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 19 October 2015

Autumn lifestyle

Autumn - the beginning of the Yin part of the year
The yearly cycle, like everything else that exists, is an expression of Yin and Yang energies. With the summer over, the cusp of Yang energy is now gone and we enter a calmer, quieter, and more introspective season which is the beginning of the Yin part of the year. Many of us may already be feeling a need for extra rest, and may have even fallen with a change-of-season cold.  These are natural responses to the many changes happening in our environment which are an expression of the sudden inward movement of autumnal energy following the climax of expansion reached during the summer months. 

In the West, we tend to regard the seasons as mere climatic phenomena which can affect the landscape but do not affect us. This is a common misconception rooted in the removal from nature that so many of us experience today: we feel hot in winter and frozen in summer in our air-conditioned spaces, live under artificial lights unaware of day or night, and throughout the year buy all kinds of fruit and vegetables coming from all over the world in the local supermarkets. 

Something that the healthiest people on the planet have in common is not that they purposefully do things because they are considered healthy or eat specific foods because of the omega oil or antioxidant contents, it is that they eat what their particular land produces at each time of the year and observe traditional ways of living and preparing the foods that go in accordance with their environment and needs. In contrast with this, health-minded people in the West tend to go for the consumption of out of season “super foods” and relentless healthy regimes which do not necessarily keep us healthy or enable us to fight disease more efficiently.

Observing the changing needs of our bodies during each season is undoubtedly one of the keys to good health. This involves a fluidity in our habits that allows for seasonal produce to constantly be at the centre of our diets, and for adjusting our levels of activity and rest according to our bodies' requirements.

Autumn in TCM
Generally speaking, autumn is the season of harvesting, gathering, and preparing for the winter months, a time when the lushness of summer ripens up and gives way to falling leaves and fruits.  As we harvest and gather we also find all those fruits that, having gone off, need to be discarded.  This perfectly represents the most important functions of the TCM Lungs and Large intestine, the organs of the metal element whose energy is at its peak during this season.  The Lungs main function consists of gathering air and extracting from it the nourishment – in the form of oxygen – that serves as one of the principal ingredients for the making of Qi which will in turn fill our bodies with strength and vitality. The Lungs and Large intestine are also in charge of the elimination of waste products from respiration –carbon dioxide- and digestion so that they don't stay in the body and cause harm.  The TCM Lung governs Qi and its proper functioning manifests in vitality and constant renewal of our energy. Visit my post on the Lungs to learn more about this organ and how to maintain its health.

Another important function of the metal organs is to protect us from disease, which is an aspect of immunity. Being the most external of organs, the Lungs have the function of projecting outwards a protective energy  - Wei Qi - which is partly derived from the nutrients that we consume and acts as a barrier to invasive external pathogens. The Large intestine is also a main organ in our immune response as is the skin which in TCM is regarded as an extension of the Lungs. They are both in charge of fending off and eliminating harmful substances and waste products so that they don’t enter deeper into the body .  External pathogens most easily enter the body through the respiratory and digestive systems so the strength of the metal organs is considered of great importance.

If the energy of the Lungs is low or its flow impaired by blockage – usually in the form of phlegm and mucus along the respiratory passages – we may be more prone to catching colds, and develop coughs or allergic reactions during this season.

Staying healthy in autumn
In Traditional Chinese medicine texts, autumn is regarded as the season when dryness can injure the body. This is because in mainland China dryness is a prevalent condition at this time of year. Here in SW England however, the opposite is true. Our already humid environment becomes increasingly so, the air can turn soggy while moulds develop on trees and on the falling leaves.  For this reason, some of the Chinese medicine advice for this season needs to be adjusted to our different climate.

Whether we live in a humid or dry area, autumn is always about gathering what we need to be comfortable and well in the winter months, letting go what needs to be discarded so that we are not unduly burdened during winter, and setting up boundaries to protect us from the cold and from harmful external influences. 

Gathering and collecting:
At a physical level, this is represented by the need to prepare ourselves for the winter months when a strong body and immune system can ensure health throughout the cold season. After the more exuberant lifestyle of the summer, autumn calls for resting more and for consuming foods that are denser and richer than those we had in the summer to provide warmth and nourishment to the body.  

At a deeper level, the beauty of autumn leaves, the shortening days, and the chillier evenings invite contemplation and a look in. It is a good time to centre ourselves after the summer holiday and collect our thoughts so that we can start to plan and project into the months ahead.

