Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Four (Free!) Treasures for Good Health

One of my favorite Chinese sayings is “Eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, sleep when you’re tired.”  It is so simplistic and yet given our culture of constantly changing advice and fad diets, it is also profound.   Sometimes it seems the wealth of health-related information to which we have access, is so overwhelming that it is just easier to throw up our hands and do nothing. So here I have made an attempt to outline a few basic ideas that can apply to anyone, anywhere.  They are all based on good common sense, but supported by research. And they are all available without any special equipment, fees or subscriptions!

 

Diet

 “Eat food, mostly vegetables, not too much.”

Michael Pollen, author of Food Rules, is famous for this admonition about a healthy diet. By this he means to avoid food that isn’t food: steer clear of processed foods, foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce or with ingredients you wouldn’t find in anyone’s pantry.  Instead, eat food that you could have grown yourself if you had the skill and inclination. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, eat organic (especially meats and dairy products) when possible.  Avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil and artificial sweeteners. Limit the amount of sugar, caffeine and even the total calories you consume.  In our world of super-sized meals and “getting more for a buck,” we have completely lost touch with portion sizes we actually need.

In Chinese Medicine, it is important to eat relative to the seasons. In the fall and winter, focus on root vegetables, soups, seeds and nuts.  You can ground yourself with heavier foods like meats and dairy products (in moderation). In spring and summer, you can incorporate more leaves and fruits. In our area, spring is the time for snap peas, asparagus, strawberries and lettuce. In short, enjoy what is naturally in season. Shopping local farmers markets is a good way to find out which foods are freshest at any given time.

Unless for very specific medical purposes, we don’t recommend highly restrictive diets or detox cleanses. For most of us, a basically good diet that we can maintain for a lifetime is the way to go. We also don’t recommend drastically changing your current diet all at once. Pick one change you know you can incorporate successfully, and start there. Then add another. Before long, you will naturally be making healthier choices most of the time.

 

Exercise:

Daily activity helps release energy from all those pent-up emotions and helps you think more clearly. When we force the blood to pump through our arms and legs, we are getting fresh healthy blood to all of our muscles and other tissues and can prevent the stagnation of qi leads to chronic pain.

Exercise also helps our emotional health. A 2008 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that any physical activity (even housework) was associated with improved mental health.

Pick the kind of exercise that you enjoy doing or vary what you choose to do. Relish the movement of your body through space, even if your physical circumstances limit how much you can do. Start where you are and find a way to move that uplifts your mind and spirit. A walk outdoors, 30 min of yoga, or an intense cross-fit class: any of these can serve to enliven your qi and calm your mind.

However, it is also important to beware of the trap of too much exercise! We need to find the balance between yin rest and yang activity. Too much exercise can overstimulate the body making it difficult for us to slow down and relax.  What is the right amount for any one person will be different, but a good general rule for those of us who aren’t competitive athletes is 30-60 min per day.

 

Relaxation:

Whether you call it meditation or not, take just 5-10 minutes to close your eyes and focus on taking a few deep breaths. You can do this sitting in your chair at work or in your car at a stop light. As Wayne Dyer says, “the person behind you will let you know when the light changes.”

Use this short exercise to focus you at work.  Deep breathing has the wonderful effect of calming the nervous system and gives you a chance to step back for a clear perspective. After practicing this just a couple times a day for a week or so, you will notice improvements in efficiency and productivity.

If you have the time, practice intentional relaxation for 20 minutes each morning. You will be amazed by how smoothly the day unfolds…how controlled you are in your reactions to unexpected events. Taking time to relax and focus our minds each day has both emotional and physical outcomes. Studies at Harvard have shown daily meditation to be useful in lowering blood pressure, reducing pain, improving sleep, regulating the immune system and even reducing symptoms of psoriasis!

 

Sleep:

Sleep is the yin aspect to our active yang days. Sleeping well is truly a gift taken for granted by those who have never suffered from insomnia or the demands of small children! A good night’s sleep can sometimes rectify a depressed or irritable mood. It can help our bodies heal. In sleep, our minds can relax and discover new solutions to old problems.  So get your sleep when you can. Even a 20-30 minute nap at lunchtime may be enough to rejuvenate your mind and help you to be more effective during the afternoon.

