Eating Seasonally: Summer Edition

Hello everyone- it’s nice to be back! I’ve been busy with work and finishing up my doctorate program, which is rapidly reaching its conclusion. I’ll write another post when I am officially done to explain a little about what the new title means.

Today’s short and sweet post is about eating seasonally for the summer heat! A while back, I posted about eating seasonally in winter to talk a bit about the importance of eating in accordance with the seasons in Chinese medicine. Diet is a very important part of TCM and it can actually play a pretty important role in your general health.

Summer is obviously a time of heat. And this summer has been pretty hot indeed! We actually refer to this time of year in terms of “summer heat.” Summer heat shows up during the dog days of summer, and it can be considered a pathological factor. When the heat and humidity is very high, we can see symptoms like fatigue, excess sweating, digestive concerns, heavy sensations, joint pain, and more. Most of us have experienced this without even realizing it- think about how all you want to do on a hot summer day is sit in the shade with a cool drink. It’s easy to feel fatigued and uncomfortable if you try and do too much of anything,

Food can be a fun way to counteract some of this pathological heat and humidity. The recipe I’m going to share with you is a quick and easy one for a watermelon, mint, and feta salad. There are many versions of this recipe on the internet so feel free to research some options or make up your own version.

I like to make my salad with watermelon cubes (about 1″ each), crumbled feta cheese, chopped mint leaves, and arugula (or any other salad green you like!). I’ll sometimes add walnuts or another seed for a fun crunch aspect. You can make your own vinaigrette or use a high quality balsamic vinaigrette (I like to look for ones that don’t have any added sugar, corn syrup, or food coloring). Mix everything together and dress it as you like! Quick, easy, and delicious.watermelonandmint

Watermelon in Chinese medicine is considered cool and sweet. It also generates fluids and relieves thirst, which can help further cool down the body. In TCM, we actually use the white rind and the seeds of watermelon as well but for this salad, you’ll just want to use the fruit itself.

Mint is also cooling. It’s known as “Bo He” in Chinese, and we use it for a variety of things. It’s considered cool and acrid, which means that it is good at moving and dispersing things as well as resolving heat conditions. This herbal property can help with some of that stuck, bloated, heavy feeling that can happen in the summer. It can also help with things like heat rash or skin irritation that occurs during these sticky months.

As in all things Chinese medicine, everything should be in balance. So while this recipe is great to help cool you down in the summer, you shouldn’t consume a ton of it every day. Especially for people with problematic digestion, too much cooling and raw food can actually make digestive symptoms even worse. So enjoy in moderation!

I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer so far. Stay cool out there, and be well!

The Beauty of Chinese Herbs (Feat. A Guest Artist!)

Hello everyone! I’ve talked a little here about Chinese herbal medicine, but it is sometimes a hard topic to condense into a blog post. However, with this glorious summer weather and all the lovely flowers blooming and growing, I started thinking about the very real beauty of some of our Chinese herbs. Chinese herbs come in a variety of different materials. The most common is plant parts (flowers, roots, leaves, berries, etc.), but herbal medicine can also involve the use of animal parts, bones, minerals, and more. Today we are going to explore three of the very beautiful flowers that we use in Chinese medicine.

I’m very lucky to be featuring a guest artist on the blog today- Lauren Bartkus (maiden name Robinson for those of you who know her from Westover!) is a friend of mine whom I have known for a very long time. She is a very talented graphic designer based out of Seattle, WA.  She specializes in responsive websites, logos and branding, and marketing material design for small businesses. For more information and more about her work, please visit her website. She has graciously volunteered to illustrate for us some of the flowers we use in Chinese medicine, and I am so excited to share her work with you.

Many times when we see Chinese herbs, they are either dried (so they lose some of their color and vitality) or they are in pill form, so you can’t see what they look like at all. This is a great peek into what these plants look like in real life, so you can appreciate the beauty of these immensely helpful healing plants.

Today I’m going to introduce and explore three flowers used in TCM. As a friendly reminder, when I talk about herbal medicine on this blog, this is not intended for you to go out and start taking these herbs. You should only ever take herbs under the guidance of a licensed Chinese medical practitioner who better knows your personal health needs and history.

I’ll give the name of the flower in Pinyin (a way of translating Chinese characters into English lettering) as well as in Latin and English.

Huai Mi (sephorae flos) (Pagoda flower)

(sometimes also known as Huai Hua Mi)

unnamed

Huai Mi is part of the category of herbs that regulate the blood. Broadly, this means that herbs in this category affect the circulation of blood in the body, especially if there is an issue of stagnation (blood not moving as it should) or abnormal bleeding. This particular flower is very good at both clearing heat and stopping bleeding. Its particular blood regulating function especially applies to bleeding of the intestines or for bleeding hemorrhoids (bet you didn’t see what one coming, did you? Pretty flowers can do pretty crazy things!). It can also be very useful for redness and irritation of the eyes. It’s even used for hypertension (high blood pressure).

Hong Hua (carthami flos) (Safflower)

unnamed

Hong Hua is another herb that regulates the blood. This is a really great herb for moving blood and reducing pain. It’s very commonly used in gynecological disorders such as painful menstruation. Hong Hua also has a variety of minor functions including moistening dryness, in certain dosages nourishing the blood, and helping stubborn rashes like measles come to the surface so they can be expressed and resolved.

Zi Hua Di Ding (violae herba) (Viola flower)

unnamed

This herb is part of the category that clears heat. This herb also is said to resolve toxicity (this does not mean “toxins” in the nonsensical modern use of how juice cleanses are said to “clear toxins”- this means it resolves infections).

