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

Monday 31 December 2012

Goodbye 2012, welcome 2013!

This is my last post this year and what a year it has been! I am personally grateful for all that it has brought me - both good and bad- as it all has enabled much growth and expansion in many areas of my life. This blog is one of the great things from this year, and the result of a dear friend's idea to blend my passions of writing and sharing what I know about health and healing with the world. I thank him and everyone who has passed this way, read my words, and found even the slightest useful thing in them. Thanks also to those who have given me feedback and encouragement. I’m glad to see this year come to an end though, it has been of incredible intensity and I think we all need a rest from that now!

There is no denying that 2012 has been a difficult and challenging year for many of us. My clinics and my private life have been filled with people suffering from severe stress and anxiety caused by different types of crises related to many things from health and relationships, to money issues. A quick look at the news from the past year seems enough to see that crisis spread in many shapes and forms around the world! Consequently, this year has left many of us with a strong feeling that we are going through something together and that difficult and painful as it may be, change all around is definitely what is needed.

Sharing each other’s pain is one of the ways in which we can lessen the burden that a crisis represents. I have seen  - and become part of - a growing number of people wanting to do just this by building community, sharing skills, and creating an environment in which we enhance each other’s lives. This can only happen in times of crisis. When we are all fine we don’t think we need anybody, we become complacent and take things for granted. Worse than that, we can become so wrapped up in ourselves that we fail to see and understand the suffering others are undergoing. We may start to feel entitled, when in fact we are not entitled to anything, not really. Why should I feel entitled to health and wealth when so many people in the world have none of that? 

Hard times can make us more compassionate and grateful

When we feel entitled we forget the magic word: gratitude. Gratitude is the magic word because without gratitude there is no happiness, without gratitude I will always feel that I don’t have enough, or that something is missing. Gratitude comes with appreciation, and when we appreciate the gifts life has given us, and are grateful for them, we can never take things for granted. This is the strength that we can gain in times of trouble, this is what often gives a sparkle in the eye to people who live in obviously appalling conditions all around the world. Not that we need suffering in order to learn this, but suffering can often help us appreciate everything that enriches our life rather than bemoan the things that we haven’t yet acquired or that have been taken away from us.

Whether in crisis or not, we are constantly asking for something: health, love, peace, material comfort, luxury, a baby, to be better at what we do... There isn´t probably a single human being on the planet who feels totally satisfied with his or her lot. It is in our nature to strive for better and more and to try to develop our potential. This is in fact what drives humanity both in positive and negative ways. The question is, are we prepared to give anything back? Am I just asking to be in health without striving to be healthy in every way I can or preserving the health of the environment I live in? Am I just asking to have love in my life as if by magic or am Ï putting love into the world and increasing the amount of love going around? You should be getting my point by now...

Where I come from, the New Year is thought to represent a renewal and a new beginning. This implies discarding old things that no longer serve a purpose to make room for new ones. It is not about being consumerist or wasteful - although some do take it that way - it´s about asking ourselves what needs to be changed or renewed in our lives according to what the previous year has taught us. Are there any objects, ideas, and even attitudes we no longer need? How different would we like the New Year to be in comparison the one that is ending? As part of this, Colombians tend to spring clean the house before December 31st, and perform a series of often silly and superstitious rituals that nevertheless have the deeper -mostly forgotten- meaning of presenting a symbolic offering as we ask for what we want. 


The end of a difficult year is ripe time to think about our gifts, be grateful for them and, before we ask for more, think of what we are able to give back into the world and what we are prepared to let go in order to create room for new things. This is not just symbolic, it is the real thing for there is no receiving without giving. Let us party and celebrate the New Year together in gratitude for each other, for the opportunity to share the moment, and for the challenges and the lessons learnt this year. Let us ask for better and bigger: for a better us, and for a bigger heart. Let us ask ourselves what we need to do to make this world a better place, not just for ourselves but for every single being sharing this planet with us. If 2012 was the year in which the world as we know it was to end, then let us make 2013 the year in which we become the new humanity that cares more for the collective good than the individual one. This is not utopic at all, you will not have to look around for long before you find a group of individuals already making this come true. In this new environment of awareness of each other and mutual respect and love there is scope for all of us to be truly happy and truly prosperous. 

