Yours, Mine, and Our Herbs

Or, alternative title: Touché, Mito2Max. I just realized why you work.

Let's start at the beginning. Once Dr. Cai taught us about the medicinal properties of coffee, I realized I should probably try to stop drinking so much of it. Like every other food, spice, or antler in the TCM materia medica, coffee has a temperature, a flavor, and a set of therapeutic actions.

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I'm not saying coffee is bad or that you or I should stop drinking it, although I will add here that I've heard Dr. Cai suggest that to many patients in the clinic. Slow down, I'm not ready. Mama needs her coffee in the morning. Why should I cut down? Well, according to TCM, coffee has the following properties:

Flavor: Bitter, slightly sweet

Temperature: Warm

Actions: Freecourses stagnated qi, particularly liver qi. Purges the gallbladder. Warms and moves blood. Opens heart orifices. Tonifies qi, particularly spleen qi. Drains damp.

2015-02-27_redKeep in mind these properties are referring to the roasted coffee bean; the green bean and the red berry have distinct characteristics and actions. Also, the general dosage of coffee as an herb in traditional Chinese medicine is around 1-3 cups of prepared coffee. Not giant mugs, people...actual measurement cups. One of the principles of TCM is to treat the individual at the time, meaning that there are almost no blanket statements such as, "Coffee is bad for everyone," or "I can have 3 cups of coffee daily and that's fine."

Instead, we see the person as a unique manifestation of qi and blood at a given moment. Your condition or diagnosis is likely to change from day to day or year to year, meaning that your acupuncture, herbal, and dietary treatments should change accordingly. If I'm cold, irritable, and retaining dampness, then bring on the coffee! But if, in the next month, I have constrained heat from liver qi stagnation, yin deficiency, and my fluids are drying up, then keep that coffee out of my shriveled hands.

2015-02-27_mitoWhat's an addicted girl to do? Well, I have to find something else to fill the void of coffee every day, or at least on the days or weeks when I know I need the extra energy and stamina boost. Enter, Mito2Max, a supplement that is described as an "energy and stamina complex," and "a healthy long-term alternative to caffeinated drinks and supplements for increased energy and vitality." Well, all right. Now we're talking. I read on...it "supports healthy mitochondrial function and aerobic capacity and improves stamina naturally without the use of harmful stimulants."

That's good enough for me to give it a try. I start popping two in the morning and two in the afternoon. On the second day, I'm practically bouncing around my house, talking nonstop. OK, let's cut down to one a day. That's better. I don't know what's happening yet -- I'm just loving my "plant extracts and metabolic cofactors," without really thinking about it too hard. Who has time to analyze the ingredients in a supplement when you're jumping around like Mario on the Super Nintendo Game Genie (remember those awesome cheat codes)?

This week I decided I should probably read the label and see what's happening here. What do you know? Mito2Max is basically a bunch of Chinese herbs! The blend contains dong chong xia cao (cordyceps sinensis), ren shen (Panax ginseng), bai guo (Gingko biloba), and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Yes, I realize these are "other people's" herbs, too, but this is an Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine blog, so I'm claiming them today. (Other ingredients include: Acetyl-l carnitine HCI, Alpha-Lipoic acid, Coenzyme Q10, and Quercetin dihydrate, but we're not talking about them today.)

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Let's look at the properties of these herbs and see why I'm bouncing off the walls.

  1. Dong chong xia cao: Sweet, neutral, tonifies kidney yang, nourishes kidney essence, tonifies lung qi, stops bleeding, resolves phlegm, and relieves cough and dyspnea.
  2. Ren shen: Sweet, slightly bitter, slightly warm, strongly tonifies yuan qi, tonifies stomach qi and spleen qi, tonifies the lungs, generates fluids and relieves thirst, calms the shen, tonifies kidney yang and qi.
  3. Bai guo: Sweet, bitter, astringent, neutral, relieves cough and dyspnea, astringes lungs and resolves phlegm, stops leukorrhagia, reduces urination.
  4. Ashwagandha: Warm, pungent, bitter, strongly tonifies kidney yang, calms the shen, dispels wind.
  5. There you have it. I've been popping a massive qi tonic, strengthening my kidney yang, primal qi, stomach, spleen, lungs, and most importantly, still calming my shen in the process. Conclusion: I've found my new afternoon coffee, and it's better for me than coffee. Score! Mario just found the castle.

Celery and Needles

What could the two possibly have in common? No, you guess first. Something to do with swords? Nope. OK, I'll tell you.