The viola flower is especially useful for treating deep-seated or infected sores and accesses (yet another instance of the surprising power of a little flower!). It does this by both clearing heat and reducing swelling. It can also treat less serious instances of heat and swelling, such as in the eyes or throat.

I hope you all enjoyed this exploration of how some flowers can be used in Chinese medicine to treat all sorts of conditions. A huge thank you to Lauren again- I love her pictures of these so much, and I am definitely going to frame them for my office. I hope everyone has a safe and fun Fourth of July weekend, and until next time- be well!

Look For the Helpers

I’m really sad tonight. And since the best way I know how to express myself is through writing, this is my small attempt to share my thoughts on the terrible events of this weekend (and this week in general). As a straight, cis-gendered woman (meaning I identify with the sex I was born as), I have the immense privilege of not being targeted for my sexual preferences or identity. I’ve never had to fight to see people like me represented in media or to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. But I am still heartbroken over the events in Orlando this weekend.

I am sad and I am tired and I am deeply worried for the future. I am sad that intolerance and hatred are allowed to flourish. I am sad that violence is used as a tool to spread that hatred. I worry where this country, a country that I love, is headed. I look around me and all I see is angry rhetoric and name-calling. Regardless of your political views (and this is not the place to share either mine or yours), I don’t think anyone feels like we are in a good place as a nation.

I am sad too about the sentencing given this week in the Stanford rape trial. While this is a situation not on par with the act of mass terrorism that happened in Orlando this weekend, the sentencing itself and the statements of the rapist’s parents only emphasize that rape culture is all too prevalent in this country. This particular case merely drew attention to the massive injustices that plague victims of sexual violence. We still live in a place where women are taught how not to get raped, not a place where people are told not to rape.

So I am sad tonight. This week brings heartbreaking news, unfathomable loss, and fears for the future. And I know this blog is supposed to be about Chinese medicine but tonight I needed to share this with you all.

Fred Rogers (known better to us all as Mr. Rogers of that beautiful neighborhood) once said:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am comforted by realizing there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in this world.

So look for the helpers. Look past the anger and the hatred and the violence. Be a helper yourself. Spread kindness and love and tolerance. Fight for your beliefs and fight to make this a better, safer, and more caring world. Stand up for those who cannot. Show your support for the marginalized and for the underserved. Hug your loved ones a little closer this evening- some may not get that chance again.

Look for the helpers.

The Great Outdoors (Literally)

Hi there! I hope you enjoyed my last blog post which was a little different from my normal type of post- I got some good feedback, and I always appreciate hearing from readers! Tonight’s post is going to be a quick one inspired by this absolutely beautiful weather we have been having here in Connecticut this week.

This is the time of year when we (finally!) get to spend time outside- sitting on the patio, going for hikes in the woods, and planting in the garden. This last weekend I finally got to get things started with my vegetable garden, although I have yet to construct the elaborate fencing system required to keep my chubby dog from eating my vegetables (which he somehow manages to do every year). It’s so nice to be able to enjoy the day outside without having to cover every inch of your skin in a down parka (or, if you’re like me, sulking in your car every morning while it warms up and cursing the day you left Southern California…)

This increased exposure to nature is actually very important for our health. A study done in Holland found that the more green space residents had around them, the higher they perceived their general health to be.[i] Other research has shown that being outside helps to regulate sleep patterns, especially in kids. This research also showed that being outside more helped children to become more creative and to feel less anxious. Another study found that exercising outside for as little as five minutes led to improved feelings of self esteem. And even more research has shown that being in nature improves mood, boosts your immune system, reduces stress, and increases energy levels, among other benefits. So, to sum it all up, being in nature can have some pretty darn positive effects on our health and well-being!

By removing ourselves from our constant engagement with screens, taking a step back from the technology that controls most of our lives, and instead engaging with our natural surroundings, we nurture both our body and mind. There’s something about being out in the world that reminds us that we are all part of a connected planet. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true- it’s very easy for us to feel separate from the outside around us. We wake up inside of a house, get directly into a car to go to work, where most of us sit inside for the majority of the day. If we are lucky, we might get to steal a few minutes outside at lunchtime or at the end of the day, but this is usually in a parking lot, which is not exactly Yellowstone. Then we go home, eat dinner, and watch TV before bed. Very few of us get to actually engage with our natural surroundings. By making an effort to instead spend some time outside, even if it’s just planting some flowers or chasing your kids around the yard, we get a chance to reconnect with a very different part of ourselves.

Being outside allows us to experience sights we only usually see on screens- streams and rivers, tall trees, and delicate flowers. We also encounter sounds we don’t often get to hear- actual birdsong, the wind in the trees, rain falling on puddles.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.

-Lord Byron

So how do we best enjoy the health benefits of nature? I personally love to explore unfamiliar outdoor places every chance I get. Anytime I travel, I love to find a new outdoor activity to try or a beautiful new landscape to explore.

Your favorite acupuncturist at the Wisconsin Dells last fall
Your favorite acupuncturist at the Wisconsin Dells last fall

I’ve always been like that, even as a kid. I grew up exploring the woods, swimming in a lake, and climbing rocks that would have given my parents a heart attack had they seen the size of them. My mom and brother love to explore new natural arenas as well- I’ve been to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon with my mom and to Zion, Arches National Park, and the Grand Tetons with my brother. My dad was more of an indoor person (he loved a good AC unit), but he would take my brother and me fishing when we were young and would take us to baseball fields and the golf course to let us run around to our hearts’ content.

Traveling is obviously a great way to explore nature, but even at home and on a budget, there are so many easy ways to enjoy nature. We are lucky here in Connecticut that many people are within a short distance of hiking trails, parks, and nature preserves. Even just finding time to sit outside after dinner, going for a family walk on the weekends, or taking a picnic lunch to the park can help you engage with the natural world around you.