Each part of something reflects the whole, and vice versa
If you are wondering what all of this has to do with Traditional Chinese Medicine, the answer is: everything. TCM is about how everything relates to everything else, it is about interaction, interdependence, and the balance between the different parts of a whole. TCM is also about how each part of  something reflects the state of the whole. As members of a community and inhabitants of planet earth, anything that we do that harms either the community we live in or the planet itself will by extension harm us. Even when we are not ready to think about the greater good before the individual good, when we acknowledge that without greater good the individual good cannot be sustained, we can start shifting our thinking to understand that the only way of truly benefiting myself and my own is to act in ways that benefit us all. There, that's food for thought!

 A very peaceful, loving, healthy, and joyful New Year to each of you and to every being on earth!!
With much love and hope, Sandra

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The Yin and Yang of Christmas

Dreaded by some, cherished by others, the Christmas period is here with its manic activity and near-delirious shopping. This is a time of excess which, like our society in general, reflects many more Yang than Yin qualities which in turn contribute to imbalance, discomfort and disease at every level, from the personal to the global. But what was it about in the first place, does anyone remember?

Like Christmas, the Winter solstice celebrates the coming of "light"
Apart from Christmas, there are many celebrations falling within the end of year period from the Winter solstice celebrated by the Pagans and traditional societies around the world, to many different religious holidays such as the Hindu Diwali, The Jewish Hanukkah, the Buddhist Bodhi day; and the perhaps slightly artificial New Year.

What most of these celebrations have in common is the idea of a new beginning, and the symbolic reception of the gift of “light” or the triumph of light over darkness, represented by the beginning of the new solar cycle, the triumph of good over evil, and the birth and enlightenment of superior beings.

The Yin...
Ritual, symbolism, community, appreciating our gifts, cultivating gratitude, embracing a new beginning, preparing to receive light…we could say the real meaning of Christmas lies somewhere amongst these words although, ironically, these are the very last words we would tend to associate with it. 

Music and ritual: the yin of Christmas
Activities that promote stillness, reflection, and the nourishing of our spiritual and emotional lives through ritual and communal celebration have all got Yin qualities. Unfortunately, as the significance of this time has been almost completely lost in most Westernised countries, not many of these activities are common nowadays. There may be some carol singing and bonding within some communities but it is not as prevalent as the other aspects of our celebration. Instead, we go for the all-out excess.

The Yang...
From November onwards we are officially unleashed into the shopping centres, bars, and restaurants to get into the “Christmas spirit”. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with any of these places, what makes it out of balance is the sheer fury with which we buy, eat, and drink until Christmas day when we have the mother of all feasts and give and receive excessive amounts of objects - some desired, some immediately discarded. With this amount of excess, even the more Yin activities of nourishing ourselves and connecting to others in a meaningful way become a thunderous Yang time-bomb.

Another day, another feast

The results of our excess can clearly be seen in the month of January, when feeling heavy and exhausted, and with an empty wallet, we become depressed and despondent and fall susceptible to every bug and allergen. The spring then comes and with its outward energy forces all the toxins out giving us even stronger bugs, allergies, headaches, and skin disorders; amongst other things. Is it really worth it? Some of us may enjoy the relentless partying and overeating so much that are happy to sacrifice a month or two feeling literally “hungover”, but others may feel so ill or depressed that they are unable to function under these circumstances.

The causes of this out-of-sorts feelings could be reduced to:

  • a depleted Yin- burned by the excessive activity, little rest, and the heating properties of alcohol and heavy food. Yin energy contributes to our emotional stability, mental activity, and our ability to relax and attain restorative sleep, amongst other things. When deficient, we may notice symptoms such as moodiness, irritability, depression, inability to concentrate or think straight, insomnia, etc. For tips on how to nourish our Yin energy visit this post.
  • a depleted Yang from using more energy than we have and failing to nourish ourselves with foods that are easily digestible and therefore useful to the body. Yang is the fire that fuels the functioning of  our whole body so lack of it can be felt as feeling cold and exhausted, and an sluggishness or underfunctioning in any part of the body and the mind.
  • increased toxicity in the body from consuming exaggerated amounts alcohol, sugar, fats, refined carbohydrates and little of the foods that help the body get rid of waste products. Swellings, skin rashes, fevers, and headaches are just some of the symptoms that can result from increased toxicity in the body.

