Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What Herb Do You Use For. . .?

Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green

"I want to get some herbs for my headaches. What do you suggest?" When I am in the health food store buying groceries, I hear customers aiming these kinds of questions at the staff. The staff usually does not answer them, because they are not legally allowed to diagnose or treat health conditions.

I don't answer such questions, either, even though I have an acupuncture license and herbal treatment falls within my scope of practice. I am an herbalist who uses Chinese herbs, and we don't prescribe herbs that way. Here's a short primer on using Chinese herbs.

1. Chinese herbs are prescribed by syndrome, not symptom. We see the body as a complex grouping of activities, and see illness as a hiccup in the organization of those activities. We have names for the system breakdowns that cause problems. Sometimes a body runs too hot, or too cold, or doesn't handle food or humidity or stress well. Sometimes energy gets stuck in one place, or because of overwork or poor sleep there is not enough energy. We use herbs, as well as acupuncture, meditation techniques, and other tools, to restore balance in the system. For headaches, some are caused by fatigue, some by frustration and stress. Still others are caused by becoming overheated, or because of old trauma or hormone shifts. Each of these causes might need completely different herbal treatment. To give someone the wrong herbs could aggravate the system breakdown and make the headaches worse instead of better.

Chinese herbs are primarily used in formulas. When patients ask me for herbs, they usually expect me to give them one name, like a TV talk show doctor might. Feverfew for headaches! St John's wort for depression! Black cohash for hot flashes! But Chinese herbalism has developed over thousands of years. Herbalists have learned that using just one herb for a person is not the most effective way to treat the whole person. I have treated many people who have not had good results with the one herb treatment. The one herb they chose may not have addressed their syndrome properly, or it may have aggravated another condition, or it may simply have not been strong enough on its own. 

In a Chinese herbal formula, some herbs are for the underlying syndrome causing the symptoms that are uncomfortable. Some ingredients help with digesting the overall formula. Others are added to minimize the chance of any side effects. Still others are used to strengthen general health to prevent the problem from happening again once it is resolved.When I look at a bottle of herbs from a health food store or a multi-level company that sells herbs, even if they are in a formula, almost all the herbs are for the same symptom. There is rarely an attempt to make the formula address the whole body (except when the company uses a Chinese medicine formula--but even then, they market it as being used for a symptom, not the underlying cause). We consider putting every herb that treats a given symptom into one formula as overkill in most cases. 

Chinese herbs are ideally custom prescribed for the individual. Sometimes companies sell a "one size fits all" formula because the people creating the formulas are not trained herbalists; often it is because they are mass marketing a formula to the general public, and know the average person with a headache doesn't know what causes it. Chinese medicine has fallen into this trap, too. Go into most Asian markets, and you'll find formulas for fertility, for PMS, or for headache. These formulas may be frequently used formulas developed over hundreds or years or more, and may work for the majority of the people who try them.  But they are still not aimed at the the exact syndrome affecting the individual buying them. The ideal way to purchase Chinese herbs is from an herbalist trained in Chinese medicine. We will talk with you about all your health problems, and make you a formula that will begin the process of re-balancing all of your systems. 

If you only treat the one symptom that is bothering you the most, it is like taking someone spinning 5 plates and only keeping one balanced. While even a master herbalist cannot always treat every problem at once, we can usually trace a common cause for most of the problems and treat that first. As that system failure is fixed, more than one symptom will begin to improve. If you have headaches, you may find that not only do they get better, but your sleep improves too. Or your digestion is better. Or you catch fewer colds. Treating the underlying cause of health problems has the effect of improving how you feel overall. 

Holistic medicine in general takes the long view. We don't treat you just so you feel better next week, but have side effects from treatment that will cause you problems in a few years. We look to your future, and correct as many of the system faults as possible, so that your health continues to improve over the long term. Not every problem can be cured, but with good health practices and herbs that balance your body rather than simply try to mask a symptom, we can help you to feel better overll.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Does Acupuncture Help Weight Loss?

image courtesy of freeimages.com

After "Does acupuncture hurt?" questions about weight loss are the most common ones for most acupuncturists. The short answer is "yes, usually." Many people lose weight more easily when they add acupuncture to a healthy lifestyle of unprocessed food, healthy exercise, adequate sleep, and good stress management. Changes happen more quickly, and the good habits are easier to follow.

But that is not because acupuncture makes you lose weight. Losing weight may or may not be healthy, depending on your circumstance. And weight loss is not (or should not be) a goal in itself. Everyone agrees it is better to be a normal weight than obese. But if you somehow manage to lose weight while eating overly processed food, sleeping poorly, and stay highly stressed, you will still have health problems.

