Acupuncture: An Ideal Treatment for Senior Depression

senior alone on bench

Depression impacts 14% of seniors in Colorado. The symptoms of depression in older adults can range from fatigue and poor appetite to hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. Most elders living with depression do not develop symptoms until later in life and are often unfamiliar with treatment options. In addition, many may be reluctant to share details about their experience due to a perceived social bias against mental illness. Acupuncture, because of its unique ability to simultaneously address both the physical and emotional aspects of health, is an ideal treatment for senior depression.

The factors leading to depression in seniors are different from those of younger adults. Many of these factors are linked to physiological changes that may appear with age. Patients with advancing stages of certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, often develop depression due to organic changes in the brain. Other seniors are impacted more by the social implications of aging, including a loss of freedom, autonomy, purpose, and meaningful identity.

In this article we will first become familiar with physical and mental considerations in identifying senior depression. We will then look at when acupuncture is an ideal choice for an elder living with this condition. Because of the far-reaching, and potentially devastating, effects of depression, we must understand how to offer the right assistance at the right time.

 

Physical Symptoms in Senior Depression

Particular diseases are linked to depression in older adults. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, dementia and those recovering from stroke carry a greater risk of developing depression due to physical changes in the brain. Elders with cardiovascular disease, hypo- and hyper-thyroidism, and Type II diabetes also show a propensity for depression. Often patients are treated for mood changes in the context of managing these chronic illnesses.

When identifying depression in a senior, it is imperative to determine if mood changes are due to the progression of a disease, either previously diagnosed or currently unidentified. Mental health shifts can point to hidden physiological changes that must not be overlooked. Always consider whether a change in mood is coming from physical illness before starting treatment for depression.

Even with this screening in place though, many seniors my not articulate their feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or anxiety openly to family or caregivers. The signs of depression in seniors can be difficult to identify and are sometimes dismissed as being part of “old age”—even by the patient herself. While aging does bring unique life challenges, certain physical changes should not be ignored.

 

Possible Physical Indications of Depression in Seniors

Insomnia: Insomnia and depression are closely linked in elders. Patients with lifelong sleep problems have a higher risk of developing depression. A recent onset of insomnia may also indicate a senior is having a mood shift. Correcting the insomnia is important, as poor sleep lowers immunity, clouds cognition, and can lead to accidents and falls.

Fatigue: Daytime exhaustion may be a sign of poor sleep, but this is not always the case. Fatigue can point to a variety of issues, including physical complications from hypotension or hypothyroidism. Fatigue can also be a sign of mental disengagement and avoidance. Both fatigue and depression can create a sensation of being physically “dragged down,” leaving the patient feeling helpless to complete the basic Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) or engage socially with friends and family.

Lack of Appetite: Disinterest in food can also be a sign of depression in seniors, a condition we see more in women than men. The implications of poor nutrition are numerous, including blood sugar instability, increased frailty and risk of falls, and dehydration. Diseases of the digestive tract should be ruled out, including constipation.

Physical symptoms are sometimes the only clues we have to helping seniors with mental health concerns. If you notice changes in sleep, appetite, or energy levels, see a medical doctor to rule out infection or disease. Often shifts in mental outlook are directly related to changes in physical health, especially in patients managing complex diseases. A clear diagnosis is always the first course of action.

 

Mental Symptoms in Senior Depression

Depression can be tied to a number of triggers in older adults. For some, the losses of aging—including diminished physical vigor, reduced mental clarity, changing social roles, and grief over losing a spouse—can be overwhelming. Lack of control over the processes of illness and death may cause some seniors to feel regret, sorrow, and fear. Caregivers should be able to offer solace and companionship to elders who are navigating this difficult terrain.

Life changes that may trigger depression in a senior include:

  • Death of a spouse
  • Moving to assisted living, a memory care unit, or a skilled nursing facility
  • Deterioration of physical health
  • Memory loss, especially in the early stages of Alzheimer’s
  • Change in financial status
  • Sudden isolation
  • Loss of a social role, either in the family or community

Seniors may also experience a state of “depression without sadness,” meaning they can be depressed even in the absence of an emotional trigger. They may say they have nothing to feel sad about, and yet, as caregivers, we may observe physical or emotional changes that suggest there is something deeper going on. The following indicators may help us identify hidden symptoms of depression.

