Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Lockdown reflections

Yesterday's sunset

I watched the sunset yesterday, it was glorious: the huge orange sun slowly sinking into the pink horizon. I happened to notice it just at that time in the evening when the world falls silent for a moment. The birds were waiting for the right moment to sing again and we were all suspended in the eternal few seconds of stillness. I felt so comforted by this as I felt that we, for once, are becoming part, even if an unwilling one, of this “giving space” to the universe to perform its wonders. 

I haven’t really been sitting around reflecting on what the current situation we are living means for us. I have just been adapting to it, creating a little routine that helps me use my time productively and go through each day without feeling desperate. Every morning, I meditate to find my centre and not get knocked off by the turmoil around me, and I imagine sending waves of love and light to all my loved ones, and to all the people in the world. I do read the news from around the world every day and allow myself to feel the grief and powerlessness that seem to me the normal response to the daily death count of thousands of people and to the inaction, the lying, and the inadequate response of governments all around. But, knowing myself I know that if I let myself dwell on all the sadness of the situation, I will get consumed by that sadness and will not serve any purpose either for myself or others.

There are moments, like yesterday’s sunset, when we get an insight into reality. Not the reality of us stuck in our homes or of those infected by the virus, but the reality of a Universe infinitely bigger than us, of which we are part and which is always there for us to see when we come out of our minds and of our relentless train of important activities. In moments like those, we can but acknowledge the fact that there are two different dimensions in which we live simultaneously: The Personal and the Universal. 

At the Personal level, we are who we are within our bodies and with our particular set of experiences, thoughts, and emotions. At this level, we focus on our past, present and future, we worry about how this virus and all the circumstances coming with it will affect us. As part of this level we also feel the connection to our tribe, our family, our friends and loved ones, and all the people that we feel we belong with. Our personal level is all about our basic needs, and the safety of ourselves and our tribe. This is the natural expression or our survival instinct and therefore necessary and an intrinsic part of our make-up. However, an excessive focus on the Personal level can make us feel entitled and righteous, and oblivious of the bigger picture. We may go from being able to accept those outside our tribe and having concern for nature and life itself, to feeling entitled to take all we want from nature and seeing “others” as a danger to our safety who may take away our food, our jobs, our security, or the toilet paper that are rightfully ours.

 At the Universal level, we are part of a whole and who we are, what we think, feel and do, has an effect on our larger realm. This is much larger than our tribe, it refers to the whole of humanity, to nature itself, and to all that exists. At this level, my personal experience is less important than what is happening to the whole and I worry more about the impact of my individual actions on the whole than the other way around. When we focus on the Universal level, we try to do things that we regard as positive contributions to the wellbeing of everyone around us, of the whole of humanity, and of nature itself. However, excessive focus on this level, and I have known some examples of this in my life, can make us oblivious of our families and those closest to us, or negligent of our responsibilities towards our bodies or towards our tribes.

Perhaps it is not possible for normal humans like us to be aware of both of these realms at all times, but it is quite urgent for our human family that we increase our awareness of the Universal aspect of our existence. Our excessive focus on the Personal level is at the root of much of our individual suffering and of all that is dysfunctional in our planet. The lack of awareness of the impact that we have – both as individuals and as part of a consumerist society subjected to globalisation- on the whole of humanity and on nature, is causing our own destruction as well as endless suffering to living beings around the world.

If there was ever a right time for an exponential growth on consciousness, it is probably now that we have been forced to stop and listen. Interestingly, as we stop and listen, we are getting delighted by beauty all around us, beauty that we would normally not see or appreciate fully. This beauty is always there, even if we are not looking. Let’s just sit and watch it. Let’s watch it until we feel part of the scene, even just as spectators. Let’s become part of the scene and dare ask how we can collaborate with it rather than try to direct it or change it at our will, which is what we are constantly doing. Let’s dare ask the scariest questions: How can I continue to live in this world without destroying it? How can I collaborate with life instead of hindering it? What does it look like to be a person aware of their impact on the world, on the lives of all humans and all animals, and on the health of my home the Earth? What does it look like and feel like to be a human being with integrity and awareness? Let’s wait for the answers, perhaps we will get them in our dreams, perhaps the neighbour unwittingly will tell us something over the fence and it will be it, perhaps we will turn the computer on and a video will pop up and tells us things, perhaps we will open a book we have never read and it will open our eyes, or perhaps we will wake up one morning understanding what the birds are saying.

