If you've never heard that one before, then you've
probably never tried to figure out a skin issue. Every time I've
ever consulted with any kind of doctor about anything skin-related
on anyone, the first comment is always "Derm is hard." Why are skin
problems such a mystery? Sure, dermatologists have figured out how
to treat most of them, but even they, in my experience, are not
much concerned with how the skin eruption got there in the first
place or why a rash keeps recurring.
If you have a child, then odds are high that you've run into
some skin issues. Kids are just hotbeds for tons and tons of
rashes, eruptions, vesicles, warts -- you name it. As a parent,
rather than as a student, I've become familiar with eczema and
molluscum. Is it flat or raised? Broken edges or a perfect circle?
Red or flesh colored? These are all things that we parents become
practical experts in, but only by default. It only takes about 10
trips to the pediatrician to have someone take a look at a pink or
red spot on a toddler's leg to start concluding "eczema" at every
Finally I came to realize that "eczema" was kind of
a catchall, non-specific diagnosis. It was an easy name to drop,
and an easy thing to slather with a steroid cream. Do you think I
like to put steroid creams on my babies? No, no, I do not. Don't
theylowerthe immune system's function? Plus, kids' kidneys and
livers have enough toxins to filter these days from their
pesticide-rich foods in plastic containers. Pass!
I don't want to use steroid creams, and of course I don't want
my kids (and your kids) to walk around full of rashes and vesicles
all of the time, either. But, there's a third thing that I'm just
much more concerned with. WHY is the skin issue happening? What
does a superficial reaction tell us about the inner workings (or
dysfunctions) of the body? Chinese medicine has a lot to add in
this realm, thank goodness.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the
internal-external relation between the TCM conception of the Lung
and the skin. In this model, the Lung controls the skin, giving us
a hint that what shows up on our skin could be due to an imbalance
in the Lung. For example, some Chinese references to "eczema" are
translated as "skin asthma."
Generally, TCM traces most skin issues back to one of two issues
-- heat or dampness. If that sounds too simple, that's because it
is. It could be heat in the Lung, heat combined with wind, or heat
combined with wind and dampness. The possibilities could be nearly
endless. Luckily, both acupuncture and herbal medicines have a
great track record for expelling these external pathogens and
balancing the body. We help your body help itself.
What causes the internally generated heat or
dampness? Or, what allows the body to be susceptible to the
external invasion of heat or dampness? Again, possibilities are
seemingly endless. Dietary and other lifestyle factors top the
list, but constitutional predispositions (genetics) are also
important in TCM's understanding of the whole person. It could be
too much dairy (dampness), too much stress (constrained Liver
heat), or a deficient Lung (protective qi).
An article in Acupuncture Today gives an in-depth look at
one fairly common condition, psoriasis, and how acupuncture and
herbal formulas have shown significant improvement. It also
outlines some of those pesky, and sometimes life-threatening, side
effects of western medicine's treatment plans for this and other
skin conditions. Think you have your skin condition managed? Great!
Still struggling to get it resolved? See what the AOM clinic has to
If it was good enough for the Christ Child, then
it's good enough for me. That's my motto. I've been using a (gasp)
commercially prepared skin care product for the past month or so,
and these are two of the main ingredients -- frankincense and myrrh
Once again I've found myself playing the "overlapping medical
paradigm" game. You know the one -- you realize you're eating a
vegetable that also happens to appear in a Materia Medica
(giant book of medicinal herbs). Suddenly you second-guess yourself
at every meal. "Should I add sautéed onions to my steak," "Does a
cooked onion still hold the same medicinal properties as a raw
one?" Who eats raw onions anyway? "Is the live peppermint growing
in my backyard the same as the dried peppermint in my tea bags, the
essential oil of peppermint in my cabinet, or the bo he (Mentha
piperita) listed in my TCM Materia Medica?"
Now I'm having this same sense of wonderment about
my facial products. As I'm rolling on and rubbing in this blend of
ancient oils that smells distinctly like a special day in a
Catholic church, I'm pondering the reach of these powerful
substances. It's no secret that frankincense can run $100 per
bottle of essential oil, and myrrh comes in around $70.This is good
stuff, people. But why? What properties do they carry that have
made them, along with the missing "gold" in my formulation, so
heavily sought after for millennia? Myrrh was not only presented to
the baby Jesus but also used to anoint his body after death.
Egyptian pharaohs were also doused in the stuff.
