes. If the flow of qi gets obstructed, illness or pain can occur; instead of a blocked sink or toilet you may find yourself experiencing pain or nausea or just feeling generally unwell.


As an acupuncturist I always recommend that you seek treatment for your ailments sooner rather than later: take your antihistamines as soon as hayfever season starts rather than wait for the horrible, teary effects; go to the optometrist when you suspect those headaches might be related to your eyesight; have acupuncture to help as pain relief for that lower back. The golden rule is that the longer you wait to get help for anything, the longer it could take to make it better.


If only I had listened to my own advice as soon as I sensed trouble after that shower, but as is often the case for many people, we don’t stop to think about what can resolve a situation if the situation is deemed just not that big. A blocked toilet is definitely a problem just as a broken foot would require a cast. However a slow trickling of water in the beginning is similar to that little niggling achy pain that isn’t comfortable but not terrible enough.


We chose a non-chemical one in the end, with enzyme producing organisms that are environmentally biodegradable, and are dutifully pouring it down the bathtub every other night. On the bottle, it also recommends using it as a preventative measure, pouring a capful every month or so which we will also be doing. Who knew the process of eliminating bathtub blockages would be so similar to acupuncture?


Photo credit: Daniel Rothamel via flickr

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4 ways to help make this your easiest winter yet



Halloween is over and despite the shock to the system of seeing it dark by 5pm it has actually been quite mild in terms of temperature. I have found myself somewhat overdressed this past week, as if I’m still acclimatising to that blast of cold mid-October, and taking off my layers of scarf, jacket on the underground, which I assure you is no mean feat when trying to balance a scooter against your knee and a book clamped against your side.


But now is not the time to stray away from your autumn-winter survival plan. If you’ve been reading my blog awhile, you should have implemented the things to ensure that you have the easiest winter you can manage aside from hiding yourself in a bubble. However, if you haven’t, it’s not too late to incorporate these 4 tips to stay well.


1.  Wash your hands. I’m going to say this till I’m blue in the face but it’s the easiest form of hygiene. You can’t go around commanding other people wash their own hands, but you can protect yourself by washing your own, especially before you eat. Remember to moisturize your hands with a good hand cream though.


2.  Care for yourself. Self-care is a phrase that’s becoming more and more popular and it refers to doing anything that takes care of your entire being. This could be eating healthily, regular exercise, having an acupuncture session, getting dental check-ups or having a great new haircut, meeting up with friends, cuddling up with a good book or buying a new lipstick. Feeling good about yourself and more importantly, taking care of your body and mind, means that you are better equipped to deal with any obstacles that may be thrown your way.


3.  Protect yourself. Most of us won’t need to have vaccinations to protect ourselves but it is good to take preventative measures. I start taking echinacea (which you can get from all good health shops) regularly from September until February to help boost the immune system. Ginger is also good to help warm your body during these colder months. If you feel a little run down, take a rain check on that dinner party. The important thing is to not overstretch yourself.


4.  If you are feeling unwell, stay home. Getting rest gives your body energy to fight off the cold or flu. Sometimes, an early night is all you need to feel a lot better.


Photo credit: Tanya Little via flickr

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What a Chinese classic can teach us about health and wellbeing



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 LOTR 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.


Photo credit: martin_vmorris via flickr

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Five Reasons to See an Acupuncturist




1.  You want to be treated as a person, not as a disease.

An important concept underlying traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and acupuncture is the idea of wholism. (I prefer the spelling of wholism to holism that seems to convey images of New Age spiritualism which is quite different to the idea of one’s health dependent on the sum of parts.) This wholistic approach views the patient as being interconnected with the surrounding environment. Hence when making a diagnosis, the traditional acupuncturist would take into account all the different aspects of the patient’s lifestyle and condition as well as the main complaint. This also reflected in the treatment plan which should be tailored individually to each patient.

Contrast this with modern conventional medicine which is based mainly on the diagnosis of a disease. Once this has occurred, you are then labelled and given the same treatment as everyone else with the same condition. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.


2.  You will get more than 15 minutes of face to face time.

Your initial consultation with your acupuncturist will definitely last longer than 15 minutes, during which time you will have many opportunities to express your concerns or ask any questions you may have. Any treatments thereafter your acupuncturist will ask you how you’ve been feeling since and change your treatment plan accordingly.

