How to Use Chinese Herbs

Think it's too difficult for you? I think you're wrong. File this post away under the "if I can do it, you can do it" series. Unfortunately, this practical how-to post is the result of someone actually needing to use raw Chinese herbs to feel better--and that someone is me.

Remember that whole "damp-heat in the gall bladder" thing from a couple of weeks ago? Yep, me too. Turns out, I still have that going on. Yes, I self-diagnosed and self-treated in near silence. Did I say I was good at this? I'm sorry. No. I'm a student. I know close to nothing. In my defense, upon an actual visit to the NUHS AOM clinic to exercise my student-access-to-free-care privilege, I learned that I nailed my diagnosis and was only one off in my acupoints selection plan.

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Ingredients for Treatment

I was indeed on my way towards getting back to normal, but not quite there yet. No. What I needed was a boost -- a big powerful boost in the health direction. I needed herbs from Dr. Cai. After showing my tongue and displaying my pulsating wrists to the masses of interns, I left the clinic with my trusty sack of Chinese herbs. At Dr. Cai's request, I also needed to add in a slice of fresh ginger and three red dates with each batch, which I happened to have on hand.

Many people would peer into this bag thinking, "What the heck do I do with this pile of roots, bark, mushrooms, berries, and other unidentifiables? Technically, there could be geckos and cicada shells in there...shudder. In fact I refuse to look up everything in the formula shown on my receipt just in case therearegeckos and cicada shells in there.... So, here it is--your pictorial step-by-step guide to using raw Chinese herbs in a decoction. This is the instruction sheet that goes home with the patient.

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Instructions for Cooking Chinese Herbal Formula

What this is trying to say is dump one batch of the herbs into a pot, soak it, bring it to a boil, then simmer to reduce the liquid to a drinkable amount. Now, you'll want to find the perfect balance between "disgusting taste" and "effective dose," and that isnoteasy. You know you want to concentrate the liquid for potency, but you also know that you're increasing the taste by the same stroke.

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Before Cooking and After Cooking

Most herbal decoctions do not taste good. Face it. Most of us are damp. We eat dairy and fried foods (mmmm...fried dairy), and we end up with damp-heat. Thus, we need bitter herbs much of the time. Who's the lucky fella who gets a simple Spleen Qi deficiency diagnosis that results in a sweet licorice and berries formula to take home? Not this guy!

So, I soak my bitter herbs, I boil my bitter herbs, I simmer my bitter herbs. I drink my powerful decoction, and I go to sleep to let my body do its thing. I wake up a little better, and I know I have five more nights of chugging down my "bedtime tea" before my tongue can register just how gross it really tastes.

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"Bedtime Tea"

I could avoid much of the "hard work" in this process by requesting my herbs in granule form (like a dusty powder that you stir in warm water to dissolve). But then I'd lose a little potency. I could avoid all the work and the taste by requesting a patent pill formula, but then I'd lose even more potency. No thanks, weak sauce. I need the most full-strength option known to man -- ancient Chinese man, specifically. I need to decoct my raw herbs!

Why Are We So Wimpy?

2014-06-10_wimpYes, I said "we." I'm lumping you all in with me and almost everyone else I know. We're wimpy. My sister said it best several years ago in a comment about the "wussification of America." No, I'm not sure how to spell that. She was speaking about the general wussiness of people these days, and I'll see that new word and raise it to another contextual use.

I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. If you have had a baby in the past 10 years, you've certainly had to explain to a grandmother (your kid's or otherwise) why baby has to ride in the car seat for every little trip. "Yes, grandma, I know we're just riding up the street to the corner store. Yes, she still needs to be strapped into her car seat. Just because." Grandma undoubtedly replies, "I never strapped your father into a car seat, and he lived. He would ride all the way to Florida to visit Aunt Ida every year and nothing ever happened to him." Then simply to justify my own wussiness, I make up something about how I'll be arrested if the police see me with my kid riding on my lap.