 

Possible Mental Indications of Depression in Seniors

Anxiety: Seniors who are anxious are more likely to develop symptoms of depression if triggered by a life-changing event. Also, elders who live with both anxiety and depression may not respond as quickly to conventional treatment (medication and psychotherapy). Helping seniors feel less anxious may lead to emotional resiliency and feelings of self-empowerment and stability in the face of difficult life transitions.

Lack of Interest in Life: Engagement, purpose, and connection are important during every phase of life. Some elders see the last phase of life as an opportunity to let go of relationships, roles, or obligations they no longer need or enjoy. For some, self-reflection becomes their main focus. Others use this time to create relationships, travel, or learn new hobbies. A lack of interest in life, including hopelessness about the future, could be a sign of depression in an older adult and should be taken seriously.

Grief: Grief, or bereavement, is differentiated from depression. At the same time, untended grief can turn into depression, especially if the loss of a loved one coincides with another trigger, such as a move to an assisted living facility. Some elders may feel they need to “get over it” but are unable to transform their grief in a timeframe that feels reasonable to them. It is important to tap into a network of care for elders working through loss of a loved one. Luckily, hospices across the country offer grief counseling and support groups for the bereaved. These services are often free and can make an enormous difference in an elder’s recovery.

Mental and physical symptoms often mix to present a complicated health picture in older adults. The combination of emotional loss and changes in physical wellbeing can initiate feelings of despair in elders who have lived long lives of independence and vitality. Attending to both physical and emotional needs is crucial for maintaining a positive mental outlook in seniors and offering the best care possible.

 

Acupuncture for Depression in Seniors

Acupuncture is a unique drug-free alternative that treats a spectrum of body-mind concerns in older adults. Treatments are automatically designed to address physical issues, as well as mental discomfort. In fact, acupuncture theory is built on an inherent relationship between physical wellbeing and mental health.

Acupuncture is particularly powerful in treating seniors because we begin by addressing physical discomfort. Older adults usually feel safe talking about pain or the progression of diseases, such as hypertension and COPD, with an acupuncturist. Patients understand that acupuncture helps with physical ailments, and they can measure changes in physical health after seeing a practitioner.

The benefit of having an acupuncturist on your caregiving team is that patients receive emotional support in the context of physical care. This mimics the Western medical model of going to the doctor for physical pain and being asked about mood. I find patients respond well to this approach and are grateful that I ask about their mental wellbeing.

When I treat older adults, I always ask about mood. Some patients talk openly with me about their feelings; others are more private with their answers. I work to create a relationship of trust so that patients understand I am committed to helping them both physically and emotionally. Each of my treatments addresses the body-mind spectrum.

If patients wish to share how they’re feeling, acupuncture treatments almost always allow time for connecting. While clients are resting with needles inserted, I offer to talk if they feel inclined. This combination of authentic listening, attention to physical care, and gentle touch make a noticeable difference in an elder’s life.

At Boulder Acupuncture and Herbs, senior mental health is important to us. We are connected to social workers, psychotherapists, geriatric medical doctors, and other alternative medical practitioners who can help. If acupuncture is not the ideal treatment for you or a loved one, we will refer you to the right provider.

Emotional wellbeing is an important part of healthy aging. Our mission is to provide full-spectrum care for every senior we see in our clinic. When you work with us, you can be confident we will always consider your mental health concerns in the context of treating your physical condition.

 

Works Referenced

Carnarius, Megan (2015). A Deeper Perspective on Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias: Practical Tools with Spiritual Insights. Findhorn Press (Scotland, UK).

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 2016. The health of Colorado’s older adult population data infographic. http://www.chd.dphe.state.co.us/Age/Healthy-Aging-in-Colorado-Infographic.html.

Fiske, Amy, et al. (2009). “Depression in Older Adults.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. Accessed via National Institutes of Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2852580/.

Hibernation Season: Using Deep Winter to Rest and Restore

Chinese medicine developed based on observation of the natural world. In diagnosing and preventing illness, we always consider the role of natural forces, including seasonal influences. Even though we live in climate-controlled environments, we are still impacted by the winter weather outside our front doors, just like the plants and animals with which we share this beautiful planet.

Winter is the time of year when yang energy—warmth from the sun—is at its weakest. Many animals hibernate, plants go dormant, and water freezes. The kinetic energy of our environment is much slower than it is in high summer. Food and fuel both become scarce—and precious.