2015-02-20_1I was cooking dinner last night, and the recipe did not call for celery. I had a flash memory of a friend on Facebook posting that she added a bunch of random things to the granola she was making that day, because she wanted to clean out her pantry. I've been there. Two handfuls of raisins kicking around in the bottom of the snack pantry (in a container - I'm not that gross)...about a tablespoon of crushed pecans that I'll save for years rather than throw out -- come on, those things are expensive! Into the granola they go....

There I am, cooking dinner, the dinner that did not call for celery. This is about to relate to acupuncture, just wait for it. I look into the fridge and notice I have two giant packs of celery from the previous two weeks. My son had been on a celery kick for months, inhaling several stalks per day, and of course he suddenly hated it as soon as I stocked up. "I'll just chop some up and toss it into the pan with the onions and garlic I'm sautéing for the stuffed peppers recipe." Boom. In it goes.

2015-02-20_2No harm done, right? Maybe.... In the Traditional Chinese Medicine branch called Dietary Therapy, we learn the nature and properties of foods from kelp to congee and oats to oranges. Here's the medicinal profile for celery according to TCM: cooling, sweet, slightly bitter, benefitting the stomach and spleen, calming an irritated liver, improving digestion, drying dampness, purifying the blood, reducing nervousness and vertigo, clearing heat from the eyes, urine and mouth, and relieving headaches caused by stomach heat and stagnated liver qi (Pitchford, 2002, p. 539).

That would have been fine. Even if you didn't understand most of that, trust me, it would have been fine. Who doesn't have some stomach heat and stagnated liver qi these days! Then, as quickly as I tossed the chopped celery into the recipe that didn't call for it, I heard Dr. Zhu's voice in my head, reminding us that we cannot just throw in some extra needles just because we opened a 10-pack!

2015-02-20_3What's the big deal about haphazardly adding things in after the recipe (yes, we could call an acupuncture point prescription a "recipe")?

As Dr. Zhu explained, the point prescription is just that -- a prescription. You should take it seriously and respect the balance and harmony of the points that are working together. There are master-couple points in there; I saw a guest-host thing going on. I know she's tonifying the mother and sedating the child on the Lung channel. Someone said "extraordinary." Seems like it's getting crazy, but really it's not. It's very calculated...complete and perfect.

2015-02-20_5needles _smallNext time you find yourself in the kitchen with some extra celery to use up, are you going to throw it into the pan when the recipe doesn't call for it? Maybe... But, the next time you acupuncture interns find yourselves in rooms full of open packs of needles, I hope you do the right thing and leave them on the clean field instead of just adding in the 3 extra opened needles. Just don't tell Dr. Kim--he does not like wasted needles!'

Pitchford, P. (1996). Healing with whole foods: Oriental traditions and modern nutrition. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books.

Olive Oil, Cancer, and Apparently My Frustrations

Hot olive oil is carcinogenic. I'm trying to cut to the chase in my writing -- can you tell?

2015-02-11_oilWhen extra virgin olive oil is heated to its smoke point of around 300º Fahrenheit, bad things happen. Its protective anti-oxidants become cancer-causing free radicals. I know, I know...bring on the cop-out onslaught of "Everything causes cancer, there's no point in worrying about it." Wrong. That's the answer given by two groups of people, and (spoiler alert) you don't want to be in either group.

2015-02-11_butterFirst, and more acceptable, is the group of people who really haven't looked into health and nutrition at all. OK, hey, this is a diversified society. Not everyone has to be an expert in every subject. Some people can grow the food, others can study chemistry, and some can sell the apples at the market. It's 2015, as Tricia would say. You're a productive member of society, but you're busy. I know. You see a commercial saying "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter is a healthy choice," you run out and buy it, and you figure you're doing a decent job in life. Well, you're wrong. At minimum, really though, shouldn't every adult eater in America take a few minutes out of the upcoming "dancing with famous people" show and perhaps start to learn a bit about what you're putting into your body?

Secondly, and less acceptable, is the group of people who simply don't care about what they've learned. These are the people who read the same books about olive oil that I did, saw the explanations about why it's a bad idea to heat olive oil in your wok on stir-fry night, but keep doing it anyways. "Everything causes cancer, so why should I bother switching to a healthier option?" Gee, I don't know, maybe because you don't want to be on the wrong side of "1 in 2 American men will get cancer in his lifetime." Ladies, you're 1 in 3. Want specifics? Here's the full wheel of fun: Lifetime Probability of Developing or Dying from Cancer.

