Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has its roots deep within ancient Taoist philosophy. The ancient Taoists were keen observers of nature and human beings within nature and recognized universal laws underlying the existence of all things. They taught a holistic picture of human life and its relationship with all external manifestations in the Universe. For instance external phenomena observed on the planet — geographic, climatic and seasonal, were not viewed as separate and distinct from internal changes such as emotions and our responses to them. To understand one meant to better comprehend the other. One of the primary laws recognized and respected by the Ancient sages is the “universal law of energy response.” It is the understanding that energies respond to and attract energies of corresponding frequencies. Thus the physical, emotional, and mental energies of a person in harmony with universal laws will be harmonious. Those who violate the laws of nature manifest disorder, disharmony and disease.While for many of us living in harmony with nature 24/7 is something we would like, most of us feel it it is not necessarily something we can achieve — particularly when we interact with our modern world. However, if we can at least be open to the idea that we are not separate from Nature and actualize that awareness in our daily living we can begin to understand the wisdom of our ancient and modern day sages. Living in harmony with the seasons is one way to actualize this and has always been a fundamental tenet underlying Chinese medicine. It is a recurring focus whenever we speak about nurturing optimal health. Attuning ourselves to the seasons is a necessary step to find our way and begin the journey towards attaining and maintaining true health. Future seasonal blogs will continue the conversation around seasonal attunement. Let’s begin with Spring…..
“The months of the Spring season bring about the revitalization of all things in nature. It is the time of birth….this is the season in which the universal energy begins anew and rejuvenates…one should attempt to correspond to it directly by being open and unsupressed, both physically and emotionally.” Huangdi Neijing
“The Liver holds the office of General .[and] storm[s] the fortifications in pursuit of bandits“ — Basic Questions, Chpt.8, SuWen
So it’s been a brutal winter — again — and as soon as we begin to sense the awakening of nature around us we feel like it is time to fetch the oil to grease our cranky selves and try to regain the pep in our step and the flex in our muscles. We instinctively feel the need to move and shed our layers. Spring marks the season where yang energies begin to emerge and mother nature awakes from its state of dormancy out of the cold winter season. It can be a heady, invigorating, sometimes disturbing season with wild fluctuations of energy surging throughout nature as birth, arousal, and movement. And our bodies naturally resonate with these energies. If we are in good health we immediately spring along, if we’ve been neglectful we sputter….
It makes sense that the climatic energy most associated with the Spring season – from a Chinese medicine perspective – is Wind. The concept of Wind in Chinese medicine is extensive. As Chinese medicine evolved over the centuries, so too did the physiological concept of wind. For instance Wind is understood as arising not only from our external environment — such as the onset of common allergens including the food we ingest to nourish ourselves — but also the internal movements often caused by our myriad of emotions (concept of internal wind).
What’s My Liver Have to Do with It?
From the Chinese perspective the liver is the organ that needs the most attention during the turbulent “Windy” season. To understand this we must review the role of the liver.
As the main blood detoxifier our liver is the second line of defense against all types of allergens and disease (our digestive system being the first). It is our body’s primary blood filtration system and acts as a sieve to catch all the toxins that enter the body and make it through the blood to the liver. The body’s primary source of toxins comes from the choice of inappropriate foods. Simple things – such as stimulants (sugar, salt, caffeine, MSG), overcooked meats, rancid fats, hydrogenated fats, highly processed foods, food additives and preservatives, bad food combinations and even natural foods that are not appropriate for certain people – easily load up the body with toxic substances (“the bandits”) that the liver, as the second line of defense has to process. Toxicity also arises due to drugs, lack of exercise to aid the liver in moving the blood supply, and even toxic emotions that forces the liver to stagnate.
The liver is also a main catalyst to most of our crucial metabolic processes in our body. Almost every nutrient we consume goes through the liver after being digested so it can be transformed into a useable biochemical form. Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are all processed in the liver and turned into a readily useable form of glucose that is then distributed to the rest of the body. The liver produces a host of enzymes and hormones that facilitates the extensive digestive process.
Blood Storage House
In addition our entire blood supply goes through your liver as many as 20 times/day. To this end, the liver is a major regulator of your circulating blood. It releases vital nutrients, enzymes and hormones through the blood stream as the body needs it.
Why is My Liver Stagnant and/or “On Fire”?
Though active all year, in the Spring the Liver is especially relied upon to function optimally to respond to the rising yang energetic influences. Unfortunately, during the process of filtering and detoxifying the blood, producing hundreds of enzymes and hormones, and regulating the volume of circulating blood, the liver tends to become congested. If this blood-rich organ retains stagnant blood and metabolic waste — which typically happens after winter’s inactivity, it will result in a condition popular in TCM parlance as “stagnant Liver Qi and Blood” and in more extreme conditions lead to “Liver Fire”.
