My Salt, My Shen (and My SLEEP!)

2014-09-24_popcornI 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.

2014-09-24_butterNow 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 popcorn.

2014-09-24_bedSeveral 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.

2014-09-24_seasaltI 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!

Is Homeopathy Part of Chinese Medicine?

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. (home-ee-AH-puh-thee)

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 immunology.

How 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 made.

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:

  • A substance (let's say arnica) is diluted in a base such as alcohol or water.
  • The mixture is shaken vigorously (they call this "succussion").
  • One part is taken from that mixture, and that part is again diluted with 99 parts water/alcohol.
  • Shake vigorously.
  • Again take out one part and dilute with 99 parts water/alcohol.
  • Repeat this process a few more times until the desired dilution has been reached.

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 medical science.

2014-09-17_moleculesMaybe that's 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 naturopathic doctor.

So What Is Chinese Medicine

With the start of a new trimester here at NUHS, and -- for many -- the start of a new school year, it's the perfect time to break it down. Just what is Traditional Chinese Medicine? How does acupuncture fit into the picture? Do you have to use herbs, too? What about tui na, qi gong, and tai chi? Let's not forget about my personal favorite -- dietary therapy!

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has arguably five branches, and I'm going to give it to you as I understand it. After two full years in the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Program, a first professional master of science degree program, I think I'm finally scratching the surface of what the ancient Chinese had to offer.

Acupuncture

photo of woman receiving acupunctureThis is the big guy, right? Acupuncture is the most well-known branch of TCM today in the U.S., involving the insertion of needles into specific points on the body. While some other fields offer an abbreviated, "stick it where it hurts" method, we TCM acupuncturists take the entire body, its functional organ systems, and each person's general constitution into consideration when deciding where to stick the needles. I know it's confusing when you say your back hurts and I put needles in your legs, ears, and hands, but just trust me. It's all connected through energy meridians. This is also why we ask you about your poop when you come in for knee pain.

Moxibustion

photo of Chinese herbYes, it smells just like marijuana, but it's actually a different herb called ai ye in Chinese pinyin, artemesia argyi in Latin, or Mugwort in plain old English. It does come in a tightly rolled stick form, we do light the end, but instead of smoking it we hold it near an acupoint on the body. After a few minutes of pecking the moxa stick close enough to provide penetrating heat but never burning you -- I promise -- you will reap the benefits of not only pain relief but tonification of certain organ systems and the freecoursing of energy through particular meridians. It feels great, but you will have to explain to people for the rest of the day why you smell like marijuana.

Herbs

photo of Chinese herbsLike many medical systems, from western naturopathy to Indian Ayurveda, TCM has a unique Materia Medica, or giant book of herbs, their properties, and their medicinal uses. While you don't have to "do herbs," most students at NUHS work towards the full MS of Oriental Medicine (which includes the herbal coursework in addition to the acupuncture work). Interesting fact: not all "Chinese herbs" are plant-derived. Many are actually minerals, such as salt or arsenic, or animal-derived, such as deer penis or flying squirrel feces. Just seeing if you're paying attention (but yes, those are really all in the Materia Medica).

TCM­

photo of garlic and onionsLumps dietary therapy, or food therapy, into the same branch as herbal therapy above. Because I love the application of common foods and nutritional principles so much, I'm awarding it half status as its own category. Some items that we'd call "food," such as garlic or onions, are also included in the Materia Medica as medicinal herbs. They're working together -- that's the point. Who doesn't love the ancient Greek saying, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food?" Thanks, Hippocrates, thy father of western medicine. The Chinese happen to agree!

Tui Na

photo of woman receive a massageCan you pronounce it? Try this: twee nah. Good job. This is most easily compared to the practice of massage. Often called "Asian Body Work," these pushing and pulling movements applied by the TCM provider to the patient's body accomplishes many of the goals of general massage, such as relaxation and improved circulation of blood and energy.