Acupuncture regulates qi.  Qi roughly correlates to our nervous and endocrine systems--the nearly sentient interactions that keep us alive with minute adjustments to every part of life. Our immune system, heart rate, metabolism--even what our brain focus on in the world around us--depend on how we interpret the internal and external data that comes through our senses. In Chinese medicine, we call the "stuff" that makes that interpretation qi.

Acupuncture allows qi to work as efficiently as possible. When you are stressed, or trying to overcome eating a cheeseburger laced with MSG-laden flavor salt and drinking a diet drink, or haven't gone for a walk in a week, your qi suffers. Your system is backlogged with problems. Like a computer with glitches, you don't work as well. Acupuncture allows your system to "reboot," much like a good nights rest allows your body to process the thoughts and emotions of the day.

Your body, unencumbered by the stresses and injuries of the past, feels good. Exercise is a joy. As acupuncture treatments continue to calm your nervous system, it minimizes your "fight or flight" moments in the sympathetic nervous system. Little things, like traffic jams, feel less and less like emergencies. You start to feel stable and safe. Living in this state allows you to release food cravings.  Your body stops hanging on to every bit of fat it can get as a protection from a sense of deprivation and lack. You will begin to lose weight.

But you will do so much more. You will catch fewer colds, have fewer allergies, feel fewer aches and pains. You will sleep better, be more alert at work, and less likely to strike out in anger because life will feel manageable.

Does acupuncture help weight loss? Only tangentially. Acupuncture opens the pathways inside of you to allow your body to work the way it always should. In health and wellness.

Information used in crafting this post: TED talk: Why Do We Sleep?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth


When I was at school studying Chinese medicine, one of my professors said that in China, people are encouraged to go to the countryside each springtime. "They see all the green in the fields, and it soothes their Liver Qi, which relieves stress." 




Anyone who has driven in the country in spring knows how soothing a clear green field can be. But for most people, it is a common sense "fun thing to do," not a health treatment.






Science may soon change that perception.






Research now shows that looking at the color green boosts creativity, and that productivity improves when office workers can see outside. Our systems are made to connect with the beauty of nature, and our health improves when we make time to do so.





In the interests of building health today, here are some pictures I recently took while at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, one of my happy places. Enjoy!










Articles used for this post: Why We Love Beautiful Things


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Living Now


My parents and I
This month two dear friends died. One suddenly of a heart attack, the other after a long battle with several different cancers. The world seems a little darker this morning.

I guess I am like most people. I live my life consumed by minutiae. Small dramas between friends or co-workers, passing moods, traffic, a slow computer--too often I allow small things to determine my life, my actions, and my thoughts. When faced with mortality, these small, petty issues fall aside.

The loss of my friends, while painful, is nothing compared to to the empty feelings their families are facing today. I have lost my mother and father, and sat beside my husband in ICU when he was terribly ill and I knew any second his labored breathing could stop. Time stops in that level of loss. You feel separated from time and space, and the people around you can try to comfort or help, but you are too numb to respond. 

Thankfully, my husband recovered, and is now healthier than he has been in years. But I try to never quite forget how clearly I saw life sitting by that hospital bed. When the daily grind drops away in the face of life-and-death issues, you make promises to yourself. You promise you will never take important people for granted. You promise you will never let the trivial keep you from the crucial. You promise that you will say things that need to be said, even if it leaves you vulnerable or temporarily hurts someone in hopes of helping them live a fuller life.

I have kept these promises imperfectly. Today I realize I have not stayed as connected with my friends, especially the two who are newly gone. I could have been more encouraging, more available, more attentive. No one stays in the moment of what's truly important perfectly. But each time real life overtakes the silly play of irrelevant details, let's renew our commitment to those promises. Hug the people you love today. Forgive them. Remove anything that stands between you and being able to stay connected to the important people and values in your life. No one is guaranteed the next minute. Please make this minute--this one, right now--count. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Culture of Busyness and Perfection

Photo Credit: Celalteber
Today I had lunch with a dear friend. I work in natural health, and she works in human resources and career coaching. Our conversation drifted to living a good life, as it often does, and we both came to the same conclusion: people are killing themselves trying to live up to a culture of busyness and perfection.

Everyone is busy, everyone has too much to do, and it's the excuse for rudeness, for missing family time, and for any let-down. The trouble is, it's a real excuse. When you cram every second of your day with more obligations than you can manage, you will let stuff go. But no one seems to do much about it. Why don't we pare down activities? Why don't we refuse a dinner date with the co-worker who gets on our nerves? And why, when we do let things go, it's things we love--friends and loved ones and leisure--instead of the things we hate, like long hours at a job that takes too much from us, or social outings that are more obligations than fun?