Creating festive Balance

This is not about condemning the consumption of alcohol or of any particular foods. In the world of balance there is no such thing as something inherently bad, it all depends on the context and on the extent of the consumption. In fact, partying and sharing food, drink and fun times with our friends and loved ones are excellent ways to relax, maintain a healthy Heart and promote a relaxed and open mind and body. What may cause problems is failing to balance all that binging on alcohol and food, and partying with eating healthier food, drinking cleansing fluids, and resting body and mind.

If we were more inclined towards balance, we would have fun, sing, dance, eat chocolates, have some alcohol and feast on delicious food; but we would have regular breaks from this to cleanse and nourish the body, and get proper rest so that toxicity would not accumulate and our energy would not suffer.

What you can do:

Cultivating balance is not about abstinence but about self-respect. Here are some useful tips:

  • Have days off alcohol, and when you’re planning on having a heavy night make sure you’re well hydrated before, during, and after the event. 
Nutritious veg help us get rid of toxins
  • Don’t always eat the same foods; variety is the spice of life: this will avoid overloading your system with the same things. 
  • Balance heavy foods with plenty of vegetables: vegetables not only provide roughage but also contain a whole load nutrients that your body needs to function properly and to cleanse itself. 
  • Avoid eating too much red meat and too many carbohydrates in one sitting: You'll probably know already that red meat takes days to go through your body before it gets properly assimilated and its waste products discarded, so in excess it can clog up your digestive system. Too many carbs will do the same and combined with excess meat can result in a build up of undigested food and waste products in your digestive tract that can ferment and give you a host of problems from constipation to joint and skin problems. 
  • Have a rest: balance your rest and activity, this is one of the keys to good health, and who does not want good health? 
  • Have quiet times by yourself: the constant exposure to noise, crowds, and stimulating food and drink create a stress response in the body through the permanent sensorial overload. Just like with other types of stress, if we do not counteract this with calm and quiet times, we can do damage to different systems of the body. See my post on stress for more on this.

Let's honour the true spirit of Christmas!

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Melody Beattie
Most gifts don't come wrapped up in festive paper

A smile, a kind word, a hug, a readiness to listen and help are all gifts that we give and receive on a daily basis. So is having food on our table, a certain amount of comfort and health, and having people who care for us. We forget that a gift is not only the thing wrapped up in festive paper, but every single thing life has bestowed upon us. Learning to appreciate all our gifts and be grateful for them is the basic ingredient of happiness and the forgotten essence of Christmas and the other celebrations around this time of year.

The culture of always wanting more is clearly not conducive to happiness, we’re forever chasing our tail wondering if that new object, relationship, or job are going to finally bring us the permanent feeling of bliss we’re after. Once we get what we want we may be content for some time until we begin to feel that something is missing and the chase commences again. In the meantime we fail to see what we actually have and often end up losing it as we pursue our aimless hunt. Worst of all, we infect our children with our inability to be happy and not only teach them to expect us to fulfil every one of their whims but at Christmas lavish them with so much stuff that they cannot literally see it all, let alone appreciate it. This is not only failing to prepare children for a life in which clearly not every one of our whims comes true, but plants the seed of unhappiness and depression as we teach them that there is never enough.

Spread the love...

We need to learn to give with love, and receive with gratitude. The giving should not be limited to those near us though: The spirit of Christmas is also about community, and we are often encouraged to help others at this time of year. As the Buddhists say "if you can help others do so, but if you cannot then at least do not harm them ". Along with the growing awareness of the impact of our consumerist society -not just on the environment, but on other people who are working in appalling conditions and living in near-slavery so that we can buy cheap goods (1, 2)- comes growing responsibility.