2014-06-10_signSome of you might not be convinced about the car seats. They're important. Even I strap my kids into those things just to ride up the street, and I don't consider myself a huge wussy. Just start extrapolating this theory, though, and you'll surely jump onto the "wussification of America" bandwagon. We all drink light beer. Every kid gets a trophy. They cancel school when it snows. I'm so hot walking the 10 feet from my air-conditioned car to my air-conditioned office. I have to wait 3 whole seconds for my Facebook page to load on this old phone. Waaaah.

How does this relate to Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine? Well, the wimps don't leave their wimpiness at the door of the clinic. That is for sure. I can write this post without fear of offending anyone, because I, myself, am a needle wuss. That's right. I don't want to feel the needles. I'll needle you, but don't you try to needle me.

Clearly I am not alone. Sure, you have a few patients who never flinch when you insert a needle. They never complain that something hurts or feels weird. These are the lovely "exception" patients, and they are few and far between. Most of us recoil in pain -- pain that is really just an unfulfilled apprehension of pain -- with the insertion of each needle. At first, I liked seeing this reaction from patients, because it justified my own wimpiness. Now, though, I've evolved. As I become less wimpy about needling myself and letting others needle me, I think I subconsciously expect more of my patients, too.

2014-06-10_smokeThe people in Nicaragua never flinched. We would jab those needles right into the sore back or the tired feet, and the patient would hardly notice. Are Nicaraguans simply a stronger people than Americans? Probably, but I didn't stop there. No, what about the Chinese needling? So deep, so hard, so scary for most Americans. Are they inherently stronger than us, too? They want to feel that moxa until it burns a blackened memorial into ST36. I would move to Japan, home of "shallow needling," to avoid those 6-inch needles I've been told so much about from the Chinese professors and clinicians.

2014-06-10_needleNo, I don't think it's that Nicaraguans are freakishly strong or that Chinese people are particularly masochistic. I just think Americans are caught in the throes of the recent trends towards wussification. Be careful, don't get hurt; don't let the sunshine get you! I reject wussification insofar as I legally can, but I am still and will always be one of the wimpy ones in the clinic when I'm on the receiving end of that needle business. So, if you're afraid of needles and therefore have not yet tried acupuncture, this post is for you. If I can do it, you can do it.

I Want It Now

Over the past four weeks in my "Nutrition and Food Therapy of Oriental Medicine" course, I've been frustrated and slightly puzzled over the subject matter. I'm usually more a go-with-the-flow student in class; I'm sure the instructor knows what we need to cover and how to cover it. This time around, I still think he knows what we need to cover and how to lay it out, but I'm not as easy going about the whole thing for some reason.

Maybe it's because it's springtime, so my Liver wind is swirling and I'm irritable. Perhaps I'm overly critical because dietetics is my personal favorite element of oriental medicine. Maybe I'm just a jerk. I don't know. I want to study therapeutic properties of foods, and I want to right now!

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Let me start by saying how much I like this professor and every class I've had with him to date. The theory behind where we stick these needles and which herbal formulas we recommend is absolutely mind blowing. He taught me two years ago that winter has a color and a flavor -- black and salty, for the record. Yet each week, we seem to review the basics -- flavors and temperatures of substances. The course title indicates that the focus of the classwork will be nutrition and food therapy within the framework of oriental medicine, so I keep wanting more -- more detail, more examples, more ideas of how to alter a person's diet in order to improve health.

As we approach the famed Week Five Quiz that now makes an appearance in most classes, I'm starting to second-guess myself. Have we been just reviewing the basics of five-phase theory, or did the professor slip pages of new detail into the lectures when I wasn't looking? I'm sure he worked new information into the framework so smoothly that my associate learning didn't even know what was happening.

My frustration with this class is that I love the topic so much that I can't reach a satiation point. I will never have enough detail about food therapy to be content. I want more, I want it now, and I want to share it with everyone I know...and some people I don't even know yet.

2014-06-04_teaOnce again, springtime has duped me. I'm irritable, I'm impatient, and my Liver is out of control. Feel my pulse, second position on the left wrist. Can you say "wiry?"