Myrrh on the left, frankincense on the right
Myrhh (mo yao) has been a documented herb in TCM since
the Kaibao Era circa 975 AD. Frankincense (ru xiang) has been on
the books since 500 AD. How are they used in Chinese medicine? Both
come from small shrub-like trees in the Arabian Peninsula and
Northeast Africa, and both are used in resin form to invigorate
blood, treating a variety of "stasis" issues, from traumas to
tumors. Specific entries might look like this:
Myrrh: neutral, bitter, downward draining; enters
the Liver meridian; moves blood, dispels stasis, disperses phlegm
Frankincense: warm, acrid, aromatic; enters the Heart and Lung
meridians; moves blood, relaxes sinews, freecourses qi, and removes
obstruction from the channels.
Together, they have complementary properties of healing weeping
sores and engendering new flesh. Well, there we have it. Now I see
why this blend (which also includes lavender, Hawaiian sandalwood,
helichrysum, and rose oils) would be used as a facial formula of
the anti-aging variety. Hey, I'm 31. I might as well be
Qi Li Sanis the name of the formula utilizing the highly
effective complementary herbsmo yao(myrrh) and ru xiang
(frankincense). Technically they are resins, but we call every
substance in our Materia Medica an "herb." This
traditional formula combines our frankincense and myrrh with
dragon's blood (spoiler alert: not really the blood of a dragon),
catechu (another resin), carthamus (flower), cinnabar (ooh, an
illegal one!), musk (illegal plus you'd smell like a deer), and
borneol (one more resin for good measure).
Ayurvedic medicine, native to India, also uses
frankincense and myrrh, now sometimes in nutraceutical forms like
guggulsterones and bowsellic acids, respectively, for high
cholesterol and joint pain.
So, what am I putting on my face? Sure, an essential oil is not
exactly the same as a resin or a neutraceutical, or a Chinese
decoction for that matter, but that's not what matters. What's
important here is another step in the direction towards integrated
medicine. Maybe western and eastern are both right this time. As
one of my favorite patients helped me realize recently, you'll kill
yourself trying to figure out which is the one right
answer. There isn't one. Open your eyes, open your ears,
and open your heart to acknowledge the truth in each tradition.
No, not your lunchmeat. Today I want to
talk about your "lung meat." This is how my children and I refer to
their lungs. Got a cough? Well let's massage some eucalyptus oil on
your lung meats. They understand that I don't have to reach my arm
down the throat to physically touch the lungs themselves. My 7- and
4-year-old children are already hip to the Traditional Chinese
Medicine (TCM) concept of the internal and external functional
system known simply as the "Lung."
My children are wise. Maybe they -- like most children -- are
simply intuitive creatures. They haven't yet been shoved inside the
box, led to believe that there is only one right answer, or that
they must operate fully and submissively within the parameters
drawn by the institution. Wow, I really sound like an old-school
hippie on that one.
I had to take graduate-level TCM courses
to grasp the concept of the Lung as an entire system of
physiological interplay involving both internal organs and external
pathogens. Sometimes in TCM, "organs" line up perfectly with their
western paradigm counterparts. The Large Intestine is largely the
same thing in TCM and in the western understanding. A medical
doctor and an acupuncturist would agree that the Large Intestine
functions to absorb some nutrients from food, reabsorb some fluid,
and pass along the remaining waste in the form of stool. See?
Everyone's getting along.
Unfortunately, some western organs do not line up exactly with
their corresponding TCM "zang fu." Some translations are more
abstract, although still meaningful. Take the Heart for example.
While westerners know that your consciousness (mind/thoughts)
originates in the brain, we can stretch ourselves to accept the TCM
function of the Heart as the storage place for the Shen
The Lung falls
somewhere in between. TCM describes the Lung as a delicate white
umbrella in the upper jiao (we'll call that the "chest" for today),
misting the entire body with the perfect amount of moisture. Not
too much fluid, mind you, or you'll have a phlegmy cough. Not too
little either, or you'll have a dry cough.
In TCM, the Lung is responsible for so many processes and
conditions in the body. Again, some will be more easily accessible
to the logic of a western brain, such as how the Lung rules
respiration, opens to the nose, and governs the voice. We can
probably stretch again to accept the function of the Lung in TCM as
working with the Heart to control the blood vessels -- if you have
any idea about how the heart circulates the blood through the lungs
to oxygenate it before distributing it through the body. As you
feared, though, some of the Lung functions in TCM are unclear to
the western mind. Did you know that the Lung regulates qi (energy)
of the body? It regulates the water passages, controls the skin,
sweat glands, and body hair, and controls "descending and
dispersing" throughout the body.
