Eating Seasonally: Winter Edition (Feat. A Special Guest!)

Hello to my lovely readers! If you are on the East coast, I hope you all survived the weekend storm safely. I am really excited to talk about today’s topic. This is the first in a four part series where I am going to discuss the idea of seasonal eating in Chinese medicine. I’m going to do this once a season to give you an idea of how your food intake should change to reflect the seasons. Today we will discuss how to eat in winter, and in a few months I’ll talk about spring, and so on!

I’m also very excited to introduce a recipe from a dear family friend to go along with this discussion. Lisa Keys is an amazing chef, “Chopped” champion, and all-around bad-ass mama with an incredibly beautiful blog about love, loss, and the healing power of food. You should check out her blog Good Grief Cook and then spend some time reading her amazing posts and exploring her delicious recipes. She provided a recipe for us that goes along perfectly with the theme of today’s discussion, which I will share at the end.

Eating seasonally is a very important concept in Chinese medicine. What “eating seasonally” means is that you consume foods that help your body to adapt to and work well within any given season. This means that you eat foods with the proper taste and temperature for the season. Each food is considered to have a “taste” and a “temperature” according to TCM theory. Taste means the property of the food- sweet, salty, sour, bitter, acrid, and bland. Each of these different tastes corresponds with a certain action and effect on the body. For example, sweet foods build qi and help generate body fluids, but they can also damage the digestive system when eaten in excess. Each of the flavors can be beneficial, but it is important to eat them in balance. The same goes for temperature. Temperature doesn’t necessarily correspond to the physical temperature of the food, but rather the nature of the food- hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold. Again, balance is key here. You can’t eat only foods of one temperature without eventually creating imbalance in the body.

How this all comes into play is that you can eat a little more of certain tastes and temperatures depending on what the outside temperature looks like. If it is cold and dry outside, you should eat foods that are warming and that can nourish fluids. If it is hot and humid outside, you want to eat foods that are cooling and that can help drain some excess moisture.

Eating against the season can create problems, especially with digestion. If you eat a lot of cold raw foods in the winter, you introduce too much coldness and dampness into an a system already plagued by the cold and damp weather in the atmosphere. This can cause digestive difficulties, fatigue, and other unpleasant symptoms. (Side note: this is why the idea of juice cleanses that start after the holidays drives me loco. It’s literally the worst type of food to introduce into your system at this time. And real talk: no one wants to hear a juice cleanser preach the wisdom of the cleanse. It is nonsense, and you will get diarrhea from consuming 32 oz. of green juice in a day.)

So what does this look like in winter? Winter is cold, first and foremost. This means that you should eat foods that are warming in nature. At the time of year, eating cooked food is especially important. Raw fruits, raw vegetables, smoothies, and iced beverages should all be limited. Try and eat mostly cooked, roasted, baked, or sautéed foods as much as possible (this includes your fruits and veggies). You can also incorporate warming foods and spices into your diet- this includes foods like root vegetables, lamb, chicken, ginger, cumin, black pepper, nutmeg, garlic, and cinnamon. If you pay attention to what your body wants, many times it will tell you what you should eat! How often do you come inside from the cold and all you want is a steaming bowl of soup? It’s because soup is warming in physical temperature and in terms of energetics according to TCM theory. Soup often contains cooked meats, veggies, and grains, all of which are ideal for the season!

So that brings us to our lovely recipe! Lisa’s recipe is for a delicious roasted butternut squash soup. Winter squashes like butternut squash, pumpkin, and acorn squash are considered warm and sweet. This means they help build qi, strengthen digestion, and can reduce inflammation. Onions are also very warming and can help ward off the common cold. The curry powder is also very warming. Apples are actually cool and sweet, which is important to include in this recipe because of the concept of balance that I talked about above- you want to make sure you don’t introduce *only* warming foods into your diet. This can create a condition of excess heat, which is just as bad as excess cold. So I think this recipe is a perfect symphony of foods to help you feel your best this season! I’ve included a link to a blog post she recently wrote that featured this recipe (just click on the recipe name)

