Monday, October 12, 2015

Self-Care When Illness Strikes

An unintended side effect of illness: I've lost some weight!
This summer has been interesting chez Green. I've had two illnesses that landed me in the hospital, and needed a procedure that put me out of commission for about a week. It has been a month since I was declared more or less back to normal, and I'm still low on energy and don't feel anywhere near recovered.

I've been shell-shocked by the whole ordeal. As a natural health practitioner who eats clean and uses herbs, acupuncture, chiropractic and other holistic healthcare nearly exclusively, the world of beeping machines and various pills, antiseptics, and scary diagnostic things that zap my insides is overwhelming. And I didn't even need surgery.

I treat people every day who make multiple trips to a hospital or outpatient facility for procedures each year. Most of my patients take some kind of prescription medication every day, and many more see their doctor for health concerns frequently. After my brief sojourn in the land of modern medicine, I feel for them.

The doctors and nurses who have treated me have been almost universally professional, kind, and compassionate. They have also been overworked, and in a system that treats bodies like machines.

It is surprising how quickly you begin to feel like a piece of meat when people take your clothes and blood, and make your bodily fluids their business. Even knowing it is exactly what I needed to get well did not make me feel positive about the experience. Feeling my body reel from each medication and procedure disoriented me and made me distrust my natural knowledge.

I am used to using food and herbs to gently allow my body to heal. In most cases, this approach is ideal, allowing your body to makes the minute adjustments that encourage balance. In an emergency, you take care of the potentially life-threatening problem and then help your body recover from any side effects. I have had to develop some strategies to help me recover from the more extreme but necessary healthcare I've had over the past several months. Here are a few things that have helped me:
  1. Remember every person recovers differently. I have taken far longer than I like to get my energy and verve back. My husband and friends keep reminding me that while I was very blessed in not having as severe a health issue as I could have had, I was still seriously ill. They also remind me that I have always been slightly frail, for lack of a better word, and usually take longer than average to recover from anything, even a night of poor sleep. Once I stopped fighting the time I needed to get better, I noticed I improved more quickly.

  2. Take better care of yourself than usual. I already eat well and try to give myself plenty of rest and moderate exercise. But this illness has made it necessary for me to be extra careful in my food. A little too much sugar, too much starch, or a food I know I do not digest well, and I will feel bad for at least the next twenty-four hours. A night's lost sleep means a nap the next day, no arguments. If I don't take care of myself, my muscles hurt, I can't focus, and I'm likely to have an emotional meltdown. So I try to eat mostly simply cooked food with an emphasis on vegetables. When I stick to this diet, I feel better than when I eat too much sugar or spice. I also give myself plenty of rest, and try--the hardest thing for me--to keep calm thoughts and stay optimistic. I am a recovering worrier.

  3. Make a plan for the future. I have been diagnosed with a chronic illness that requires some maintenance. Since I've been used to mild symptoms and did not realize they signalled something more serious, I've had to educate myself. I knew the "book-knowledge" information from my schooling in healthcare, but learning what symptoms feel like in my body has taken concentrated study. I now have a plan for a)diet changes and herbal supplements as preventative changes when symptoms start, b) at what point I will go to a doctor, and c) when the best course of action is rest.

  4. Accept managing illness is a process. I am still learning the exact parameters to best manage my health. I have made mistake in overdoing things, and I suspect I could have pushed myself sometimes and did not. After being lectured by my friends and family to take the advice I give to others, I took the pressure off myself to be perfect. Now I don't worry too much about misteps. My goal is to be healthy for years to come, not to be perfect today. I think my strategy is working.
I hope these tips will help you, whether you are dealing with a cold or a serious illness. If you are not healthy, you cannot enjoy life to its fullest. Take the time to take care of yourself so you can enjoy your time on this lovely planet.

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

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: