One of Those Kinds of Posts

Ok, I'll do one--one of those kinds of posts. I usually think it's more interesting and relevant to share information about some topic of concern or awe to those of us in alternative medicine, but this time I'm just going to do what the original intention of this AOM blog probably was. I'm going to share what it's like to be an acupuncture student fighting her way towards the end of the trimester.

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Now, I'm not fighting because I'm bored, confused, or frustrated with my classes. On the contrary, I enjoy the nights I get to drive in a car by myself and sit quietly for 4-5 hours learning about something I love. It's the most relaxing part of the day. Hey, I have active young children, a messy husband, and a sometimes too-demanding teaching schedule to juggle all day. Give me a graduate night class any day of the week!

No, I'm not fighting in a bad way. I'm excited to reach the end of this trimester because the day after it ends, I'm getting on the airplane for Nicaragua. Two weeks in Central America is just what the doctor ordered for this stressed out, over-committed student. I'd love to say I'm a good flier, but that wouldn't be true. With that missing Malaysian plane, I'm going to be grinding ear seeds into my PC6 points until they're bleeding. Awesomely inopportune time for that mysterious tragedy. Not to be insensitive, but I barely make it through my flights as it is. Rescue remedy? Yep, I'll be using that heavily.

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The past several months have been leading up to this medical mission trip, and soon I know it will be here, then already--sadly--behind me. Since last year's trip, I haven't been able to get that clinic off my mind--not that I want to! NDI's integrative healthcare clinic serves so many appreciative and needy people, and it's the only medical setting I've ever experienced where providers of several medical fields all circle around and get to take a crack at each patient who walks in the door. I know that when I start my first shift, a middle-aged Nicaraguan farmer will come into the clinic with the chief complaint of back pain. If I used a machete all day, I'd develop back pain, too. Instead of that patient being confined to the limits of one provider's medicine, this patient will reap the benefits of the naturopath, the chiropractor, the acupuncturist, the psychologist, and the massage therapist on staff at the same time. He might get an adjustment, soft tissue work, some needles, and even a tincture for the road. I can't get that sweet deal anywhere in the United States, that's for sure. Did I mention it's free? Sign...me...up.

This is the future of medicine, people.This is it. Integrative medicine is the way. True, I have to get on an airplane to immerse myself in it at this point, but I promise you one thing--I'll bring it back.

Yep, I Make My Own Deodorant

Photo of homemade deodorant in an applicatorWhy would I need or want to do this? Why haven't I purchased a commercial deodorant in about two years? Why haven't I let my husband, either? The bottom line is that I just don't feel comfortable slathering on a toxic armpit cocktail, when I know that what I put on my skin has a good chance of being absorbed into my bloodstream. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If you wouldn't eat it, don't put it on your skin, either.

I also don't like the idea of blocking off the body's drainage system, so I had already stopped using anti-perspirants years before finally ditching the deodorant, too. (Not sure what you're using? Check the front label. "Deodorant?" Just covering the smell. "Anti-perspirant?" Also preventing your body from releasing the sweat.) My armpits are made for excretion, and that's just what they'll do. One of these days, I'll probably sweat all over you.

Really, though, it's not nice to sweat all over people, and it's particularly rude to have the sweat smell like the noxious fumes that we all know it can. Yet, I feel that primal urge to allow my lymphatic system to do its job and clean out some bodily sludge. Yes, I do think that using a commercially-produced anti-perspirant and deodorant contributes to the development of breast cancer and other ailments. But I guess I have to sit around and wait for a study to prove that sealing in your body's toxins and then layering more on top of that is bad for your health. Seriously, doesn't anybody else wonder why Dove is the breast cancer researcher out there? Really?

Or, I could make the choice that I know is healthier for my body (and my husband's body, too). Thus, one rainy afternoon two years ago, I jumped on Amazon and ordered myself some arrowroot powder (after not being able to find it in local stores). The rest is history. Instead of simply leaving you with the basic recipe I've been using and loving, I'll take you on a pictorial journey afterward. Note that if you do try this at home, the common expectation is that there is approximately a 1-2 week "learning curve" for your body to really have the opportunity to excrete build-ups that you've been holding hostage for most of your adult life with your commercial anti-perspirants. Translation = you might smell worse during this time. This, too, shall pass, and at the end you'll likely find that you don't smell as bad as you used to.

