Red Valentine: Taking care of your (TCM) heart



The arrival of February can only mean one thing: Valentine’s Day. Through years of commercial conditioning, and also possibly because of Chinese New Year’s tendency to fall somewhere around the end of January and the beginning of February, this period of the year has a very definite “red” characteristic to it for me.


Mention heart in a clinical sense, and cardiovascular diseases will most probably pop up, along with blood pressure (high or low) and possibly breathlessness. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the heart’s responsibilities are mainly that of controlling the blood circulation (easy enough) as well as mental and emotional activities (hold on, what?). To understand the heart’s functions I find it’s a lot easier if you step back and look at the symptoms when things go wrong.


Think of the fragile invalid typical of Victorian literature: delicate constitution, weakness due to prolonged illness, shortness of breath, palpitation, pale complexion, dizziness. These are all typical symptoms of a heart deficiency syndrome, which makes sense due to the poor/blocked blood circulation. Heart deficiency can also result in anxiety, restlessness, insomnia or frequent dreaming and this is what we mean by mental and emotional disturbances.


On the other end of the spectrum, common symptoms of excess conditions affecting the heart include palpitation, an oppressed feeling on the chest, dizziness, and in extreme cases, chest pains. There may also be signs of confusion, insomnia or difficulty falling asleep and a tendency to be easily frightened.


Acupuncture can be very useful in balancing the heart’s functions and settling the mind. But what can you do on your own?

  • Avoiding stress is a good start as stress greatly influences the heart’s ability (it’s no coincidence it houses the body’s mental and emotional activities). This includes violent images from TV or movies; swap watching the news with just reading headlines online but not the entire story – you don’t need to know all the details.
  • Add a relaxation routine into your day: try tai chi, yoga, swimming or just simple walking. Rather than just doing nothing, your relaxation should have a positive sense of gentle activity.
  • At the same time incorporate some concentration training like crosswords, sudoku or meditation.
  • Have a regular bedtime routine to ensure you get good quality sleep (and enough of it!).
  • Cut back on sugar and caffeine. If you can cut them out completely, that’s even better.
  • Eat regularly and eat mild, easily digested food. Avoid chillies or really spicy meals.


The general idea here is one of gentleness: gentle exercises, mild (not bland) meals, simple nurturing of your body. Rather than the pounding of a boxing match imagine the slow stretch of a ballet dancer.


Photo credit: Neal Fowler via flickr

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4 ways to de-clutter your mind and feel calmer



A friend I hadn’t seen for a while remarked the other day that I seemed different. Not more relaxed per se but calmer. Without wanting to invoke images of Mother Nature with flowing locks being gently teased by the breeze and a calm serene smile on my face as I stand basking in the soft glow from the strategically placed lamp (this is definitely not a description of me) but I understood what she meant. So I thanked her graciously for the compliment.


What does this say about either me or my friend you may ask? In fact, is this even a compliment or was she implying that I’m usually a complete nightmare to be around? Am I juggling too many things and starting to feel the strains of spreading myself too thin?


Everything around you is what you make of it.


My friend couldn’t put a finger on it, but I had been getting rid of unnecessary clutter in my day to day activities. This in turn removed a lot of the mini frustrations that can (if you let them) add up. A case of the straw and camel’s back if you will.


What easy changes can you apply?


1. Stop checking your email every five minutes.

My brain is like a magpie, anything and everything can attract its attention. While this is great, the domino effect of accumulated interesting articles and videos and blogs and emails and texts and messages means that sometimes things can get a bit out of control. One easy way to help clear that spaghetti junction of information that really works for me is to turn off my email. This allows me to work for a specified period of time without being distracted. Two hours later I’m finished with everything I need to do and I can get on with responding to any emails.


2. Remove those red flags.

I am usually quite composed and personable, but wrath to those who taunt me with their terrible points of view or bad grammar.

I avoid certain newspapers to avoid having to rant till the cows come home (and then I’ll probably rant to the cows). This means I’ve instructed my friends to not email me links to the article about the silly person who was stuck in a tree for hours or other silly amusing fun if it comes from certain tabloids.