Letting go:
This refers to an innate ability of the body to identify and discard harmful substances and waste products. This ability can easily get impaired when we either overburden the body with toxicity and/or allow tension and stress to build up inside us until we are literally unable to let anything out. Letting go thus implies a need to allow the body to do its job by helping it cleanse itself through the consumption of healthy food and plenty of fluid, as well as staying physically and mentally relaxed so that we allow things to flow in and out.

We may also need to eliminate certain foods and undergo a cleansing process to get rid of toxicity accumulated through the summer so that our immune system is not burdened and can protect us from illness in the colder months. The Lungs and Large intestine are particularly susceptible to accumulation and this can be very detrimental to their proper functioning. Making sure that we consume a diet that provides good nutrition as well as promoting proper evacuation is of particular importance to prevent disease. In addition, avoiding chemically-laden foods and reducing the consumption of mucus-forming foods such as processed foods, refined sugar, wheat and milk products can help our respiratory and digestive systems remain free of accumulations and blockages. This is more relevant when we live in cold humid climates like the one we have in SW England as environmental dampness and moulds can contribute to this type of accumulation and to the development of respiratory and skin problems.

At a deeper level, just as the lush trees need to lose their fruit and their leaves so that they can concentrate their energies inside themselves, also us need to focus on what goes on inside us. In TCM, grief and sadness are regarded as emotions of the metal element and many of us can indeed experience them more strongly at this time of year. Acknowledging and processing any unresolved emotions is necessary for us to be healthy and happy. Only when we let go of the past we open ourselves to enjoying our present life and plant the seeds of our future. After all, finding inspiration and energy for new projects and growth cannot happen while we are still attached to events, things, and people from the past.

Setting boundaries:
Amongst the TCM Lung functions it is that of providing a boundary between the body and the environment that enables goodness to enter – i.e. Oxygen – and keeps out harmful pathogens. Similar functions are performed by the skin and intestines both of which filter out what is harmful and allow nourishment of different kinds to go further into the body. In order for this protective energy to work optimally, we need to keep ourselves strong and also protect ourselves from harmful environmental influences. Keeping strong in this context is done by consuming nutritious food, accessing clean air, and performing breathing exercises, as well as getting enough rest to avoid over-exhaustion. All of this will ensure that plentiful Qi is made by the body.

A strong Qi however, may not be enough to protect us when pathogens are particularly strong. Because of this, we also need to put up physical barriers against the elements in the form of coats, hats, and scarves, and keep our bodies and environment clean and free of germs.  In TCM, Wind is considered an external pathogen which is the carrier of a 1000 diseases. This pathogen can “invade” the body easily during the autumn particularly through the neck and head, although it can also invade the skin when we are particularly susceptible to it. Wind can be a main factor in many conditions including the common cold, headaches, allergies and rashes.

At emotional and mental levels, the setting of boundaries involves understanding when we are allowing people or situations to override our needs, opinions, and desires. We often wait until we have become stressed, anxious, and even physically ill before we dare acknowledge that a situation or relationship is affecting us in a negative way. Yet it is always down to us to make things better for ourselves as we cannot expect a person or circumstance to go away or change on its own accord. I have experienced this myself and seen countless examples of it in the clinic: in the fear of disappointing others or speaking up, we may push ourselves to the point of making ourselves chronically ill. We then realise that there is no job or person in the world worth our health and that in fact we need to ensure our own wellness before we can be truly reliable, do our best, or look after others. Putting ourselves first and saying no without aggression or guilt are in this case important self-preservation tools born of self-respect rather than selfishness.                                         

Autumn diet
Although there are many diets around which seem to work for at least some people, the one thing that a healthy diet must consist of - for the most part- is natural fresh foods that do not contain any chemical additives, and which preferably are cooked from scratch. All the better if these fresh foods are in season and locally produced as well. Food loses nutrients in time so the further fresh food travels the less nourishing it is. 

If we make at least 50 % of our food fresh vegetables and fruit and ensure that our supply fluids and protein is adequate for our needs, we will be providing ourselves with good nutrition, protection from disease, and constant fuel for our energy. Following TCM views of the digestive process, it is preferable for us to consume cooked warming foods in the colder months. This means that soups and stews are commonly recommended over cold and raw foods. For more on this, have a look at the posts on TCM diet.