A beautiful photo from right in the backyard (courtesy of my talented mom)
A beautiful photo from right in the backyard (courtesy of my talented mom)

Even if you don’t live near a state park, nature preserve, or forest, you can still find small areas of natural beauty. More and more cities now are understanding that having green space is an important aspect of developing healthy communities. Even small local parks may offer a respite from the hectic nature of an urban environment.

So get out there and enjoy! Let me know your favorite place to get outside and explore nature! I hope everyone has a wonderful rest of your week, and until next time, be well.

 

[i] Maas, J., Verheij, R. A., Groenewegen, P. P., de Vries, S., & Spreeuwenberg, P. (2006). Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation? Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 60(7), 587–592. http://doi.org/10.1136/jech.2005.043125

 

Understanding How Acupuncture Works (A Scientific Perspective)

Hello, friends! My sincere apologies for immediately breaking my promise in my last post to write more regularly. Once again, school and work have been very busy. I’m excited about today’s post, however. This post is actually part of an assignment for one of my classes. Many of the doctoral classes emphasize the importance of evidence-informed practice. This is a fancy way of saying that clinical research and trials should have an influence on how we practice Chinese medicine. This can sometimes be a controversial idea, especially since many in the TCM field feel that we don’t need clinical trials to prove that something that has been done for thousands of years works. However, I think using this type of scientific consideration is actually important. An assignment for one of my classes asked us to write an article or handout of some sort that uses evidence-based medicine to explore a topic in Chinese medicine. So here we are today!

Acupuncture is definitely an art, but there is a very real scientific aspect to it that is being explored more and more frequently. This is personally exciting to me, because the more research that is done in the field of acupuncture, the more information I have to give to patients and other medical professionals about how and why acupuncture should be considered a valid system of medicine. We’ve talked about qi and the meridians here before, and let’s face it- those concepts sound a little odd to most people. If we don’t have a scientific aspect involved, it doesn’t look great for us to say, “Hey, you should totally just trust me that this invisible substance that moves through these invisible channels and can be influenced at these tiny invisible points is super important to your health.” That’s a quick way to alienate people and, frankly, to make us look like a bunch of patchouli-ensconced weirdos within the medical community.

This is where research comes into play. One of the most interesting components I have found within the field of acupuncture research is studies explaining exactly what happens when the acupuncture needles themselves are inserted into the body. There is a doctor named Helene Langevin who is both an M.D. and an acupuncturist who has done a lot of fascinating work on connective tissue and the mechanism of acupuncture. Dr. Langevin has spent much of her career exploring these topics, and she has found that acupuncture has an effect on the cells involved in connective tissues.

Let’s talk about connective tissue for a minute before we go further. Connective tissue is a very broad term, but the most important thing to understand is that it is the most widely found tissue in the body, and it is responsible for holding aspects of the body together, insulating and protecting parts of the body, and moving substances everywhere they need to go. Connective tissue is very adaptable and varies a great deal depending on what it needs to do. The type of connective tissue most important to acupuncture research is what is referred to as “connective tissue proper,” which can be classified as loose or dense. Within the classification of loose connective tissue is the subclass of areolar connective tissue.

Areolar connective tissue

This type of tissue is mostly commonly made up of a type of cell called fibroblasts (this will be important to remember later). The main function of this type of tissue is essential for holding our bodies together- it sort of works like packing peanuts to keep our organs, etc. in place. It keeps our bodies together while simultaneously allowing us to move around freely. It surrounds everything within our body and keeps things safe and well nourished.[i]

“Ok,” (you might say here) “thanks for the science lesson, Sarah. Just what I was hoping for on a holiday weekend- a really fun reminder of high school bio.” Bear with me…understanding just how important connective tissue is makes understanding the mechanism of acupuncture much easier.

In her research, Dr. Langevin discusses the idea that acupuncture points are areas where connective tissue can be easily affected. She proposes the idea of understanding these points as intersections on highways that travel all over the body. This is supported by her findings that acupuncture points themselves seem to often be located at areas of the body where different sections of connective tissue either meet or cross.[ii]

When an acupuncture needle is inserted into the skin, an acupuncturist usually moves it around a little- either we move the needle up and down a bit or we twirl the needle around. Research has shown that this changes the structure of the connective tissue on a cellular level- a “whorl” is shown around the tip of the needle that sort of looks like a whirlpool. The idea then is that this change in the connective tissue around the tip of needle acts as a signal to the cells of other connective tissues.acupuncture110324104147-large

Remember the idea of acupuncture points as intersections; when you have something happen at one of those intersections (i.e. the insertion of an acupuncture needle), information can travel along the connective tissue highways and have an effect on different tissues all over the body. By influencing the connective tissue through a needle insertion, cells such as fibroblasts (see, I told you would see that word again) can potentially change their actions and send out signals to influence other types of cells around them, thus providing an explanation for how inserting a needle at one point can influence all different parts of the body. Because the cells of connective tissue are responsible for keeping everything together, they are also naturally responsible for sharing information between parts of the body. This can further explain how acupuncture might even influence the perception of pain in the body, as causing a change in these cells might influence how pain signals are received and sent.[iii]

Let’s break this down with a food-based analogy (my favorite type of analogy). Picture a delicious plate of spaghetti. That spaghetti is your connective tissue (metaphorically speaking of course, not Hannibal Lector-style). When you twirl a fork into that spaghetti (like an acupuncture needle going into an acupuncture point), more and more strands will start to wind around the tines of the fork. Twirl hard enough and the whole plate of pasta begins to change shape. You might even splatter sauce everywhere as you move the pasta around. This is what happens when you insert the needle and move it around- the connective tissue itself is changed by that mechanical stress and can send out signals to the surrounding areas.

