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

Sunday 12 May 2013

Spring lifestyle

Spring is finally upon us with its expansive energy of growth and its rich tapestry of life. After such a long winter, it is only natural to feel heavy, unfit, and sluggish. While in winter we concentrate on staying warm and consuming the necessary nutrients to maintain a strong immunity and  prevent the elements from harming us, in spring the focus is on cleansing the body and returning to a more active lifestyle to help us get rid of the cobwebs and the extra weight and toxicity accumulated during the months of less activity and of richer foods.

Our modern society -with its unchanging timetables, supermarkets stocked up with every possible food throughout the year, and artificial room temperatures- tends to make us unaware of the real impact of the seasons on the workings of the body. However, failing to observe the changing needs of our body according to seasonal changes often results in lack of balance and disease. 

Different seasons bring different crops, temperatures, and amount of daylight which should naturally be accompanied by a change in diet, activity, and sleep patterns. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), 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. 

Spring in TCM

A return to life, growth and expansion

Spring is associated to the Wood element which in turn relates to the TCM Liver organ. It is a time of coming back to life, of expansion and growth, and of the arrival of new life. The energy stored throughout the winter months serves as a propeller of new life and makes seeds sprout, animals reproduce, and our energy levels rise to make us feel vital again.

In spring we also see the arousal of Wind which not only refers to the climatic factor but is also considered by TCM as the potential carrier of many diseases which can cause rapid onset acute illnesses such as colds, headaches, allergies, neuralgia, and palsy;  as well as symptoms that move from one part of the body to another.

The expansive energy of spring can also bring up excessive heat or illnesses that started to develop before or during the winter but which did not manifest during those months due to the contracting effect of the cold which produces an inward movement of our energy during that season. This is one of the causes of allergic symptoms that may suddenly develop during this season.

How to be healthy in spring

Spring is here: time to come out of hybernation
When we have a strong constitution or make a point of conserving our energy and health throughout the cold months by following a suitable winter lifestyle, our vital force will be naturally re-awakened by the spring and we will feel more alive, motivated, and able to make plans and undertake new projects. However, as pressing family and work responsibilities can make it difficult to attain the ideal amount of rest, exercise and nutrition during the winter months, many of us may instead feel heavy, sluggish, and unhealthy when the spring comes. Those suffering from allergies may even find this season unbearable as their symptoms start to get triggered by the blossoming trees, and the awakening plants all around.

These are the most important steps to feel healthy and vital at this time of year:

Look after your Liver
Because of the close relationship between the spring and the organ of the Wood element - the Liver- we need to make an extra effort to keep this organ healthy at this time of year. To learn how to do this visit my 
post on the TCM Liver.

Spring clean your body and mind
An excess amount of toxicity and fat is likely to have accumulated in the body during the slow months of winter when we exercised even less than usual, ate heavier and richer  foods and perhaps consumed more alcohol to keep us warm and to cope with the darkness. This accumulation may cause blockages in the various systems of the body and may easily result in symptoms when the strong outward spring energy results in more active circulatory system and detoxifying functions of the Liver.

A good spring detox followed by a balanced diet that keeps toxicity to a minimum will have a positive impact on any symptoms caused by accumulation. If toxicity is high, the beneficial effects of a good diet could be rendered minimal unless it is preceded by a good detox. You could say it would be like pouring fragrant water into a blocked drain, it will mix and be corrupted by the pre-existing stagnant water unless the blockage is cleared first. 

Follow the weekend detox plan suggested on my previous post or other plans preferably under the supervision of a nutritional or TCM practitioner.

Spring diet
If you follow the cleansing weekend detox, try to continue eating healthily and keeping toxicity to a minimum after you have finished so your Liver and your body can have space for renewal and bodily functions can attain greater balance. Make a conscious effort to have a balanced a diet, adhering as much as possible to the TCM concepts of diet and nutrition.