Conventional wisdom has held that sleeping during the day may lead to insomnia at night. However, this theory is being called into question. Two studies in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at the sleep patterns of older adults. They found nothing to suggest that nappers suffered from worse nighttime sleep than the non-nappers. In fact, those who napped within two hours of bedtime showed better quality sleep than those who napped earlier in the day. No wonder we are one of the few cultures worldwide who doesn’t incorporate some kind of rest time into the work day.

Heather McIver, L.Ac.

Chinese Medicine treats more than you think!

By now, most people know that acupuncture has been shown to work as well or better than conventional medicine for things like back pain and osteoarthritis of the knee. Many people have even heard about using Chinese Medicine to improve fertility. However, I am still surprised to find folks who have no idea of the depth and breadth of conditions and ailments that can be helped by Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine is a complete system of medicine in the sense that it defines an internally consistent understanding of physiology (how the body works), patho-physiology (what can go wrong with the body), diagnosis (how to figure out what’s wrong) and treatment (how to fix what’s wrong). Although the language of Chinese Medicine is strange and often sounds frankly ridiculous, the concepts behind that language can be both simple and profound. It is this broad metaphoric language which accounts for the ability of Chinese Medicine to treat many issues that conventional medicine doesn’t manage as well.  This descriptive language allows the practitioner of Chinese Medicine to understand a patient’s complaint at a level deeper than a lab test or an MRI would reveal. Because of this, Chinese Medicine can be very helpful in treating complaints that are vague and difficult to nail down from a conventional medicine standpoint.  The following are a few examples of this:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS):

 IBS is a term used to describe several different digestive symptoms which could include abdominal cramping, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation. While there are some medications that can manage the symptoms of IBS, they are not considered curative, and come with the risks of side effects.  From the perspective of Chinese Medicine the symptoms that categorize IBS can be grouped into very specific diagnostic categories and therefore treated specifically as well. For example, one IBS patient who has alternating loose stools and constipation that is worse with stress, accompanied by TMJ, poor appetite, PMS, depression and insomnia might be diagnosed with something we call Liver overacting on Spleen.  However, another patient might have predominantly loose stools and urgency.  His symptoms might be exacerbated after eating rich or spicy foods, making it difficult to go out to eat with friends.  His diagnosis might be called Damp Heat in the Intestines. Both of these patients would receive different acupuncture treatments and different herbal formulas. In my experience, once we determine the correct diagnosis, IBS is often cured or improved to such a level that it becomes only a minor distraction.

Menopausal Syndrome:

For some women, the cessation of menstrual cycles is no big deal. For others, they become overwhelmed with a cascade of symptoms that disrupt daily functioning. Hot flashes, anxiety, and insomnia can combine to make a woman feel as though she is losing her mind. With the controversy surrounding hormone replacement, Chinese Medicine offers a safe and usually effective alternative treatment.  Of course Chinese Medicine may not solve the problem overnight, but over 1-2 months, most women find their symptoms have become very manageable. Again, each woman is assessed individually and acupuncture, herbs, diet and lifestyle suggestions are all tailored to her particular situation.

Emotional Issues / Stress:

Chinese Medicine is truly a holistic medicine. In fact, there is very little differentiation in Chinese Medical Theory between physical and emotional problems. When reading about a particular diagnostic category, for example, you might see “poor appetite, fatigue, bruises easily, shortness of breath, depressed mood.”  When treating folks for any emotional upset, I am always interested in what kinds of physical issues they have, as that helps me determine how to diagnose the depression, anxiety, ADHD or mania appropriately.  Studies have shown acupuncture to be as effective as anti-depressants in treating moderate depression. Acupuncture can have a profound effect on reducing mental stress. Often after only one visit, people say things like, “I just don’t react to the little things like I used to.”

Fibromyalgia:

Modern medicine is still working on exactly what causes this painful and debilitating illness. While curative treatment may very well be on the horizon, treatments often involve experimentation with many different pharmaceuticals. Acupuncture has been shown to be especially helpful in lessening the pain of fibromyalgia.  It can also help treat the fatigue and memory problems that sometimes accompany the disease.