Curried Butternut Squash Soup Bowl

  • 1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1-inch pieces (7 to 8 cups)
  • 2 onions, peeled, halved, quartered
  • 2 honey crisp apples, cored, diced into 1-inch pieces (don’t peel)
  • olive oil
  • kosher salt
  • ground black pepper
  • chicken broth (about 2 cups)
  • 1½ teaspoons curry powder
  • Toppings: roasted cashews, diced apple, toasted coconut, sliced green onion

Heat oven 400F.  Place butternut squash, onions and apples on a large, rimmed sheet pan. Drizzle with just enough olive oil to coat it all. Sprinkle with kosher salt (a good two pinches) and ground black pepper. Give the whole pan a shake so things spread out into an even layer. Roast for 45 minutes, turning mixture every 10 to 15 minutes. The squash will be tender and you will have some caramelized brown areas, but not a lot of that. Put all of the roasted ingredients into a blender with 1 cup of chicken broth and the curry powder. Blend adding additional broth to arrive at desired consistency. If you have a Vitamix, use the soup setting and your soup will be piping hot out of the blender. If using a standard blender gently re-heat the soup on the stove-top. You can also use an immersion blender to blend all the ingredients together in a bowl if you’d like. Serve with your favorite toppings.

(photo courtesy of Lisa Keys)
(photo courtesy of Lisa Keys)

What a delicious, warming, and comforting dish to enjoy at this chilly time of year! Feel free to share your favorite winter recipes with me- I love to cook and am always on the lookout for new and delicious foods to try. Hope you all have a wonderful week, and be well!

All information about the tastes/temperatures of the specific foods comes from Bob Flaws’ terrific little book The Tao of Healthy Eating (Blue Poppy Press, 2007), specifically pgs. 72, 78, 93, 97. 

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Wear a Scarf!!

Hello friends! Today’s post is going to be short and sweet. The East coast is getting prepared to see some snowy action this weekend, although from what I’ve heard, Connecticut isn’t going to get anything too crazy. Whew!

It does seem like winter has finally arrived. We were pretty lucky with a very mild December and most of January. But those winter winds are a-blowin’, and things are going to be pretty chilly for the next few months. So I want to talk today about the importance of dressing in seasonally appropriate clothing as it relates to Chinese medicine.

I’m sure your mom or some other family member has yelled at you at least once to put a scarf on before you go out or else you’re going to catch a cold. I’m here today to embrace my role as your newest nagging family member and explain why it is that it is so important to actually wear that scarf!

In Chinese medicine, it is thought that some pathogens (which is a fancy word for bad things), can attack us and cause illness. Pathogens can be things like contagious diseases, but they can also be elements like cold, damp, wind, and heat. Right now, it is prime time for the pathogens of cold and wind to attack us. Wind is thought to sweep in where we are vulnerable, and in winter weather, cold can easily sneak in, too. One of the places on our bodies that is considered especially vulnerable to wind and cold is the back of the neck. There is an acupuncture channel called the Du (Governing) Meridian that goes along the spine, through the neck, and up to the top of the head.

There are several points on the Du channel around the upper back, neck, and head that have important functions relating to wind and treating wind conditions within the body. However, these points are also a little more susceptible to letting in wind and cold. Once wind and cold come in, you start to see symptoms of what we normally think of as the common cold- sniffling, tight muscles, headaches, feeling chilly, and cough.

Some of the Du points on the neck (GV here stands for Governing Vessel, another name for the Du meridian)
Some of the Du points on the neck (GV here stands for Governing Vessel, another name for the Du meridian)

So it becomes important during winter to protect these points. How can you do that? WEAR A SCARF!! By putting a protective barrier across these points, you prevent wind and cold from sneaking it and making you miserable! This is a measure to improve your health that literally couldn’t be easier- just grab a scarf, zip your coat up all the way, or wear something snuggly with a high collar.