In addition, in spring it is useful to:

1) Start the day with a cup of hot water with the juice of half a lime or lemon. Alternatively add a shot of apple cider vinegar and a small amount of raw honey. This enhances Liver function and creates an alkaline environment which is conducive to health.
2) Keep hydrated throughout the day by drinking at least 2 litres of preferable warm (or at least not chilled) water or even better chrysanthemum, or fresh mint tea. Nettle tea is also a good choice.
3) Avoid alcohol, excessively spicy food, greasy food, and caffeine as they tend to create too much toxicity and overheat the Liver which may result in symptoms such as acid reflux, headaches, eye problems, high blood pressure, etc.
Step up the greens in springtime
4) Keep up the intake of green leafy vegetables and include slightly pungent spices and herbs in your meals such as onion, garlic, chives, basil, coriander, parsley, cumin and mustard seeds. Have plenty of asparagus and artichokes which are particularly good for the Liver and in season at this time of year.
5) Use light cooking methods such as stir frying and steaming which are best in spring as they keep the cooling quality and moisture of foods. Small amounts of raw foods can also be beneficial at this time, provided you don’t have a weak digestion or feel constantly cold and tired.
6) Consume small amounts of honey or molasses which are highly nutritious and whose sweetness can soften the Liver and prevent problems due to Liver Qi stagnation (for more on this refer to my post on the TCM Liver)

In springtime we are are likely to feel more energetic and motivated to do exercise . If you still feel heavy and sluggish, it may be useful to start by doing a gentle detox like the one recommended in my previous post before you start any kind of exercise regime so that you avoid the extreme aches and pains produced by the heavy release of toxins after the first work outs.

If you haven’t got a preferred form of exercise, have a go at different types of moderate outdoor exercise such as brisk walking and cycling. Swimming is also a good choice. Try exercising for at least half an hour 3 times per week and combine with some gentle stretching, pilates or yoga. This way you will be both fit, strong and flexible, three very important factors in good overall health and in having a good flow of Blood and Qi and a healthy Liver.

Protect yourself from the Wind
In many cultures the idea of not trusting the weather in spring is reflected in warning proverbs such as: 'Ne'er cast a clout till May is out' or “hasta el 40 de mayo no te quites el sayo” -don’t take your tunic off till the 40th May-.

Spring is the season of rapid changes and strong winds so we need to be prepared for sudden drops in temperature, rains, and strong winds that may make us unexpectedly cold, shivery, or soaking wet. This exposure to sudden changes can make us ill particularly if we are out of shape and with lowered immunity after the long winter. TCM considers the Wind a carrier of other disease factors which combined with it can cause chills, fevers, headaches, palsy and many other symptoms. For this reason it is advisable to always carry a light scarf and a light jacket or waterproof cover to protect us from the elements when the weather conditions rapidly change.

Plan and make decisions
The spring is traditionally the season of changes, decision making, and new beginnings. In TCM, it is the Wood element that rules our decision making, and ability to see detail, organise and plan ahead and the organs of the Liver and Gall Bladder are regarded as the rulers of these mental abilities. When in health, the Liver and Gall Bladder will power our creativity and vision and will enable us to make quick decisions and effective planning.

Because in TCM all functional relationships are reciprocal, this also means that taking time to organise our ideas, weigh the pros and cons, and project into the future before jumping into new waters or embarking on big projects may help power up the Liver and Gall Bladder functions.

Spring allergies

Allergies are rife in spring
Allergic rhinitis, hay fever, and other allergies are the most common problems directly associated with the spring season. Because allergies are an expression of an exaggerated reaction of the immune system to a stimulus, one of the most important things to do is to be as toxin-free as possible. This not only means extra care with general hygiene, air quality and the products that may affect our skin, but also with what we put inside the body.

If our system is already dealing with high toxicity and acidity in the form of alcohol, greasy food, tobacco, drugs, chemical additives, etc.; we are more likely to react to external allergens as our immune system is already burdened from the inside. The reason for this is that a large part of our immunity is found in the digestive system and the health and strength of our immune system as a whole is inextricably linked to what we eat and drink.

TCM can be very effective at treating hay fever and other allergies. Acupuncture helps relieve inflammation and pain, improve circulation, and decongest the nasal passages; while specific Chinese herbal remedies can be used to treat more stubborn or severe symptoms. In addition, a good TCM practitioner should provide suitable dietary and lifestyle advice to help enhance the effectiveness of treatment and prevent the recurrence of symptoms. Visit my previous post on hay fever to learn more about TCM views and treatment of this condition.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Spring detox for body and mind

Toxicity accumulated during winter can cause spring allergies
After such a long winter when the low temperatures and darkness most probably made us exercise less than usual, eat heavier and richer foods, and perhaps consume more alcohol to keep us warm and to cope with the cold; we are likely to have accumulated an excess amount of toxicity and fat. This accumulation may cause blockages in the various systems of the body and may easily result in symptoms when the strong outward spring energy starts to speed up our circulatory system and the detoxifying functions of the Liver. Some conditions such as common spring allergies may actually be an indirect result of our winter habits which burden the body and can result in an over-reactive response to allergens.