I cannot deny that sometimes my hope for humanity wavers, but there is something inside me that tells me that we have in us what it takes to turn this world around and make it become a welcoming and nurturing place for all who live on it. There was a time when our distant ancestors had immeasurable wisdom, they lived in communion with their surroundings, had awareness of their connection to the Universe, had respect for other species, and had reverence and humility at the magnificence of existence; we have many indigenous communities still living on the planet who testify to this. If our ancestors had the capacity to live like this then surely, we must have at least some of it. Let’s take advantage of the time we have been forced to take and, at least for five minutes every day, let’s try to forget the very real fear of the epidemic and the worries that we all have about paying our bills and keeping our jobs; and focus on the bigger us, the “I’m part of this wondrous whole” us, and see what comes out of that.

May we grow into the people who can make the world a better place for ourselves and all who live on it
 In hope and with love,

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Life in the time of an epidemic

Many of us followed in horror what was happening in China a few weeks ago, when the new Coronavirus came into our lives. So many people in critical condition, so many isolated far from their families not knowing how long it would last, so many deaths in a short space of time! Since then, we have followed its steady approach towards us, leaving behind closed borders, collapsed health systems, and several thousand people dead. We have seen how in countries where the news of the epidemic wasn’t taken seriously the spread has been scarily fast and devastating, yet we have been told to keep cool as cucumbers and only do what feels “right” to us.

Let’s put other people first                   

Since we have no real guidance or have been given a plan, it has so far been left to each of us to think about the best choices to make. When confronted with infectious diseases, like this one, we are very much at the mercy of what happens in the community. This is why actually thinking about others before we think about ourselves, is an important step to reduce risk of infection for all.

You may wonder how this could be so. Well, if you have seen any of the graphs or charts with the numbers of cases and deaths that are occurring worldwide, you may have noticed that the number of deaths and the length of time the upheaval lasts are directly proportional to the number of infected people. This means that the risk to each of us and the disruption caused by what we are living will be cut short if we behave in a manner that minimises the spread of the virus.

Because, as we have seen, the new coronavirus is highly contagious, minimising its spread really means minimising contact with other people.  So, if possible, STAY HOME for the time being. Some people find this a pain, but we must understand that if we don’t do this NOW we will be forced to do it under much more difficult circumstances later.

Other than this, thinking of others also means that those people we know who are by themselves or who are part of the high risk group – the elderly, people of all ages with pre-existing immune or respiratory conditions- should be in our list of people to contact regularly to check for their safety and wellbeing. These are times for us to come out of our own little worlds and see how much we actually need each other.

Another way in which just thinking about ourselves doesn’t work in this situation, is how we buy our goods. As it has been pointed out in recent days, buying all the hand sanitiser from the shelves will not protect us if nobody else is able to wash their own hands!

Obviously, if we are not able to stay home right now, we need to be extremely careful and avoid any unnecessary contact with anyone. Every time you touch any surface outside your home, or money, please wash your hands. And if you have any symptoms please be outward about it, stay home and tell your close ones about it. We very much depend on each other right now.

 Strengthening our immunity

Our immune systems are constantly challenged not only by illnesses but also by stress, pollution, eating unhealthily, difficult relationships, and loss, just to name a few things. Because of this, most of us have immune systems that could do with a boost especially in times like this. These are a few things necessary to enhance your immunity:

Meditation helps our immunity
1. Meditation and relaxation techniques: As we know, stress and anxiety impair our immune system so, counteracting stress with meditation and relaxation techniques will have the positive side-effect of increasing immunity. There are many ways to meditate, since we are dealing with a respiratory epidemic, I would recommend you explore breathing meditations.

Qi gong exercises are also meditative, as well as involving organised movement that helps the body stay supple and increases oxygenation, which makes it a great thing to explore if we are stuck at home.

As for relaxation, my favourite relaxation exercise is the “body scan” which basically consists of lying flat on the floor and visiting each part of the body, breathing "into" it and relaxing it, until we cover the whole body. In yoga, this is Savasana and it’s what we usually do at the end of the practice.