To enhance the energy of the Lung we invariably need to increase the energy of the whole body.  Making sure that we eat well and in a way that takes into account our digestive power is essential here as our ability to digest directly relates to our ability to transform food into energy or Qi. This means that for those whose digestive system struggles to process food, eating foods that are easily digested needs to be the focus of their diet so that food can be transformed into energy which will in turn fuel the digestive power itself. My posts on Qi and on the Lungs expand on this and explain how to maintain a strong Qi and healthy Lungs.

For humid areas like SW England, particular recommendations for this time of year are aimed to reducing mucus and phlegm formation as they can easily accumulate in the Lungs, respiratory passages and Large intestine and impair their function. Those with a tendency to congestion anywhere in the respiratory or digestive systems can benefit from avoiding mucus-producing foods such as milk and wheat products and refined sugar. Alcohol, sweeteners, processed and chemically-laden foods, and rich greasy dishes can also produce mucus and are best avoided. Adding small amounts of spices can be a good way to prevent phlegm and mucus from accumulating. Fresh ginger, thyme, and mustard seeds are particularly effective at this and can be added to meals on a daily basis. However, if there are signs of fever, flushing - especially night –, acid reflux or dryness anywhere in the body it is best to avoid these herbs as they are warming and drying.

Keeping the respiratory and digestive tracts free from blockage and accumulation benefits the functioning of these systems and results in enhancing the ability of the body to produce Qi. This can have a direct impact on our energy levels and immune response and can help us stay healthy through the coming winter months.

Saturday 24 January 2015

The essentials of health

Everyone wants to be in good health. At least we tend to assume so as it would be crazy to wish sickness and unhappiness upon ourselves, wouldn’t it?  Yet, although most of us have some idea of what we need to do in order to be healthy, many of us fail to give ourselves even the minimal care. Worst of all, we seem to wait for sickness to strike before we even start thinking about staying healthy. How come we say we want to be healthy but actively make ourselves sick?

This may be due to a combination of different factors: the ever growing list of activities and responsibilities populating our lives, our own laziness about adopting healthy habits which are often perceived as requiring loads of effort, wanting instant results and quick fixes for everything, and our complacency about the ability of doctors to cure all illnesses. What happens in many cases is that we end up getting forced to adopt healthy habits after a lifetime of mistreating our bodies renders us unable to cope with even the slightliest indiscretion, and our hope of existing cures for everything turns into despondency when we find out that we may have done irreparable damage to our bodies and there is no easy or short term cure for our symptoms.

In addition to this, we have grown increasingly confused about what is healthy and what is not. This is a result of the information overload about these subjects which drives us to keep on trying every new cure-all remedy, supplement, exercise regime, and diet under the sun. This has only contributed to taking us further away from understanding our common needs as members of an animal species and part of the natural world, and our individual needs that result from the fact that we are all born with our own specific constitutional traits. These needs hold the key to our personal health maintenance.

Health = balance
Chinese medicine refers to a state of health as one where there is balance. This balance is understood to be happening between Yin and Yang, the two opposing qualities that lie at the root of everything that exists, making life possible. Where Yin is moist, cool, dark, heavy, and tends to contract and be still; Yang is dry, warm, light, airy, and tends to expand and move. In terms of the body, Yin has more to do with structure and Yang with function. However, as these are not absolute energies but in fact "contain" each other, there is nothing that is purely Yin or purely Yang as illustrated by the Yin Yang symbol.

When we are in a state of balance, the body is strong and all its functions occur naturally and without interruption. This can only happen if there is plentiful nourishment and moisture to provide substance to the organs, body structures, and fluids (Yin); and there is enough warmth, movement, and energy to fuel the activities and functions in the whole body (Yang).

The idea of balance is not exclusive to Chinese medicine. The same concept is referred to in Biology as Homeostasis, which is understood as "the ability or tendency of an organism or cell to maintain internal equilibrium by adjusting its physiological processes". Homoeostasis is chiefly achieved through the nervous and endocrine systems and has an effect on the functioning of every cell. Hormones and other chemicals (Yin) are the most important messengers in this process as they activate and de-activate different functions as the need appears (Yang). This need is informed by a feedback mechanism that constantly checks if different conditions and substances are at an optimum level. When levels are too high or low, a series of actions are triggered by this feedback that will attempt a return to the optimum levels so that ideal conditions are restored. 

Thanks to this process, all our bodily functions and the necessary conditions for life - temperature, blood pressure, pH, glucose concentration, etc – are maintained at a constant level.