A good spring detox followed by a balanced diet that keeps toxicity to a minimum will have a positive impact on any symptoms caused by accumulation. If toxicity is high, the beneficial effects of a good diet could be rendered minimal unless the body has been cleansed first. You could say that it would be like pouring fragrant water into a blocked drain, it will mix and be corrupted by the pre-existing stagnant water unless the blockage is cleared first.

Weekend detox plan

Raw food detox plans can weaken our digestive energy
This is an easy-to-follow, gentle detox plan which is suitable for anyone wishing to cleanse the body without taking expensive supplements or starving the body of nutrients. Raw food detox plans and juicing can be very effective but they should only be done under supervision of a nutritional adviser as they may have a detrimental effect on the overall health of those with weaker constitutions. According to TCM theory, eating an excessive amount of cold and raw food can have a detrimental effect on our ability to digest food and consequently in our strength and vitality (for more on this click here). For this reason it is recommended to consume small amounts of raw foods with larger amounts of lightly steamed fruits and vegetables which will be easier to digest and still contain plenty of water and nutrients.

If you have a chronic illness it is best to consult a practitioner before embarking on a detox plan, so that it can be adapted to your specific needs. A good TCM practitioner can help you with this.

In order for the detox to be the most effective at clearing your body and mind of winter toxicity and negativity, it is best if you can choose a weekend you can spend in solitude, rising and going to sleep early, and able to practice meditative exercises or going for gentle walks without having to perform any strenuous activities or feeling under pressure.

Things to avoid:

  • Anything that is toxic to the body such as: alcohol, tobacco, drugs, chocolate, coffee and any type of caffeine, chemical additives; and processed, greasy, and excessively spicy foods.
  • Foods that make our bodies prone to accumulate mucus and waste products such as dairy products, bread and anything containing yeast, sugar (especially refined sugar), processed and pre-packed foods, table salt, tinned foods and fruit juices from concentrate (particularly orange juice)
  • Acidic foods: Excessive acidity can cause a number of symptoms that involve inflammation, indigestion, and an inability to shed waste products from the cellular to the systemic level. Thus, in order to cleanse the body, we need to create an alkaline environment inside us. This can be easily achieved by avoiding the consumption of acid-forming foods and increasing the amount of alkaline foods that we eat. Alcohol, tobacco, dairy products, wheat, sugar, tea, coffee, and yeast are to blame for most of the acidity of the common UK diet. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergines (all from the nightshade family), kiwis, citrus fruits (but not lemons and limes) are also best avoided during a detox programme.
  • Even if you enjoy horror and action movies, heavy metal, and other types of entertainment that keep you on the edge of your seat, you will benefit much more
    Violence in any shape-best avoided during a detox
    from your detox if do not expose yourself to anything so intense. This also includes the news, as news can trigger a load of emotions without us being aware of them. Just as we need to put gentle and cleansing food into the body, we need to put gentle and cleansing thoughts into our mind so that we can have a clearer and purer perspective afterwards.

Before you start your detox stock up on the following:

  • Fresh fruit: apples, pears, and black grapes and other fruits that you fancy apart from citrus fruit
  • Fresh vegetables: Particularly  leafy green veggies like curly kale, spring greens, spinach and also broccoli, onions, garlic, carrots and salad vegetables such as celery, watercress, lettuce, and bean sprouts. All of these aid detoxification and are great sources of vitamins and antioxidants. Get any other vegetables that you enjoy.
  • Limes or lemons: A cup of hot water with the juice of a lime or a lemon is the best way to start the day because it helps the liver flush out any waste products.
  • Herbal teas: Nettle tea is highly detoxifying for the whole system, while chrysanthemum flowers, fresh mint, and dandelion teas are excellent to cool down the Liver and flush out toxicity. Fennel tea is excellent after meals as it promotes digestion. If you feel nervous get some chamomile tea to help with anxiety and to aid sleep. Avoid black tea.
  • Herbs for cooking: thyme, basil, bayleaf and any other herbs you enjoy, avoid spices for the time being, you can use liberal amounts of fresh parsley and coriander instead.
  • If you cannot live without milk get some soya products but use them sparingly. Get the milks that only contain organic non-GM soya beans and water. Other milks are full of unwanted artificial vitamins that your body will understand as toxins.
  • Porridge oats, dried (unsulfured) fruit, seeds and honey can make lovely breakfasts. If you find any unprocessed sugar-free breakfast cereals they are ok as well.
  • Tahini (sesame seed  paste)
  • Lean organic chicken, fresh fish, fresh tofu, sprouted beans, fresh green beans, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are all good sources of protein for your detox.
  • If you miss bread too much get some sourdough rye bread which doesn’t contain yeast, also try rye crackers (check that they don’t have yeast) or rice cakes
  • Brown rice and millet make excellent staples for any meal, also get some sweet potatoes for baking, they are highly nutritious, alkaline and delicious.
  • Essential oils: Lavender for relaxation-can be burnt in your bedroom or added to your bath
  • Some inspirational reading and films. Biographies of people you admire, books on
    Cleansing the mind is as important as cleansing the body
    spiritual matters that concern you or that you are curious about, or self-help books related to how you feel at the moment and films with positive messages that are not full of violence or anything upsetting.
  • Beautiful gentle music, such as JS Bach Brandemburg concertos or cello music, classical Indian music, traditional celtic music, or anything that makes you feel calm and relaxed 
  • A meditation or relaxation cd may also be helpful to guide you into a relaxed state of mind.

