Water and fire must be balanced. Their corresponding organ
systems in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) must be balanced,
too. What happens if Heart and Kidney are not properly harmonized?
You don't even want to know. Well, if you do, then read on.
Here are some common Fire-Water imbalances, how they manifest,
and how we harmonize them:
1. Yin Deficiency with Empty Heat
What is it?
When Water is low, due to anything from congenital deficiency,
long-term illnesses, overwork, etc., it cannot nourish the organ
systems of the body. Because the Kidney controls water metabolism
for the body, if it runs dry, then the rest of the body starts
shriveling up. The Heart, symbolizing the Fire element, appears
abundant by comparison, as heat signs appear in the body.
dry mouth, red cheekbones, heat sensation in chest,
palms, and soles, dry stool, scanty darker urine, rapid pulse, red
tongue with no coat.
How to Harmonize:
Nourish yin, clear empty heat. Points may include KD3,
KD6, LU9, LV3, SP3, SP6, PC7, HRT8.
2. Heart Fire Blazing
What is it?
When the watery, cold, refreshing part of the Water element
(Kidney) runs dry, things start heating up - in a bad way. Heart
Fire gets the word that it has free reign on the body, and before
long it goes crazy. Raging crazy.
Think "everything from pattern #1, plus" insomnia, heart
palpitations, dizziness, and tinnitus. Maybe you'll have crazy
vivid dreams, too, which can range from fun to terrifying. Your
tongue is likely quite red with a yellow coat, with red prickles or
a red tip. Your pulse is probably full and rapid.
How to Harmonize:
Nourish yin, sedate Heart fire, calm the Shen (spirit). Points may
include: "everything from pattern #1, plus" HRT9, PC8, PC6.
3. Kidney Yang Deficiency with Water
What is it?
While patterns #1 and #2 were conditions of too much Fire element
and not enough Water, pattern #3 is exactly the opposite. Too much
Water. You're flooding inside your own body. When there's not
enough Fire to warm the body and burn off excess Water, then you
just start packing on the water, particularly below the waist.
Things are not warming and moving around the body. Circulation of
fluids has been impaired.
Edema, scanty urine, low back pain, cold limbs, excessive white
vaginal discharge, infertility. Swelling, even pitting edema, could
be found in the legs. Your pulse is likely deep, weak, and slow.
Your tongue is pale and swollen, moist with a white coat.
How to Harmonize:
Tonify Kidney Yang, Warm Ming Men, drain dampness. Points may
include: KD3, KD7, SP9, SP6, UB10, DU4, UB23, SJ5, CV9, LU7.
Do these sound serious? They can be. The good news is that
acupuncture, along with the other branches and modalities of
Traditional Chinese Medicine (herbs, dietary therapy, tui na, qi
gong, moxa) can be very effective for rebalancing and harmonizing
Water and Fire. You don't want to be too cold, but you don't want
to be too hot, either. You want to be juuuust right.
One in four American couples struggle with infertility. Of those
women who either cannot get pregnant after 12 months of trying or
who cannot carry a baby to term, around 45% seek medical
assistance. A study at the University of Maryland School of
Medicine indicates that acupuncture may increase the success of IVF
therapy by as much as 65%, but how is it working?
Dr. David Bai and Dr. Linda Xu summarize that acupuncture has
been shown to:
That's the western world's attempt to explain an ancient Chinese
practice. Now let's put it into our Traditional Chinese Medicine
(TCM) terminology. Infertility can be caused by a variety of
disharmonies in the body of the woman, the man, or both. Generally
speaking, it can usually be traced to some sort of deficiency,
stasis, or heat condition. That's too general for me. I need more
Kidney Yang Deficiency, Ren and Chong Disharmony, Jing
Deficiency, Kidney & Liver Yin Deficiency, Spleen Blood
Deficiency, Spleen Qi Deficiency, Heart/Liver Blood Deficiency,
Damp Retention, Phlegm Accumulation, Blood Stasis, Qi Stagnation,
Heat in the Blood, and the list goes on seemingly indefinitely as
you combine the abovementioned patterns in a horrid and
unsatisfactory mix and match fashion.