For those science-minded types, you might notice that the research on this is a little old. There are still lots of studies being done to further explore Dr. Langevin’s theories for how acupuncture works. As you know, each small aspect of any biological mechanism must be thoroughly explored before any final conclusions can be made- it’s not as easy as designing one study to definitely confirm how acupuncture works (although that would be terrific). For example, one of her additional studies is really just to confirm that connective tissue, as opposed to muscle, is what is actually affected by needle insertion and manipulation. This study was able to show that needle manipulation does indeed affect the connective tissue, which means that it is very possible that acupuncture then influences the information sent along the connective tissue pathways. Because other research has shown that this sort of mechanical stress influences cellular communication, this experiment supports her earlier theory that by inserting a needle, something happens along that cellular pathway to make a change in the body.[iv] Also important to consider is that, although research done fifteen years ago may be considered “old” within most academic circles, it’s still pretty young for a system of medicine that’s been around for thousands of years. Distilling this much history into neat studies takes a whole lot of time and effort on the part of those researchers.

So research continues to be done in this field, but it takes time. You can check out the hyperlink on Dr. Langevin’s name to see her bio at the University of Vermont and check out some of her latest work in the field if you’re interested in learning more. This is intended to just be a little introduction into the research surrounding how acupuncture works. Thanks for hanging in there with me on this today- I know it’s a little different from my normal posts but I think it’s always a good thing to introduce the harder sciences into discussions about Chinese medicine and acupuncture. I hope everyone has a great rest of your weekend, and be well!

[i] Marieb, E. & Hoehn, K. (2007). Human Anatomy & Physiology (7th ed). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.

[ii] Langevin, H. & Yandow, J. (2002). Relationship of acupuncture points and meridians to connective tissue planes. The Anatomical Record 269(6), 257-265. doi: 10.1002/ar.10185

[iii] Langevin, H., Churchill, D., & Cipolla, M. (2001). Mechanical signaling through connective tissue: A mechanism for the therapeutic affects of acupuncture. The FASEB Journal 15(12), 2275-2282. doi: 10.1096/fj.01-0015hyp

[iv] Langevin, H., Churchill, D., Wu, J., Badger, G., Yandow, A., Fox, J., & King, M. (2002). Evidence of connective tissue involvement in acupuncture. The FASEB Journal (published online). doi: 10.1096/fj.01-0925fje

 

5 Tips For A Better Night’s Sleep

Hello everyone! My sincere apologies for being a delinquent blogger…the end of the semester was upon me for the last few weeks, and I had a lot of loose ends and final projects that required attention. But I am looking forward to sharing today’s post with you, which is all about sleep!

star2

Americans are pretty lousy at sleeping. We live in a world that values busy-ness, and it seems like getting adequate and restful sleep often gets pushed to the side in an attempt to get as much packed into our day as possible. However, this can lead to a whole myriad of problems- poor sleep can affect literally every part of your health. I’m not going to talk much here about specific causes of insomnia and/or poor sleep- that’s a topic that varies a great deal among individuals and requires a more personalized meeting with your health care provider. Instead, what I am going to talk about here today is “sleep hygiene,” which is a fancy way of referring to the habits and practices around sleep. Practicing good sleep hygiene can help with issues both falling and staying asleep, and it can help ensure that the sleep you get is as restful as possible. So here we go!

  1. Bedroom boundaries

Many of us use our bedrooms now for many non-sleep related activities- responding to emails, Netflix binges, midnight snacking, etc. The bedroom should ideally be *only* for sleep and, ahem,…bedroom funtivities. Making this room a respite from your busy schedule means that your brain associates it with rest and relaxation. If you are using it as an office, the whole notion of rest gets thrown out- instead it becomes another work space.

2. Limit screen time

This is where people start to get grumpy with me. However, there is growing evidence that screen time interferes with our body’s normal circadian rhythms (aka what makes us stay in a regular sleep/wake cycle each day). Our brains can be kind of dumb, and the blue light emitted by most screens (TV, laptops, phones) can be confusing to the brain- it perceives this light as daytime and can disrupt the production of hormones that make us sleepy at night. Our modern technological advances can outpace the brain’s ability to keep up with these changes, so it becomes tough for our brain to know what to do when bright lights are on at night. This doesn’t mean we have to go back to the days of whale oil lanterns, but it is a good idea to limit screen time starting an hour or two before bed. This means putting your phone away (shocking, I know) and doing something that doesn’t involve staring at a screen- reading a book, taking a shower, meditating, stretching, etc. E-readers like Kindle seem to eliminate some of the blue light issues associated with screens, so if you are an e-reader fan, that might be ok (as long as you aren’t still noticing trouble falling asleep using these devices).

3. Bedtime Routines

You know how little kids have a bedtime routine? Bath time, story time, night-time hugs before lights out? Guess what…you should have one too! Having a routine before bed signals to your brain that it’s time to wrap up the day and fall asleep. This is where you can incorporate some of those non-screen-based activities. Find something that helps you transition from your busy day into a more peaceful and relaxed state of mind.