Here's a thought that not many people seem to care about. Not everything causes cancer. There are actually lots of things that don't seem to cause cancer. What about trying some pesticide-free vine-ripened fruits and vegetables? Maybe refrain from spraying yourself down in poison perfume every day? I'm not saying you can simply walk through life making all the right choices and be guaranteed cancer free. I am saying that there's this whole thing called "epi-genetics" that effectively blows out of the water the old lazy assumption that your genes have predetermined whether or not you will get cancer or be obese, etc. Not true. Your genes throw you into the world with a certain set of probabilities, such as a 30% risk that your breast cancer switch will be flipped on. Sure, that sucks, but it's not a death sentence.

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What can you do about it? Something! Epi-genetics reminds us that our lifestyle matters just as much, or more, than our genetic predeterminations. "Only 5-10% of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90-95% have their roots in the environment and lifestyle. The lifestyle factors include cigarette smoking, diet (fried foods, red meat), alcohol, sun exposure, environmental pollutants, infections, stress, obesity, and physical inactivity." Nobody hates that alcohol part more than I do, believe me, but the overall point is still valid.

This was supposed to be about olive oil, wasn't it? Well, now you know why I don't cook with olive oil. I cook with organic, grass-fed butter, and my husband prefers coconut oil, both of which have higher smoke points than olive oil does, meaning that we can cook at higher temperatures more safely. Some of you will google this "hearsay" and find websites that say not to worry about it, because all cooking of all food breaks down nutrients and produces some free radicals, and your body is programmed to deal with that small amount of carcinogens. You'll be fine...probably. Really? How's that working out for you? Which group of the "1 in 2 Americans" do you think you're in? Clearly, friends, we are bombarding our bodies with way too many carcinogens these days.

YOUR CHOICES MATTER. Make some.

Anand, P., Kunnumakara, A. B., Sundaram, C., Harikumar, K. B., Tharakan, S. T., Lai, O. S., ... Aggarwal, B. B. (2008). Cancer is a Preventable Disease that Requires Major Lifestyle Changes. Pharmaceutical Research, 25(9), 2097-2116. doi:10.1007/s11095-008-9661-9

This One Time, at Stroger

Dr. Yurasek and I scrubbed into the isolation unit, donned our masks, and needled an in-patient right in her hospital bed. I knew that shift would be different. It was only my third day, but it just felt different when I punched in that morning...and I was right!

2015-02-05_1Between our usual out-patient pain clinic cases at Cook County Hospital, Dr. Yurasek, the other morning interns, and I were discussing some of the more remarkable results achieved with auricular acupuncture. That's putting needles on ears, for the laypeople reading today. He told us about a patient in a wheelchair who rolled in with several bullet wounds and walked out the same day after the acupuncture treatment. We told him about patients whose pain level went from 10/10 to 0/10 after their acupuncture treatment. It was basically "one time at band camp" day at Stroger.

Dr. Yurasek was explaining that these types of staggeringly effective results are the reason that acupuncture has been making its way into the world of western medicine. Specifically, he said it was the "portal to acupuncture ecstasy." That's actually the start of an entirely different "one time at Stroger" story from last week... but we aren't talking about that one here.

The point was that with the obvious decrease in patient pain after a 10-minute needling and tui na treatment, it's hard to shut the door in the face of the acupuncturist who wants to treat the people. Let us into your hospitals! Share your space with us, MDs! We were all on board... but how would we get the administration to give us the time of day?

2015-02-05_2Then, the call came. The sixth floor had an in-patient in acute abdominal pain, and her doctor wanted the acupuncturist to come up and lend a hand -- a hand with a needle at the end of it. And, since they called Dr. Yurasek, it would be a big hand with a really, really big needle on the end of it. We all know he likes those 6-inch needles. I don't even near-faint anymore when he whips them out and drives them into a patient's leg. I still look at the other side, though, expecting to see the needle sticking out back there... I do still do that.

I had just hooked up my patient to the E-Stim machine and dimmed the lights in her treatment room, when Dr. Yurasek peeked his head in my room and said, "Let's go." Where were we going? I didn't know yet. He calmly said, "There's an inpatient on the 6thfloor in acute abdominal pain, and we're going up to needle her." Alrighty. If you say so, sir. I walk next to him, fumbling through the pockets in my white coat, knowing I probably needed to be bringing supplies or something.

Halfway upstairs he, very casually, mentions that the patient is actually in an isolation unit, and we'll need to take extra precautions. OK, ummm, is it too late to go back downstairs? What? Thoughts of bringing home some exotic virus (other than the ones I've already had) to my kids were flying through my mind.

