The Season Is Changing - So Should Your Dinner

Adiós, slow roasted sweet potatoes and beef. Hello, green onions! Although the calendar says spring doesn't officially start until March 20th on the Spring Equinox, we all felt the shift about a week ago. I'm not just talking about the temperature moving from 35º to 55º in two days, although that was awesome, too. When the seasons change, everything changes. If you are remotely in tune with your body, the earth, the energy of the universe, etc., then you felt it, too.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the concept of the Five Elements or Phases shows that each season is connected to one of the functional organ systems of the body. Winter is the kidney and spring is the liver. Easy enough, right? Well, there's more. The body needs to be prepared gently and thoroughly for the transition to a new season, and while acupuncture and herbal medicine certainly play their role, dietary therapy is really where it's at.

The winter was a time of hunkering down, tonifying the kidney and urinary bladder with salt and animal fats, thickening the blood, and conserving energy through the cold long season. Now that spring is upon us, it's time to lighten up -- literally. The Inner Classic teaches that we should reawaken the body and prepare for new beginnings by rising with the sun and taking brisk walks. Spring is the time to gather up stored energy and push upward, like a sprouting plant in the garden.

Spring is also a time for cleansing, and TCM focuses that cleansing on the organs that need it most this time of year -- the liver and gall bladder. After gorging on fatty steaks in the winter, the springtime requires a diet of small amounts of light food with yang qualities. Think sprouts, greens, young plants, and shoots. Heavy foods can clog the liver and gall bladder, leading to fevers and other springtime maladies.

Want specifics? Lay off the salt -- including soy sauce and miso -- and heavy meats. Instead, cook with something lighter, bringing in the pungent flavors of basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, caraway, dill, and bay leaf. Throw in some young garden pickings like small beets, carrots, and peas. Use more simple, raw foods instead of slow roasting or stewing. Both the Ayurvedic tradition and the ancient Chinese encouraged people to choose wind-like, airy foods during the springtime, to promote cleansing and new growth.

While the Chinese do not recommend eating raw foods in abundance or all year round, they do encourage more raw foods in the springtime. If a person is weak, frail, or deficient, then they might not do well with raw foods, even during the spring. If a person is hot and full of excesses, then bring on the plates full of raw celery and cucumbers. As with everything, dietary recommendations are guided by general principles, but are always customized to the individual.

In the United States, our climate is mostly temperate. Thus, we can apply most of the dietary suggestions from TCM, including the use of light, raw foods in the springtime. You can still cook some things -- just make it quick. A short, high-temperature sauté is appropriate, as is a brief steaming.

Why should you care to adjust your springtime diet? You don't have to. You can go on shoving your face full of rib eye and baked potatoes slathered in sour cream and butter (Ohh, I miss the winter diet already!), but tell me how you feel in about a month or two.

What's the risk? The liver-gall bladder duo can be quite a beast. The first sign of an imbalanced liver is angry outbursts, accompanied by frustration, dissatisfaction, and impulsiveness. Once the gall bladder gets bogged down, too, then add in indecisiveness and unclear thinking. You might experience eye or vision trouble or tendon stiffness and joint pain, or pain or discomfort anywhere along the Liver or Gall Bladder meridians of the body.

I know it's hard to change. I love salt, steak, and butter more than anyone I've ever met, but I've also learned my lesson. I've clogged my liver and gall bladder one too many times. I've had the blurry vision, sticky feeling in the eyes, bitter taste in the mouth, angry outbursts, and all of the other things the Chinese warned me about.

Photo of gallbladder cleanse text

This week, I'm doing this -- the TCM Gallbladder cleanse!

Milk - Should You Drink It?

I'm not going to say you should drink milk, and I'm not going to say you shouldn't drink milk, but I am going to say some things about drinking milk. In my house, we have to specify "cow's milk" for a discussion like this one, because we also stock a decent rotation of rice milk, almond milk, coconut milk, and even soy milk on occasion. I really don't like any of that stuff, but somewhere along the way my kids and husband took a shining to them. So, now I buy like five milks, most of which aren't milk at all, but "drinks" of sorts. OK.

2015-03-10_cowToday let's focus on the gold standard of milk -- cow's milk. You know, the good ole white jug. It's the perfect food...for calves. Is it also the perfect food, or even an acceptable food, for humans? Do we have a biological need for the nutritional profile that turns a newborn calf into a full-grown bull? Kind of sounds ridiculous when you think about it, doesn't it? When your cat has a baby, do you pump some extra human breast milk and give it to the kitten just for good measure? Oh, so now it sounds preposterous?

Drinking milk seems to be one of those things that people just do out of habit. Your mom gave you a glass of milk with dinner. (I know grown men who still want a glass of milk with Thanksgiving dinner.) Your elementary school plopped that cute little missing persons carton on your lunch tray every day. You pour it on your cereal, and you probably grew up to do the same when you had your own children. We're propagating a vicious cycle of humans drinking cow's milk here, people. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

Have you ever asked yourself why? Why do we go from drinking human breast milk after a year or few to drinking a cow's breast milk? Do cows do it better? What is happening? Let's let the ancient Chinese take the wheel for a minute. What properties does milk have according to TCM?