As I do from time to time, I realize now it's time to reread the Dao de Jing, or the Tao Te Ching. Same book. Oh, pinyin, you are a beast that cannot be pinned down. The point is that this book, this short, easy to read, little book, can save your sanity. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, overstressed, over Livery in any way, I know it's time to pick it up.

Look at this thing. Lao Tzu, you genius!

"Those who know do not speak.
Those who speak do not know."

I, and just about everyone else, could learn a little something from that eloquent one-liner (two-liner?).

"Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them.
Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe."

I don't even like poetry, but this stuff is literally masterful.

2014-06-04_wordsSo, why I am frustrated in Nutrition class? Why do I want to rush it? Why am I desperately grasping at the next piece of information? It's that "forcing a project to completion" part, that part I love for personal reasons. My procrastination has been vindicated!

As a professor, I often wait until the deadline to return students' papers; as a student, I expect my professors to grade my paper today! Actually, I don't think Lao Tzu would like that part.

Damp-Heat in the Gall Bladder and Liver Blood Stasis

Of course this just happened. It's springtime. Spring correlates with the Liver and its interior-exterior partner in crime -- the Gall Bladder. I'm unfortunately already prone to the ridiculously difficult to eradicate pathogen known in TCM as "Damp-Heat." My protective wei qi was still struggling to recover from the exotic array of assailants it managed to fend off in Central America last month. "Oh, Juli, did you get Dengue Fever again this year?" "Well, not that I know of..."

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The pathogenic stars had aligned. The signs and symptoms appeared over the course of 2-3 days. First, it was just a seemingly innocent wiry Liver pulse. OK, OK, it's springtime; I'm irritable and I know it. No big deal. A quick tongue check in the mirror confirmed that yes, of course, I'm teeming with damp heat in the lower jiao. What would I be without my characteristic tongue coat? (A healthier person, for one!)

I go about my day only to realize that by afternoon I'm starting to feel weird. Really weird. There's no valid excuse for the sudden and growing nausea, accompanied by an intermittent, unilateral shooting headache that jumped around as if someone was sprinkling headache pop rocks all over my temples, vertex, forehead, OWW! I usually don't get headaches, and I'm not usually nauseous. I wanted to vomit and get further down the road towards recovery. Then the blurry vision started in, and I noticed I'd been ignoring a hypochondrial pain all day. And, oh MAN, what is that strong bitter taste in the back of my mouth? Did I just crack a filling and let the poison ooze out? Gross. I'm getting dizzy and don't feel like lifting the phone to call the dentist.

2014-05-30_tongueAaaaaand it finally dawns on me. It's all over me, from head to toe. I have Damp-Heat in the Gall Bladder. As I run to the mirror for a tongue progress report, I get all the confirmation I could ever dream of. There's the Damp-Heat coating, yep, and now it's grown in size and had two long greasy arms on display down the sides of my tongue. But, oh no, what…?! You have to be kidding me. Are thosepurple spotsall over the sides of my tongue, too? I mentally scanned the other symptoms I'd noticed over the week, and realized it was true. I also had Liver Blood Stasis. Great. Hey, it's not like I had anything else planned for the next few days.

Why do I always get the stubborn pathogenic scenarios? At my first visit with a doctor of oriental medicine, she struggled a bit with my diagnosis. Was it yang deficiency? Or, was it yin deficiency? Maybe it's both. She said I had Spleen deficiency and Kidney deficiency. Don't forget the Liver Qi Stagnation! Seriously? I know this is a first-time appointment, but isn't that almost too thorough?

So, here's when TCM swoops in and saves my holiday weekend. After doing the dangerous deed of self-diagnosing (never recommended) on Thursday afternoon, I started in on an individualized acupuncture treatment plan. Then I repeated it the next day, too. What points did I use? Don't try this at home, but I did: LV3, GB43, GB41, GB40, GB34, SP9, LI4, and LI11. Is that right? Sure, in my limited opinion. Of course, there were more difficult-to-reach points that I should have added in, but hey, I'm needling myself here! And judging by the fact that I felt almost normal again by Friday afternoon, I'm calling it awesome. Sure, I also made some dietary changes to balance the Damp Heat and give my overloaded Liver and Gall Bladder a rest from the constant inundation of delicious fatty foods.