Of course, wearing a scarf isn’t going to protect you from all sorts of winter ickiness that arises. First and foremost, wash your damn hands, people. Assume that no one else around you is great at sanitation, and whenever you get a chance, wash your hands in warm, soapy water while singing “Happy Birthday” all the way through twice. Wipe down with a Lysol wipe your door handles, remotes, phones, keyboards, and anything you handle on a regular basis. Your keyboard is basically dirtier than a toilet seat (This is a fact. A disgusting fact, but a fact nonetheless). Sneeze into your arm like you are Dracula with a cape (sneezing into the crook of your elbow). Do not be that monster who sneezes into their hand and then reaches to touch something immediately afterwards. If you are feeling under the weather, stay home! No one is thinking about how brave you are for coming into work with a cold. They instead want to place you in a contamination tent and shun you. Also, taking a day off to rest is going to help you recover faster than pushing yourself when you feel like crud.

So to wrap things up (literally, ha ha), wear a scarf! Stay warm and healthy! And in case that isn’t enough, follow some of my other tips and tricks so that you can feel your best this winter. Hope you all have a wonderful weekend, stay safe if you’re expecting snow, and be well!

The Importance of Communication

Hello all! Sorry it’s been a little while since my last post. At the beginning of the week, I managed to do a gruesome number on my left thumb with the beautiful new chef’s knife I got for Christmas, so this week has been just a little bit harder to get everything done on time. Be careful with sharp things, my friends.

Today I want to talk about the importance of communication in healthcare. As I’ve mentioned before, I am currently starting my doctoral program at my alma mater, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. This program works as a continuation of my master’s degree, but with an emphasis on becoming an integrated health care provider. This means we focus on things like learning how to be part of a team of various medical professionals who work together to give our patients the best possible care. Our classes emphasize things like advanced diagnostics, health care systems, and developing interprofessional communication skills. I’ve really been enjoying the program so far, and it’s definitely made me think about the state of healthcare in our country.

The issue of communication is one topic in particular I’ve been thinking about a little more lately. Communication plays a huge role in healthcare. How doctors communicate with other doctors, how doctors talk with other types of medical providers (nurses, physical therapists, technicians, etc.), and how patients express their concerns to doctors all factor into the design of a treatment plan. While all of these different systems of communication are worth exploring, today I want to focus on the communication between medical providers and patients.

Think about your last visit to your doctor. Did you feel listened to? Did you get a chance to ask all the questions you wanted to? Did you feel rushed or ignored? Increasingly, patients in America don’t feel like they are actively being listened to during a doctor’s visit. There are a lot of systemic factors that have brought us to this point. Doctors are forced to see more patients each day in order to make a living, and the mandatory arrival of electronic health care record systems for many offices means that your doctor has to do your intake on a laptop or tablet. Most doctors got into medicine because they truly want to help people- I can’t imagine that many of them are happy with the fact that they have to see eight patients an hour just to keep the lights on, but such is the case in the modern world.  I often hear from patients that they don’t feel like they been able to foster good communication with their doctors, which is one of the big selling points of coming to see an alternative medical practitioner (such as an acupuncturist!).

toon-3498

Alternative medicine, based on the nature of our profession, allows for increased patient-provider communication. Honestly, it’s one of the main reasons I got into acupuncture. As I mentioned in one of my first posts, I was introduced to acupuncture after seeing a whole bunch of other doctors in an attempt to treat my chronic headaches. I immediately noticed (and loved) the more personalized, focused, and unhurried intake I received from my acupuncturist. Ever since then, I’ve been really dedicated to making sure that my patients feel that they can say anything and that I’m actively listening to all of their concerns.

I only see one patient every hour. In addition to the intake I do when you first walk in the door, I also save time at the end of the visit (at least five to ten minutes) to make sure I sit back down and go over things with you. This time includes reviewing our gameplay for your course of treatment, giving you any home instructions/lifestyle recommendations/dietary changes I think are important, and making sure I ask if you have anything else you’d like to discuss. I ask every patient before they leave my office, “Do you have any questions for me?” I want to make sure that each and every patient I see feels comfortable asking me about anything and everything related to their care. Especially as you are relaxing on the table for twenty minutes, questions can pop into your head that you may not have thought to bring up during the initial intake. By saving some time at the end of the treatment, I allow for time to make sure everything you want to discuss can be addressed.