Photo of ingredients laid out on counter

Here are your simple ingredients:

Mix 1/2 cup coconut oil with 1/4 cup arrowroot powder and 1/4 cup baking soda. Add essential oils such as orange, lemongrass, or tea tree, and scoop into an old, cleaned out deodorant container to harden for a few hours. (Don't worry about those bottles of wine in the background. Those are for later, when you can celebrate your accomplishment if all goes well.) Simple, customizable, delightful. Remember, it's more meant to be a deodorant than an anti-perspirant, but my husband finds it does both well. I guess I'm just a sweatier fella. But at least I'm not usually a smellier fella.

That's the normal way. This week, I tried to plan for our upcoming medical mission trip to Nicaragua, where it is oh-so-hot every day, by customizing the usual recipe to prevent it from melting. Yes, coconut oil has a melting point in the 70s, so it would be like trying to use a puddle of deodorant instead of a stick if I took along the usual stuff. So, after googling for a while, I found a suggestion to melt and add beeswax into the usual recipe to raise the melting point (beeswax has a really high melting point, like 170 -- not even Nicaragua can match that). It went...well?

Photo of mixture in bowl

The resulting deodorant was very brown, as a result of using dark brown beeswax the first time. OK, I can live with that. Here's the bowl of leftover brown deodorant that I will scrape with a spoon and use until it's gone before wasting an ounce. Yes, this is the state of affairs of toiletries in my home.

The photo at the beginning of my post is what it looks like in stick form, which is much more socially acceptable, I know. It's almost normal looking...just brown, and bumpy, unlike the usual smooth off-white result for temperate at-home usage. Ah, Nicaragua, the things I do for you.

How Salads and Evil Qi Can Make You Gain Weight

How could salads cause weight gain? If you have Damp-Cold and you're trying to lose weight by eating cold, raw, veggie salads, you might not shed the pounds. "How can this be?" everyone is now screaming -- probably silently, that's fine. I thought eating lots of spinach, topped with radish, cucumbers, celery, etc. was supposed to help melose weight.

For some people, this might be an effective strategy, particularly if you are swapping out fast-food double cheeseburgers in favor of homemade veggie salads. Certainly, there is the undeniable benefit of increasing the nutrition you're taking in by adding more produce to your diet. I'm sure we all know someone who started eating more salads and less junk food and fairly promptly dropped a few pounds. Great.

So, why doesn't it work for everyone? In fact, why does eating all raw, cold veggie salads even have the possibility of causing weight gain in some people?

No, the answer is not about the dressing that you put on the salad! That would be too easy, not eastern-medicine-related, and frankly, it would probably cast a dark shadow on my consistently whole-fat dietary lifestyle approach.

Instead, my point here is related to one of TCM's six evil qis -- technically, two of them. I used the terms "cold" and "damp" earlier, and this is one of those special moments when normal, everyday words take on more specific meanings in the context of Chinese medicine. I think we call that "connotations." In TCM, Cold and Damp have pathogenic connotations.

A person can be constitutionally Cold or Damp from the get-go, or a person can be invaded by a Cold or Damp external pathogenic factor (actually called an "evil (xieh) qi"). Foods are like people; each food has specific properties, such as Cold, Hot, and whether the food leads to damp retention or drying out in the person who ate it.

In the case of a Cold, Damp person trying to lose weight, we need more hot, drying, acrid foods, and fewer raw, cold, damp foods on the plate. If this seems counter-intuitive, keep in mind that there are plenty of healthy, nutritious foods that have hot and acrid properties. Ginger and peppers, anyone? Yes, please.

What is your favorite food doing for you--or to you? My favorite book on nutrition, Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, goes into detail on the connections between your diet and your health. Or, quickly check out the properties of some common fruits, veggies, meats, etc. here: http://www.tcmecc.org/foodtherapy.htm

Choose wisely, my friends.