According to Chinese medicine, the Liver controls the smooth and harmonious flow of both Qi (understood more broadly as the basis and impetus for a myriad of metabolic and energetic processes) and Blood. Any obstruction to this flow will cause a serious functional disruption in the circulation of vital energy and vascular components. Stagnant Liver Qi and Blood, an all too common disorder, is revealed through a myriad of symptoms we experience often but tend to medicate which often leads to more congestion and complications down the road. Physical symptoms such as muscle pain, menstrual cramps, trembling movements, poor balance, certain headaches, neck pain, numbness in hands and feet, vision problems, and many digestive ailments, may often be a result of Stagnant Liver Qi and Blood. The mental and emotional symptoms can run the spectrum from frustration and irritability to anger and rage.
Vicarious Detoxification as a Result of Liver’s Failures
Many ailments we experience and might seem unrelated are often a direct result of an overloaded liver. When the liver is unable to effectively perform its detoxification processes the toxins tend to spill over and tax other systems namely our respiratory and immune systems.
One example are seasonal allergies. Seasonal allergies are often related to an overloaded toxic state within the liver. When the liver’s efficiency in cleansing the blood of toxins is compromised, such toxins overload the immune system causing it to pour out inflammatory chemicals (histamines, etc.) which may cause the common symptoms of hay fever, itchy rashes, hives, etc.
Difficulty with Weight Control
When the liver is congested there may be a build-up of fat-soluble toxins (such as insecticides, plastics and pesticides), drug metabolites or waste products of metabolism in the fatty tissues and liver. This slows down the metabolism of the fatty parts of your body and also over-burdens your liver. This means that the liver burns fat less efficiently.
Some people have multiple food and chemical sensitivities, which make it difficult for them to follow a set diet. These problems are generally associated with reduced ability of the liver to break down chemicals and proteins (antigens) as part of its detoxification process.
Stress and Irritability
On an emotional level the Chinese intuitively understood the Liver’s role in managing the internal winds of our existence — namely our emotions. When you’re are having difficulty managing life stresses this could be a sign that your Liver needs “coursing”. This is causing you to be tense, irritable or depressed. In reverse these emotions also has a direct impact on our liver.
(More on the Liver and its relationship to menstrual issues in a future blog.)
Thus as we awaken from the relative conservation state of the winter — our bodies need to be revitalized, supple and flexible. A stagnant Liver makes this transition difficult and as you can see can cause a constellation of dysfunctions.
Making sure that our liver works as efficiently as possible is the best thing you can do for your health leading up to and during the Spring season. Chinese medicine has a long history of helping the liver remain supple and flexible with acupuncture and herbal medicine.
The next blog will discuss some of the other things you can do to revitalize your Liver. Another entry talks specifically about liver cleanses and detoxification, which is a highly recommended practice when done right.
“The essential art of Chinese medicine is the foretelling and prevention of disease rather than the treatment of illness after it has manifested as painful or distressing physical and mental symptoms.” Tao — The Subtle Universal Law, Lao Tzu
In a previous post I discussed why paying attention to your liver is so important particularly in the Spring. Here are things you can be doing to support your liver and improve your health this season.
1) Cleanse Your Liver — This is probably one of the best times of the year to undertake a dietary cleanse with a focus on upregulating the liver’s capacity to perform its cleansing functions. While there are a variety of spring liver cleanses out there, all with similar intentions there are some general guidelines I think one should always follow before undertaking a cleanse which I’ve outlined in a separate entry. And of course limit (or eliminate) your intake of all types of processed food and turn your attention to the bounty of fruits and vegetables that will soon become increasingly available.
2) Consume sour food and drinks. According to TCM, sour flavors stimulate the liver’s Qi and facilitates the detoxification process. This is a great time to introduce in your diet certain fermented foods, have pure lemon juice in the mornings, and incorporate in your diet a variety of greens like mustard greens and watercress.
3) Early to Bed/Early to Rise
In TCM the Liver and its yang partner the Gallbladder is understood to be energetically active between the hours of 11pm and 3am in the morning. To be able to perform optimally its functions these organs need no distractions and a deep quietude. Thus it is important to get to bed early and to rise early with the sun and start your mornings off with some light stretching to get the blood moving.
4) Get Outdoors — The blooming plant life and warming temperatures offers the perfect opportunity to get outdoors and exercise. Exercise and fresh outdoor air stimulate the body’s energy (Qi), keeping it moving and flowing throughout the body. Something as simple as a 30-minute walk outside can make a world of difference in your health.
5) Consume Chlorophyll — Chlorophyll – the pigment responsible for giving all green plants their color – will strengthen your liver. Chlorophyll is known to exhibit antioxidant properties, fighting harmful chemicals within the body known as free radicals. Some excellent sources of chlorophyll include spinach, parsley, watercress, green beans, green peppers, Brussels sprouts, green peas, asparagus, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, green apples, melon, honeydew and kiwi.