Enter the culture of perfection. You can do it all, and be a perfect weight, perfect physique, have five time consuming hobbies and everyone loves you. If you can't keep up, don't tell anyone, because then you are not part of the group. Do your Pilates (or Tough Mudder marathon), show up at the right restaurants, go to your book club, or fundraiser, or cocktail party. Check your watch if you must, because you're killing your soul, and go to sleep at 2am (but get up at 5am because early risers are the most productive). But be perfect. If you aren't then you're a loser.

"People won't even poop at work," I said, sharing an article on "workplace bathroom anxiety" I found recently. (While looking for the article online, I found pages of articles with strategies to "do a big job" in the office discreetly.) 

"Of course not," my friend said. "The boss might come in." 

What has life become when basic biological functions that are common to everyone cannot be done in the space dedicated to them? When you can't admit to you co-workers, who you see for more hours than your family, that you are not perfect? Where is the safe place everyone needs to be themselves? 

For many, it's not with their family. Too many people use busyness to cover up an unhappy marriage, or to fill their belief that if they aren't perfect their mate or children or parents won't love them. So they work, and they work, and try to find all their fulfillment in activities and jobs. 

My husband and I have downtime. More than most people. We watch movies together, we sit around and read books in the same room, sometimes sharing an interesting passage, and, mostly, we let each other be fallible. I cannot imagine the lives I hear about from some patients, where their every moment is scheduled and judged by someone who expects them to give everything to that moment. Living under that burden changes how you interact--you won't tell people you're tired, so those around you don't realize you need space, or you tell everyone you're overburdened, and suck the joy and life from any room you enter.

How about we try something else? I invite you to join me. Let's dump the Culture of Busyness, and the Culture of Perfection. Let's join the Culture of Authenticity. Our group is made up of imperfect people who want to grow. We know time in contemplation, in sitting with others for friendship and fun, and in dealing with problems instead of distracting ourselves with another activity, are valuable for our productivity, mental and emotional health. We take time off when we're sick. We limit multi-tasking. We go to the bathroom. This culture does may not know who the "it" designer is this season, and we may spend more time at home than off networking, but when we give ourselves to a task, we can give ourselves completely. We give what we have, and then we recharge. We spend less time at doctors and more time getting massages and talking to our kids and spouses and friends. Join us--we have room for you. 


Sunday, January 25, 2015

It's That Time of Year: The Anniversary Reaction

"Anniversary Reaction" is a term that describes an emotional reaction to the memory of an event on or near the calendar date of a trauma, or when the surrounding circumstances are similar to the "feel" of the time a trauma occurred.

Photo Credit: lindagr
The idea of the anniversary reaction is relevant to me this time of year. Both my parents died in February, six years and one day apart. This time of year is a nostalgic, sometimes troubled one for me, often involving strangely emotional days with no immediate explanation. 

Since it's been decades since either of my parents' deaths, it is odd to still feel the sting of loss so profoundly. It's not that I am deeply grieving; rather, the season just leaves me melancholy. I've bounced back and forth in coping strategies for my emotional response--some years I take the days off work entirely, listen to sad music and loll around or read all day. Others I try to "buck up" and get on with my life. I rarely succeed with the "soldier on" mentality--usually my body makes the decision to grieve for me, and I catch a cold or in some other way become physically incapacitated.

So I now try to honor this feeling. I give myself time. If I cannot schedule a whole day of reflection, I take half days several times throughout my "season of grief." I've given up fighting the intermittent eruptions of tears, though I sometimes forget why they come up for a day or two. 

I've also stopped trying to decide what the emotion means. A quick search of "Anniversary Reaction" on the internet shows different approaches to dealing with it. Some define it as "an individual's response to unresolved grief resulting from significant losses." Until it is gone you should consider your grief unresolved. Others take a more peacefully resigned approach, seeing the anniversary reaction as a natural part of grieving for some people, and suggests using each year's emotional upheaval as a chance to remember your loss, reflect on your life, and allow yourself to grow emotionally. Of course, if an anniversary of a traumatic event or loss leaves you incapacitated or hopeless to the point of severe depression, all professionals say that getting some form of professional help is critical to your well-being. But for people like me, who have a long wave of nostalgic, not-entirely-unpleasant grief around a loss, an anniversary reaction can be a chance to reconnect with your history, with your family memories, and with your life outside of work and daily responsibilities. These "time-outs" from day-to-day struggle are important in our culture of constant distraction and busyness.  Honoring milestones and touchstones helps us to stay connected to what makes each of us unique.

If you have a special anniversary of an event in your life, I invite you to treasure that memory, even its tears. Embracing the hard times in your life allows you to grow from them. If the event is the loss of a loved one, going over the good and bad of your time with the person will help you be kinder to the people dear to you now. If the event was a horrible trauma, remembering your survival can give you strength in your present trials and remind you that you have a life to use in whatever way you feel reflects you and your values. And if you survived something that others did not, it gives you a chance to honor those memories and those people. Each person must find his own way to approach the anniversary reactions in his life. What has worked for me is a gentle homage to people very important in making me who I am today, and a resolve to treat the remaining people I love as the dear treasures they are.