Why There is No Such Thing as Sham Acupuncture

I get really annoyed when I'm reading the results of a scientific study about the effectiveness of acupuncture, and the author concludes that actual acupuncture was "not significantly more effective than sham acupuncture." What they seem to be saying is that acupuncture is not effective at treating X condition. What they are actual discovering is that needle insertion almost anywhere in the body will have an effect on the body's condition, often providing relief from X condition.

I like this part. As Dr. Kwon always told us in Point Location class, you can still help the patient even if you don't stick the needle in the exact acupoint. This realization saved my sanity on more than one occasion when trying to palpate and count thoracic vertebrae to locate the oh-so-important points of the Governing Vessel running up the spinal column. It's supposed to be located at T6, but T7 will be good enough? Awesome. Thank you for your flexibility, ancient wisdom.

So, back to the studies that drive me nuts. Here's how they commonly shake out:

Exactly 100 patients were studied for chronic knee pain, with 25 receiving no treatment, 50 receiving actual acupuncture (inserting needles at specifically proscribed points), and 25 receiving sham acupuncture (inserting needles randomly in the body). Guess what? The patients receiving no treatment did not experience improvement. The patients receiving actual acupuncture reported a 50% improvement, and those receiving sham acupuncture reported a 45% improvement.

I call that good news. The study concludes, instead, that actual acupuncture is not significantly more effective than sham acupuncture at treating knee pain. Wrong. What they actually did is prove Dr. Kwon right -- not that he needs any additional validation, seriously -- that even when needles are inserted at the "incorrect" location, acupuncture still has therapeutic benefits for the patient. Is the goal of an acupuncture treatment for knee pain simply to eliminate the knee pain? Not exactly.

Any time acupuncture happens, that patient's body experiences a shift in energy. We can usually feel a difference in the person's pulse after treatment, compared to before. The qi (energy) has moved, and in western terms, circulation usually improves. Sure, the knee pain is improved, but the patient might also sleep better than usual that night, awake with more energy than usual the next day, or even notice that a new head cold has resolved overnight.

Were these other effects coincidental? Maybe, but probably not. Any acupuncture is better than no acupuncture, and the results of studies comparing no treatment, sham acupuncture, and actual acupuncture will often reveal this truth. In fact, this little "secret" is why I'm not against other practitioners doing acupuncture on patients. We've all heard the buzzword "dry needling," which is when say, your physical therapist needles your arm when your elbow isn't healing as nicely as you'd like. I know several chiropractors who have completed the 100-hour certification in acupuncture, and they can often be seen sticking some needles into a sore back muscle.

Some acupuncturists are completely against this concept of non-acupuncturists needling patients, but I'm pretty much OK with it. I know the patient is probably receiving some benefit regardless of whether or not the needle goes in at an exact acupoints. What's important to me is that the patient is aware that dry needling or someone sticking some needles in where it hurts is not all that acupuncture has to offer. Those techniques have benefits, but not the full array of benefits that needling specific acupoints on specific meridians can produce.

So, if you know someone who's been needled before and didn't experience a great symptom reduction, it's still worth their time to try acupuncture from an acupuncturist. Crazy, I know. It's not that other providers are doing anything wrong; it's just that they aren't receiving the more complete system of treatment via acupuncture that we acupuncture students use.

Jabbing Nerves with Needles

"I hope the points aren't just nerves being shocked by needles," I said to AOM classmate Irene. As one of the few AOM students who originally came into the program to focus on herbal preparations and dietetics, I felt particularly uninformed about this whole acupuncture thing. So, there in one of the first courses on the theory of point energetics -- what the acupoints do and how they do it -- I finally vocalized, albeit in a whisper-like fashion, my growing fear: Maybe there's no meridian or point energetics beyond just sticking a needle into a nerve and hoping it stimulates something productive in the patient's body. Sure, that might still help, but it certainly doesn't have the mystique that interested me in the first place.