6) Take Care of Your Eyes — Did you know that your eyes are connected
to every organ in your body in some manner? With that said, the liver has the strongest connection to the eyes. When your eye health begins to decline, so does your liver. Take care of your eyes by limiting your time in front of electronic displays (e.g. computers and television) and have an eye exam performed by a licensed optometrist at least once every two years.
7) Seek Acupuncture — We can’t talk about ways to cleanse the body this spring without mentioning acupuncture. From relieving seasonal allergies to reducing pain and inflammation, the benefits of this Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are endless.
Patients always ask me about the latest cleanse “du jour”. There are a variety of cleansing regimens out there – all with the goal of cleansing your organs, resting your digestive system, and reducing the toxic load on your liver. However, how you go about your cleanse is very important. The benefits of cleansing are enormous but improper cleansing can be dangerous. Here is what you need to know before embarking on your favorite cleanse.
Feed Yourself First!
The mistake one often makes is wanting to jumpstart a detox regimen too quickly. So often we just try to lose weight or detox quickly, which can be extremely dangerous and very harsh on the system because you may be taking an already weakened system or deficient system and weakening it even further. Before you embark on that juice fast or pledge to eat wheatgrass for 1 week be mindful of how you ease into any cleansing process. Be careful to not drastically reduce your consumption of food and embark on draconian diets that fling the body into crisis mode. There are several reasons for this.
1) First our bodies digestive metabolism runs on our parasympathetic system. When we suddenly reduce our food intake the body goes into “fight or flight” mode and diverts its attention away from digestion and often the result is we end up holding on to what we need to expel rather than processing it through our system.
2) In addition, our fatigued organs need sustenance and nutrients to better perform its functions. Starving the body when it is already over-extended and run-down becomes counter-productive.
3) More importantly, along with the emergency releases that the LV will be forced to perform to respond to the “crisis” it can unleash a wave of toxic substances that it has been storing, which can have deleterious consequences.
Thus begin the process first by eating well and eliminating the toxic foods you have become accustomed to. It is important to start off by eating good protein sources. If one is a meat eater you may start out with organic meats because those are so fortifying and strengthening for the body. They’re also full of amino acids, which the liver needs to support healthy detoxification. If one has not otherwise already developed an allergic reaction to certain grains, eating healthy non-GMO grains is also a way to start.
Its All About the Chlorophyll
A green drink full of chlorophyll rich foods is a must to support your liver. Include any cereal grass sprouts or fresh greens such as kale, parsley, watercress, spinach, collard greens, etc. and have a green drink everyday.
And the Fats
Make sure to incorporate great sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in your Diet in the form of fish oil, coconut oil – either through food or in supplement form. Berries are also a great ingredient to add to the diet as they are full of eleagic acid to help the liver detoxify.
Incorporate Lemon Water and Herbal Infusions
Hot lemon water in the morning and herbal infusions throughout the day, especially in the morning is a great way to support the liver and help it to eliminate toxins.
Ease Into Your Cleanse
All the above serve to upregulate the detoxification system. You can then ease into a stricter cleansing program by gradually eliminating foods (such as proteins in animal form and then vegetable proteins) and by the time you start a stricter cleanse your body will be stronger and you will have all the prerequisites to support a really healthy liver detoxification. The body and liver will be more prepared “to relax” and take a breather from all the work it does for you all year.
Remember Cleansing is the first step in a long-term lifestyle change
Once the cleanse is over commit to cleaning your diet going forward. It is believed that after every successful cleanse people on average improve their diets at least 20%. It is counterproductive to go back to business as usual. The fact that you have chosen to embark on a cleanse already means that you are being more mindful. Cleansing is always a step to get you closer to your goal!
Happy New Year! Do you have a health-related New Year resolution this year? It is estimated that 75% percent of most New Year resolutions made by Americans involves a health goal – whether it is a vow to lose weight, start a new exercise regimen, eat a healthier diet, or quit smoking. Unfortunately, it is estimated only 8% of health related resolutions are successfully achieved. It is no wonder why we are desperate to be healthier. But how do we define and effectively meet our health goals in 2015? And how do we motivate ourselves to stick to it?
What the Human Genome Project Has Taught Us About Our Health
The massive international research effort to sequence and map all of the genes of our species – together known as the genome – was completed in April 2003. The HGP gave us the ability, for the first time, to read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for building a human being. The expectation that we were hoping for when the human genome was being deciphered is that it would tell us exactly how specific diseases are mapped in our genes. What has been found is quite the opposite. We have discovered that genes only constitute about 25% to 30% of the hard-wiring to certain diseases and don’t necessarily code for specific diseases. The other 75% is related to things what we can change and do that’s personalized to our specific needs and constitution – more of a blueprint for how we function and evolve within our environment. Nothing is static.