Bad grammar is harder to predict, and therefore much harder to avoid. Sign makers, I’m sure, are doing it purposely to mock me (Luxury apartments with own balcony’s anyone?).

Your red flag may be waiting ages at the supermarket checkout on your Sunday shop. Try changing the day or time you shop, or better yet find a shop that invests in more staff working to give you a better shopping experience.


3. Turn off the 24/7 culture.

I have not had a TV for over five years, and it’s wonderful (although I probably still spend way too much time on youtube). Some people call it channel surfing and it does seem to have quite a sedative effect on them, but I couldn’t find a more irritating activity to spend an evening doing. There is nothing worse than that feeling that I’m probably missing a really good program right now but by the time I go through all 300 channels I will have missed it again as it goes to commercials. So now I choose the shows I want to watch (please email me for my Christmas DVD wishlist) when I want.

Another bonus to not owning a TV is that I don’t have to be subjected to the 21st century phenomenon of 24 hour breaking news. I remember I was a friend’s house once and the news on TV was reporting on a place where a natural disaster had struck. Endless reams of footage looped over and over again. I absolutely advocate reading newspapers and being aware of the world close and beyond, but there is no need to subject our brains to this kind of image and information overload.


4. Don’t text and drive (your life).

Smartphones have a lot to answer for by providing an easy platform to access all the social media in our lives. Ignore the temptation to check your emails, Facebook, Twitter, whatsapp or plain old texts all the time.

I am the worst offender. A few months ago I found myself checking my phone during dinner, and then throughout the movie afterwards. I was paying attention to what my boyfriend was saying, but let’s be honest, even if you’re a multitasking master, you’re still not focusing on something 100%. The people around you deserve to spend some time with just you. Just like using mobile phones while driving is now banned, you should try banning your phone while you’re spending quality time with your loved ones watching Police Academy 29.


What other things do you do to help make your life that little bit easier? Let me know and do share this with your friends.


Photo credit: Alan Strakey via flickr

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Stressed? 7 things you need to remember



In my previous post, it was reported that stress is now the most common reason for long-term sick leave.


Stress, and the depression that can sometimes accompany it, is not something that we should expect to have to deal with alone. Whether the cause of the stress is due to work, relationships or life changes, here are some things you need to remember:


1.  Self-care. You are the most important person in the story. No matter what the cause of the stress is, remember to take care of yourself first and foremost.


2.  Pinpoint the problem. I know this sounds slightly obvious, but even if you can’t change the situation right away, knowing the cause makes you aware of the problem so that there’s always the potential for change.


3.  As in pain, everyone’s threshold is different. You may have a friend who seems to live (and flourish) in a highly chaotic and stressful lifestyle, juggling work and family and volunteer work. However, you are not your friend, and it’s okay to say that you’ve taken on too much and to take a small step back. This is not defeat, it’s self-preservation.


4.  Make sure it actually is stress. Stress is such a strong word, and it can be very empowering to some people to know that they aren’t failures and that there is good reason they’re struggling at that specific point in time. However, because it’s such a powerful word, it can often be a crutch that may be overused. Perhaps it’s just a new situation that needs adjusting to and once you’ve adapted it is no longer a big issue. This way you can save your resources to tackle the bigger problems.


5.  Seek out things you enjoy that bring out the good feeling endorphins. That could be a zumba class near work or home (there is no need to trek half way across town unless you really, really love that particular class); acupuncture to give that calming and reenergizing feeling; massage to ease away the physical stresses; a local book club where you can meet other people outside of your usual circles; the world really is your oyster.


6.  Eat well. A healthy mind and body makes an incredible difference to how you can deal with the effects of stress. If you are feeling run down, the chances of being ill increases and you may find that mentally it seems much harder to cope.


7.  Finally if it’s getting a bit much, do seek outside help. This could be talking to a good friend you trust, a healthcare practitioner or a counsellor. Sometimes just a bit of release is all you need knowing that confidentiality will be kept. Other times you may need more directed guidance in which case a talking therapy can do wonders.