Think that's a lot of patterns? Well, there's a lot of infertile
couples out there. This array of options lends itself to several
western presentations of infertility. It also explains why one
treatment strategy, whether it be an herb, an exercise, or an
acupuncture point prescription, can't work for everyone. There are
indeed acupuncture points and herbal formulas that address each and
every one of those patterns of disharmony, but each patient can
expect a unique treatment strategy based on his or her
While acupuncture appears to give the same result as Clomid (a
50% success rate for producing an egg in a given cycle), it also
has a two-fold added bonus. First, acupuncture has no negative
side-effects. Secondly, acupuncture will almost always produce
seemingly unrelated positive benefits on health and wellness. Going
in for irregular menstrual cycles? You'll probably also sleep
better. Going in for low sperm count? You'll probably also feel
relief from your chronic lower back pain.
Many patients seeking acupuncture assistance for infertility
will also be given herbs to assist in the balancing and overall
wellness. These two modalities in combination often produce better
results than either one alone, similar to the way that patients
receiving acupuncture with IVF have better results than those
undergoing IVF alone. No matter the high efficacy of TCM in
infertility cases overall, it's still not magic. If you've ruptured
a fallopian tube or lost an ovary and are working with only one,
it's still harder to conceive. If there's a structural issue, it's
more difficult for TCM to help; in these cases, surgical repair
might be indicated.
What's the conclusion? If you're struggling with infertility,
give acupuncture (and herbs) a try! You could experience the
improved menstrual regularity, ovulation, and conception that many
others have. In the background, odds favor improved balance in
other aspects of wellness from bowel movements to sleep quality.
Our tip, as always, is to seek out a Licensed Acupuncturist to
ensure you are working with someone who has been through the most
rigorous and complete education and practical programs for
Traditional Chinese Medicine in its entirety, rather than a
provider from another field who has "added on" some hours in
acupuncture training. Happy needling!
Further Reading: Treating Infertility with Traditional Chinese
Medicine (Infertility Awareness Association of Canada)
This weekend I saw an article about the word "eggcorn" being
added to the dictionary. Perfect, I thought. Someone has finally
justified my mispronunciation of the word "acorn." After all these
years, I've been vindicated.
No. That's not what happened. Apparently, a word has been
created, tested, and formalized for these types of circumstances.
When enough people say a word incorrectly enough times, it can
become a legitimized word. You can't just be totally crazy and
wrong, though, mind you. You have to misuse a word and
have it be somewhat close to making sense. Then you can be
"For all intensive purposes," "a mute
point," "an averse reaction," "old timer's disease," and "soup
chef." All wrong. Look again -- it should read "for all intents and
purposes," "a moot point," "an adverse reaction," Alzheimer's
disease," and "sous chef." Notice how the words commonly used are
technically wrong, but still actually kind of correct? Now there's
a word for that, and that word is, appropriately, an "eggcorn."
What do eggcorns have to do with TCM? Well, thanks for asking.
Some of my favorite intentional misspeaks just happen to be related
to auricular acupuncture, or, as I call it, "earcupuncture."
Closely related is the way that I call the ear apex the "earpex."
Sometimes, I just can't help myself. It's like the words are out
there just calling me to stick them together. Maybe I'm not even
misspeaking; I'm just making new contractions. You're welcome.
Today, on this new day, just one week after Merriam-Webster
added "eggcorn" to the dictionary, I feel confident in using my
slightly off the beaten Daoist path terminology. I'm using
earcupuncture, or earicular acupuncture, I'm bleeding the earpex
point to lower blood pressure, and I'm not apologizing. Words that
are wrong but self-explanatory enough to be right are OK in my
Also, ear acupuncture is important. It's powerful, it's fast,
it's easy, and it's cheap to perform. People need to become more
familiar with this modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine, but
the sterile statement, "I'm going to insert needles into your ear
now," doesn't always go over well with patients. Can an eggcorn or
two lighten the mood? Can a spoonful of humor make the needle slide
in more smoothly?
Why does auricular acupuncture work so well that I'm willing to
mispronounce it to help new patients accept it? The theory of
auricular acupuncture is that the ear is a microsystem, where every
body part is represented and connected to a particular point on the
ear. Red spot on the antihelix? Maybe it's revealing your knee
pain. Really sore when I squeeze your lobe? Could be your tooth
infection screaming for help.
Say it how you like. Whether it's ear acupuncture, ear-icular
acupuncture, or earcupuncture, just try it out. I won't judge you
on your pronunciation. Will it hurt? Maybe. Here's a secret tip.