Articles referenced for this post: 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"I Don't Like To Complain"


Photo credit: nzks
I read a lot about positivity, and training your mind to see the brighter aspect of any situation. But when I get down, I do not have a lot of experience with realistic evaluation of experiences. I tend to see any experience as either good or bad, as my fault if it is negative, and in spite of me if it is positive. I absorbed a futilistic mind set from childhood, without my family's or my realization it was happening. So when I do finally give up and embrace the depressing side of a problem, I go overboard. I throw out any good things as I focus on the bad--no one called me today, I lost income, I made a mistake, something bad is happening to someone I love and I can't help it, there are good things I want to do, but x, y, or z stands in the way. It's all hopeless, and I should just eat worms and die.

When I keep my pain locked away in myself, a stray negative thought can blossom into a full depression hurricane, where I denigrate my accomplishments, ignore happy things around me, and sacrifice my energy and health in bouts of crying, anger, and blaming those around me for perceived slights. Why don't I reach out to someone else in these bad times? "I don't like to complain." "I don't want to be negative." "If other people knew I had this problem, I would be lessened in their eyes."

Recently I tried to encourage a friend who was down. In a feat of tremendous hyprocrisy, I urged him to confide his problems in others, to "get the pain out." And he used my line. "I don't like to complain." As often happens, being of the receiving end of my words opened my eyes to a new viewpoint.

Why is it helpful to share our burdens with each other? If I am sad, and I tell you I am sad and why, won't I just make you sad, too? Sometimes, yes. I have heard conversations where two people get together and focus on all the bad in themselves and in the world. The conversation often becomes cruel, cyncial, and cutting. I get depressed hearing it second-hand, and the people involved do not seem uplifted at all while they are together. But I don't usually have such conversations. When I share a problem with a friend, my friends react differently. I have been blessed with proactive friends who help me turn problems around.

How do these wonderful people help me? They are first caring, then try to help me see the problem realistically, and then we try to solve it together.
  • Caring. Letting someone know your dark places or failures is scary stuff. In a society built on projecting a positive, successful, happy persona, admitting that you ate a box of cookies and spent the day hiding from people because conversation was too taxing is an exercise in vulnerability--and is not something you find recommended in a Tony Robbins seminar. But everyone has down times. Grief and sadness are natural stages in life. They can come on from events big or small, from events such as death or illness bringing loss into our lives, or when our current situation is not where we want to be, or we hit one too many red lights on the way to work on a rainy day. The brooding nature of sadness can, when expressed and used correctly, give us time to look at problems, see what we want or need to change, and move toward a happier future. But most of us need someone to accept us at our saddest in order to properly process our emotions and reach that proactive stage. Being a friend who can say "I am so sorry you are dealing with this problem! Tell me about it," gives the troubled person room to feel their emotions and begin the job of working through to a better state.

  • See the Problem Realistically. For me, this is the stage I need a trusted friend to accomplish. When I face a problem, it is all I can see. Only the bad sides of the equation. I don't see opportunities, I don't see my skills I bring to solving it, I don't see any of my past successes or the support networks I have all around me. I see a problem--big and scary and proof, in my eyes, of my utter incompetence and lack of worth. My husband and my friends are lifesavers in these moments. I trust them to honestly assess a problem with me, and help me put it in perspective in the larger mosaic of my life. They are the ones to remind me of past successes, of the power of faith, of the good things that can come from the current challenge, and that even if I do fail to solve this problem, I am still loved and worthwhile. This help is the hardest to be without, and the step I close off the most severely when I refuse to share my burden with someone I can trust.
  • Solving the Problem. This step, which seems so crucial when I am bewailing my predicament, is actually the least important. Most problems get solved. Mostly by doing things I already know how to do. For the rare times I need help--either in the form of practical help or simply expert advice, my support group of friends, family, and experts I trust will usually get me on track quickly. I am still surprised at how simple solutions can be, especially after I've spent weeks obsessing over a situation. Often one conversation, or mentioning one need that is overwhelming to me, will result in just the right advice, or someone having a spare whatsit that they want to be rid of that is exactly what I need. Problem solving, while crucial to life, is much less difficult than letting someone care and help you put your problem into perspective.
So why do we constantly hoard our problems when sharing them helps us and allows our friends to see into our lives in ways that strengthen our relationships? Why must pride and a desire to appear invincible rather than vulnerable make us suffer alone? Think about how good it feels to help someone else, and especially how good it feels to be trusted with someone's tender, scary places. Why not give that gift to the friend you value the most? Chances are good he or she will help you solve your problem, you'll feel better, and your friend will feel valued and useful. Share a problem today!