Cupping

photo of cupping treatmentThis is also where we are going to mention the practice ofcupping. Stick a fire into a glass cup to create a vacuum that pulls toxins out of the blood and releases the exterior in a "wind-cold invasion" and you have a happy patient. In my admittedly limited clinical experience, everyone loves cupping, but mind your manners. The clinic is not an a la carte menu for your pleasure. Let the intern and the clinician decide which modalities are best for your condition each day.

Qi Gong

photo of qi gong practitionerAnother new phrase for the day. Practice: chee gong. Not so bad, is it? Qi gong offers the practitioner a chance to step back, relax, and renew his or her own energy and well being. Maybe you've seen images of elderly Chinese individuals at the park, wondering why they are punching the air in slow motion. That was a group of people cultivating their qi. As Dr. Yurasek tells us interns, "You can't give it if you don't have it!" Thus, practice your qi gong postures and movements before you head in for your clinic shift.

So, there it is--most of Traditional Chinese Medicine. We could also tie in tai chi or talk about gua sha, but I have to save something for next time! If you haven't tried TCM, now is a great time. Interns are fresh off a nice two-week break, white lab coats are pristine, and everybody's anxious to try out their skills. See you in clinic!

The Twins I Found in My Garden

Nope, I did not find human remains in my garden plot. I didn't even find live children playing in there. What I'm talking about is the Siamese onion I pulled out of my soil this week during a particularly fruitful harvest.

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It had two huge shoots, and I thought I was pulling two separate onions. To my surprise, two smallish and oddly connected onions popped out. They had grown too close together, no doubt because I planted them too close together this spring. Technically, my then 3-year-old son was doing the dropping-in of the onion bulbs, so I guess I could blame him on this one. But, I won't. I'm not trying to blame anyone, or even to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with my Siamese onion twins.

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Here's their cousin(s), Extra Heads Tomato, as I called him.

What's going on here? I've recently heard about the French trend of embracing ugly produce. OK. I like heirloom tomatoes with their colorful streaks and odd plump shapes. I'm in. What's the big deal with how many lobes my vegetables have? I'm just going to eat them anyways. After a few chomps of the teeth, any tomato is going to be a total train wreck of juice, seeds, and goo.

This spring, when I planted my vegetables, I tried to open myself to what the garden wanted. Peppers over there? Sure. Potatoes in vertical containers? Alright. Make a 6-foot-tall wall of rusty metal for the snap peas to climb? You got it.

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In my Daoist journey to become more natural, harmonious, and simply of less resistance to the energy of the universe, I tried to be mindful that the garden didn't need to look perfect. Whatever it was -- that would be perfect. I don't know if was the Dao De Jing or the Tai Chi, but over the past couple of years, I've realized that I intervene too much. I need to spend more time with my mouth shut and my energy open.

As a bad artist in junior high school, I heard and repeated the phrase, "Nature isn't perfect, so you don't have to be," and used this mantra as my own whenever my mountain and tree scenes came out all wrong. Bob Ross would not have been proud. My little trees were not happy. They always looked upside down and sad. I was forcing them. I was forcing them to be perfect, with each branch directly across from another. The result was that it never looked right. It never looked real.

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As the season progresses, the trimester break approaches, and the peppers and tomatoes ripen, I remind myself that it is perfect. It doesn't have to look like it, but it...just...is.

Essential Oils or Chinese Herbs

Are essential oils (EOs) the answer to the challenging questions of how to locate, transport, store, and prepare Chinese herbs? I'm starting to think so. The more I use EOs in everyday life, in everything from cleaning my kitchen floor to healing skin wounds, and even to give my beer that summery citrus flavor, the more I see the large overlap between EOs and Chinese herbs.

2014-07-28_booksAs a student of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AOM), mostly derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I respect and value the efficacy of a freshly decocted batch of raw Chinese herbs. I know they work, I've gained a basic understanding of why they work, but I struggle with the practicality of using them either for my family now or for a future patient population.