We have also learned that we each have unique characteristics that give rise to how we respond to our environment, our lifestyles and so forth. What our genes are there to do is respond to how we live, how we eat, how we think, how we breathe, what we drink, how we move around the world, what environment we’re in.
While this may not have been such a welcome story for those seeking to continue to eradicate “disease” it is nonetheless a very empowering discovery in that we have confirmed that we do have more power over how we lead our lives and seek to lead the healthiest ones we can. We have also learned that we have much more to understand about how and when specific genes are expressed to animate our health history. There is a multitude of health stories that can be created with an individual’s genetic code. What story is ultimately told is still a mystery but very much in our power.
More and more studies are proving how a compromise in function that we experience in our daily lives left unaddressed can be a precursor to something more serious down the road. We also understand that we need to pay more attention to early signs of disruption in function whether physical, physiological, cognitive or emotional and work to restore normal functioning as much and as early as possible.
Thus our new year health resolutions matter. And so we need to figure out what it means to optimize our health. Health is no longer understood as the absence of disease. Health is something we continually strive to improve. True health means that you are functioning at your highest possible level. You are sleeping well, digesting well, eating well, and well managing your stress. Your body is in harmony, your mind is alert, and your spirit is calm. You have the energy you need to get the most out of life.
In this information age health advice and guidance are continually flung at us from every corner and we seem to always be obsessing about the latest health fad. During the last few weeks of 2014 I sat back and thought about what I thought should be the overriding simplified philosophy that could guide one on this journey to becoming healthier human beings. I boiled it down to two practices that we need to start with: 1) Defining and finding connectedness; and 2) Mindfulness in our actions.
Defining and Finding Connectedness
I truly believe that at the root of our “dis”eases is our increasing disconnectedness from the world/nature around us and to each other. One fundamental principle underpinning Eastern philosophy and medicine is our connection to the whole. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm. For instance, our health is a direct reflection of the health of our earth. Daverick Leggett in his book “Recipes for Self-Healing” expressed it this way — “the erosion of soil and the gases of the upper atmosphere, the deforestation, the over-consumption of resources, all resonate within our bodies…The modern phenomena of deficiencies in the immune system have their parallel in the thinning of the earth’s protective layer, the increase in lung condition has its parallel in the destruction of forest, and candida in human intestines has its parallel in the overgrowth of yeast and fungus in much of the earth’s soil. “
Such realizations might seem overwhelming to the average person just trying to stay healthy but it is relevant to the choices we make everyday. For instance, we all know that we are what we eat. The quality of the nutrients we put in our body depends on the relationship we have with the earth that produces it. Thus the word “organic” becomes more than a label that we blindly run after but should be something we actively seek by reestablishing a beneficial relationship with the earth.
How do we individually go about this without abandoning our modern lifestyle? We reconnect with the farms that have made that decision to engage in sustainable farming practices, we make the decision to join a CSA this year, we try to eat as simply as possible with the freshest ingredients possible, we get reacquainted with traditional diets that make use of all types of plants to nourish our bodies.
We have all heard Michael Pollan’s mantra, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Simply said but so difficult to implement in this age. Eating food has become a forensic exercise for most Americans because we have become so far removed from “real food”. Today there are too many middlemen in the food chain that have caused us to be nutritionally deficient. In addition – in the midst of this confusion, we are bombarded with experts telling us what nutrients we should be taking as if those nutrients could exist and have effect in and of itself without respect for the ecology and synergies that created these nutrients in the first place.
What I tell my patients all the time is that if we want a good quality of life we should only be eating what gives us “life”. Any food that can survive days on a shelf or that needs a marketing budget to tell us what nutrients it has been enriched with is most probably what we should not be eating. If your food does not rot it does not have life.
Understanding and the implementation of this simple philosophy is very difficult in our modern world. Michael Pollan also speaks about the number of ingredients in food having an indirect correlation with how healthy the item is. Thus in 2015 we need to continually strive to avoid the industrial middlemen, be mindful of how we can reconnect with the earth and traditional based diets that rely on simple ingredients that come straight from the earth.
If you are still overwhelmed by the state of the earth’s ecology remember that what you decide to put in your mouth to nurture yourself is the most powerful activist statement you can make to begin to move things on a global level as well.
Which brings me to the other contemplation over not only our connection to this earth that we are a part of but those we share the earth with. Whether we want to face it or not our fate on this earth is bound inextricably with everyone who inhabits it. But human connection is more directly linked to our ability to keep our health-related new year resolutions as well. For instance, studies have shown that most diet and exercise resolutions fail because people try to do them alone. Studies also show that when people feel lonely, they give up on tasks more quickly. Connection reduces loneliness and increases perseverance, which is essential for completing mentally tough challenges like losing weight.