So where I am going with all of this? Obviously, it shows I’m pretty awesome (I kid, I kid…). What I want to point out is that I have the luxury to take that extra time. Your doctor may not be able to. So I want to help you find ways to better communicate with your doctor in order to make sure that you make the most out of your visit.

  • Be prepared. Make a list of things you know you want to say to your medical provider. If you have a list in front of you, you’re less likely to forget something that you wanted to bring up. If you’ve got a long list, prioritize. What’s the most important thing you want to talk about? What’s the second most important thing? Is there anything you’re ok with saving for a future visit?
  • Use the buddy system. This is especially helpful if you are having an important meeting with your doctor or if you aren’t good at absorbing spoken information. If this visit is to get back some important test results or to design a treatment plan, having a support system can be really helpful. The person with you can make sure that you asked the questions you wanted to, and they may even be able to bring up some things you might not have considered. It’s also a good system if you tend to forget things that are spoken to you. I can read something once and memorize it, but I absorb a lot less when words are just being thrown at me. If I don’t have time to take notes, it would be easy for me to leave having missed something the doctor said to me. Another set of ears can be helpful in these cases.
  • Take notes. This is especially important if you would prefer not to have someone else come with you to the appointment. Making notes on your diagnosis, treatment plan, and recommendations ensures that you leave armed with all the information you need.
  • Speak up for yourself. This can be hard. Some people really see doctors as an authority figure and feel bad questioning any treatment plan their doc might give them. However, it’s your body and it’s your life. Don’t hesitate to bring up concerns, questions, or even to request a second opinion.
  • Be nice! I know it’s hard not to be cranky when you’re not feeling well, you’ve been waiting in the lobby for forty minutes, and a mysterious breeze is finding its way into the lovely paper gown you’ve been forced to wear. However, the saying “you win more flies with honey than vinegar” is true (although, what a dumb little proverb. Who wants to win flies?). It’s not the medical assistant’s fault that they’re running behind. It’s not the doctor’s fault that you have a sinus infection and feel like a tiny ninja is kicking your face from the inside out. There are a lot of factors that go into running a busy practice, and it’s very easy for one late patient in the morning to snowball into a big delay later in the afternoon. Politeness and common courtesy go a long way. It makes the people taking care of you feel better, and it makes the entire visit a lot more pleasant for everyone involved.
  • Think about the timing of your visits. Hate waiting? If you know you’re going to get easily frustrated by having to wait, schedule your appointment either first thing in the morning or for the first appointment after lunch. There’s less of a chance of delays during those times. If you know you aren’t a morning person, schedule your appointment for the afternoon. That way, you’ll ensure that you are more alert and receptive during your visit.
  • Ask about alternate forms of communication. What happens if you need to contact your doctor about something? If your only choice is to the call the office, make the best of it and use all of the above tips to make sure your phone call is a success. Are there other options? Can you email the office or is there a website with a contact link? Is there someone else in the office (like a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant) who might be able to help you with questions or care?

As you can see, developing and maintaining clear channels of communication is a vital part of taking care of your health. When you and your doctor on the same page, treatment plans can become more effective and your satisfaction with your care can skyrocket. I hope these tips help you have the best possible relationship with all of your medial providers. Have a wonderful weekend, and be well.

Ear Seeds For Everyone!

Hi all! I’m glad to be back writing here- I took a little break after the holidays, and I also began my doctoral program this week (eek!), so it’s been a little hectic getting everything settled. I’m so excited to start 2016 with all of you. As we head into the new year, feel free to leave comments and let me know some topics you’d like to see covered on this blog in the future!

Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite things- ear seeds! I know when I say “ear seeds,” it sounds a little bonkers (is it a seed that grows ears? Is it a seed that you find in ears? Oh, Chinese medicine…). Ear seeds are a fun part of acupuncture that I use with a ton of my patients. I often refer to them as “acupuncture to go” since they are intended to prolong the effects of the treatment I’ve given you.

So what exactly are ear seeds? Ear seeds are a tiny black seed on a band-aid backing. The seed comes from the Vaccaria plant.