Photo credit: Jonatas Cunha via flickr

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Tips to a stress-free Bank Holiday Royale



Bank holiday season is upon us. By the time you read this, chances are you, like many others up and down Britain, are taking advantage of the Easter break and next week’s special Royal Wedding Bank Holiday (a nod to the lovely couple for getting married on a Friday instead of over the weekend).


From experience, I know for a fact that England likes its traditions and will try its hardest to keep them going year after year. Tradition has it that any bank holidays will be a washout, but I suspect this might be a tradition that’s going to slip on the wayside as the glorious hayfever-inducing spring weather seems to be unrelenting.


Holiday travel chaos is another tradition that likes to rear its head. While traffic jams seem to be never-ending, this might possibly be the year you won’t be spending 4 hours to travel 20 miles in a car, or changing 7 trains on a triangular path to your destination. (Travellers on a plane will just have to grin and bear it, and wonder whether the illusion that the whole world is on the plane with them isn’t actually an illusion.)


Open the window and feel the fresh air.


I, for one, will be staying in London. The exodus of the city’s dwellers dashing off to distant lands (or Southend) means London has a delightful “secret garden” feel to it. It’s a grand feeling to wander down its eerily quiet streets but without having to indulge in some mental zombie-fighting tactics a la “28 days later”.


No matter whether you have the whole 2 weeks off or just 2 days, here are some tips to help you enjoy your bank holiday double whammy.


What is it they say? Slip slop slap. The name of the health campaign in Australia where the sun is extremely potent, it refers to its motto of “slipping on a shirt, slopping on some sunscreen and slapping on a hat”.


The problem with the British weather is that it’s dark for quite a few months of the year, and while it does get four seasons, the sun is seen as such a rare and joyous thing that many people go towards it like moth to a flame. I was speaking to a friend one day about the uniquely British phenomenon of putting on summer gear at the first sighting of the sun’s rays in March. Every year, it never ceases to amaze me to see tank tops and bare arms out in 12 degrees centigrade. My friend explained, “You need to take advantage of it when you can, this might be the only summer we’ll have.”


I think we can confidently say with the current climactic trends towards milder seasons that the British Isles will start to see more and more of this rare phoenix of a creature we call summer. Just today they were forecasting that Easter weekend here will be warmer than Athens and on par with Tenerife.


So put on your sunscreen, actually don’t slop it, it’s better if you rub it in well.


Use moisturiser that has SPF in it.


I’m going to say wear a hat that covers your face and neck even though no one will listen, but do wear sunglasses. Besides making a fashion statement, you’ll be protecting your eyes from the sun’s UV rays, preventing wrinkles since you won’t need to squint AND for hay fever sufferers out there, it’s another barrier between you and all that pollen.


Plan ahead. I am a believer that if you plan certain things ahead of time, then your life will be much more of a stress-free zone. I’m not saying suck the spontaneity out of your life completely, but it does help to give things a little bit of structure.


If you’re travelling with a group of friends, democracy isn’t always the best choice. How many times have you all stood there on the sidewalk um-ing and ah-ing about where to eat? If all of you really don’t mind, then you would’ve gone to the first place suggested. If however, you do mind, then maybe you should start discussing these things a day in advance or at least before your collective bellies start grumbling and growling.


For a lot of people, travelling on holiday is a great way to relax. However, for a lot of people, the actual travelling can be the nerviest and stressful time of the whole holiday. Have you ever come back from a holiday thinking you could really do with another one to unwind from it all?


Think about what it is that puts you on edge. Is it holiday fatigue? Some people pack way too many things into one day, mainly because of the amazing culture available or because it’s their only holiday for the year. Regardless, if it becomes too much like a work schedule, actual fatigue will always outweigh the pleasures of discovering something new.


Watch what you eat. The warmer and longer days mean that ice cream will be a lovely little treat for many of us. And we’ll all be substituting our stews and hot pots for salads and fruit. While it’s always good to have a break from stodgy carb dinners, eating cold food isn’t the most ideal thing for our bodies.


Cold foods can impair the function of the spleen according to the theories of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). 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.


You can have your ice cream and eat it too, but don’t overindulge and have five in a row. One of my favourite spring-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.