2014-03-14_ancient"Moving blood and qi," "balancing energy," and "harmonizing yin and yang"...these concepts are intriguing, promising, and yes, darn near magical in my opinion. If we're just jabbing people with needles and shocking them wildly, then I'm not sure I have the buy-in that a 3-year master of science in oriental medicine degree requires. So there I sat, giving power to my secret fear by speaking it aloud, not knowing what Dr. Yihyun Kwon was going to say to pull me back over to his side of the fence, and hoping that there was something more -- more ancient, more Daoist, more qi-related in any way. (Spoiler Alert. Dr. Kwon wins!) 

Irene surprised me with her response, which I recall as being something along the lines of, "So what if acupuncture is just stimulating nerves with needles?" How could she be so callous to this deep fear that I'd been subconsciously fostering for the first three months of our program? Didn't she understand that I was sitting there, suffering in silence, desperate for some oriental medicine justification?

What Dr. Kwon went on to explain in that first Energetics class, and even more so the following year in Neurophysiology of Acupuncture class, was a concept that bridged the gap between the mysticism and the mundane. He simultaneously satisfied my cravings for evidence-based medicine as well as ancient tradition. Dr. Kwon = 2. Juli's irrational fears = 0.

Photo of Dr. Kwon with studentsYes, he explained, some points are located right beside or above a nerve -- grazing it ever so slightly and eliciting that loved or hated sensation we call "de qi," when energy arrives along that meridian. Further research and dissections have confirmed that many of those points not located at a nerve are actually located exceptionally close to an artery or vein. Here's where he blows my mind in 3...2...1....

Next, he tells us that these vessels and other structures harboring acupoints are essentially wrapped up in nerve fibers themselves. Yes, readers, we've come full circle in Juli's understanding of neurophysiology (which doesn't take long). Many acupoints are on a nerve; those that aren't, still kind of are.

And now to process this information.... Do I hate this answer? Does it ruin the grandeur of ancient energy meridian theory? Nah. I took the news fairly well, all ignorance and expectations considered. In today's health care climate, I like that modern science keeps proving acupuncture theory to be true. Time and time again, I see modern western research pointing to the validity of traditional medicine. At the end of the day, or the century, who doesn't like being told, "You're right"?

A Needle in the Ear or a Cigarette in the Hand

Can acupuncture help you stop smoking? Maybe. Like most smoking cessation plans, the most important part will be whether or not you firmly desire to quit using tobacco. If you have the will, then acupuncture might just have the way.

2014-03-05_cigActually, smoking cessation is one of the more long-standing mainstream applications of acupuncture in the United States. My husband recently asked me for ideas about the effectiveness for his co-worker who has been trying to quit, and my mind has been making the connections ever since. How does it work? Will it work? Which points should be used? How often will he need treatment? Can he do some of the work at home between acupuncture sessions?

Naturally, being just a student, I didn't know the answers to these questions without looking into them myself. Now that I feel like I have a handle on some of these factors, I'll go ahead and give you lowdown. Of course, I'm not telling anyone to try this at home, but this is what your acupuncturist might do if you walk into the clinic and ask for help in your journey to drop the cigarettes for good.

First, let's talk about the mechanisms. Why does a needle going through your skin make you want to stop smoking? Actually, there are multiple methods to this madness. On one hand (literally, on the side of your hand, via an acupoint called Tim Mee) a needle can actually make your cigarette taste bad. Personally, I think they already taste bad, but apparently people who smoke tend to like the taste. Moving on, if changing the taste of a cigarette from lightly ashy to repulsively garbagy isn't strong enough magic for you, there are other things that might still work for your stubborn self.

2014-03-05_ear 200Next, auricular acupuncture can help control your cravings, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms while trying to quit. Think ear piercing with a purpose! While ear acupuncture can sound even scarier than regular body acupuncture to the faint-at-heart-newbies, rest assured that the needles are hair-thin and barely felt. I should tell you that electro-stimulation of these auricular points is also commonplace. Some commonly used ear points for smoking cessation include the following: Shen Men, Sympathetic Autonomic, Point Zero, Endocrine, etc. Your acupuncturist will add additional points depending on your individualized condition. Nope, auricular acupuncture for smoking cessation is NOT necessarily a one-size-fits-all treatment.

