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

Tuesday 9 September 2014

What lies behind a symptom

Are we a collection of un-related organs?
Our modern model of thinking makes us try to make sense of the world by searching for the single cause behind each specific phenomenon. This is true also for symptoms of disease. To this, add the shared view of the body as a collection of separate organs, tissues, and chemicals that somehow have very little to do with each other despite the fact that they are contained in the same package, sharing the same fluids, and being kept alive by the same source. 

These views result in an extremely limited understanding of the workings of the body and of how illness my develop, which in turn makes us unable to effectively maintain our health. No matter how many “single causative factors” of specific diseases we address, we do not seem to improve our chances of fending off illnesses. This is constantly shown by the reports on the increase of chronic, often incurable, conditions all around us.  

In addition to this, we have come to regard feeling unwell as a nuisance that prevents us from carrying on with our usual tasks. This is due partly to societal pressures regarding productivity and a competitive environment that makes many people feel like they should try harder; and partly to lacking a basic understanding of our own needs. Thus, we have developed a tendency to be oblivious of small symptoms -those little niggles we notice but which don’t really bother us that much- in the hope that they will go away by themselves. By the time chronic illness sets in, often stopping us from doing things that we would usually do without thinking, we will have probably experienced minor symptoms over months, even years. Only then, we start to visit doctors expecting them to find the single thing that is causing all our symptoms, to then give us a magic treatment that will take it all away so that we can go back to “normal”.  This may work or, as in so many cases, may not. 

I know this not just because I see it in my clinics all the time, but because I have experienced it myself. We all seem to expect our body to be able to carry us without giving us trouble, no matter what we do to it. So, like most people around me, I spent many years of my life under immense stress, eating rubbish, drinking too much alcohol, overdosing on coffee, sugar, and tobacco, not drinking enough water, not eating enough vegetables, over-exercising or at times not moving at all for months on end, and never sleeping enough. I was still rather annoyed and even surprised when -while still in my twenties- everything stopped working, and the doctor could not find how to fix me. At the beginning, the drugs from the doctor did bring some relief, but the relief became increasingly short-lived until chronic kidney failure became evident and I felt like an exhausted and achy 90 year old inside my youthful body. Somehow I had got to believe that, after years of mistreatment, my toxicity-laden, malnourished, stressed, and exhausted body should be able to fend off disease and move freely, always.  And when it didn't, I then regarded it as a massive nuisance that would just not let me carry on with my life. I just wanted it all to go away so that I could go back to “normal”. 

What I eventually realised was that “normal” was in fact a major cause of my symptoms. Thus, going back to “normal” every time I felt a little better, was only ever going to make the symptoms come back, either in the same way, with greater intensity and severity, or at a different level of my system; and it did. This is what happens. It may take weeks, months, or years - it doesn’t really matter - the point is that even if we get some respite from our symptoms, if we go back to not meeting the basic needs of our bodies, they will most probably come back to haunt us. 

The good news is that once we acknowledge the fact that what we do in our daily life can have enormous impact on our health orillness, and start taking responsibility for our own well-being, the possibility of improving our health in the short and long terms opens up in front of us. This is no fast or easy route for sure. It took me many years to "undo" the damage I had done to my body and to develop enough understanding of my own physical, emotional, and mental needs to be able to maintain my health. This involves ongoing effort to understand the changing needs of my body that occur in response to the aging process and to the constant changes in my external environment.  The pay back for all this work and the work that countless amazing practitioners have done with me over the years, is that I feel stronger, happier, and more supple now that I am in my forties than I did during my twenties. More importantly, when I do succumb to self-indulgence and excess, as one does from time to time, I know what I need to do to restore balance. Although I do not see this as warranty that I will never be ill or that I will live to be over 100, I know for sure that cultivating my own well being is not only enhancing my health but enabling me to fully enjoy my present life.

The holistic view
A symptom is a warning that something is wrong
In holistic medicine, a symptom is viewed as a message from our internal body, telling us that something is wrong. Just in the same way as the little lights on the dashboard of the car announce that the engine is overheating or that petrol is running low, a symptom is there to call our attention to a specific area or function of the body or just to the fact that something, somewhere, is not working properly. Just like it would happen if we ignore the dashboard lights, ignoring a symptom will not necessarily make it go away.