Connection is also a contributing factor to health in general. Research shows that feelings of connection affect neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine), hormones (chemical messengers that travel throughout the body including adrenaline, cortisol, oxytocin, and vasopressin), and enzymes that affect chromosomes (such as telomerase). These biochemicals help us thrive and live longer. People who are connected handle stress better too, making it less likely that you’ll devour that bag of chips or cookies as a stress-reducer at the end of a long day.
So achieving your health-related resolutions can be supported by seeking a group, an accountability partner, a health practitioner who can provide you with the encouragement and support you need to persevere.
Mindful Lifestyle Modifications – One Day at a Time
Which brings me to another element which I feel should underscore any resolutions you make this year. Setting meaningful intentions and goals is very important if we want to achieve them; but it is the little steps we consciously and consistently take every day along the way that really helps us to achieve them.
Often just a simple and consistent change in a lifestyle habit is enough to start the boulder rolling that will help build momentum to achieve the greater goals. A friend of mine, Melissa Rapoport, who is a nutritional health & wellness coach in Harlem, ran a 30-day challenge (“30 Days of Transformation”) where she coached her blog followers to make one simple lifestyle modification a day. The tasks were very simple — like consciously setting the table to sit down to have a meal, to getting rid of clutter in your immediate work environment. She also introduced small achievable nutritional changes that did not involve changing your entire diet over a short period of time. After the challenge many who were skeptical but took the challenge anyway were amazed at the impact the mindful modifications had on their lives. Surprisingly, many reported shedding some pounds though that was never the intent of the challenge. So little changes matter and cumulative changes matter a great deal. It suffices to be mindful about the changes we need to make in our present moment and take it small steps at a time. With mindful consistency you will be surprised where you will find yourself 1 year from now.
Thus here is to a Mindful Connected Healthy New Year!
Spending time in nature teaches us among other things that we and all things are connected. While elements in a natural setting can exist for a time isolated and on their own, they will not thrive without the balance that connectedness brings. Each element provides necessary support to the other elements and there is a constant give and take – an exchange of energy. These energy exchanges occur on macroscopic and microscopic levels as well as on an energetic level that cannot be seen.
In many ways Western-style living has disconnected us from this intuitive knowledge. We live and work in man-made settings on a daily basis with little interaction with nature around us. Many of us do not know our neighbors even though we may have lived near them for many years. Technology has revolutionized the way we communicate, yet we are constantly reminded how disconnected we continue to feel. In many ways we may have lost our sense and understanding of this natural connectedness but the connection is still there; it cannot be lost. Though we have been culturally educated to ignore it, we naturally seek this connectedness in many forms.
Because we are so often isolated from one another in our everyday lives, we may not be tuned into the energy exchanges. However, we have all had the experience of walking into a room where people have been arguing; you can literally feel the tension in the air. We have also experienced walking into a party where everyone is happy and having fun. Your body picks up that energy and it has the power to change the chemicals in your system, changing your mood.
We are taught to value our privacy; especially when we are ill or in pain. We just want to be left alone – but by seeking ways to connect with the healing energies of others we are able to utilize that energy to enhance healing. We can learn to be comfortable with those energetic connections again. In many ways Community Acupuncture allows us to tap into that natural connection that we all have. In an atmosphere of healing, we naturally begin to support and enhance one another’s healing process through those energetic connections. An open, group room allows those energies to flow freely between all of the living things in that open space. As acupuncture taps into and releases our body’s natural relaxation and healing energies, those positive energies will flow through the space back and forth between each person, seeking a natural balance.
It is a group energy that is very palpable. As the acupuncturist in the community room I am acutely aware of how energies shift as people step into the community room and how easier it is to get people to relax the more people are in the room — which to most might sound counter-intuitive.
If you are new to acupuncture, in addition to experiencing the impressive clinical effects of acupuncture, I encourage you to pay attention to the group healing energy as well. A great opportunity to do so is to come to our Acupuncture Happy Hour held every 3rd Wednesday of the month and share your experiences……I look forward to seeing you there!
We all want to stay young, healthy and vibrant, and we all know that what we put in our bodies affects our ability to achieve those goals. The problem for most people isn’t that they’re unwilling to eat healthy foods—it’s knowing what foods are healthy and too much reliance on the “experts” to tell us what to eat.
Unfortunately, nutrition science has been less than fully consistent on many health-related issues. Adding to the confusion, advertisers for the commercial food industry have viewed as their primary objective not the promotion of health, but rather the generation of profits. Their claims, conveyed in ads and on their packaging, often distort scientific fact to their financial advantage. And the popular press has not been sufficiently diligent in seeking the truth, leaving health enthusiasts to navigate a patchwork of fact, quasi-fact and outright myth: “eating fat will make you fat;” “eating carbs will make you fat;” “eggs are bad for you.” What’s true; what isn’t?