What? That final function describes the
way that the Lung should work to descend qi in your body. You
shouldn't cough; if you are coughing, then that is explained as
"rebellious Lung qi" that needs to be more adequately descended.
When you catch a cold, TCM explains that this happened because your
Lung qi may have been wimpy. The Lung is the first line of defense
from our body to its surrounding exterior environment, and we need
strong Lung function to beat down any bad guys who try to sneak
As Dr. Zhu illustrated in a recent Advanced Seminar class, it's
easier to push an intruder back outside when he's just stepped
through your door. Sure, you can fight him down in your dining
room, but by then he's already broken your furniture and dumped out
your drawers in his path. What a great example. Dr. Zhu is
brilliant, but we already knew that.
Guess what? It's time to protect your
Lung meat. Right now -- today. In TCM, the Lung is the organ
connected to the season of fall/autumn. While some interpret this
to mean that the Lung is the strongest at this time of year, many
of us experience the opposite -- excessive or frequent Lung
pathologies -- wind-cold invasions and wind-heat invasions (the
common cold and flu). These pathogens are attacking through our
(often deficient) wei qi (protective energy layer), which again is
regulated by the Lung. If the Lung is weak, then the wei qi is
weak; thus, more colds for you.
What can you do to tonify your Lung? You can visit your favorite
clinician or intern to assess your wei qi and see how much
tonification you might need. Acupuncture is often appropriate, as
may be cupping, gua sha, tui na, or moxa. Even food therapy (a
branch of TCM) could be applied here. Pears are very moisturizing
and specifically target the Lung and Stomach meridian (think: colds
For some people, a Lung
excess pattern could exist. Instead of basic tonification, a
sedation technique might be the appropriate method. Who wants more
hot yellow phlegm in the lung meat? Not me. This is why
self-diagnosis and treatment can be dangerous. Not every head cold
is a wind-cold invasion. Many are wind-heat
invasions. While ginger or garlic might be great to release the
exterior wind-coldinvasion, it will probably exacerbate a
wind-heat condition, where peppermint would likely be the
What's the lesson here today? Care for your lung meat. Don't
smoke. Do drink water. These are the basics according to western
medicine, and TCM agrees. However, if you'd like to do more -- the
TCM way -- then see what an AOM intern has to say.
I like to eat popcorn
before bed at night...every night. I'm defended my position for
years, so I'm ready for your attacks. No, I don't think it's bad
for me. I air pop organic, non-GMO corn and drizzle on melted
grass-fed organic butter. Most deliciously, I sprinkle sea salt all
over the top.
Let me stop lying. It's more like I pour on the butter and the
salt every one-inch tall increment of popcorn as it falls into the
bowl. That's impressive, and it's a skill I've honed over several
years. You have to stand at the ready, slowly spinning the bowl
under the air popper with your left hand while gently drizzling on
the butter from your right hand. Even coverage. Every time.
Now I'll begin to unfold
the secrets of my popcorn affair. Is it enough that my bedtime
snack is free from pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and
genetic modification? We all know I'm not making toxic microwave
popcorn. Sure, it clears the "no bad things" screening fairly
easily, but, as I always ask when someone proudly shows me a "100
calorie" pack of cookies, "What is actually in there
that's good for you?"
Over the past couple of years here at NUHS in the AOM program,
I've horrified more than a couple of peers by describing my
nighttime ritual. Although we naturally-minded medical people are
generally all in agreement that whole-fat butter is better for your
body than any margarine-like alternative, I've still heard the "too
much fat for your liver to clean" argument against my nightly
Several months ago, I
decided to give it a try. Who wants a Liver or Gall Bladder channel
obstructed by phlegm? Not me. So I cut down my popcorn to once
every week or two. It was rough. It was sad. I felt incomplete in
some way when laying down for bed at night. My kidneys cried me to
sleep, begging for the tonification that salt provides my deficient
little nephron bodies. They went hungry, as did I.
After a few weeks of my new deprivation lifestyle, I realized
something shocking -- I wasn't sleeping well! I've always been a
good sleeper, falling right to sleep each night and sleeping
straight through until the morning. Nine hours or so was the
glorious norm for me. Not anymore. Suddenly it was a struggle to
fall asleep and to stay asleep. Transient insomnia? Definitely.
Chronic insomnia? I didn't want to head down that road.