Whilst an acupuncture session isn’t really calculated by time (some treatments can last over an hour, and some only need 45 minutes) you should have the full attention of your acupuncturist without any distractions.


3.  It is safe with no undesirable side effects.

When practiced by a fully qualified practitioner, acupuncture is a safe method of treatment with very few of the side effects of many pharmaceuticals such as nausea, headaches or weight gain.

I personally believe that acupuncture should be offered to everyone to complement conventional medicine. Sometimes drugs and surgery is the only way to go, but more times than not, acupuncture is a much better alternative that can maximize health benefits.


4.  It gives the control for your own health back to you.

The main aim of acupuncture and TCM is to help your body combat illness and pain by regulating the qi in your body. The focus of your practitioner is to help you get control back so that the frequency of acupuncture sessions become less and less. When your main complaint has been resolved, then no further treatments are required.

Your acupuncturist may also offer nutritional and lifestyle advice as well as some massage techniques you can perform on your own. The emphasis of TCM is that you are responsible for your own health.


5.  You think prevention is better than cure. 

According to the theories of TCM, if the body’s qi is flowing freely without any obstructions then there should be no illness or disease. Therefore you can use acupuncture as a preventative measure by maintaining a smooth flow of qi in the body. Unlike acupuncture treatment during times of illness or pain, acupuncture to promote wellbeing and health is only needed seasonally, so about once every one – three months. 


Photo credit: Andreanna Moya via flickr

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Image: Vanessa Yvonne


Are you feeling out of sorts or frustrated in relationships? Is work no longer an enjoyable thing and you’re just looking forward to the end of day when you can rush back and do something you love? You feel healthy but are you feeling good?


Acupuncture can benefit whether you have health concerns or not.


What is acupuncture?

At its simplest, acupuncture is the practice of inserting sterile hair-fine needles at specific points in the body to regulate the body’s flow of energy and relieve symptoms of disease. It’s a branch of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that dates back over 2,000 years.

Imagine a traffic jam during rush hour. Cars are blocking the road and no one can get anywhere. You start to feel tense around the neck and shoulders, you’re getting tired and annoyed, and oh no, now you need the bathroom as well. 

Blocked energy in your body is just as bad. Acupuncture works on balancing and nurturing the body naturally so that it can do its own job properly. If our bodies are working at their highest potential, without the interference of stress and trauma, and we slow down enough to pay attention, then we shouldn’t be sick, we shouldn’t be in pain and we shouldn’t be cranky and agitated. Imagine if the traffic jam was suddenly removed: it’s a great feeling, right?


I thought acupuncture only worked for pain relief

No, that’s just one of its benefits. Acupuncture helps relieve pain by removing blockages and balancing the body, so that it can operate at its strongest and most efficient. In the same way, acupuncture can help relieve the emotional stresses and weights that have accumulated and are wearing you down. In fact it can help with:

  • Have a specific symptom or condition
  • Feel generally unwell but have no obvious diagnosis
  • Want to maintain good health, as a preventative measure
  • Want to improve your general sense of wellbeing.


But I’m scared of needles

Acupuncture needles are very fine and don’t feel anything like injections or giving blood. Most people don’t even feel the insertion and as you’ll be lying down, you won’t see the needles. Only sterile, disposable needles are used.

Your acupuncturist should always make sure you are comfortable and tailor your treatment accordingly. And don’t worry, you won’t look like a pin cushion! Trust me, a paper cut can hurt a lot more. 


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Integrating Western Medicine with Complementary Therapies: the importance of East meets West for healthcare.


It is disheartening to think that pharmaceutical companies are not investing as much time and effort into research for antibiotics because there just isn’t as much money in it as heart medication. Heart medication must be taken everyday whereas a course of antibiotics is only a week, and if you add on the fact that resistance makes the drugs useless after a while, well it’s easy to see why pharmaceutical companies aren’t showing that much enthusiasm for difficult research.

This is a problem because this resistance has led scientists to predict that we probably have another 10 years before antibiotics will be futile to fight off bacterial infections. Imagine going back to a time when the risk of infection after surgery will be more deadly than the surgery itself.

This is when traditional acupuncture will be more important than ever. If we, ourselves, are to be the only form of defence against infections then we must make sure our bodies are as prepared as we can make them. This means that along with exercise and a healthy diet, we must also make sure our bodies’ qi is balanced and regulated. Remember, prevention is better than cure.


Photo credit: Michael Mortensen via flickr 

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