Through all the background noise, those who want to eat healthy foods try to distinguish between myth and fact. A prominent example involves the decades-long belief that saturated fat compromises heart health. Several recent studies, including one published in the British Medical Journal, have determined conclusively that this belief is not grounded in science:
“Indeed, recent prospective cohort studies have not supported any significant association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular risk. Instead, saturated fat has been found to be protective. The source of the saturated fat may be important.”
The Weston Price Foundation has argued for decades against the so-called “lipid hypothesis” of a “direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease”, relegating that contention to the province of “politically correct nutrition”. More recently, Time Magazine concurred in an article which concludes that “the war on fat was wrong”, but also adds, somewhat disturbingly, that one should not expect others in the mainstream media to follow suit.
These studies, among many others, have demonstrated persuasively that eating saturated fat neither compromises heart health nor contributes to weight gain. In fact, the avoidance of saturated fat in the diet tends to have the opposite effect because it increases sugar intake. Said differently, the culprit when it comes to heart health is not the burger, but the ketchup on top of it. (Though the source and quality of our meat supply is another colossal issue.)
The widespread belief in health dangers associated with saturated fat consumption is one which has been effectively leveraged by the processed food industry. Manufacturers reduced (and advertisers promulgated the reduction of) saturated fats in their products. But, because saturated fats contribute to taste, the industry increased the concentration of processed sugars to compensate, even in “health foods” like fruit juices.
In addition to adding flavor, saturated fats make you feel full. When they are removed, you feel hungry and often satisfy that hunger by consuming more sugar, which increases blood sugar levels. When those levels drop, you compensate by eating even more sugar. On average, Americans now consume 132 pounds of sugar every year, contributing to obesity and the onset of diabetes, and increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Most Americans are too busy to stay on top of the science or to investigate every health claim made by the food industry. There are, however, some common-sense guidelines one can follow. For example, the fewer ingredients, the better, and one ingredient is best—natural foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, unprocessed nuts and grains, healthy proteins, meat in moderation (preferably fish and fowl rather than red meat).
We need to actively and relentlessy seek to eat foods closest to the way nature intended. We need to more actively know where our food comes from because the long-term health consequences of not doing so are just too costly.
“Why don’t we pay more attention to who our farmers are? We would never be as careless choosing an auto mechanic or babysitter as we are about who grows our food.”
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s View of the World
Recently I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about how Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help with weight control. Most of the time I get asked about auricular acupuncture in particular. Often it sounds like some have had the expectation that needling certain points of the ear can be a magic bullet. When I field these questions I am not quite sure what the real individual expectations are. But it has motivated me to explain as best I can how acupuncture works and how it can be a very effective adjunct to a serious weight control regimen.
When asked about what it takes to lose weight, dieticians fall back on the two commonly repeated remedies, those being diet (the calories we consume) and exercise (how we expend those calories). Most of us struggle with weight regulation because this narrow focus on burning and consuming calories misses a crucial element of how our bodies function. What is missing from the weight-loss equation has to do with energy. Not the energy we consume as food or the energy we expend through exercise. Rather, the energy that powers the vital functions of our body. If that energy is strong and well-balanced, our ability to lose weight and to maintain a healthy weight is tremendously enhanced.
From a TCM perspective health is dependent on the body’s ability to build and efficiently store energy to perform all vital functions. Haven’t you noticed that you can eat all the proper foods and exercise but if you are stressed and/or fatigued it is very difficult to lose weight? On the other hand you can consume more but if you are less stressed and well-rested you may still lose weight — what I call the “vacation effect”. Do you notice when you go on vacation and have more sumptuous meals than you usually do you don’t gain the weight you thought you would or sometimes even lose some?
So how exactly does Acupuncture help with that crucial element we are calling the energetic factor?
We all know that when stressed and/or sleep deprived our body produces excess cortisol which forces our body to store instead of burn fat. This is just one of a host of hormonal and biochemical reactions that govern our metabolism. Every day Western medicine is finding yet another chemical component that helps to regulate our metabolism. While the ancient Chinese doctors never discovered the myriad of hormones we keep discovering they nonetheless understood and explored our energetic functioning and studied very carefully what helped to shore our vital energy and increase our metabolism. They understood this at a subtle energetic level. The tools of Traditional Chinese Medicine — whether through acupuncture, herbal medicine, or qi gong — work to make the vital functioning of our body work more efficiently by directly impacting our metabolism and our ability to efficiently digest and transform the vital nutrients in our food to fuel that metabolism.