2. Movement: Exercising without pushing ourselves too hard will help us at this time to oxygenate the body and clear out toxicity. Exercising too hard or too long can, on the other hand, be detrimental to our immune systems.  

If we choose to exercise outside, we should obviously avoid contact with others and maintain our distance from all people in case either they or us are carriers of the virus.

3. Nourishment: This is central to the strength of our bodies and of our immunity. It is ideal to eat freshly cooked meals containing plenty of nutrient-rich vegetables, wholemeal grains, and good quality protein. To enhance our immunity we also need to not burden ourselves with chemicals and additives that can be harmful to the body so avoiding processed foods, sugary foods, pre-made meals and fizzy drinks is a very important issue. For more on this you can read my posts on what real food is, and on understanding a healthy diet

4. Hydration: As we know, water makes up a high percentage of the cells in the body and, if we are dehydrated, we may be more susceptible to certain diseases and definitely our immunity won’t be at its best. Hydration doesn’t only means consuming enough fluids but also not consuming things that push water out of the body through the urine. Coffee, tea, colas, alcohol and all caffeinated drinks all have this effect and are best avoided if we want to stay hydrated.

Over-sweating is also a way to lose body fluids that are needed for deep lubrication and to keep the organs functioning optimally

The best way to hydrate is to drink warm water and herbal teas, at least 4-6 cups per day. Home-made soups and broths and plenty of fresh vegetables can also provide us our cells with some fluids.

5. Sleep: Studies have shown that chronic sleep deprivation has a negative impact on the immune system. Consistent late nights and early starts and having sleep difficulties not only leave us depleted, and often too tired to function properly in our daily lives, but can also diminish our ability to fight disease. Because many people experience disturbed sleep because of their stress and anxiety levels, meditation and relaxation practices may help deal with this.

Adopting good nighttime habits, such as having time off screens before going to bed and not going to bed past midnight, will greatly contribute to us having good physical, immune, and mental energy. These habits may be harder to follow if we are working from home, in quarantine or lockdown, but this may be a time when we most need them.

6. Air: Our bodies cannot survive long without oxygen. In Chinese medicine, air is a necessary ingredient for the making of vital energy or Qi. In the cycle of Qi production, the Lungs extract nourishment from the Air and this nourishment gets combined with that extracted from the food and drink by the digestive system. This results in Zong Qi – chest Qi – which fuels the functioning of the Heart and Lungs and which gets further refinement to become the particular type of Qi that will provide strength to all organs and protect us from disease – our immunity.

Deep breathing exercises are important for our general health and particularly relevant now because they can help clear mucus and strengthen Lung function which will be useful against a virus that attacks the respiratory system. For more on this, visit my post on conscious breathing 

Preparing the body for the Coronavirus

As we have been told, this particular virus starts with a fever and a dry cough. It directly goes to the airways and relatively quickly goes into the Lungs. Everything that we can do to strengthen our immunity and Lung energy mentioned above could help us minimise the damage. 

 According to observations made by Chinese medicine doctors working in the front line at Wuhan, and kindly shared with me and other practitioners by my teacher in China, in the average person – excluding those people in the higher risk group-  the infection is more severe in the presence of internal Dampness. This basically means that if we have an internal accumulation of fluid, mucus, and/or phlegm, we could have a more difficult time if we get infected. 

This is useful to know as there are specific foods that increase the mucus and phlegm in our bodies, which we could start avoiding right now in order to prepare our body for battle. The main foods to avoid are the following:

  • Milk and all milk derivatives (plant-based milks are ok)
  • Wheat products- all types of bread, biscuits, pasta
  • Refined sugar
  • Greasy, heavy, and rich food
  • Alcohol
  • All processed foods- pre-prepared meals, reconstituted meats, tinned and instant meals
  • Chilled drinks and foods
  • Excessive amounts of cold/raw foods
Virus or not, avoiding the above foods can make a big difference to our systems, we may feel lighter and our digestion will be able to work more effectively. Eating freshly cooked foods avoiding the above will also help our bodies to function at a more optimum level when we most need it.