Finally, remember to enjoy yourself. Unlike Christmas, this is a holiday where you’re not obliged to spend it with family and are free to go wherever you want. If you do spend it with a family, the lovely barbeque weather makes it a much more relaxed affair than the more traditional Christmas dinner. If you have children, the Easter egg hunt is a good way to spend time outdoors. And if you’ve decided to spend the whole week indoors with the curtains pulled having a marathon session of Bruce Lee movies, that’s fine as well.


Take this time to recuperate from shedding the heavy layers of winter and bask in the light.


Have a lovely Easter, enjoy yourself and be safe.


Photo credit: furtwangl via flickr

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Health and Wellbeing | “Are you happy? It’s the only way to be, kid.”



As an acupuncturist, I don’t limit myself to seeing patients with just knee pain. I do offer pain relief but I also get to see people with no specific diagnosis and not feeling quite themselves.


I suppose back in the day (when we all lived in a little house on the prairie, in the depths of the middles ages, in a cave with Neanderthal décor?) the usual response would be just to shrug it off and get on with it. I’m not saying trying to run away from a hairy predator that I would also like for dinner is a lifestyle to be envious of, but I do think the simpler days made stresses on our mind and body so much easier to handle.


With life’s stresses, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself.


However, ignoring your problems and just carrying on is no longer a viable option in today’s world. The physical discomfort of pain tend to mean people are more likely to seek help whether it be acupuncture, massage, medication, exercise, yoga… the list goes on. When the slightly off feeling is more abstract, then people have more difficulty putting a finger on it making it harder to see what exactly it is that needs resolving.


A traditional acupuncturist can help you have a better sense of wellbeing by removing or regulating qi stagnation, allowing you to feel more calm yet revitalized.


If the mind is at ease, the body will follow.


I am often reminded by my patients’ attitudes how important a positive outlook has on your health and appearance. Constant worrying and anxiety will lead to a subtle (often unconscious) tensing of the face muscles resulting in lines and wrinkles. Excessive comfort eating will lead to weight gain and detrimental effect to your health. Stress from work and other situations beyond our control cannot be helped, unless you are willing to walk away from your job and settle somewhere far far away, but little unnecessary irritations should be avoided.


My boiler had spent the last month acting like a temperamental teenager – it felt like I saw the plumber more often than my boyfriend. I could have flown off the handle and demanded he sorted it out then and there, but a) that wasn’t possible or practical due to parts and b) I didn’t let it affect my mood. There was still heating (although not at the times I’d set) and I was still warm, and also it was nice to have an amicable atmosphere in my hallway than one of tension and blame.


What else can you do to dilute the effects of stress? Find pleasure in things around you:


Go to the library or bookstore and enjoy some Dr. Seuss or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Bleach manga or a Mills and Boon novel.

Turn off the news. I don’t mean bury your head in the sand, but there is a distinction between knowing the news and watching the constant flood of images 24/7. There is just no need.

Treat yourself to the gorgeous triple chocolate caramel shortcake from that stall in Greenwich Market. Or that lovely crusty bread lavished with butter or tickets to see the comedian even though you could watch their DVD (there is a difference!) or that chunky mustard cardigan or a night in with some bad straight-to-TV movies on a Friday night. Whatever it is, make it a small treat that your body and wallet would appreciate.

Set yourself a goal. Run for charity and try to raise the target you set or aim to complete the half marathon or learn to roller-skate or grow a tomato plant or spend more time catching up with friends.

Smile when you first wake up, at your partner or flatmate or children, at the train driver, at the person serving you coffee, at the pizza delivery driver. Smile!


“It’s not the destination. It’s the journey.”


What do you do to remind yourself that the cliché isn’t just cheesy, it’s also quite true?


Photo credit: Gillian via flickr

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Six ways to de-stress your life



We all know that stress is bad for you and previously, I addressed the effects stress can have on your physical self. I know just as well as the next person that it’s much easier said than done to not let stress take over your life.


So how do you stop stress in its tracks? What if stress is already an unwanted guest in your life? I’ve listed some ways below that I believe are practical options for those of us who cannot afford to just pack up and move to that cave in the mountains (I, for one, love central heating way too much).