What are these challenges? First, there are a lot of "herbs" in TCM's Materia Medica (book of medical substances, whether plant, animal, or mineral derived). To stock a shoebox-sized amount of just most of them would require a very large storage room. Some need to be refrigerated, some need to be pulverized just prior to use, and some are illegal to use in the United States. No rhinoceros horn for you!

2014-07-28_shelvesFinding them--even the legal ones--presents yet another stumbling block. Should you order online, feign condition after condition to cache all the prescribed herbs you can squeak out of your clinician at school? Drive to Chinatown and take a stab at which shop has fresh, safe and affordable herbs? Sure enough, within a few days of making each trip to Chinatown myself I realize, "DOH! Now I need that other herb, too!" Back in the car....

After a year or so of engaging in this disorderly and expensive game of cat and mouse, I'd tried all (well, most) of these tactics--even growing some of my own! All legal, of course. Think "mint," not "ephedra." So, what's an AOM student to do? For the past year, this one's been exploring the way that high-quality EOs could fulfill many of the same needs as our Chinese herbs. How? Well, I'm not entirely sure that the properties translate exactly, but many sure seem to do just that. Let's take a look at our good friend, peppermint.

peppermint plantChinese name: Bo he. Common English name: Field Mint. Latin name: Mentha piperita. Same plant...same medicinal properties? I argue "yes." Most basically, peppermint is "cold" in nature. Both West and East agree on that. TCM goes on to add other attributes such as aromatic, acrid, and thus capable of dispelling the common wind-heat invasion (think: yellow snot and sore throat). My western manual of EOs describes peppermint as "anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and invigorating," with primary uses including "congestion, fever, influenza, heartburn." Sounds...pretty...similar!

Sure, the harvesting, processing, and distillation processes change, emphasize, or even exclude some of the chemical constituents, and the final usable product of dried bo he differs greatly in appearance from the bottle of peppermint EO. Does that mean they function differently, though? I used to harvest, dry, and lightly decoct my own bo he when I felt a wind-heat invasion coming on. It worked, as long as I was at home with my own garden and had some time to prepare it all. Lately, I've been easily reaching into my oils cabinet and tapping two drops of peppermint EO into a mug of warm water. Instant peppermint tea? Definitely. Instant medicinal answer to a wind-heat invasion? I say yes again, based on my own experiences.

2014-07-28_peppermintI'm not a chemist or a doctor, but in my experience and increasingly informed opinion, I'm finding that EOs can make a handy substitute for Chinese herbsin many cases. As with raw herbs, quality is of upmost importance when selecting an EO company. Storage, convenience and ease of use are all in favor of EOs, but they are limited in number. I haven't found one called "gecko" or "scorpion," or especially "Bear Gall Bladder," all of which are clutch entries in a TCM Materia Medica.

Conclusion: If you can manage to live and treat without the more exotic or illegal Chinese herbs, then EOs might be a practical substitute much of the time. Imagine the difference between handing a patient a bag full of raw ingredients, a pictorial instruction sheet, and a handshake full of hope that they can execute the cooking process effectively vs. handing the patient a small bottle of EO and the simple instructions to put two drops into a mug of warm water.

Extra considerations abound; this post cannot attempt to cover every angle or offer every comparison point. Granule or patent pills can make Chinese herbs more practical, while some EOs are quite expensive to purchase. Frankincense can easily run $100 per 15 ml bottle. Hey, if it's good enough for the Christ Child, you're going to have to pay up! There are also some pesky mind-blocks when trying to move seamlessly from one medical paradigm to the other. How could a TCM practitioner possibly use hot cinnamon bark and clove bud for a yellow-snot, sore throat sinus infection? Yet, that's exactly what the EO prescription is in that case. Homeopaths have no qualms with the theory of treating heat with heat, but that's not the plan in AOM!

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For now, I'll chalk this entire idea up to just another piece of evidence that an integrated approach to healthcare is truly the best option. Taking what works from any and all medical systems offers our patients the most options for being well. I'm open to that...