4. Middle-of-the-night Habits

Some people have trouble falling asleep, and other people have trouble staying asleep. If you are one of those people who drop off to sleep right away, but your brain thinks it’s party time at 2 a.m., this section is for you. Most of the time, people will either do one of two things when they can’t fall back asleep- stare at the ceiling and try to bully themselves into sleep or get up and use screens again. Neither of these is a super idea. Trying to force yourself into falling asleep (“Fall asleep, damn it! Just relax! Why are you awake?! FALL ALSEEP!!!”) doesn’t exactly work. Revving yourself up and getting anxious about missing sleep just defeats the purpose of getting back to sleep. If you’re still awake after 15 or so minutes, get out of bed and try changing your environment for a few minutes. Get a drink of water, use the bathroom, read a magazine for a few minutes, and then try again. DO NOT go get your phone or laptop and start checking Facebook or responding to emails. This wakes you up even more and starts the cycle again.

5. Ideal Sleep Environments

Everyone is a little different here. Some people love to snuggle while they are sleeping, some people despise sharing a bed, some people like 40 blankets, some like to sleep with as little on as possible. Find what works for you. If you wake up sweating, try removing some blankets. Always cold? Leave a sweatshirt at the foot of the bed.

In general most people sleep best in a slightly cool environment. Try to make your room as dark and quiet as possible. Use a white noise machine or fan if you are sensitive to outside noise.

Limit alcohol before bed- this can make you sleepy initially, but it will almost always disrupt your normal sleep patterns. Try to not drink all of your water for the day right before bed- stay hydrated during the day instead so you aren’t waking up to pee every two hours. If you’re hungry, eat a small snack with a little protein before bed but avoid any heavy, greasy, or spicy meals. If you have allergies, invest in a small air filter to minimize allergen exposure during the night. If you are waking up with neck or back pain, it might be time to change your mattress or pillow (contrary to what most people think, both of these objects do have a finite lifespan). Treat yo’ self to a nice set of sheets and a little relaxing room spray to make your bedroom seem like a sanctuary.

I hope these tips help you all have restful and restorative sleep at night! I promise I will be better about posting regularly during the next semester. As always, feel free to share this blog with anyone you think might benefit from it! Be well.

Spring Has Sprung (And So Have Seasonal Allergies)

Hello out there, lovely readers. Spring is upon us, and that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite seasonal arrival- spring allergies! We had a very mild winter here in New England, which means that the allergy season is starting even earlier than normal. I’ve been seeing people sniffling for the last two weeks, which is super early. The last two years have been just miserable for allergies, and this year looks to not be so great either. The last two spring allergy seasons were so bad because of the multiple occurrences of the polar vortex (which apparently causes trees and grass to dump all of their pollen in a massive end-of-days apocalyptic fear). This year is just going to be unpleasant because things are blossoming early, which means there is more pollen to go around! Whee!!

So what’s one to do with this abundance of seasonal allergens? Well, you can find out what Chinese medicine can do to help out with those pesky sniffles, runny noses, itchy eyes, and scratchy throats, of course!

In Chinese medicine, seasonal allergies have a couple different etiologies (I know, another shocking case where TCM diagnostics are complicated…all part of the fun of this system!). Spring allergies are often associated with the element of wind. People may become susceptible to these wind-borne pathogens because of a deficiency of spleen or lung qi (and remember, using organ pathologies in Chinese medicine doesn’t mean there’s a problem with your actual insides- it’s just a way of conceptualizing body functions). When the spleen and/or lung qi is deficient, the body’s wei qi ceases to work as well as it should. What on earth is wei qi, you might ask? Excellent question.

Wei qi is the protective qi that surrounds the outer parts of our body to protect us from pathogens trying to sneak in and cause disease. Think of wei qi as Saran wrap, lightly covering everything and preventing things that shouldn’t be coming in from entering into the body (didn’t know you had so much in common with leftovers, did you? I am a literal fountain of knowledge!).

When this wei qi is weak, unruly little things like allergens sneak into the body and cause unpleasant things- those allergy symptoms that make you curse every flower you see.

Look at those beautiful flowers, mocking you.
Look at those beautiful flowers, mocking you.

So what is one to do? Chinese medicine treatments take a multi-faceted approach. First and foremost, we work on alleviating the major symptoms to get you feeling better fast. There are a number of acupuncture points surrounding the nose, eyes, and sinuses that can help relieve itchy eyes and runny noses. Some people get a little nervous about needles in the face, but we use very small needles for these points, and honestly, the benefits usually way outweigh any hesitations people have. Plus, when I get to put needles on the side of your nose, you look like an adorable cat with whiskers, and it makes me very happy!

We also work on correcting the underlying deficiency- tonifying spleen and lung qi to strengthen wei qi in order to prevent further allergy symptoms from developing.

Lastly, we can also use herbal remedies much like our acupuncture treatments to both help with symptoms of allergies and prevent them from occurring again in the future.

There are some things that you can do at home to help minimize your symptoms as well. Avoiding all pollen in the spring is impossible, unless you can build yourself a hamster-ball like contraption from which to view the world. But there are plenty of things you can do to make things less miserable. Firstly, try to keep your home as allergen-free as possible. If you’re outside working in the yard or garden, wipe off quickly before you come in the house and then go right into the shower. The more pollen you bring into the house, the longer you’re exposed to the allergens. This goes for pets, too. Dogs are essentially walking allergen traps- if your dog is anything like my furry moron, rolling around in grass and flowers is a delight on parallel with a stay at a four-star spa. Give them a quick wipe with a damp towel before they come inside (especially if said furry friends hang out in your bedroom…you want to keep that space as pollen free as possible). You can try using a portable air filter to get some of the junk out of the air you’re breathing. This can especially be helpful in the bedroom- remember that you’re breathing in your bedroom air more than any other room in your house, so that’s a big place to reduce allergen exposure. If you have long hair, try to tie it up when you are working outside and/or wear a hat- hair collects pollen and will just increase your exposure. Check your pollen counts on the weather channel/weather app/whatever you use to tell you what it looks like outside. Pollen counts are pretty standard on most weather systems now- if it’s a really high pollen count, it’s maybe not the day to plant your entire garden. Pollen counts tend to be highest around the middle of the day, so early morning or later in the day may be a better time for you to be outside (but again, confirm this with your local pollen count levels).