In each of the above cases, different patients will exhibit different signs and symptoms, and will therefore require different treatment strategies. There is no “one size fits all” in Chinese Medicine. That individualized therapy is what makes Chinese Medicine so fascinating.  Diagnosis and treatment can be profoundly simple or mind-bendingly complex.  We practitioners don’t always get it right the first time. But when we do, this medicine appears to work miracles.

Acupuncture as Affordable Health Care

As health care costs continue to rise, more and more people are looking for ways to prevent major illness and take more control over their own well-being. Treatment with acupuncture and Chinese Medicine can be used to treat pain, digestive problems, menstrual problems, headaches, emotional issues, insomnia, menopausal symptoms and more. Such treatment can also complement traditional therapies and help manage more serious concerns such a diabetes, hypertension and cancer. However, even acupuncture has been too expensive for many of us, since it is only sometimes covered by health insurance. Community Clinics have provided one answer to this and are beginning to provide many people with affordable health maintenance options.

Many people are aware that acupuncture is part of a system of medicine developed in China over the past 3000 years. However, it isn’t as commonly recognized that during the early 19th century (after missionaries had introduced Western medical concepts to the Chinese) acupuncture fell from favor in China and was actually banned from official Chinese medical schools. Acupuncture theory and practice had evolved through the millennia through observation and experience, and the language it used was rich with metaphor and the influence of “ghosts.” With the emphasis on scientific method adopted during the Qing dynasty, China’s authorities were loathe to be perceived by the outside world as backwards or superstitious. It was declared that acupuncture was “not suitable to be applied to the Emperor.”

The study of acupuncture continued, but remained underground until the communist party took control of China in the 1940s. Realizing that acupuncture provided a low cost option for providing medical care to many people , especially those living in the country with little to no access to Western care, the authorities sought to standardize and systematize the principles and practices of acupuncturists. While the essential metaphorical language was retained, all reference to ghosts and most of the more spiritual aspects of various traditions were dropped. Lay persons were trained with basic acupuncture skills and were sent into rural areas to treat farmers and laborers. They treated infectious disease, injuries from trauma, pain, paralysis and malnutrition among other things. Zhu De wrote in 1950, “Chinese acupuncture treatment has a history of thousands of years. It is not only simple and economical, but also very effective for many kinds of diseases”I hope that the doctors of both Western and traditional schools should unite for the further improvement of its technique and science.”

Indeed, Chinese physicians are now routinely trained in both traditional and Western medical practices. Acupuncture is used during many surgeries as an anesthetic. Herbal formulas (cooked in the basement pharmacy) are prescribed in hospitals along with Western pharmaceuticals. Acupuncture has again become an important part of the Chinese medical system, which is truly one of the most integrated in the world.

So isn’t it ironic that a medicine revived in China to treat the masses has become in this country an elite treatment associated with spas and health clubs? At an average of $60-100 per session, it is difficult for working class and many middle class folks to be able to afford enough treatments to address their problems adequately. The good news is that more and more insurance companies are recognizing the cost-effectiveness of acupuncture performed by licensed acupuncturists. The bad news is that more and more people are having insurance benefits cut or simply doing without insurance altogether.

In response to all of this, Stillpoint Acupuncture has joined with a national movement seeking to create ways for acupuncture to become more accessible to more people. For the past seven years, Stillpoint Acupuncture in Greensboro has been providing sliding scale treatments for patients seeking help with everything from allergies to back pain. In October, 2010 we finally opened a community clinic in Siler City as well, which is available every Wednesday afternoon.

When you visit the community clinic, you will see that we treat 5-6 people at a time. Most people sit in reclining chairs, and there are some tables available for those who need them. There is soft music playing and the lights are dimmed. While the setting is decidedly less private than most acupuncture offices, there is a certain atmosphere that is created when people come together for the purpose of improved well-being. People have commented, “I feel better just being here.

This style of treatment more closely resembles how acupuncture is administered in China, with patients coming for treatment 3-5 times per week and receiving treatments in a large room along with several other patients. Because patients remain clothed in this setting, we rely on points in the arms, legs, ears and head. However, these points can be used to treat all kinds of conditions, including back pain, hot flashes and digestive problems.