Our shopping habits harm people around the world

Again, it's not about righteousness or making ourselves feel guilty and anguished by trying to achieve unachievable goals. It's about becoming more aware of our choices and doing as much as we can to avoid harming other living beings with them. Hard times have befallen not just us but the whole world, so there is no reason to feel entitled to be wasteful or unconscious just because we think we've had it hard. In fact others may have it harder, and often we have been an indirect cause of it. As much as we can, let's try not to go crazy buying cheap stuff that is going to be immediately discarded. This is likely to have been made by some sweatshop or factory worker who is not paid enough for the effort. We have the power to force shops to sell us goods that are more responsibly sourced, and the power to reduce the amount of unnecessary rubbish going to landfill in this overcrowded world. This is sharing the love with as many people as we can and with the earth that sustains us, what could be more within the real Christmas spirit than that?

Wishing everyone a wonderful, joyful, warm, loving, and heart-felt Christmas!!

With much love and gratitude,  Sandra

1. Recent news of one of many awful accidents in an Asian sweatshop, where clothes bought by us in the UK are made: http://en.avaaz.org/1140/is-there-blood-on-your-new-fleece-jacket?utm_source=db_newsletter&utm_medium=blast&utm_content=26112012&utm_campaign=bangladesh&cl=2212941856&v=19524

2. Closer to home, the appalling conditions people work under in the West, courtesy of Walmart (owners of Asda): http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/whos-really-to-blame-for-the-wal-mart-strikes-the-american-consumer/265542/

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Winter life-style

Seasonal changes affect all living beings
The cycle of the seasons does not just bring a variety of colours and temperatures; it represents a dynamic of changes that affects every living being. Thus, the growing energy of spring makes every form of life more likely to grow and expand towards the climax of summer, while the contracting and withdrawing energies of autumn make all life travel back to the stillness of winter. 

Even in the UK’s temperate Northern climate where neither summer or winter are as extreme as they could be, and despite the alteration in the seasons that we have been experiencing in the last two decades, these dynamic changes are still occurring and affecting not only the trees and the colours of the sky, but every animal on the land, including us. 

In traditional societies seasonal changes are naturally accompanied by a change in diet, activity, and sleep patterns that are intrinsic parts of the season itself: what crops can be harvested, the average temperature, the amount of daylight available, etc. This was also true in long-gone days in more developed societies where nowadays the often deceitful blessings of modern comforts make us unaware of the real impact of the seasons on the workings of the body.

Chinese Medicine, like the Chinese culture, observes seasonal changes and considers that adapting our diet and lifestyle to the seasons plays an important role in the maintenance of health and vitality.

The effects of winter

Nobody loves to feel cold and spend most of the day in darkness. Nevertheless, as nothing exists without its opposite, without the Yin of winter there would be no summer Yang. Here I can imagine the groans of my fellow UK dwellers but, even us who often think we get no summer to speak of, still experience the contrast between the warmer and longer days, and the abundance of local fruit and vegetables of summer with what we get in winter!

Despite our centrally heated homes and cars, and the availability of out of season produce in our supermarkets, our bodies change as a result of the cold, damp, and dark days of winter. Cold, dampness, and darkness are predominantly Yin in nature making winter the season in which Yin is harboured and Yang becomes weaker.
In terms of TCM, this means that we need to promote and protect our Yang energy while allowing the Yin energy to become naturally stronger. 

Cold has a tendency to contract and to make things slow and even immobile, while dampness is heavy and sticky making things sluggish and turbid. As a result of these two climatic factors, we may experience symptoms such as:
Susceptibility to cold: Although this is obvious, I often encounter people who come outside without covering up properly just because they are not going to be out for long. It is not a question of time but of temperature.
Winter makes us more sleepy
Feeling increasingly tired and sleepy: Cold slows us down because our body temperature needs to be kept at the level in which metabolic and bodily functions can occur, and keeping warm requires energy. As a result, lower outside temperatures put an extra burden on our energy requirements so we feel the need for more rest and less activity. If we fail to honour this, excessive tiredness and exhaustion may ensue.

Feeling hungrier than usual: As energy requirements increase, so do -or should- our appetites in order to provide enough fuel for body functioning and activity.