Lastly, avoid a lot of dairy, refined sugar, and simple carbohydrates if your allergies are bad. These foods all increase dampness in Chinese medicine, which can in turn increase the production of mucus and phlegm that makes your sinuses achy and stuffy.

Hope you have found this helpful, and I am wishing everyone a sneeze-free spring. If you celebrate Easter, I hope you have a great holiday. Until next time, my friends…be well!

 

More Common Questions About Acupuncture

Hello lovely readers! First things first, my apologies for the little hiatus from my writing here. Things have been a little crazy lately- mucho school work, some technological issues, and a busy schedule at the office (which is awesome and about which I will never complain). So something had to give, and this little blog was it. But I’m here now and excited to talk to you guys about some more common questions about acupuncture. If you missed my previous post about acupuncture myths and stereotypes or one of my very first posts on the 5 most common questions I get asked about acupuncture, I encourage you to take a peek at those two. Today’s post will be just a little more information about what acupuncture is and isn’t, based on some common conversations I have had with people about the medicine.

Who can actually give acupuncture?

So this question gets a little complicated depending on where you live. Unfortunately, there is no federal definition or scope of practice for acupuncturists in every state, which means that things vary quite a bit from state to state. In California (where I went to school), acupuncturists are considered primary care providers, which means they get to order things like lab tests and imaging directly. In Connecticut, we aren’t considered primary care providers, but the state does do a good job of protecting the title of “licensed acupuncturist.” To be considered a licensed acupuncturist, you have to have undergone a certain number of educational and clinical training hours and pass a series of board exams. Connecticut requires about 2000 hours to receive the title of licensed acupuncturist, which is pretty good (the school I went to was closer to 4000 hours of study, but California has a really strong educational tradition in the field of Chinese medicine and tends to offer the longest programs).

Where this runs into problems is that other medical providers can technically offer acupuncture- even if they haven’t had the 2000 hours of acupuncture training. This is because their scope of practice covers the insertion of needles, so they can technically do acupuncture. This is actually a HUGE issue in the acupuncture community (and often gets brought up as an issue of what is usually termed “dry needling,” especially when it is done by chiropractors and physical therapists). I’ll save all that background and discussion for another post, but the issue here is that although these medical providers may indeed be able to safely insert acupuncture needles, what they are doing isn’t technically Chinese medicine. Poking needles in someone doesn’t mean you are giving them acupuncture (otherwise, if you follow that train of thought, tattoo artists are also acupuncturists). Often these providers can take weekend seminars or abbreviated courses on acupuncture. Now, in Connecticut, they aren’t allowed to call themselves licensed acupuncturists without meeting the criteria listed above, but nothing prevents them from advertising or offering acupuncture (see the subtle difference?).

So what’s the big deal with that? Chinese medicine is a whole complex system of medicine with its own system of medical philosophy, diagnostic methods, treatment protocols, and even its own language. Going to see a licensed acupuncturist vs. seeing someone who has taken a weekend course on acupuncture means that you are getting a very different and much more thorough course of Chinese medical care from the licensed acupuncturist. Now, this isn’t to say there are physical therapists and chiropractors and doctors out there who have done lots of additional training and acupuncture certifications and can really offer Chinese medicine, but it just means you have to be cautious about who you go to see. I would never feel confident injecting someone with Botox or fillers after taking a couple weekend seminars, even though I legally can put needles in people. Different areas of speciality exist for a reason- it’s not a bad thing to have to go to different providers based on what they are trained for and skilled in. Look for “L.Ac.” after someone’s name if you’re in this state. This means they are a licensed acupuncturist, and they have had thorough training in the field of acupuncture.

How often can I get acupuncture?

I’ve been getting this question a lot recently, and I love it because the answer is AS OFTEN AS YOU LIKE! Acupuncture can’t really be overdone unless you get 100 needles stuck in you daily for weeks (and if you know someone doing that, you need to run, not walk, in the opposite direction). In the hospital I interned at in China, people usually went daily for 10 to 14 days for their treatments. This is very different from the weekly appointments we usually do in America. Especially when you are just getting started with acupuncture or if you have a very acute condition, there is nothing wrong with coming in a couple times a week. Usually if I see you for two visits a week for two weeks, we make faster progress than just doing weekly treatments for four weeks. Now I understand that time and financial constraints are a consideration, so there is nothing wrong with weekly treatments at all. It’s just that there’s nothing wrong with coming more than once a week either!

Ugh. Why do you give me so much stuff to do at home?

I get it. You’re paying me to help you feel better. Why should you have to do homework? Well, my friends, it’s because lifestyle modifications are such a huge part of the Chinese medical tradition. As I have alluded to in other posts, I see you for approximately 0.6% of your total week (that’s no joke…I did math for you guys). There’s 168 hours in a week and let’s say I see you for 1 of those hours. Guess what? No matter how good I am at my job (and I like to think I’m pretty good at it), I can’t fix it all. What you eat, what your sleep is like, how you manage your stress, what you do for exercise, what weather you are exposed to, etc. all influence your health. So part of my job is to help you make improvements to the aspects of your life that are currently affecting your health.

If you’re not doing any stress relief self-care, I might recommend yoga, meditation, or journaling. If you’re eating take-out every night or skipping meals because you don’t have time to cook, I might make some recommendations for fast and easy meals that you can make in a flash. If you’re not sleeping, I might make recommendations about limiting your screen time before bed, making changes to your sleeping environment, or addressing what you can do to calm your mind before bed.