Although all mechanisms of the body are involved in the maintenance of health and balance, they will only be achieved if the body’s basic needs are met.  These basic needs constitute what I would call the “essentials of health”, they are the necessary requirements for optimum functioning of the body.  When we do not fulfill any one of these requirements over long periods of time, this may result in the impairment of specific bodily functions which may in turn lead to disease and the development of chronic, often incurable, conditions.

The essentials of health are: Nutrients, fresh air, water, sleep, movement, and relaxation.

Note that I say nutrients, not “food”.  These two words should really be understood as the same thing but in our society not everything that is classified as “food” does actually provide any nutrients.

A nutritious diet is the single most important requirement for our body to perform its functions and for us to be in health, as it will provide us with plentiful Yin (nutrients that become substance of the body) and Yang (physical energy).

Our bodies make over 10 million new cells every second to replace those that have reached the end of their cycle and need to be discarded. The raw material used by the body to make all these cells comes from the food and drink that we consume. So, in order to maintain our health more successfully than we are currently doing, we need to put into our psyche these two equations:  

Nutritious food= healthy cells= good health
Nutrient-poor food (the stuff that has been processed in any way) = unhealthy cells= ill health

It really is that simple.

The lack of understanding of this basic fact is what lies at the root of the epidemic of obesity paired with malnutrition that seems to be spreading around the world.  What we are seeing is that malnutrition does not happen only to people who have no food to eat but can in fact be a result of eating things that are empty of nutritional value.  In effect, the same thing will happen in both types of malnutrition: whole systems of the body will stop working properly, there will be the onset of ill health, lethargy, and exhaustion and, if long term, organs will be damaged beyond repair. The difference is that those malnourished due to starvation will waste away while those who eat nutrient-free processed stuff will instead accumulate toxicity that the body will not be able to discard, resulting in a host of other problems. This is corroborated by an expert report from the World Health Organisation which pointed out that improving nutrition globally is one of the best ways to prevent chronic diseases which are rapidly increasing in the whole world (1).

Chinese medicine theory explains that the body makes Qi (vital energy) and Blood from the food that we consume. Qi and Blood are two of the essential substances of the body as the function of all systems of the body depends on plentiful Qi and the nourishment and lubrication of all cells and tissues depends on a steady supply of Blood. As the quantity and quality of our Qi and Blood depend on the quantity and quality of the nutrients we consume, what we eat is a direct precursor of how well our body works.

To find out about more about food and eating in a way that supports our health, visit my posts on what real food is, the TCM concept of a healthy diet, and the TCM basic substances Qi and Blood 

Fresh Air
The human body can only survive a few minutes without Oxygen as it is the fuel that enables the function of every single cell in the body. Oxygen is not only necessary for cell growth and energy production but it is also part of the basic process of toxin elimination at cellular and systemic levels. 
Fresh air nourishes us

Just as we have grown used to being “under-nourished” by virtue of consuming foods that are high in toxicity but which contain little in the way of nutrition, we have also become habitually under-oxygenated not only because of air pollution but because we have forgotten how to breathe. 

Respiration is so essential for our survival that it is a function that happens automatically. However, if we want to go beyond survival level, counteract the damaging effects of our polluted environment and life-style, and actually feel well and full of energy, we require much more oxygen than this automatic function can provide us with. Accessing fresh air in open spaces will not only help us do this but has countless benefits to our health (2). As well as breathing purer air, we would also benefit from re-learning how to breathe through the practice of breathing exercises. To find out more on this, visit my post on conscious breathing.

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.

We hear this all the time:  water constitutes more than 60% of the human body. Not only does water make up the largest part of the blood, but it is also necessary for the transport of important chemical messengers and nutrients throughout the body, for excretion of waste products, for temperature regulation, digestion of food, and the lubrication of all bodily tissues. Amongst the many benefits of drinking enough water (3), we can have improved digestion and elimination, healthier looking skin (due to enhanced toxin elimination and increased moisture), and even improved brain function (4).

Although the amount of fluids that we need does vary from one person to the next, we all need to have enough in our diets in order to be healthy. Water is the only fluid the body really needs, we should drink it either as pure water (preferably drunk warm or at room temperature), herbal infusions, and home made fruit/vegetable juices as well as the water contained in fresh fruits and vegetables. Other fluids, like alcohol and soft drinks, can actually fill our systems with toxins and unwanted chemicals or even rob us of water as it is the case with tea, coffee and all caffeinated drinks which promote urination and take water out of the system. 