Your body has its own energetic sun, housed in the Kidneys. Being attuned to climate, your body naturally regards winter with caution. During the coldest months of the year, this energy is conserved as a means of survival. Sleep becomes a priority. We may also eat more, padding our bodies with a little extra energy. Many of our winter tendencies toward comfort—warm blankets, wool socks, cinnamon tea—are unconscious gestures of self-protection. Biologically we understand that cold is dangerous.

When pathological cold enters the body, it paralyses normal function. Cold can damage the joints, the digestive system, and the skin, causing frostbite. Blood flow slows in cases of excess cold, creating poor circulation in the hands, feet, lower back, buttocks, and abdomen. This deficiency in blood circulation causes poor nutrient perfusion and slows the body’s ability to heal, warm, and detoxify itself.

Cold has always been a serious threat to human survival. One of the most famous Chinese herbal texts, the Shang Han Lun, or Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders, describes treatments for diseases that have their origins in pathogenic cold. This 1,800-year-old text describes how cold penetrates the body and becomes lodged, weakening the organs. Many formulas we use in the clinic today come from this insightful text, written by Zhang Zhongjing, centuries before the discovery of bacteria or viruses. It seems cold weather and weakened immunity were linked in the minds of Chinese herbalists nearly 2,000 years ago.

This winter help your body stay healthy by applying these preventive measures to ward off illness and make the most of the darkest season.

 

Avoid getting cold

This seems like the simplest advice, but many people do not understand the depleting quality of cold. Dress warm, especially protecting your hands, feet, and neck. In Chinese medicine, cold easily enters the neck, hands, and feet, causing sinus problems, joint stiffness, increased urination, headache, and loose stools.

Gentle exercise, warm showers, footbaths, and adequate clothing can all reduce the danger of penetrating cold. Be cautious of drafts, wear socks to bed, and avoid walking on tile floors without slippers. If you do catch a chill, address it immediately by adding clothing, turning up the heat, or getting in the tub or shower. People with colder constitutions are most susceptible to cold damage, though “hot-blooded” people are vulnerable as well. Dress appropriately to avoid taking on an environmental chill.

 

Eat for warmth

Culturally, winter can bring a lot of excess—rich food, alcohol, and sugar being the most common indulgences. The tendency to overeat during November and December can inspire dramatic shifts in diet and exercise plans on January 1.

Reducing holiday indulgencies is a great New Year’s goal, but winter is the worst time of year to go on a detoxification diet or shift to a raw food plan. Your body is already fighting to keep you warm, and eating uncooked food takes energy away from critical organs, including the digestive and waste elimination systems. This is energy you need to keep your immune system strong.

If you want to improve your diet during the winter months, switch to cooked meat, vegetables, and grains. Soups, stews, and slow-cooked foods offer the most nourishment and will not tax your body. Smoothies, salads, and raw fruit are the hardest foods to digest during winter and should be saved for spring, when the yang energy of the sun is returning.

 

Rest, relax, and sleep

Many animals spend the majority of winter in a state of hibernation, conserving their energy for basic daily tasks. Modern humans, of course, rarely adjust their seasonal schedules to accommodate a need for more rest. In fact, winter can be just as hectic as summer, especially around the holidays.

Shorter days are a natural cue to your body to grab a few more hours of rest. Think of a good night’s sleep as a kind of mini-hibernation. Even adding an extra half-hour of sleep to your night can make a difference in you daytime energy levels, cognition, and productivity—not to mention your immunity.

Winter is a great time of year to work on sleep issues. If sleep is challenging for you, consider acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Our clinic can help you rest and relax with treatments designed to address your constitution. In fact, skip the smoothies and make a good night’s sleep your New Year’s resolution this year.

Have a happy, healthy 2017!

Acupuncture for Urinary Tract Infections

women

Urinary tract infections, also called UTIs, are a common occurrence in older adults, especially women. In Western medicine UTIs are caused by the presence of bacteria, often E. coli, in the bladder. These bacteria travel up the urethra, and if left untreated, can also affect the kidneys. Managing a urinary tract infection quickly is important. If left untreated, these infections may spread, causing damage to the bladder, kidney, urethra, and genital tissue.