Yes, whole-fat dairy and meat is good for me, generally speaking, but when my Liver boss and Gall Bladder assistant are under siege, I have to abstain from the delights of my life. That's right -- no buttery popcorn this week. Instead, I emphasized the cooling foods like celery and watermelon, some beverages like green tea, and I focused on eating really light for a couple of days. That went surprisingly well, considering I had completely lost my appetite from the Damp-Heat in the Gall Bladder thing. Western natural medicine has noticeably compatible suggestions for altering your diet during the spring to help cleanse and support the Liver and Gall Bladder. They emphasize a diet of light, sprouty and shooty foods; must avoid those heavy, greasy foods for a while!

Gall Bladder Springtime Renewal

 

   

EAT
Pears
Parsnips
Seaweeds
Lemons
Limes

 

 

AVOID
Heavy Meats
Dairy
Eggs
Nuts
Seeds

 

   

By Saturday, the greasy coated arms of the Damp-Heat beast that lives on the back of my tongue had receded, as did almost all other symptoms. I beat you, Springtime. You got me good -- but this time I was prepared to fight back. Sorry, Spring -- maybe next year!

Take Off Those Gloves

Ladies and Gentlemen, put down your gardening gloves. Yes, it's time to get outside and renew your direct bonds with the earth -- grow produce, plant flowers, trim bushes, etc. Just don't let me see you wearing gloves while you do it!

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I know it's seemingly natural to walk out to the garage and arm yourself with the basics:

  1. Shovel
    "Digger," as I usually call it, and anything else that digs, whether it's a small trowel or industrial-size excavating equipment...much to my husband's dismay.
  2. Kneeling Pad
    I don't consider myself "decrepit," but apparently any knees over about 22 years old will scream at you if you aren't using one of these things.
  3. Watering Can
    Yes, although not decrepit, I am somewhat old-fashioned. If they didn't have it on Little House on the Prairie then I don't need it either. I actually just try to avoid the high-blood-pressure inducing screaming matches that I inevitably have with the hose and its reel. I'd rather haul water around my one-acre property, one gallon at a time, than let loose with the curse words that the hose-reel induces.
  4. Seeds or Plantlings
    Nope, not a word, but it should be. Trees have "saplings" for babies, so why does the young tomato plant get "transplant" as a nickname? That's not endearing. Whatever you're doing out there in the great outdoors today, grab that.

*Special note for #4. If you're going through the trouble of making a garden, purchasing seeds, and caring for them all season, go ahead and spend the extra 20 cents and spring for the organic seeds. Seriously? You don't think it's "worth it" to avoid some genetic modification and pesticide exposure for 20 cents? I'll see you in the clinic.

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So, why isn't there a #5? What about those gardening gloves? Let's break down the reasons that most people purchase and wear gardening gloves. First, you probably hate dirt, and you don't want it on your beautiful hands. OK. Let's just stop there. The dirt is your friend, and it would like to do you a service. Get out of its way!

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Sink your beautiful bare hands into the dirt, and you could be rewarded with Myobacterium vaccae, a friendly bacteria that stimulates the release of serotonin in your body. This is awesome. Serotonin is known as the "happy hormone," because of its role in elevating mood and decreasing anxiety. Read more about the benefits of dirt for your health in this article by Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

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Now get out there, toss your gardening gloves in the back of the garage with everything else, and get your hands dirty. While you're at it, take off your shoes, too, and plant your feet firmly and comfortably on the earth. This is called grounding, and we humans have been screwing it up by walking around with shoes (mostly ion-reflective rubber-soled shoes) whenever we're outside lately (say, for the past 100 years or so). Don't worry; you can still wear clothes when you go outside -- just leave those hands and feet bare!