There are also certain easily found ingredients with strong immune-enhancing properties that we could add to our cooking (please bear in mind that these foods won’t necessarily help if you are already displaying the symptoms of a viral infection but they will be good preventatives):
  • Limes and lemons- a cup of hot water with the juice of half a lemon or lime will help you kick-start the day and cleanse your system
  • Fresh ginger- Can help us fight infections whether viral, fungal or bacterial. You can add them to your cooking and also make ginger tea by grating a chunk of ginger in a pan and boiling it in water for a few minutes. It’s delicious with lime/lemon juice and honey. It's best not to have a lot of ginger if you have burning urination, very sticky smelly stools or feel hot all the time.
  • Raw garlic- Like ginger, garlic can help us fight all types of infections. We should add garlic to every one of our meals, however, its potency is higher when we consume it raw. Many people find it too strong in taste when raw, plus our bodies can exude garlic smell afterwards, not very pleasant unless the our partners and family are also eating it! One way of enhancing garlic's properties is steeping the peeled cloves in a jar of good quality runny honey for two weeks, opening the lid once a day to release the air. After this time, the garlic should have lost its strong taste, if it hasn't just keep it in the jar for another week. This is also to be avoided if you have burning urination, very smelly stools, or feel hot all the time.
  • Turmeric is a nutrient-rich anti-inflammatory herb
  • Thyme- can enhance immune response, plus it’s a phlegm busting herb and good for coughs. It can be added to food or prepared as tea with a little honey
  • Cinnamon- is used in Chinese medicine to enhance digestion and help the immune system
  • Honey- Good quality honey is rich in antioxidants and soothes the airways when we have a cough (See the garlic and honey recipe above!)
  • Most herbs and spices- Used in moderation will also help our digestion work better, and make our meals more interesting. I would avoid chilies right now since they can add to much heat to a fever and make us sweat and lose precious fluids.
  • To cleanse the air we breathe and help boost respiratory function we can also add eucalyptus, thyme, tea tree essential oils to our bath or an oil diffuser.

Quarantine time

Staying home may be difficult for some of us who feel lonely, whose living conditions are not very comfortable, who feel stressed by their families, who feel they cannot afford to not work. All of these are common and valid sources of apprehension which cannot be dismissed. It may be impossible for us to understand fully other peoples’ living conditions or circumstances so, for a start, we need to be incredibly patient and compassionate towards each other right now.

It is not compulsory at the moment for us to stay at home but it may soon get to that and, when that happens, we will all have to make the best of what there is. There are plenty of online resources for us to explore all those things we have always said we wanted to do but have never had time for: playing an instrument, learning a language, reading about particular subjects, mediation, yoga, Qigong, you name it! Let’s get making a list of these things for when the time comes. 

If we have the resources, we will be able to enjoy things such as cooking proper meals, reading, learning, getting in touch with people we never have time to contact, sorting things out in our homes. However, let’s not forget that there are plenty of people less fortunate than us, there is already a growing number of local groups prepared to look after each other and especially after those at high risk and those who are worse off. This is the main group for Bristol https://www.facebook.com/groups/1032597030460220/?notif_id=1584542889971855&notif_t=group_r2j_approved

Finally, since we may not have any choice, let’s welcome a time of quiet and rest, let’s allow the body and mind to heal and recuperate from our crazy lives, let’s also allow the Earth to rest and cleanse itself, let’s learn how to BE again and, together, let’s remember how to live as communal beings who help and protect each other and who respect and look after our beautiful home and all life on it.

With much love and hope,

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

My 15th year in practice

I cannot believe it has been 15 years since I started practising acupuncture!! It is such a privilege to be able to say this and to have met all the people I have met, each of whom has taught me something and helped me become a better practitioner in one way or another. I am often asked how I ended up doing what I do, and I always give the short answer. This is the full story of the personal journey that took me to discover all the wonderful things that Chinese medicine has taught me

This journey started many years ago while I was living in London. I was in my mid-twenties experiencing chronic Kidney disease which I had developed as a result of excess stress, excess work, excess exercise, excess alcohol, and not enough nutrition; all mixed in with PTSD (which I never identified at the time) that had resulted from the trauma of being followed by a stalker everywhere I went for a whole three years while I was still living in Colombia. My lack of awareness of my physical and emotional needs was at the base of my health issues, but this was something I was yet to discover.