Modern studies done with weight loss and acupuncture have shown that acupuncture affects the nervous system, digestive system, and endocrine system by enhancing part of the brain function which regulates many bodily processes. Acupuncture also stimulates the body to release endorphins and increase serotonin levels helping to promote better digestion, helping to control overeating by reducing and suppressing the appetite and decreasing/eliminating cravings. The physical effects of acupuncture not only helps to energize the body, thereby reducing fatigue and malaise, but also maximizes the absorption of nutrients so your body functions better overall, and regulates bowel movements and the intestines which reduces gas, bloating and abdominal distention.
In addition to regulating our metabolism, and impacting our hormonal balance, Acupuncture also has an impact on our emotional balance as well. Our emotions surrounding our choice of foods and the motivation for remaining active is another major facet of our body’s energetic resonance. Acupuncture can help to address the underlining problem that causes overeating and lack of motivation by helping to alter ones mood, lessen anxiety and promote healthier psychological energy. A person who is treated with acupuncture can find him or herself less anxious and therefore less prone to seek comfort through food and make better food choices. So acupuncture helps with weight control, not only by directly impacting the body’s biochemical balance but by facilitating those old standbys for losing weight — better nutrition and exercise.
Thus Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a great addition to weight loss programs/support groups, and exercise routines for people who are on the road to losing weight.
What Would a Typical Acupuncture Regimen be for Weight Control?
Recommended treatments are 1-2 times a week for an 8-12 week period depending on what your target weight is.
Each treatment is specific for each individual. How you feel on the day you have acupuncture can change depending on a number of factors. For example, how you’ve been eating, and in particular, any specific cravings you’ve had, your stress levels for that day or week, your energy level, PMS, etc. Your acupuncturist will zero in on what your struggles have been that week and focus the treatment to address those concerns.
Each session includes a combination of auricular/ear points, body points and ear seeds/ear tacks. Ear seeds are placed on specific ear and/or body points to leave on in-between treatments in order to help continue with the effects of the Acupuncture. They will generally stay in place for 3-5 days and are gently massaged if stress, anxiety, cravings, and mood imbalances start to affect you in between your acupuncture sessions.
In addition to the acupuncture points, weight loss treatments also include dietary modifications based on traditional Chinese food remedies, Chinese herbs/supplements, abdominal massage, breathing exercises, and lifestyle recommendations based on a Chinese medicine perspective.
It’s true, being stuck with needles—no matter how small—doesn’t sound very appealing to many people. But acupuncture really isn’t frightening at all. Acupuncture’s been around for thousands of years and has been used to attain a variety of health benefits from helping to reduce chronic pain to helping with low energy levels. Unfortunately, people usually only consider acupuncture when their doctor can’t help them through other treatments or their prescriptions no longer work for their ailments. If you’re one of those people that are hesitant, read on and let these five reasons convince you to give acupuncture a try.
Health Care That’s Personalized
You’ve heard that “no two snowflakes are alike”, right? Well, the same is true of acupuncture treatments for pain or illness. Acupuncturists view your body as a system of parts that support one another: bones, organs, bodily fluids, muscles, connecting tissues and blood in addition to layers of qi and meridians. They’re taught to notice everything about you: from the condition of your skin to how your voice sounds to the light in your eyes. They’re trained to discover—both physically and mentally—what’s not working properly within your body as well as what’s lacking and make changes where it’s needed to promote your body to heal itself.
Treating the Source of the Problem
It’s possible for acupuncture to be extremely healing since it focuses on the present problem of the patient. Yet, these treatments can also seek out the reasons that their symptoms are appearing and remedy the issue’s basic origin. Indeed, even with acute physical pain the acupuncturist will work to move from the immediate relief stage to a corrective stage to help you get to the root of the imbalance that has led to the pain.
Terrific Side Effects
If you were to go for treatments for your migraines, for instance, you might discover that the frequency of migraines may decrease. But there are many other things that could improve too such as your mood, sleep, stress level and digestion.
Have No Fear
There is no reason to be afraid or nervous. You might feel a small, brief pinch from the sterile, tiny acupuncture needles; however, enduring chronic pain is much worse than anything you’ll feel from those needles. (To read more about the experience of acupuncture go to our Frequently Asked Questions section of the Harlem Chi website.)
Well, let’s put it this way, if acupuncture didn’t work then it wouldn’t have been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. For years, modern scientists have been trying to figure out the workings of acupuncture from a biomedical view and have yet to agree on all of acupuncture’s effects. However, very interesting studies in embryology and better understanding of how our body works beyond a strict biomedical lens is helping to reveal the science behind this ancient medical system. More importantly, over many years, acupuncturists have evolved and learned what works best for their patients—and there are millions of satisfied patients!