The detox

Start preparing for the detox on Friday by avoiding toxins during that day and going to bed early that evening. Spend Saturday and Sunday by yourself if you can not only eating foods to nourish and cleanse your body but also keeping your mind quiet and your whole being calm and relaxed.

A daily plan can be as follows:
  1. Go to bed early so that you get up early and follow the natural rhythm of your body.
  2. On Waking: Drink a small cup of hot water with lime or lemon juice. This helps the body flush out waste products and aids liver function (the liver is the organ that gets rid of toxins)
  3. This is the best time to do some meditation and gentle stretching. If you have no meditation practice you can try the breathing exercise from my post on how to breath consciously followed by 15 minutes of gentle yoga, pilates or stretching exercises. Be careful not to push yourself too hard, remember the weekend is for helping the body cleanse not for punishing yourself.
  4. Have a big glass of warm water at least 15 minutes before breakfast
  5. Have some breakfast of porridge with pumpkin and sesame seeds, some raisins and apricots and a little fresh juice, soya milk or soya yogurt. Alternatively you can have sugar-free cereal with dried fruit and a little honey with warmed up soya milk. Stewed or steamed fruit such as pears served with cinnamon, dried fruit, seeds and honey can also make a good detoxifying breakfast. Follow with a herbal tea such as nettle or dandelion.
  6. Go for a gentle stroll around a nearby park to aid digestion, calm the mind, oxygenate the body and put you in touch with nature, or you can spend the morning reading something inspirational or doing something creative.
  7. Drink a large glass of warm water or a large mug of nettle or dandelion tea.
  8. If you fancy a mid-morning snack have a large apple or a pear. If you are hungrier than that have a couple rye crackers or rice cakes with tahini
  9. Have another large glass of warm water at least 15 minutes before lunch.
  10. Have an early lunch no later than 1 pm. Try steam-fried veggies: just toss some onion, garlic and varied veg onto the dry wok, stirring constantly until they are a bit brown, add a little water and herbs for flavouring and put the lid on to steam them for 2 minutes. Towards the end add some bean sprouts or grilled chicken and serve with brown rice. If the weather is warm a warm salad combining cooked and raw vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, fish or tofu and served with millet or brown rice can be a good option. Follow with a herbal tea such as fennel or nettle.
  11. If you didn’t go for a stroll in the morning you can do so half an hour or so after lunch. Altenatively, read something inspirational or pursue your artistic interest such as playing a musical instrument, painting, knitting, etc.
  12. Have another large glass of warm water or a large mug of herbal tea such as chrystanthemum, nettle, dandelion, or fresh mint.
  13. Afternoon snack can be more fruit, rice cakes or a smoothie made with fresh fruit, honey and either water or a little soya milk or soya yogurt
  14. Have another large glass of warm water at least 15 minutes before dinner.
  15. Have an early dinner no later than 7 pm. It can consist of steamed veggies with grilled chicken, fish or tofu with a baked sweet potato; or a large bowl of freshly made vegetable soup seasoned with thyme and bayleaf and served with sourdough bread. Follow with a herbal tea such as fennel.
  16. Have a glass of warm water or a large mug of chamomile tea around one hour before going to bed.
  17. Go to bed early, no later than 10 pm.

When you finish your weekend detox, try to continue getting to bed and rising early as well as eating healthily and drinking plenty of fluids as well as keeping toxicity to a minimum for at least a few days. If you wish you can repeat the detox after a few months and even try it for a whole week. 

Having a balanced diet will in itself prevent the accumulation of toxins and prevent disease. For tips on how to have a healthy diet refer to my previous posts on TCM concepts of diet and nutrition.