Plus, I like being bossy and telling people what to do.

Usually my bossiness comes in Post-it form
Usually my bossiness comes in Post-it form

Two final quick questions about acupuncture:

Are you a doctor?

Not yet, chickadees. But soon. There are some acupuncturists out there who are doctors and some who are not. Most of us are not. Graduating right away with a doctorate in acupuncture (obtaining what is referred to as a first professional doctorate) is very rare in the  acupuncture field. Most of the time, if you see “Dr.” in front of an acupuncturist’s name, it’s for several reasons:

  • They have a doctorate in another field (Ph.D, MD, ND, DO, DC, etc.)
  • They were educated in China or somewhere else abroad where a first professional doctorate in Chinese medicine is standard.
  • They went back to school and got a DAOM (Doctorate of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine) or some similar degree- this is what I will have in August (if I don’t go crazy first). Sometimes this is D.Ac. (Doctorate of Acupuncture) or DCM (Doctor of Chinese Medicine), or something along those lines

This lack of doctor titles will change. Many schools are actively pursuing offering a doctorate degree. It makes sense- we go to school for 3 or 4 or 5 years of very intense higher education. A doctorate is the more appropriate degree for this level of education.

Do you speak Chinese?

Regretfully, no. Most acupuncturists do not. Medical Chinese is very intense, and it is a whole separate speciality from reading and speaking regular Chinese (which itself is a very difficult language to learn, especially as an adult).

I can't read this. Let's hope it doesn't say something offensive.
I can’t read this. Let’s hope it doesn’t say something offensive.

I interned in China for a month is 2011 and was blessed with very patient and competent translators in the hospital. I could say “Hello,” “thank you,” count to 10, and order a beer, and surprisingly that got me pretty far. Most people we encountered (and my friends and I did a lot of wandering neighborhoods in Beijing) were either extremely patient with our language fumbles, eager to practice the English they knew, or as excited to play charades as we were in an attempt to converse across the language barrier.

So that’s all for now, everyone! Hope you enjoyed this. Have a wonderful week (or two) until we meet again, and be well!

Just Breathe

Hello everyone! I apologize for not being as regular with my posts recently as I would like to be. I’m a little overwhelmed with my school workload at the moment, so my blog posts will probably be on the shorter side for the next few weeks.

I’ll be honest with you all. I’ve been a little stressed recently. I am really enjoying my doctoral course load, but at the moment, I’m taking four classes and maintaining my practice. It’s a lot. And it’s perfectly fine to admit that I’m feeling the pressure lately. In our modern world, stress is ubiquitous. Everyone is stressed pretty much all of the time. With technology making much of our work right at our fingertips, it’s hard to turn “off.” There’s always one more email to respond to, one more quick text to send, and one more task you can squeeze in before bed. Unfortunately, this constant stream of pressure can have negative consequences for our health. When we are constantly in a state of stress, our body gets stuck in the “fight or flight” mode. This means that our body is always ready for the next catastrophe, but this is not a good place for our body to be for any sustained amount of time. Stress has been linked to a huge number of health conditions, including headaches, digestive disorders, and cardiovascular issues.

So what do we do when we are stressed? There’s a million things you can do to reduce stress, but I want to focus on just one tool to manage stress in this post. It’s easy, free, and can be done anywhere. Curious yet?

It’s breathing.

I know, I know…this is ground breaking stuff here. “But Sarah!” you might say. “You are normally so wise and witty!  Breathing! For stress?! What a stupid statement from such a normally wonderful practitioner!”

Bear with me. Breathing is a fundamental part of Qi Gong, a system of mediation and movement that draws a lot from the philosophies of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Qi Gong combines different postures and breathing techniques in order to cultivate well-being.deep-breathing

So this is not just any breathing. Many people don’t breathe correctly. And again, you might be doubting my sanity here. But it’s true. Look at how a baby breathes (if you don’t have a baby for easy access, don’t ask to borrow one so you can watch it breathe. That way lies creepiness. Just trust me on this one). Their little tummies go all the way up and all the way down. They breathe all the way down into their abdomen. As adults, we forget how to do this. We hunch our shoulders up around our ears and take shallow breaths. We don’t use the full power of our diaphragm muscle to take full breaths in and release a deep breath back out.

Taking a few minutes to pause and re-set our method of breathing does a lot for us. It slows our heart rate, increases our oxygen consumption, and allows our mind to become more still and at ease.

This can be done through a simple breathing exercise that I will walk you through. This can be done either seated or lying down, whatever you prefer (if you lie down, this is not naptime…stay with me!).

Place your hands over your belly. I like to place them around the area of my umbilicus (belly button). Take a long slow deep breath in so that you feel your hands lifted up by your belly. Hold for a second at the fullest point of the inhale. Then exhale very slowly. Feel your hands fall back down as your belly flattens and air is expelled.

If you’d like, you can include mantras or mental imaging with the breathing. You can breathe in “Peace” and breathe out “Stress,” letting your negative emotions and thoughts leave with the exhale. You can picture a white light as you inhale, and exhale whatever color you associate with stress (red, black, grey are the most common ones). You can simply count slowly: inhale for “1…2…3.” Pause, and then exhale, “3…2…1.”

deep-breathing
Sounds pretty easy, right? This is a very simple method of reducing stress and allowing yourself a few minutes to rest, re-set, and get about the rest of your day. Give this a try this week, and let me know what you think! I hope everyone has a great rest of your Sunday and a wonderful week ahead. Be well!