1.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

By this I don’t mean go on a liquid diet but rather, think about your current lifestyle. Some of us push ourselves way too much, some without realizing and others because they have no choice. Are you taking on too many things? Can you cut back on some of the activities and tasks?

Another unlikely point: are you socializing too much? Entertaining frequently, even when it’s a perfectly fun and pleasant experience, could be running you down.


2.  Prioritize your responsibilities.

I am actually quite proud of the fact that unlike some in the animal kingdom, we can multi-task. And others even more advanced can juggle both metaphorically and physically! However, we need to take into account the shape and size of those objects we’re juggling. We are all adept at having 3 or 5 metaphorical balls up in the air. You might even be able to juggle seven. But when they are the size of fridge-freezers, it is definitely time to stop and take a step back.

Even Superman would struggle at stopping five locomotives at the same time. It may seem like you can’t drop anything, but you might find that things get completed easier and more efficiently if you do fewer things at a time.

3.  Breathe.

Many, many people meditate and every single one of them advocates it for their mental clarity. However if you find it quite hard to clear your mind, I think just having moments of silence is just as beneficial.

Go for walks along the river or stroll through the park. Try to do it without your headphones and mobile phones. Make a conscious decision to hear the world around you, even if it’s only the leaves crunching under your shoes or the distant whoops and shouts from the children in the play area. Breathe (in through the nose and out through the mouth) and clear your mind.


4.  Don’t dwell on it.

In his brilliant book “Mind Wide Open”, Steven Johnson discussed the effects of fear and subsequent stress levels due to a scare or traumatic situation on our autonomic system. Due to the way the amygdala form grooves in the brain to create memories (the deeper the grooves, the stronger the memories) it’s probably much better for all of us if we dwelled less on unpleasant thoughts and more on the lovely nice stuff.

It must be stressed (no pun intended) that eventually you will need to talk about a distressing incident (holding it inside is never a good thing), but the key is perhaps not to talk (or think) about it while the incident is fresh in the mind.

How can we take this idea and use it to deal with everyday stresses? It may be tempting (and incredibly satisfying) to have a good rant after a particularly irritating and annoying day but by dwelling on it, aren’t we giving it too much significance? It is so much easier to go on and on about a lengthy wait to pay at the local supermarket because they never have enough cashier points open but you are just embedding that experience into your brain in bolded italics. Instead replay nice moments like the time that stranger helped you carry that suitcase up the stairs.

5.  Take it easy.

I know I’m stating the obvious here, and surely if you did take it easy, well then, you wouldn’t be stressed and reading this now. So perhaps what I mean to say is:

5b.  Get rid of irritants.

How come chemicals come with warnings so that we don’t drink it and know to flush our eyes with cold, clean water if it comes into contact with them?

We need the same kind of warnings for our day to day lives. If you’re stuck in traffic, don’t listen to that radio show where people with absurd views phone in. If you’re fed up with waiting in lines to pay, try alternative options like shopping online. If you aren’t terribly impressed with a service, write a complaint letter. The action of writing is cathartic but by mailing the letter (or sending the email) you don’t dwell on it once the action is over. Accept that you will probably never receive a response, but that’s fine; just don’t rant about it afterwards to all your friends, colleagues and the person at the bar.

Frustrations are one of the precursors to stress, so get rid of the frustrations! You might even find that besides being in a better state of mind, you have much more time and energy as a result of it.


6.  Don’t let it build up.

There may be moments where you feel overwhelmed and this is when people who surround themselves with a strong wall of friends, family or confidantes tend to cope better.

Sometimes it may take professional support for your body and mind to get back on track. You can seek advice from your GP, a therapist, or alternative practitioners. For instance, a counsellor could help you discover ways to cope with stress, while a traditional acupuncturist could help with the fatigue and crankiness or digestive disorders associated with stress. Sometimes a treat could break the bonds of the drudge and in that case, a massage could do wonders.


How do you deal with unrelenting pulls at your metaphorical hem? Share your ideas on successfully gliding past the stresses in life. 

Photo credit: Dawn Huczek via flickr

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