Luckily, I happened to be taking Eric Baker's "Nutrition and
Food Therapy of Oriental Medicine" course at this very time. I
glanced down at my handout during class, and what did I see? Salty
(a flavor in TCM, but most specifically manifested in actual SALT)
collects the Shen. The Shen in TCM is basically the spirit or mind
of the person.
I had been
neatly collecting my overscheduled, chaotic Shen before bed each
night by some sort of inexplicable subconscious desire to put my
mental pieces back together in order to sleep well. Now what was I
doing? I was trying to fall asleep and stay asleep while my Shen
gallivanted around my body and my life, scattered in tiny pieces
into all of my hats -- mother, wife, student, professor, friend,
sister, etc. No wonder I was failing every night.
Upon making the core connection between my salt, my shen, and my
sleep, I promptly began my nightly (or nearly nightly) ritual of
devouring a bowl of salty, buttery popcorn. What do you think
happened? Let's just say I sleep nicely once again. My body was
speaking to me, and I needed to listen. Pop on, popcorn!
Nope. So, why I am writing about a modality or
medical system that is not part of the Acupuncture and Oriental
Medicine Program? Much like the use of essentials oils, the use of
homeopathic remedies can be incorporated as part of an approach to
overall health and wellness. Building on our theme from last week
of "words that are hard to pronounce," today we'll start with
"homeopathy." Go ahead; try to say it aloud.
Now that we can say it, let's keep working. What is homeopathy?
Where does it originate? If it is not part of Traditional Chinese
Medicine, then where does it belong?
As part of my continuing effort to bridge the gap between
programs here at NUHS, I recently sat down with a student in the
Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine Program -- the only program that
includes the study of homeopathy. As a student of both western
naturopathy and eastern AOM, he is perfectly poised to take on the
questions I shot off rapid-fire style.
To understand homeopathy better, focus in on the
keyword--remedy. While we tend to toss this word around
willy-nilly in daily life, in this context it has a more specific
meaning. Before this discussion, my basic understanding of
homeopathy was simply the principle of "like treats like." So, a
homeopathic remedy for a heat condition would be hot in nature.
Uh-oh. That's the opposite of Chinese theory, where we would answer
a heat condition with cold.
How will we ever get along? Rest assured, I was able to
reconcile this in my brain by using the analogy of how a person
becomes immune to a particular virus after exposure to an
attenuated piece of that same virus. That's not exactly a Chinese
principle, either, but OK. At least I'm back on board with
homeopathy after relating it to my western understanding of
homeopathic (home-ee-oh-PATH-ick) remedies are made is my favorite
part. My brilliant colleague and naturopathic doctoral student
explained the rigorous and extensive process in such a way that an
outsider, like myself, could visualize it. After the diagnostic
portion of the show (which I'm definitely not well-versed in) is
complete, and the correct remedy has been selected for the person,
I was eager to find out where to obtain the remedy and how it was
Similar to TCM, most homeopathic remedies are derived from plant,
animal or mineral sources. Many remedies are inexpensive and
available at health food stores, while some are more costly and
more difficult to order. Either way, here's how most are made:
To the average onlooker, it would seem that the resulting
homeopathic remedy has been diluted to the point of being
indistinguishable from its water or alcohol base. How can that
work? Most would assume that the remedy is weak and ineffective; in
fact, that's the main argument against homeopathy by the mainstream
medical community. Never one to blindly agree with the mainstream
medical community, I turned back to my naturopathic friend and
asked for the other side of the argument.
He explained that according to the principles of homeopathy, the
more diluted a remedy is, the stronger or more potent it actually
becomes. How can this be? Well, that's still being debated in the
United States. Homeopathy has been practiced for around 200 years
in Germany -- with roots arguably all the way back to ancient
Greece -- and declares itself a stand-alone medical system. Yet, it
is undeniably controversial and not considered "proven" by modern
about to change. My colleague explained that the argument
for homeopathic remedies being effective at these diluted
ratios has to do with their molecular size. The continual process
of dilution and vigorous shaking supposedly breaks down the
molecules of the original substance into pieces small enough to
cross through the cell membrane. Stop. Read again. That's a big
deal. Some pharmaceutical drugs are deemed ineffective because
their large molecular size does not allow them easy entry into our
cells. Once again, friends, size does matter. If the remedy can get
in, then that explains how it could work effectively.
For now, homeopathy remains a controversial topic of debate. For
more information, search PubMed at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=homeopathy
for clinical trials and peer-reviewed, scholarly journal articles
on the efficacy of the remedies. Or, talk to your favorite
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