One of the most rewarding aspects of practicing an ancient form of medicine in our modern times is to bear witness to the many modern studies which increasingly help to shed some light on the wisdom of these practices. Lately there has been much press on various studies that are proving the mind body connection. The American Heart Association recently published a study that showed a high correlation between women experiencing depression with the likelihood of suffering from heart disease. The research study looked at more than 3,000 adults with suspected heart disease for 3 years and revealed that women 55 and younger with moderate to severe depression were twice more likely to suffer a heart attack or require an artery opening procedure. http://newsroom.heart.org/
THE CHINESE MEDICAL PERSPECTIVE — THE HEART AND SPIRIT
Traditional Chinese Medicine has an explanation for this. In Chinese Medicine the physiological processes ruled by any given organ encompasses more than its basic biomedical function as understood in the West. While the heart’s main function is to pump oxygen-rich blood through the body, from an Eastern medicine perspective it not only regulates blood circulation but also governs consciousness, mental clarity, memory, our thought processes, and emotional well-being.
Ancient Eastern texts describe the heart as housing the “Shen.” The “Shen,” according to Chinese medicine, is described as psyche, mind, or spirit. In other words, “it is the residence of the mind.”
I recently read a book on Western herbal medicine (Guido Mase’s “The Wild Medicine Solution”). In a section devoted to understanding the potent effects of aromatic herbs, the author goes into a detailed review of studies and the science around heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is the variation in the time interval between heartbeats. Apparently, much of this variability depends on how much activity is occurring along the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a key component of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, regulating the homeostasis (or “resting state”) of the majority of the body’s internal organ systems that operate on a largely subconscious level, such as the heart, lungs, eyes, adrenal glands, and digestive tract. It is the messenger of the “rest-and-digest” side of our nervous system. The nerve that records our responses to external stress and internal tension.
Thus the “tone” of this nerve tells us a lot about the body’s internal state of tension. In the context of psycho-physiological research, vagal tone represents an index for the functional state of the entire parasympathetic nervous system. The greater, more regular, and more frequent shifts in heart rate (HR) due to the greater amount of “tone” signals healthier parasympathetic functioning. Greater variability also indicates better adaptability and ability to modulate internal tensions.
[Indeed studies have shown that poor HRV often indicates an imbalance and dysfunction of the vagus nerve signaling leading to nervous system problems and that people with poor HRV are more likely to have high blood pressure. (1998 Research – Singh et al., “Reduce HT Rate Variability & Neurological Onset Hypertension.”)]
In sum what this all seems to indicate is that the nerves and heart participate in a feedback loop. As the nervous system experiences stress, as it retreats from relaxation, the heart hardens. The cardiovascular system is less able to endure and respond to stress.
Clinical research and physicians who deal with behavioral & emotional disruptions (such as anxiety & depression) have indeed observed connections between emotional states and HRV and heart disease and HRV.
If these links exist it is further evidence of how the mind and the body, in particular our emotional processing centers and our cardiovascular system are intimately linked and not separate entities.
Traditional Eastern medical practitioners seem to have intuitively understood this. Indeed, Traditional Chinese medical doctors have a long tradition of diagnostics, most notably the pulse reading, to gauge the internal state of tension and balance between the internal organs, the mind and the patient’s external environment.
ACUPUNCTURE AND THE HEART
Modern scientific research have found that many of the effects of acupuncture can be attributed to its ability to modulate parasympathetic/sympathetic nerve activity. Modern research has shown that acupuncture can improve the health of patients who experience severe heart problems by dramatically reducing the activity in the sympathetic nervous system that regulates heartbeat and blood pressure.
A study conducted through the Los Angeles School of Medicine suggests that acupuncture can be used “successfully with long-range results in improving hypertension, and it may also be beneficial in lowering sympathetic nerve activity.”
Overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system is common with patients who suffer from heart problems. Over time, this may cause the heart to work harder, forcing blood to flow through blood vessels that are constricted due to heightened nerve activity.
The study showed that sympathetic nerve activation was significantly reduced in those individuals who received acupuncture care compared to those who only received a placebo. (Middlkauff HR. Acupuncture in the treatment of heart failure. Cardiol Rev. 2004 May-Jun; 12(3):171-3.)
ACUPUNCTURE AND DEPRESSION
Since Eastern medical traditions have always recognized the body-mind-spirit continuum we can explain how minding Heart health has a side effect of minding the health of your spirit and vice versa. In TCM the element of the Heart is Fire and the predominant nature is Fire Yang energy, which unlike the darker & calmer Yin, is related to excitement, assertiveness, and exuberance. The Fire element brings warmth, passion, joy and activity into our lives. When we lack fire, we lack emotional warmth, passion and joy. This leads to inactivity and depression. An imbalance in this energy can manifest as excess or deficiency. Thus while joy and contentment might represent a balanced Fire energy, an imbalance can manifest as agitation, nervousness, anxiety, insomnia when in excess, or as depression and lethargy when deficient.
This is why from a Chinese Medicine perspective, treating a Heart imbalance can mean not only addressing heart-related physical ailments but also addressing the psycho-emotional components as well.