The symptoms of a UTI include burning on urination, the sensation of needing to urinate and being unable to void, itching in the genitals, or pain in the lower abdomen. Patients may also have an overall feeling of being unwell, including fever, irritability, or insomnia.

Healthy urine should pass easily, be straw-colored and free of cloudiness. In the case of a UTI, the urine may be dark in color, cloudy, milky, or even streaked with blood. The presence of blood in the urine indicates the infection is severely irritating the lining of the kidneys, bladder, or urethra.

Women are more likely to contract UTIs because of the short length of their urethras, or the passage between the bladder and the outside. Many women who suffer from UTIs show a chronic recurrence of these symptoms. For women who wear padded protection against accidents, a lack of breathability in the vaginal area can create an environment for bacteria. Also, patients who are unable to bathe regularly present a higher risk for developing a urinary tract infection.

Western medicine treats UTIs with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the infection, the duration, and the patient’s history of naturally managing UTIs, alternative treatments are available.

We will focus on acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and dietary medicines, though there are other resources for UTIs in Western herbalism and homeopathy. My experience is that women often discover the best combination of alternative treatments for their particular body; no “one way” is right for every patient.

Chinese medicine treats the cause of UTI in many different ways, depending on the patient’s age, constitution, symptoms, and overall health picture. UTIs come about due to a variety of factors, including environmental, biological, and emotional. Certain types of UTIs are initiated by psychological upset and can be traced back to stress or anxiety. In Chinese medicine these infections are treated differently than UTIs caused by tight-fitting clothing, hygiene issues, or eating the wrong foods.

UTI symptoms fall on a spectrum. Some women experience intense burning with urination. Other women feel bloated and swollen, as if their urine cannot pass through the urethra because the passage is narrower than usual. Still others may feel no pain at all but notice their urine is cloudy. I have also known of women who simply felt like they had the flu but could not point to the bladder being the cause of their discomfort.

Once I have determined the cause of the problem, I develop an acupuncture plan and may prescribe a Chinese herbal formula designed to address the infection. Most UTIs can be cleared up with a few treatments and a week of herbs. If your symptoms are recurring though, we need to determine what is triggering the infection and eliminate the irritant.

The vagina and opening of the urethra are sensitive to changes in temperature and the presence of chemicals. I recommend all women wear cotton underwear, which is the most breathable fabric available, to keep the vaginal area cool and dry. If you wear pads or panty liners to manage incontinence, choose products that are made of organic cotton and a minimal amount of plastic. Organic cotton cloth diapers are a good solution for patients who need round-the-clock protection. Currently, there are no organic cotton disposable adult diapers on the market. I am hopeful these become available soon. Above all, make sure the underwear, pads, or diapers are changed regularly to minimize the risk of bacteria from the colon entering the urethra.

Drinking plenty of water will help your body flush the bacteria out of the bladder. You may also add 100% cranberry juice to your diet. Just make sure your juice does not contain any added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. All bacterial infections are “fed” by the simple sugars found in sweet fruits and refined sweeteners. The best dietary change you can make to make the body inhospitable to bacterial infections is to cut refined sugars and alcohol.

A simple, effective home remedy for UTI is drinking corn silk tea. Corn silk is the “hair” that grows around the corn ear and is sloughed off before eating the kernels. This “silk” is soothing to the urinary tract and also has a mild taste. You can make a tea from the silk or buy encapsulated corn silk to be taken as a pill. This remedy is not for patients who are taking blood thinners (Coumadin, Plavix, etc.) or diuretics for high blood pressure or edema. If you are not taking these contraindicated medications and are experiencing recurring UTIs, consider buying a bottle of corn silk pills to keep on hand for future infections.

It is critical to remember that some urinary tract infections are best managed with antibiotics. Longstanding infections, or infections in patients who have compromised immune systems, should be addressed through Western medicine. If you are unsure whether your symptoms should be treated with antibiotics, make an appointment with your doctor. For mild infections, acupuncture, herbs, and dietary therapy may offer relief.

We are happy to talk with you about your symptoms and your health history to determine if Chinese medicine is the right choice for you.

Acupuncture and Surgical Recovery

According to the article “Common Surgical Procedures in the Elderly”[*] published by the American Geriatrics Society, older adults receive 20% of all surgeries conducted in the United States. Comprising only 13% of the population, the patient-to-procedure ratio for older adults undergoing surgery is quite high.