What A Pain!

Hello everyone! I hope you all enjoyed the last few guest authors here, but today you are stuck with me 🙂 I’m going to talk about pain in this post. Pain is the most common reason that I see patients in my private practice, and it’s probably the most common reason why Americans seek out TCM services and acupuncture in general.

Pain can be divided into two types: acute and chronic. Everyone has experienced acute pain- you have a throbbing headache, you stubbed your toe, or you threw out your back. Acute pain is typically fairly short-lived and uncomplicated. Acupuncture works very well for these types of conditions (in fact, the sooner you come in to get treated, the better results we tend to see), but what I tend to see most often in practice is chronic pain. Chronic pain means pain that is sticking around for quite some time (usually either longer than three months or longer than six months , depending on who you ask), and it is often very difficult to manage effectively. Usually, people come to see me because whatever they have been trying to do to manage their pain either isn’t working, or it isn’t working as well as they would like.

When thinking about pain in TCM, we can pretty much boil everything down to a very fundamental statement of Chinese medicine:

If there is free flow, there is no pain. 

If there is no free flow, there is pain. 

Essentially what this means is that pain results from a stagnation of qi and blood in the body.  How exactly does the stagnation occur? This is where things can get a little complicated- as with almost anything in Chinese medicine, there are always lots of different etiologies or potential causes of a pathology. However, for our purposes here, it’s just enough to know that something happens to impede the free flow of qi and blood. This “something” can be an injury or accident, a structural issue with the body, a deficiency of qi and blood, an external pathogen like cold or damp, and even emotional factors like stress and anxiety. Once things stop moving and grooving like they should, you develop a symptom- pain.

The best analogy I have for this is to picture cars moving along on a highway. Suddenly, two cars collide and stop on the side of the road. Almost immediately, the flow of traffic on the road is altered. Cars slow down near the site of the accident and move sluggishly to get around the stopped cars. Traffic begins to back up behind the site of the accident and there’s not enough cars on the road ahead of the accident.

10664883-Car-traffic-jam-Stock-Vector-cars

The same thing happens along the acupuncture channels that cover the whole body. So what do we do to fix this problem? Treatment is going to address whatever caused the obstruction as well as help to get things moving as they should.

The insertion of acupuncture needles at specific points works like the emergency responders and tow trucks at the site of an accident- it helps to resolve the issues at the local area, direct traffic, and get things back to normal as quickly as possible. Tui Na (a form of Chinese medical massage) works in much the same way. Chinese herbal medicines (which can be used internally, topically, or both) also work to reduce pain and inflammation locally and to keep things moving freely in all the acupuncture channels. Once we get things back to moving smoothly, the pain resolves!

You can also do things at home to help manage pain conditions. Meditation, light stretching or exercises, and addressing lifestyle factors such as sleep habits and diet can all contribute towards pain management. Depending on what people are coming in for, I almost always send them home with some personalized recommendations for things that they can do at home until their next appointment.

Chronic pain can take a little longer to make progress on than acute pain. I usually give a gentle reminder that if you’ve had a painful condition for a long time, it can take a little while to get things better. Again, think about the traffic jam example- it’s a lot easier to clean up a fender-bender than it is to clean up a ten car pile up in a snowstorm. Once stagnation has settled in, other pathologies can develop, so it takes a little while to make things right. I always love when I’m conversing with someone and they say, “Oh yeah, acupuncture…I had that once. I had shoulder pain for three years so I tried it once. Didn’t work.” This is akin to licking the outside of an antibiotic pill and assuming it’s going to clear up a bacterial infection. Acupuncture works cumulatively- treatments build upon each other, so that your progress becomes a little more pronounced with each visit. I usually ask chronic pain patients to give me three to five visits before they call it quits- this gives a much better idea than just one visit if their condition is something we can address effectively. I can only think of a very small handful of patients who weren’t seeing progress after a few visits, and in most of those cases, there was some pretty significant structural issues that went beyond what I could fix.

One more quick note about pain…this is in regards to the use of ice for pain. Chinese medicine has a very different perspective on the use of ice than Western medicine does. It has become very common now to use ice packs, cooling patches, or other chilly therapies when you have a painful condition. I don’t mind the use of ice immediately following a trauma, especially if the area is red, swollen, or warm (of course, these signs also mean that you should be getting yourself to a medical provider). What I don’t like seeing is people still using ice eight months after an accident. In TCM terms, cold is said to constrict and contract. This means that it can cause hiccups in the free flow of qi- think of a stream that freezes in winter. Ice formation along the waterway means that the water can’t go where it should. Applying too many cooling treatments can do the same thing to our acupuncture channels.

For those who live in New England, this stagnation can happen in your gutters too...nothing like smashing an ice dam to get things moving!
For those who live in New England, this stagnation can happen in your gutters too…nothing like smashing an ice dam to get things moving!

What we can do instead of using ice is to use cool or cold formulas- these contain herbs that will reduce the redness and inflammation, but they also contain moving herbs to counteract the stagnating nature of cold. If ice is literally the only thing helping someone with their pain, I try to find a way to incorporate it into their treatment plan, but this has very rarely been the case…once we start to get things resolved, the need for ice usually becomes much less.

.I hope you’ve found this little explanation on pain to be helpful! Acupuncture and other TCM modalities are really great for pain, and they can be safely combined with most other treatments that people may be using (injections, most meds, PT,  pre- and post-surgical, etc.) Although I treat a lot of pain conditions, I never really get tired of working on them because it is so rewarding to help someone alleviate some of their suffering. I hope you all have a wonderful week, and as always, fell free to share this blog with anyone you think might enjoy it. Be well!