Chinese medicine theory provides a framework to help us determine the origin of a symptom so that both the symptom and its cause can be addressed at the same time. In this theory, all the internal organs are connected to each other and to all parts of the body through a network of vessels and channels that allow the flow of Blood, energy, and fluids between them. When an organ fails to function properly or the free flow is interrupted in a particular vessel or channel, this can have a knock on effect on different parts of the body, resulting on a symptom that, when using our Western understanding, could seem totally unrelated to the originating organ. Through detailed questioning and examination, a TCM practitioner seeks to map out all symptoms into a coherent diagnosis that will link them to the internal imbalance that has caused them. Once the underlying cause of the symptoms has been identified, a practitioner can determine the best treatment options, as well as the most suitable dietary, and life-style changes that will not only enhance treatment effects but prevent their recurrence.

True TCM in fact regards the prevention of illness as the most important form of treatment. This is why in the Chinese culture, the talk of health and longevity is commonplace and many of the traditional customs reflect an understanding of what the body needs at different times of the year and at different times of life. This understanding is what we have lost in the West. We have grown accustomed to hand the responsibility for our health and well-being to other people – scientists, pharmacists, doctors, nutritionists, therapists, etc. –, and lost the ability to look after our most basic needs in the process. We also lost sight of two important sources of knowledge:
  • Our instincts regarding what is good and bad for us: This is how other animals know what to eat or not when they live in the wild. Without it, they would be very confused and even keep poisoning themselves, just like we do.
  • The experience of past generations: This is how our grandmothers found out that garlic and elderberry were good remedies during the cold season, and where they got their knowledge of what nutritious food consisted of. They, unlike us, did not need experts to tell them that both garlic and elderberry contain immune boosting, infection-fighting compounds, or that fresh, locally grown, seasonal food was the best nutritional choice for the family. They just trusted the experience of the many generations before them and acquired the knowledge passed on from their elders.

So there is a strong need to go back to basics and relearn how to look after ourselves. Only then, we will be able to wisely integrate the incredible amount of knowledge acquired by science in the last few hundred years with the much older knowledge ingrained in our cells and in our culture so that we try to stop the current trends that will make the next generation become disease-ridden far too early in life.

But a change of attitude is also needed here. We need to develop self-care, self-love, and self-respect, and to understand that giving ourselves everything that we crave is not conducive to long lasting wellness or happiness. 

Your body is for life, not just for Christmas
Changing our ways
I find it interesting that we tend to look after our cars much better than we do our bodies. Our cars are considered deserving of a good weekly clean inside and out, a regular check-up, and at least one full service per year. We are acutely aware that petrol cars shouldn’t get filled with diesel, and that we regularly need to supply them with air, water, and oil. We would not expect our cars to run smoothly without the appropriate care. Yet, although we have at least a vague idea of the kind of things we should be doing to maintain our bodies in working order, not only do we fail to do them but also expect the body to be just fine for it. You can argue that it is a question of safety and that we look after cars so that we do not kill ourselves on the road. This is of course right, but let me ask you if you think it is “safe” to treat your body in a way that you know is going to make it prematurely degenerate with the possibility of spending decades of your life dying in painful slow motion? 

I often hear the argument of “enjoying life while we're here since we’re going to die anyway” as an excuse for complete disregard to the body’s needs. I don't really think it is about dying or not dying- it's going to happen to all of us anyway! -or even about how old we are when we die, but about how well we want to feel when the time comes. After all, diabetes, chronic pain, arthritis, depression, anxiety, IBS, or Chronic fatigue syndrome - just to name some common chronic conditions that any of us could develop- will not necessarily kill us any faster. What they can do, is take increasing amounts of pleasure out of our lives over a period that can easily expand between years and decades. After my experience of daily pain, exhaustion and a host of debilitating symptoms over several years, I am convinced that every effort we make to stay healthy is well worth the long-lasting pleasure of knowing that every morning when we get out of bed I can look forward to the fullest experience of life we can possibly get. 

In the end, our choices will mostly affect our own selves, so it is our body, our health, our life, and our death we are playing with. The sooner we assume this responsibility, the happier and healthier we will be in the long run.