For example, Chris began coming when a friend told her about the clinic. She had suffered from daily headaches for years. She commented on her first visit that she had always wanted to try acupuncture, but knew that she couldn’t afford it, and her insurance did not cover it. She came every week at first and within two months, her headaches became the exception rather than the norm. She began coming twice per month and her headaches continued to improve, becoming an occasional nuisance. Now I see her about once every 4-6 weeks because as she says, “I didn’t realize until I quit coming so often, but the acupuncture was controlling my joint pain too!”

–Heather McIver, L.Ac.

 

Meditation Made Easy

Meditation Made Easy  by Diane Gross, L.Ac.

The importance of taking time to renew and restore your energy was discussed in the Spring issue of our newsletter in an article entitled ‘The Yin and Yang of Time.’  Meditation was recommended as a significant way to help balance a full and busy life.  Meditation is widely recognized as a helpful strategy for managing stress, easing anxiety and reducing physical symptoms such as headaches or muscle tension, and increasing immunity.  All of these are important when considering a comprehensive and holistic approach to living healthfully.

When discussing the importance of meditation with interpreters, the question often arises, “How do I meditate?”  Meditation can be practiced in a variety of ways.  It does not have to follow the stereotypical ‘OM’ type of eastern meditation that may come to mind.  Meditation can be done within the context of any belief system, religious persuasion or ideology.

Meditative techniques have typically been classified into two categories: concentrative, and non-concentrative. Concentrative techniques involve focusing on something specific that’s outside of you during meditation, such as a candle flame, music, a sound, or an image of something. Non-concentrative meditation tends to focus on the internal aspect of you, such as your breathing, or focusing on a point within your body.  Additionally, meditation may incorporate both concentrative and non-concentrative at the same time.  There are no hard and fast rules.  I suggest you find the strategy that works best for you.  If you have never practiced meditation before, here are some basic techniques that might be helpful in the beginning:

A Basic Sitting Meditation: Sit in a comfortable position and quiet your mind.  Release all thoughts.  This takes practice.  As thoughts arise, simply notice them without judgment and let them go.  This is commonly known as becoming an observer, or watcher, of your thoughts.

Focused Meditation:  Focus intently on an object, a sound, a concept, or even your own breathing, but don’t get caught up in thinking about the object of your focus.  You are focusing on it without thinking thoughts about it.  Many people find it easier to start with this type of meditation because it gives their mind ‘something to do’.  If thoughts arise, simply notice them, let them go and return your attention to the object of your focus.  In the beginning it can be helpful for some people to use a ‘guided meditation’ on CD.

Activity-Oriented Meditation: This type of meditation may not seem like meditation at the outset, but it can be very effective.   It involves engaging in a repetitive activity that quiets the mind such as gardening, artwork, Tai Chi, yoga, walking meditation, etc.  Like the other meditation techniques, this type of meditation can be effective as long as full focus is given to the activity in the moment.  It should not be a time when the mind is busy planning dinner or worrying about a work project.  The mind should be completely focused on the movement, and experience of the activity, rather than thinking thoughts – even thoughts about the activity.

Spiritual Meditation: Many people experience meditation as a listening form of prayer.

Regardless of which specific meditative technique you employ, there are some common guidelines that are reflected in virtually all meditative techniques.  Some of these include:

Nurturing a ‘quiet mind’:  Meditation allows you time and opportunity for your mind to become still and quiet.  This has a profound calming effect on the entire nervous system and allows your body to relax and release tension.  Whatever the specific technique, the purpose is to quiet the mind.  But be aware that this may be easier said than done!  Most people are not used to sitting in silence.  At first all kinds of thoughts may seem to creep – or flood – into your brain.  Often the thoughts are what you might term ‘negative’.  That’s pretty typical.  Those are often the thoughts that people tend to push away or deny.  It can be helpful to simply notice them, release them and return to watching your breathing, or focusing on whatever word or sound or image you have chosen.  After a period of time you will notice you are able to quiet your mind more easily and quickly.