Low immunity: Good immunity results from strong Qi and Yang, and to some extent from plentiful Blood. In winter, when Yang energy is at its lowest, we may become more susceptible to infections particularly if we already have low energy or fail to get enough rest and proper nutrition.

Feeling weighed down or congested: Cold contracts, dampness makes things fuzzy and sluggish. This can affect us at any level giving us a feeling of sinking and withdrawal in our bodies, mind, and/or emotions. This also means that anyone experiencing chronic symptoms resulting from blockage, sluggish circulation, and accumulation may suffer a worsening of symptoms during winter. Examples of this include different types of pain, feelings of fullness in head, or chest, body aches, some skin conditions, etc.

Lack of motivation, sadness, or depression:
As the body naturally slows down in winter, our emotions may follow. If we feel tired and low in energy, this can be reflected in our emotions as well, so feeling low may also be showing us that we need for more rest.


In addition, certain TCM organs are more susceptible to imbalances in the winter:
The Kidneys can be easily injured by cold. Allowing exposure to cold on the lower back, lower abdomen, feet, and lower legs -all of which are associated with the Kidneys-, can result in Kidney deficiency symptoms such as frequent/copious urination, lower back ache, extreme cold not relieved by any amount of clothing, low libido, menstrual cramps, and exhaustion. Left untreated, this may lead to increasingly depleted Kidney Qi and Yang that then fail to support all other organs so this may create a vicious circle of deficient energies. 

The Spleen can be injured by Dampness which can clog up this organ resulting in sluggish digestion and a sensation of heaviness. This mostly happens if the Spleen is already deficient or our diet is heavy or not warming enough for the season. A weak and sluggish digestion can then lead to a host of problems including menstrual irregularities, malabsorption, and depression; and it can contribute to the accumulation of phlegm in the Lungs. 

The Lungs can also be easily injured by cold through breathing extremely cold air, this can affect breathing and the oxygenation of all cells, as well as impairing the Lung function of spreading the Defensive (Wei) Qi throughout the body leaving us more susceptible to respiratory disease.

Refer to my previous posts on the TCM Kidneys, Spleen, and Lungs to find out how they work and how to maintain their health.

TCM Treatment
Moxibustion warms the Yang energy
When Qi or Yang are already weak, or we are exposed to more extreme conditions, we may develop more severe symptoms that are not easily alleviated by rest or nourishment. Symptoms such as unremitting flu symptoms or chest infections, moderate to severe depression, acute painful conditions, and severe menstrual cramping respond well to TCM treatment. 

Acupuncture can relieve painful conditions, while moxibustion (the burning of the herb mugwort over specific points) is very effective to warm and restore the Yang energy and relieve pain, constraints and disease caused by internal cold. Specific Chinese herbal remedies can also be used to drive out pathogens and strengthen the deeper energies of the body. Treatment should always be accompanied by appropriate life-style so that symptoms do not reoccur.