Sometimes we don't even use needles on the ear points. We have
these things called "ear seeds," and they definitely don't hurt. If
you could handle the feel of a Band-Aid with a piece of dirt stuck
to it, then you'd be fine with ear seeds. Just squeeze and enjoy
the pain relieving benefits. It's easier than sticking an acorn to
No one likes to be wrong. No one likes to admit that his or her
medicine is not the best. When a patient walks into the room
seeking treatment, we each want to be the one to say, "Yes, we can
help you." While acupuncture has successfully treated the masses
for thousands of years, and has been recommended by the World
Health Organization for dozens of conditions and diseases, it's not
the only tool in the shed in 2015.
On Thursday at Cook County Hospital, I sat at the computer in a
treatment room entering the subjective information from an existing
patient presenting with a new chief complaint -- left calf pain.
We'd treated her in the acupuncture wing of the outpatient pain
clinic before, but her chief complaint was usually lower back pain.
Initially, I thought "another case of sciatica," as I worked
through her SOAP note and mentally scanned the best acupuncture
points for the job.
"Sharp pain in the back of my leg," she said, gingerly touching
her left calf. I asked, "When did it start, and have you had this
pain before?" "Yesterday, and NO," she snapped back at me. "It's so
swollen and the pain is sharp right here," she added. She confirmed
that there had been no trauma to the area, and I released my grip
and let the pack of needles slide deeper down into my lab coat
I'm kind of new here, and I readily admit that my weakness as an
acupuncture intern is ruling out contraindications and sorting out
red flags before I start sticking needles into the patient. Can I
still needle you if your blood pressure is 150/90? Some books say
yes, some sources say no. Acupuncture lowers blood pressure, so
shouldn't we go ahead and do it? Refer out! Confusion. "It's
normal," everyone assures me. "You'll gain that confidence through
clinical experience over time." Well, as a third year acupuncture
student, I don't feel like it's been enough time. I walk into the
head clinician's office and start presenting the case. Something
just feels...off...with this patient.
The beauty of my internship at Stroger Hospital is that although
it's not set up to be an integrative treatment experience for each
patient, it can transform into one in under 60 seconds. Our calf
pain patient came into the acupuncture wing of the pain clinic, but
upon suspicion of an emergency situation (yes, we were all thinking
"Deep Vein Thrombosis" or "DVT" at this point in the show), we went
two doors down the hall and snagged an MD intern to evaluate her
presentation from a western perspective, too.
He quickly assessed her signs and symptoms and agreed that we
needed to rule out a DVT before moving ahead with her regularly
scheduled acupuncture treatment at that time. Within seconds, our
integrated team had changed course, explained the testing process
to the patient, called over to the ER, and had a nurse transport
For thousands of years the expansive Chinese empire developed
what we now call "Traditional Chinese Medicine," or "Oriental
Medicine," of which acupuncture and herbs form the foundation. A
complete and effective medical system, the doctors not only placed
needles, administered herbal formulas, gave hands-on manipulations,
moxibustion, and cupping treatments, but also did bone-setting and
any other emergency medicine that was required. Today, in the
United States, our scope of practice is generally not so extensive
as to include bone-setting, but we respect the completeness of the
TCM system in its entirety.
This does not mean, though, that we ignore the
advancements of other medical systems or technologies. It means
that instead of blindly accepting the often too-invasive and
side-effect ridden treatment plans of the mainstream western
medical system, we utilize only the elements that we see as truly
necessary or complementary to a holistic treatment plan. In short,
I LOVE DIAGNOSTIC IMAGING. Sure, it's wrong sometimes, giving false
positives and false negatives alike, but overall it gives us a
somewhat clearer look inside the human body than what we can piece
together by looking at a patient's tongue and feeling her
I'm not saying that modern diagnostic imaging is necessary for
an acupuncturist to be effective in treating modern patients, but
it is another tool in the shed nowadays. The shed has grown larger
in the past 50 years, but it's also full of a lot of junk. Often
the expert walks in, picks up the best tool for the job -- the one
he's trained to use most confidently -- and steps over the rest.
The skill is being adept in choosing those tools that are best
suited for the situation, even if they aren't from the same
"The doctor of the future will give no medication, but will
interest his patients in the care of the human frame, diet and in
the cause and prevention of disease." Thanks, Thomas A.