Experiencing the Present Moment:  Many people tend to spend a lot of time worrying about the future or rehashing the past.  Almost every meditative practice involves focusing on ‘now’.  This means experiencing each moment as it happens, then letting it go and experiencing the next present moment.  This is immensely important since virtually all of our experience of stress comes from worrying about the future or focusing on the past.  The ability to stay in the present moment allows us to live virtually stress free lives!

Altered State of Consciousness:  The idea of an altered state of consciousness concerns, or even alarms, some people.  But we naturally go in and out of a variety of states of consciousness every day.   For example, sleep and dreaming are both altered state of consciousness.  Brain waves associated with various altered states also occur with a number of other activities, including daydreaming, fasting, staring, fatigue and TV viewing.    There is nothing abnormal or inherently ‘occult’ about it.  Nurturing and maintaining a quiet mind and focusing on the present moment during meditation can lead to an altered state of consciousness that increases awareness of self and surroundings.  The result is an increase of brain activity in one or more of the regions of the brain associated with happiness and a positive frame of mind.

Meditating on a regular basis can be life changing, as well as a powerful way to help prevent and manage physical and emotional stress.  Making time for it can bring balance to an otherwise hectic and busy life.  And if you are so busy you don’t have the time, then it is even more important that you make the time.  Why not try it for one month and see?

Coping with Allergies

Coping with Allergy Season…

    by Heather McIver, L.Ac.

When I moved back to NC from attending acupuncture school in Colorado, I was shocked to find that I could no longer function from about Mother’s Day until mid June.  If I tried to venture outside I was immediately struck with drippy nose and eyes so red, swollen and itchy I wanted to pay someone to rip them out of my head. Apparently, I had developed an allergy to hay…and lucky me, I lived on a hay farm.  So, after trying a couple of the standard Chinese “allergy” formulas with only minimual success, I broke down and took the big guns. I tried Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra. They all made me sleepy and none of them controlled my symptoms enough that I could even hold a conversation. I remember being so mad! “I finally take that stuff and then it didn’t even work!”

There was nothing to do but to go back to my training. I sat down and re-assessed my symptoms from the perspective of Chinese Medicine. I tried to think as simplistically as possible. It was springtime and spring is associated with the Liver in Chinese medicine. My primary symptom was my red, itchy eyes. The eyes are also associated with the Liver. I was really irritated and frustrated…also Liver. The “standard” allergy formulas focus more on the Lung and Spleen, so maybe that’s why they weren’t helping. Of course the Lung was also affected…my drippy nose and constant sneezing could attest to that. However, there is a diagnosis in Chinese Medicine called, “Liver overacting on the Lung” in which you can see both Liver and Lung symptoms.

Seemed a good place to start. So I started with a very common Liver formula called, “Free and Easy Wanderer”  Then I added herbs to dry up my congestion and herbs to specifically target my red, itchy eyes.  And guess what? It began to work instantly. Over the next few days, I added and subtracted herbs to further focus the effects of the formula. Within a week or two, I was fully functional. I wasn’t ready to go running through the hay fields, but I could walk outside and do my job and have fun with friends again.

The point of this story, is not really about my allergies, but rather to illustrate the importance of the individual diagnosis. In some of my patients, the “standard” allergy formulas work beautifully. But that is because their pattern of symptoms, their “diagnosis,” match the diagnosis that the formula was designed to treat.

Just as in the research study described in the sidebar, while standard protocols can be helpful for a lot of people, they treat only the middle of the bell curve. To really get at the root of an individual’s problem, we need to actuallly look at the individual. We need to define exactly how a particular body is becoming out of balance, in order to restore balance.

There is a saying in Chinese Medicine, “Same disease, many treatments. Different disease, same treatment.” This is precisely why 4 different patients with infertility may receive radically different treatments. Or why the formula I used to treat my allergies might also be used to treat PMS or hepatitis. In my mind, this is what separates Chinese Medicine from other modalities. Of course, comprehensive individualized diagnosis is much harder than treating everyone the same. It takes more investigation, more observation, more discernment and more trial and error. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes Chinese Medicine alone is simply not powerful enough. But sometimes, when we get it right, this medicine can produce quick and amazing results. And this is why I love my job!