  • 2015-03-10_glassTemperature: Neutral
  • Flavor: Sweet
  • Channels Entered: Lung, Stomach, and Heart
  • Action: Moistens dryness
  • Cautions: People with damp accumulation or phlegm-damp nodules

Hmmmm. The conclusion is, like almost every naturally occurring food, milk is good for some of the people some of the time. Chinese medicine doesn't usually make blanket statements like "X food is always good for you" or "Y food is always bad for everyone." Instead, TCM shows us that each food has a set of properties, making each food the right choice or the wrong choice for a given person at a given time, depending on that individual's condition. A dry, hot, thin person with a red tongue and rapid pulse might be well nourished and moistened by a cool glass of milk. On the other hand, a damp-retaining person with too much phlegm already might want to stay away from milk most of the time.

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What do I think? Again, I'm not here to tell anyone they should or should not drink cow's milk. I will go ahead and share some of the concerns that I find most important to consider when deciding whether or not to reach for the white jug.

First, why are you drinking milk? Are you looking for protein, calcium, Vitamin D or Vitamin A? Then I hope you're drinkingwholemilk. Skim or reduced-fat milk might show high daily values of these nutrients on the label, but without the naturally occurring fat still present, your body cannot effectively absorb and utilize the protein, calcium, Vitamin A or Vitamin D. You're drinking it in, and you're peeing it out. Congratulations on that very expensive urine.

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Milk is certainly not the only place to obtain these nutrients, but if these are the reasons you're drinking the milk, and you're drinking skim milk, then do yourself a favor and don't bother! If you simply love the texture of white water, I mean skim milk, then go ahead and gulp it down. Just remember that you aren't netting those nutrients listed on the label. In case your mind isn't blown yet, go ahead and apply the same rules to all dairy. Low fat cheese? Fat free yogurt? I hope you're eating it because you love the taste, not because you're looking to effectively digest, absorb, and utilize those nutrients.

2015-03-10_coverDo I drink cow's milk? Not really. Door to Door Organics delivers a white jug of organic whole fat milk to my house every other week, and it gets used. My kids drink a glass every other day or so, and my husband pours it on his cereal -- not that we eat much cereal. Did anyone else see the cover of Bloomberg Business last week? Yum, my cereal is 55% GMO sugar! I always wanted to start my day with a piece of cake as a kid...little did I know, I was!

Sorry--my daughter took her red pen and told Tony what she thinks of his cereal. Drink cow's milk if you like it, but know what you're dealing with. Your choices matter in building the health and wellness that you see for your life.

Additional Reading

When Organic Doesn't Matter

It's a personal struggle to write that title, because I firmly and fully support the eating of USDA certified organic produce, meat, and dairy. In so many ways it does matter, but I just heard myself saying to my daughter. "It doesn't matter if it's organic!"

2015-03-06_logoWhy does organic matter? Many people already know the basics, like "Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics." That's just some of the picture, though. Here's what the USDA website says about their certified organic standard:

Organic farms and processors:

  • Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
  • Support animal health and welfare
  • Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
  • Only use approved materials
  • Do not use genetically modified ingredients
  • Receive annual onsite inspections
  • Separate organic food from non-organic food

2015-03-06_fieldLet's break some of these down to see why they matter. Food is all safe and nutritious, right? Wrong. Definitely wrong. Reading the processes and procedures that are outlawed by the USDA organic seal is kind of like reading the warnings on a chainsaw instruction manual. "What? Don't stick your fingers into the blade while it's moving!" They only have to write that in the warnings because, yes, someone actually did that.

Take a look:

Organic crops. The USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used.

Organic livestock.The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

Organic multi-ingredient foods.The USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95% or more certified organic content. If the label claims that it was made with specified organic ingredients, you can be sure that those specific ingredients are certified organic.

Yummy. Yes, I think I'll spend the extra dollar on my bag of apples to avoid some of these delectable details. Plus, with all of the new research coming to light on the higher levels of nutrients found in organic food compared to conventionally grown food, it's becoming a no-brainer to choose organic whenever possible.

2015-03-06_signAdmittedly, this isn't perfect. Things like "preserving natural resources" can be widely interpreted. Additionally, USDA certified organic is a stamp given by independent, third-party certifiers. Wouldn't they want to approve the farm if at all possible, so that they get the job again next time around? It's a potential conflict of interest.

Perhaps the one detail from the above list that drives people in droves toward the USDA certified organic label is that these items cannot contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). With the current standard in the US ofnothaving to label a GMO a GMO, the USDA certified organic standard is the most obvious way to avoid GMOs.

I guess I just spent most of my time explaining why organicdoesmatter. Tricked you...? No, this blog post really was inspired by the kitchen scenario with my daughter, which went as follows:

2015-03-06_berryDaughter: I'm going to eat this whole pack of strawberries. I'll just wash them off really good because they aren't organic.

Me: It doesn't matter if it's organic! Pesticides have soaked it to the core and can't be washed off. Plus, the guy who picked them could have had poop on his hands.

So, although choosing organic is very important most of the time, there are a couple of exceptions. Wash your strawberries.

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.

2015-02-27_coffee     2015-02-27_beans

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.