In Chinese Medicine, water is seen as the main component of Jin Ye (body fluids) which is an essential substance made up of water and nutrients extracted from the food and drink that we consume. Jin Ye have the function to moisten, lubricate, and help cleanse all bodily tissues; as well as being the watery component of Blood.

Not enough is ever said about the importance of sleep. However, many of us have experienced how lack of sleep can affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Studies have linked sleep deprivation to low immunity and higher risks of developing diabetes and heart disease (5). More recently, a team of worried scientists from several top universities gave a warning that our societal inclination to ignore our sleep needs is contributing to the development of severe illnesses, including cancer (6).

In terms of Chinese medicine, enough sleep is an absolute necessity to the body. It is during our sleep that the energies of Yin and Blood can grow and nourish the body at the deepest level, toxins and waste products get removed, and the mind and emotions get soothed and settled. Lack of sleep has a direct impact on the Heart and can affect Heart functions including Blood circulation, mental acuity, and emotional balance. It may ring bells to many who have experienced the mental fog, anxiety, impatience, and snappiness that often result after a bad night sleep.

Sleep is particularly important when we have a hectic pace of life as the more we do and the faster we do things, the more Qi and Blood we use up. I often treat people who have gone too long doing too much with too little sleep to compensate for it. What tends to happen in these cases is that we get into “override” and become so wired that even though we feel exhausted, we cannot attain deep restful sleep. This takes us into a downward spiral so that the more tired we get, the less we can sleep, and is a common pathway to the development of chronic health issues. This inability to switch off is regarded in TCM as a reflection of the Yin and Blood of the body becoming extremely depleted.


Moderate exercise is best
I say movement here because at the word “exercise” our minds often recall pictures of half marathon runners  and fitness enthusiasts with pumped up muscles sweating away at the gym, making many of us feel immediately overwhelmed and put off.  

Although there is no denying that our bodies need movement, the type and amount of exercise that each of us require depends on our individual condition and constitution.This is often disregarded in favour of the belief that the more exercise we do the better we will feel, which results in obsessive running, training, and fitness cultivation which can end up depleting our systems to the point of making us sick. Contrary to this common belief in fact, too much cardiovascular exercise can be detrimental to your health (7). It should stand to reason that if our energy and immunity are depleted and we are struggling to cope with the amount of daily activity that we perform, heavy training sessions are never going to be conducive to health and balance. 

From a balance point of view, the chief reasons behind the idea of regular moderate exercise are:

  • To optimise oxygenation – as we move – especially outdoors- we get more air into our Lungs and this strengthens Lung function and the production of vital energy
  • To enhance the circulation of blood and fluids – movement makes Blood and Qi move more freely increasing oxygenation to every part of the body, aiding the removal of waste products, preventing stagnation of fluids, encouraging digestion, and helping out the Heart so it doesn’t have to work so hard.
  • To settle the mind and emotions – provided we are focusing on the task at hand, exercise can also help busy minds and unstable emotions become calmer.  Gentler types of movement, such as Qigong and Yoga are more powerful at this as they involve deep breathing which in itself has great calming qualities
Relaxation is literally the opposite of tension and is a term used to describe techniques that allow the release of tension at physical, mental, and emotional levels. Such techniques have become a necessity in a society where one in four people experience at least one diagnosable mental health condition (8).

Previous generations never had the concept of relaxation as necessary for health. This may be because they didn’t have the 24 hour, forever-on-the-go existence that we have nowadays. We have grown to regard as normal our being perennially on the move, forever plugged into a phone or device, high on caffeine and sugar, and spending our down time being further stimulated by rapidly moving images, loud noise, and the mental/emotional activity that these stimuli produce within us.

In the same way as sleep deprivation can result in a pattern of feeling exhausted but too wired to sleep, overstimulation of our mind and emotions can make us anxious, depressed, and unable to control the mind and emotions.

There are a many relaxation techniques available these days, the most common ones amongst them are all the different types of meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and visualisation. The most important thing is to find something that works for us, allowing us to go into a space in which we become deeply calm. This is the space where our bodies can truly renew themselves and where healing from illness of any kind can be possible.

Becoming aware that we need an adequate amount of good quality nutrients, fresh air, water, sleep, movement, and relaxation is the first step towards a more balanced, healthier life. We can then start to make better choices and learn more about our individual needs. This takes some effort and involves taking responsibility for ourselves and our wellbeing, but ultimately each of us may get to enjoy the consequences of our better lifestyle choices in the form of health and vitality.