What you can do

Keeping warm

We need to keep our bodies warm not just by being in warm places but by dressing appropriately and eating foods that warm us up from the inside. Apart from the normal, “sensible” ideas about winter clothing that we got from our mums, there are a couple of things to consider:
Dressing warmly is key for winter health
  • According to TCM, colds and flu can be caused by an “external invasion” of pathogenic factors such as Wind and Cold. These pathogens can readily invade the body through the head, ears and back of the neck. Given that we can be more susceptible to disease in winter, covering these parts of the body is important in order not to become easily sick. So if you think you look silly in that hat, remember that you will look sillier spending half of the winter coughing stuff up!
  • In order to protect the Kidneys from cold, try to keep the lower back, lower abdomen and the lower legs and feet warm at all times. If you are a cyclist, or a builder working outside you will need an extra layer over your lower back as these activities expose this area to the elements which may result in symptoms of disease ranging from back pain to urinary problems.
Warming up from inside
  Basic TCM dietary advice is already intended to support digestive fire and the Yang energy so eating following these principles is particularly relevant in Winter time. Some other considerations include:
Roasted root veggies- good winter food
  • In winter it is essential that cold and raw food and drink are avoided or kept to a minimum as the digestive fire needs to be protected. Soups and stews are still the best way of nourishing the digestive energy, although now heartier ingredients such as seasonal root vegetables become the staples.
  • While in summer it is not recommended to eat overly heating foods, in winter it is appropriate to do just that, provided you are not a person who easily overheats or suffers from digestive problems, suppurative skin rashes, chronic inflammatory illnesses or cannot tolerate warmer foods for other reasons. Adding moderate amounts of spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, anis seed, cloves, cumin, and ginger (fresh and dry) to meals can also help us keep our Yang strong. Cooking food for longer like when stewing and roasting is considered to make food energetically warmer and may be favoured over more cooling methods such as steaming and boiling.
  • Avoiding cold drinks and drinking warming teas and small amounts of alcohol except from beer and cider (which are cold and damp like winter itself) can also contribute to keeping the body warm. Bear in mind that alcohol is high in toxicity to the body so it’s best not to drink on a daily basis.
  • Lower energy  and feeling cold can make us crave sweets. Curb some of your cravings with sweet root vegetables which can provide the right kind of sugar to the body. For the extra sweetness, favour honey, molasses, and dried fruits such as apricots and dates over refined sugary products.
 Moving the body is always a good thing as it promotes the circulation of Qi and Blood, which in turn activates the organs and contribute to the production of more Qi and Blood. Exercise also benefits our sleep and improves our mood, which is particularly important in winter when lack of light may result in low moods. 

In winter however, when there is less energy available as the body works harder to keep warm and protected from disease, our exercise should be very moderate and in a way that does not make us feel cold. Although exercise makes us feel warm, as we sweat our pores open up and may give room for external pathogens to attack the body or at the very least undermine our Protective (Wei) Qi. Because of this, we need to make sure the parts that are most susceptible to cold are well protected if exercising outside. Indoor exercise does not have to be limited to the gym, dance classes or just regular dancing can provide good winter exertion and also lift the spirits.

Rest and sleep
In our culture of “busier is better”, proper rest and sleep are given little importance although they are necessary for good health. Our individual rest and sleep requirements change according to our age and physical condition, and they are also influenced by the seasons. The longer nights of winter and reduced supply of Yang energy naturally make us feel like sleeping more so if we feel the need, we are allowed to rest more!

 Conversely, sleeping much more than needed can make us sluggish and affect the functioning of every organ in the body. Unless you are unwell or otherwise have a real necessity to sleep a lot, sleeping more than 8 or 9 hours per night may actually make you more tired. The body needs a certain amount of activity in order for the production and circulation of Qi and Blood to be triggered (see “exercise” above). So try to strike a balance between your daily amount of rest and activity.

Enjoy quietness and stillness
Winter possesses the quality of stillness
 The energy of winter is all about withdrawing, gathering, and preparing for the change and growth of spring. While rest and warming foods can help us achieve this at a physical level, we also need to “gather” mentally and emotionally in preparation for the more outgoing and active seasons. 
We are culturally predisposed against being by ourselves and being still. When we are supposedly “relaxing” we are in fact getting bombarded by visual and other sensorial stimulation, never in fact achieving a relaxed state. This is a symptom of a societal imbalance that makes us restless, anxious, and unable to truly appreciate and enjoy life. The fact that being in silence by ourselves makes us feel so uncomfortable shows that we really need to learn to “be” with ourselves. Winter is an ideal time for contemplation and reflexion as it already possesses the quality of stillness. There are many ways to meditate and reflect: formal meditation classes and practices, deep prayer, and being in nature can all put us in a place in which we can look inside ourselves. Whichever way you choose, you will need to make the effort to quieten the mind. Not an easy task, but you will be rewarded with knowing yourself a little better and feeling mentally and emotionally stronger for it.

Just like every other living being, we are susceptible to deep changes brought on by the different seasons. Although this is overlooked by modern developed societies, understanding and honouring these changes is key in the maintenance of our good mental and physical health. The dreaded winter, with its cold and damp long nights, brings us an opportunity to restore ourselves and look within before the earth’s energies make us more active again. Taking advantage of this opportunity will not only create more balance in our life, but also result in a better understanding of our own needs, and a deeper connection with the life that goes on around us.