2015-02-05_3Well, now I'm so nervous that I don't even know where I am. Where are we heading? East wing? West wing? Where's the lake? Finally, we make it to her unit. The nurses glance up at us like, hey, no big deal, go on in. She's through that set of doors, and then through that next set of doors... the ones with those red signs taped to the window. OMG. "Droplet isolation"! I don't even know what that means, but I'm nervous. Very nervous. We scrub in, the nurse finally steps in and helps us with our facemasks before we tied them on backwards, and basically pushed us through the next set of doors.

Well, too late to back out now. Here we go. Luckily I had needles in my pocket. Or he did, I can't even remember. The next 30 minutes were a blur, mostly because I was nearly passing out from the recirculating carbon dioxide in my facemask. How do people wear those for extended amounts of time? Clearly I was doing it wrong. First timers, right here.

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"Where's your worst pain right now," Dr. Yurasek asks the patient, who I definitely thought was unconscious when we first walked in, splayed out in her bed with the usual useless hospital gown covering her nothing. "My back, and my leg, all the way down to my foot," she says. Well, she's conscious. Great news for my burgeoning anxiety. Abdominal pain, back pain, she's got it all, but her back hurts the most right now. So, we treat her back pain. Cue the 6-inch needles into the ancient secret lock-and-key points now called "Gall Bladder 30" and Gall Bladder 34." Sciatic pain relief on the way!

The patient is in less pain and is visibly more relaxed in her body tension. She was in the middle of telling us a story, but then she suddenly passed out asleep. OK. As long as she's not dead, I'm going to make it. I run around like a crazy person in a crazy mask looking for a gauze pad so we could take the needles out, and finally, our job is done here. We walk back downstairs to the outpatient pain clinic and resume our day.

"How's your internship at Stroger going," people keep asking me. Awesome. It's freaking awesome. If you have the opportunity to intern at Stroger, and you're not doing it, you're missing out.

Check Your Chamber Pots, Ladies

2015-01-29_potEver heard of "bedpan bullets?" If you take a multivitamin from the grocery store shelf, odds are high that your body is not absorbing the vitamins and minerals listed on the side of the bottle. Nurses have been finding mostly-intact tablets in the bedpans of patients for years, sometimes so undissolved that the popular brand name is still legible!

How could this be true? How could my beloved multivitamin, that I've watched TV commercials for thousands of times, be a total waste of money? I checked the side of the bottle! It says it's giving me 100% of my daily need for Niacin. What could go wrong?

2015-01-29_bedpanWell, yes, you are popping a one-a-day that shows 100%s for most of your vitamins and minerals...but that does not mean that those nutrients are bioavailable. Your body is not absorbing nearly 100%, but instead, just shooting the tablet out your other end.

"Studies have shown individual vitamin isolates in supplements are about 10% absorbed. Compare this to vitamins directly from a fresh plant source, which are 77% to 93% absorbed. Minerals in a supplement are even worse -- 1% to 5%. But, from a plant source like raw broccoli, the minerals are 63% to 78% absorbable." Read more at HealthGuidance.org.

2015-01-29_pillsThe jig is up. In December 2013, the Annals of Internal Medicine published three papers on the health outcomes of regularly taking multivitamin supplements. Each concluded that it's essentially worthless -- and potentially dangerous -- to pop that multivitamin. The studies specifically looked at improvements in memory and cognition and reduction in rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease. The editorial explanation put out with these papers argued against taking them, stating, "Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided." Check out this article from ScienceBasedMedicine.org, which links to all 3 referenced papers and the associated editorial:

2015-01-29_tomatoSo what should a well-meaning, crappy American diet-eating individual do to fill in the obvious gaps in whole-food nutrition?

Most of us have a diet comprised of eating out or eating prepackaged factory foods. If you do step up and buy (conventional) produce and chow down on that, you're inundating your body with pesticides. Plus, your apple has probably irradiated to improve shelf life by destroying its vital energy. Unless you are eating an entirely organic, local, vine- or tree-ripened and immediately consumed diet of all fresh foods, your body almost certainly is not bringing in the vitamins and minerals that it needs (nor the digestive enzymes needed to use them). Even with my backyard garden, attempts to eat organic and local, and cooking from scratch almost daily, I'm sure I'm still all nutritionally holey as the ole slice of Swiss cheese.

2015-01-29_cheeseThe next best thing to the above mentioned beautiful diet is to look for a supplement that is whole-food based and bioavailable. I'll give you a clue--you probably won't find it on the sale aisle at the Jewel. Talk to your knowledgeable healthcare professional today about what type of supplementation is appropriate for your body and lifestyle. Dietary therapy and associated nutritional counseling is part of the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine program, as "food therapy" is one of the long-standing branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Who else can help? Your chiropractor and your naturopathic doctor also go through extensive education on supplements--ask one of us!