Edison. I like that quote. Doctors of Oriental Medicine,
herbalists, and acupuncturists generally give herbs as part of a
complete treatment plan, but giving a pill to pop -- whether
pharmaceutical, peppermint, or deer antler-- is not the only way to
The doctor of the future will be truly integrative. He will
skillfully diagnose the patient's whole body, mind, and spiritual
condition, drawing from both hands-on examination findings and
high-tech imaging of internal structures. In the future, when the
patient presents with the new chief complaint of acute calf pain
and swelling, we can use modern imaging to quickly rule out the DVT
and then use acupuncture to treat her condition and balance her
body. We can give her qi gong exercises and dietary changes to
support her long-term health and wellness. Thomas Edison will be
Further Reading: The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of
Medicine is in Your Hands by Eric Topol
I'm home. I know it, physically. I see my house, my car, and the
backpack already waiting to go back to class. But, my mind is still
in Nicaragua. This morning I subconsciously shook out my shoes
before putting them on. You know, to check for scorpions, since we
have so many here in Illinois. I tried to put my used toilet paper
into a basket in the bathroom at Target yesterday, and stopped
myself just in time. Go ahead and throw it right into the toilet,
Juli. Welcome home.
The week I spent volunteering at the integrative medicine clinic
in Nicaragua with Natural Doctors International (NDI) is sticking
with me for much longer. Even though it was my third time going,
pulling up to the rancho, strolling into the clinic, and meeting my
"mami" for the week was just as exciting as ever. The village of
Los Angeles on the island of Ometepe is a dry, dusty place at the
end of April, as the hungry families yearn for the rains to start
and signal the planting season.
The roughly 30,000 people strung around the base of the two
volcanos that form the island aren't starving, though. There aren't
clusters of orphaned children with protruding bellies scavenging
garbage piles with flies landing in their eyes. Even though
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere
-- after Haiti -- life on the island is not what you might expect.
The children are mostly dressed, everyone has at least rice to make
in the outdoor kitchens, and villagers are seemingly low-key for
the most part, smiling, saying "Buenos Dias" as you walk down the
dirt roads punctuated only by horse poop and the never-ending small
Again, I'm awed by the graciousness of the people, who walk,
ride, hitch, or bike to NDI's free natural medicine clinic, and
then wait patiently and happily in the colorful plastic chairs out
back for hours. We learned that many of them give us a run-down of
five or ten general health complaints simply hoping to get a refill
on multivitamins, omegas, or probiotics, which they treat like gold
when we dump them into a plastic baggie for them. We delighted some
children with a new toothbrush to hold while Daddy hopped up onto
the table for some pain-relieving acupuncture.
We volunteers smiled as baby horses and cows causally strolled
around the village. After a few days we stopped asking, "Whose
horse is that?" when we realized that the animals knew where they
lived and ended up back at more or less the right house at the end
of the day. We struggled -- some of us more than others - to
communicate with our host families in Spanish about everything from
food preferences to how to refill the bucket for a shower. We even
celebrated a fellow volunteer's birthday with a birthday cake and a
huge bottle of Coke; the power only went out on us once.
Times were good. Patients were appreciative. Volunteers were
learning. We reminded ourselves how unique NDI's clinic really is
-- not just for Nicaragua -- but for anywhere in the world.
Mainstream western medicine is starting to shift, yes, but it's not
yet common in the U.S. to walk into a free clinic, have a consult
with a naturopathic doctor and receive supplements and a take-home
parasite-in-my-poo test kit, have a consult with an acupuncturist
and get needled under the mango trees, and enjoy a lavender oil
massage after a grievous counseling session with the in-house
psychologist. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sign. Me.
Up. For. That. I even found the beach in our village this year,
after three years!
By day we performed the abovementioned magic out of the 3-room
open-air clinic. By night we grappled with the tough questions
during our evening classes on global health history and policy. Why
aren't we helping out in our own country? Why couldn't we carry in
all of the donations that we raised? Why are naturopathic doctors
not recognized in most states in the U.S.? Did they break ground
for the new canal? Why is smoke coming out of the volcano that our
village is ON!
Nothing is answered definitively; earthquakes rolled on days
after I left the island. I returned home to the pile of donations
that we couldn't get into Nicaragua. I still can't get my insurance
to cover a naturopathic doctor visit in Chicago. We didn't cure
every patient; the rancho still needs to be re-thatched before the
rains come; and the clinic ran out of children's multivitamins
before we even got on the ferry to head home. And it's OK. We are
fulfilled. Our work was done and cannot be undone. And guess what?
Hasta Luego doesn't mean "good-bye." It means "until next time."
Yep, I'll be back.
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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