After a few years of trying unsuccessfully to “get fixed” by the doctor and getting increasingly ill, weak, and scared, I finally decided to try acupuncture which I was convinced, for reasons unknown to me, would help. I had my first acupuncture session one afternoon after yet another kidney infection had hit me. After telling him about my symptoms, the practitioner looked calmly at me and told me I would probably be better off with herbal medicine, which he did not do. I would not take it; I was adamant acupuncture was what I needed and he reluctantly agreed to treat me. I remember him asking questions as if he knew exactly what I was feeling, I couldn’t believe he would ask me about my knees and my ears! Later I learnt how these parts of the body are closely related to the Kidney energy. 

That first treatment was the beginning of a long process, I seemed to be very responsive to it and felt completely different straight after. Although still unwell, I felt lighter and the uncontrollable fearful thinking and the anxiety constantly making my heart flutter and my stomach tighten were all gone for several days. While my physical energy continued to improve steadily for the years I was in treatment for my ailments, my mind and emotions were where the deepest transformation actually happened. I became increasingly aware of my body, my intuition and trust in it got stronger, and my interest in my own health grew to become a fascination with nutrition, herbalism, energy, and natural health. While my body was still too weak to be used in a normal way, I delved into every single library book I found about these subjects and started to apply all the necessary changes that still support my wellness now.  It was at this point that I realised it was not possible to continue living in the way that I have lived until then. Everything had to change, including my career as a classical musician. I was forced to rethink the life plan I had imagined for myself, which was incredibly confusing and made me feel lost for I don’t know how long. I started to do little jobs that my energy levels permitted, and waited for something to happen.

I heard of something called Reiki and became curious about it so I took a course, and then another one to help me get better. After this, I embarked on a massage course. My health had improved a lot and I felt elated to discover the whole new grateful and joyful me who had risen from the distraught and sickened old one. I wanted to give something to others and I loved giving massage to people and feeling the difference it made to their stress and tension. However, I began to encounter more people with deeper issues which could not be solved with massage and I got restless to take the next step. Finally, in 2001, I took courage and decided to learn more about the mysterious therapy that had helped me become aware of how my body worked and which had been at the centre of my return to health. I never looked back. It was the summer of 2004 when I started practising acupuncture, I had both excitement for what was to come and apprehension for my lack of experience but I remember feeling that I was finally on the right track after being forced to change direction in such a tumultuous way.

The day I received my MSc
Like most people’s, my journey into healing was a lonely and, at times, extremely painful one. I guess this was the way it had to be for me to learn what I did, but I came out the other side convinced that it didn’t have to be the same for everyone and wanting to help others on their own journey. Becoming an acupuncturist allowed me to do this. In the last fifteen years, I have tried to be for others that neutral person who can truly listen, and who can help them understand what is happening, reassure them, and make helpful suggestions so that they can feel empowered to heal their whole beings. This, and the constant need to learn more which has kept me studying and trying to deepen my understanding of Chinese medicine, have been my main driving force. In exchange, I get much more than I ever asked for: I get to make a living doing exactly what I feel I am here to do, and I get showered with love and gratitude every single day of my life.

With a neurology professor at Heilongjiang University, China
Volunteering in India with World medicine

with  amazing teacher Dr Suzanne Rubidoux in Dublin
Chinese medicine has taken me to many places in the last 15 years. It took me to Reading for three years to learn Chinese herbs,  to London for one year to do an MSc in Oriental medicine, to China for three months to learn about the amazing work that can be done with neurological conditions, to India to volunteer with World Medicine, and in the last two years to Dublin to be showered with knowledge by one of the most amazing practitioners I have met. I can never imagine getting to a point when I can sit back and think that I have learned everything there is to know about what I do. This is not only encompassing Chinese medicine. I feel that every year in practice I learn more about myself and about being human in these stormy times. This learning, and helping those who suffer, is what life is about for me, and I am grateful to be able to live this experience. I am filled with love and appreciation for all those who have shared different parts of this journey with me, for all those who have offered me their knowledge and wisdom, and for all those who have trusted me and allowed me to be part of their own journeys. All of you are my teachers and I thank you for that. 

With hope to continue growing as a human being and as a practitioner for at least another 15 years. Much love and healing to all,