Now, what can the patient do at home to keep these positive no-smoking juices flowing between acupuncture sessions? Luckily, we have a plan for that, too. If you've never heard of ear seeds, you will if you seek help to quit smoking from an acupuncturist! Small seeds or magnets (fancy name--auricular pellets) with clear tape backing are stuck on the above mentioned ear points, and then the patient is instructed to squeeze them several times a day until they eventually fall off. If you shower regularly, this is generally in around three days. If you're looser with your bathing schedule, you might keep your home care going for a whole week I suppose. But, let's just pretend everyone showers more than once per week.

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Back to the main event: Can acupuncture help you quit smoking? It really is UP TO YOU. Unless your acupuncturists steals your cigs, robs you of any available currency, and prevents you from bartering in the streets for your next nicotine fix, it really is in your hands. Studies show a variety of outcomes; some are very positive indeed. If you're ready, call the clinic!

References:

Effect of Acupuncture on Smoking Cessation or Reduction: An 8-Month and 5-Year Follow-up Study. Preventive Medicine, Volume 33, Issue 5, Pages 364-372. Dong He, Jon I. Medbø, Arne T. Høstmark

Acupuncture to Stop Smoking - Yin Yang House

My Loathe-Hate Relationship with Microwaves

I pretty much hate microwave ovens. Everyone who's been to my home knows that I haven't even had a handle on the door of my microwave in the past 5 years. I distrust this appliance. I find them abhorrent. I think they are one of the actual and figurative problems with American society today. Why do people regularly cook food in a box that changes it at the molecular level, rendering the food nearly nutritionally void? Convenience, my friends. Convenience.

Veg2I'm committed to using the oven and the stovetop as my cooking methods of choice. Sure, any heating destroys some of the nutritional content of many foods, but these methods are gentler and less damaging on the goods. Why is a microwave worse? Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com, explains, "Microwave ovens heat food through a process of creating molecular friction, but this same molecular friction quickly destroys the delicate molecules of vitamins and phytonutrients (plant medicines) naturally found in foods."

This isn't groundbreaking news, people. Years ago I was scarred for life after reading that the microwave destroys around 97% of the vitamins and other nutrients in vegetables. Apparently, many people are OK with this, judging by the new microwavable veggies in "steam bags" available at your local grocer. Yuck, and no thanks. If I'm choking down peas, they better have full nutritional value, thank you very much.

Veg1If you haven't faced the hidden toxins in your microwave popcorn by this time, let me offer you a hand up to 2014. One of the most special ingredients in the little bag is diacetyl, which, although derived from butter, acts as an artificial butter flavor in the microwave popcorn. Sounds nice enough, until you find out that when heated it releases a gas that frequently gives popcorn factory workers a condition called "popcorn lung." Actual name--bronchiolitis obliterans. Break that Latin down. "Obliterate my bronchioles?" Yep. Turns out, it can also happen to the consumer who heats and eats this stuff at home, and it can certainly happen to the mice in laboratory settings that are exposed to this heated chemical.

Veg3And that brings me to the reason that I keep my old broken microwave around at all. Well, first of all the gaping hole above my stove would look weird. Mostly, though, the reason that I keep my microwave is because I actually melt butter in it when I air pop popcorn, which, if you know me, you'll know is all the time. I try to lessen the evil of my popcorn addiction as much as possible, believe me. I melt the organic, grass-fed cow butter on low power in a glass dish. I pour it over organic popcorn (to reduce my pesticide exposure). I lovingly tap on a good amount of sea salt, and then I eat it with voracity that only another popcorn addict can understand.

So, I'm guilty. I hope I never said I was perfect, because that would be way off. However, I do what I can to reduce my exposure to some of the health-hampering substances on the market today, including microwave popcorn. For now, the microwave, which I vehemently hate, stays... if only for one small but critical purpose in my life.