Vaccaria plant
Vaccaria plant

The seeds are known as wang bu liu xing in Chinese, and they are part of the group of herbs that is said to regulate the blood. This means that, when taken internally, the herb helps to increase circulation and resolve any stagnation or stasis that may be in the body. Herbs often have a “direction” in Chinese medicine, and this herb is particularly good at directing stagnation downwards. However, with ear seeds, we don’t use the herb internally. Instead, it is placed on top of specific acupuncture points on the ear. The invigorating properties of the herb mean that it is good at stimulating these acupoints.

There are a huge number of acupuncture points on the ear. It is thought that the ear is a microcosm of the body, meaning that every part of the body can be represented in mini form on the ear. I’m going to do a future post on the history of ear acupuncture (or auricular acupuncture, as it’s more commonly known in the TCM field), so I won’t go into a ton of detail here, but essentially there’s a point for just about every body part somewhere on the ear. This is a pretty good representation of just how many points are found on the ear.

foxear

We can treat just about anything using this ear model. I most frequently use the seeds as a continuation of the treatment I’ve done that day. So if someone comes in for low back pain that radiates down their right leg, after their regular acupuncture treatment, I would send them home with seeds on the right ear at the lumbar region as well as as at the sciatic nerve region. We can also leave a specific protocol of seeds in the ear  to treat things like addiction, weight loss, and smoking cessation.

Seeing how many points there are on the ear, it would make sense that the ear seeds should be pretty small, right? That’s another big positive of the vaccaria seeds- they are super tiny, so it’s easy to get them right where they should go. I basically just stick the seeds and their band-aid backing onto the point I want, and then the patient is good to go!

Ear seeds on an ear and both the front and back of an ear seed (the black dot is the vaccaria seed)
Ear seeds on an ear and both the front and back of an ear seed (the black dot is the vaccaria seed)

Above is a picture of two seeds on my ear as well an idea of what the seeds look like before they go on the ear. Fun fact: it is super hard to get a good picture of your own ear, so I apologize that it is not the finest example of photography out there, but I think you get the idea!

Once the seeds are on, they usually will stay stuck to the ear for anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks. The average I’ve seen in clinical practice is that the seeds will stay on for about 4-7 days.The longest I’ve seen someone retain them was about four weeks, and the shortest retention award goes to my mother, whose seeds somehow inexplicably manage to fall off minutes after application. The amount of the time the seeds will stay on depends on skin type and location of the seeds. I’ve found that people with slightly dryer skin tend to do better with the ear seeds staying on longer. If the seed is in a tucked away place in the ear as opposed to an area that gets touched/washed/rubbed a lot, it will also last a bit longer.

When the seeds are on, people can stimulate the seeds or leave them alone entirely. Some people worry about dislodging the seed if they play around with it too much, so it’s definitely fine to just leave it as is on the ear. However, if you want to give the seeds a little boost, you can lightly press the seed for about ten repetitions, two or three times during the day. This just gives a little extra stimulation to the acupuncture point.

You can leave the seeds in until your next appointment, or if they are itching/irritating/driving you nuts, you can take them off and throw them away. The majority of people don’t have any issues at all and often forget they are even there, but if you have sensitive skin, they can become a little itchy after a couple days. The seed can get thrown in the trash- there’s no sharps disposal or anything to worry about. Usually they will just sort of drop off the ear on their own. People also report finding them in their shower or on their pillowcase, which makes sense, as these are places where the ear is going to have a little more outside stress applied.

So that’s the magic of ear seeds! Honestly, I love them and use them a lot. I think it’s a great way to help prolong the benefits of the treatment. Leave me any questions or comments here, and I’d be happy to answer them. And don’t forget to let me know any suggestions you have for future blog posts. Hope you all have a wonderful rest of your week. Be well!

All herb information comes from Chinese Herbal Materia Medica (3rd ed.) by Bensky, Clavery, Stöger, and Gamble (Eastland Press, 2004).

*Disclaimer: Just a reminder that this blog is not intended to provide medical advice or substitute regular care. If I mention an herb here, it is not a good idea to randomly start taking that herb. Please seek out a trained Chinese medical practitioner for any herbal or acupuncture treatments.*