Surgery is an important part of modern healthcare. Many life-threatening and painful conditions are helped by surgical intervention, including cardiac events and broken bones. Older adults may undergo many surgeries to address a variety of health problems as they age.

Whether you have a procedure planned or are recouping from surgery, consider adding acupuncture to your rehabilitation program to shorten and ease your recovery time.

Acupuncture works by stimulating the body to initiate its own healing capabilities. Inserting needles in the skin at specific points reduces inflammation, releases endorphins, stimulates the immune system, and promotes blood flow to compromised areas. Recovering from surgery stresses the body’s natural repair and defense systems, especially in older patients with weakened immune and metabolic responses. Acupuncture provides gentle, supportive treatment during those vulnerable weeks after surgery when the body is asked to do significant self-healing. It stimulates the appetite, promotes elimination, and can reduce dependence on pain medication, all of which speed recovery and improve quality of life through the rehabilitation process.

Post-surgical acupuncture can be done in a variety of settings. Patients may be treated in bed, in a wheelchair, on a massage table, or in a recliner. Our clinic specializes in elder care, which means we can treat older adults with mobility restrictions and special needs, including hip, knee, and back surgeries. 

A series of acupuncture treatments can also help you prepare before receiving a medical procedure. Acupuncture boosts your immunity, calms your nervous system, and helps you sleep, which are important to recovery. Plan to see your acupuncturist once a week for three weeks before your surgery, and aim to schedule your last appointment a day or two before your procedure. Once you’ve had your surgery, schedule a series of follow-up appointments to help you through rehabilitation.

After surgery, it is important to closely manage your post-surgical pain. As pain levels rise, so do instances of insomnia, high blood pressure, and anxiety. By combining acupuncture with traditional pain management, many patients find they are able to reduce their pain medications, helping them feel more alert and avoiding side effects like constipation. Remember, pain is best managed through treatment before it becomes unbearable. Schedule appointments with your acupuncturist prior to going in for surgery to insure you are able to get in after your procedure.

Surgery can be worrisome, especially in older patients, and particularly if the recovery process is long. At Boulder Acupuncture and Herbs, we see patients in their homes or in rehabilitation facilities, like Frasier Meadows Healthcare Center, so that you can start treatment right away. If you have a surgery planned, call us to schedule a series of appointments aimed at helping you recovery quickly, safely, and with fewer complications.

[*] http://www.americangeriatrics.org/gsr/anesthesiology/common_surgical_procedures.pdf

Pain Management in Older Adults

older adult on bicycle

Chronic pain is the number one reason seniors visit an acupuncturist. As many patients age, pain management becomes a daily consideration. Years of wear and tear on knees, shoulders, hips, and feet can show up later in life, limiting patients’ mobility, interfering with sleep, and greatly impacting their quality of life.

Acupuncture is an ideal pain management approach for seniors because it is drug-free, easy to implement, and relatively low-cost.

But why is pain such a common complaint in older adults? As we age, our bodies tend to become less flexible. The blood and fluid necessary to keep our joints and muscles supple decreases naturally with age, both because we are not extracting as much nutrition from our food and because our hormone levels change. Much of the energy required for daily function gets used up by the organs, leaving the limbs weak, stiff, and painful.

The body is a contained network of blood, fluid, and nutrients moving through our muscles, organs, and bones. Exercise assists the body in flushing waste products from the system and bringing fresh oxygen to the limbs and brain. Like exercise, acupuncture creates movement in the body, which is particularly helpful for seniors who have a hard time being active.

When we stop moving our limbs, the heart, lungs, and blood vessels are forced to pump the circulatory system without added assistance, which can be quite difficult depending on the health of these organs as we age. Lack of movement also causes joints and muscles to stiffen, making it harder for blood and fluids to pass, adding to sensations of pain.

Acupuncture needles create movement in the circuitry of the body by tapping into the meridian system, a network of invisible electrical impulses that precede the creation of blood, bones, lymph, and organs. This system of impulses connects all parts of the body in a web. It is the explanation for why an acupuncturist can insert a needle in the hand to ease back pain and why a point on the back of the calf can help with hemorrhoids.

Use of the meridian system is also a major distinction between acupuncture and what is referred to as “dry needling.” Dry needling is a technique that uses acupuncture needles to break up stagnation in a muscle, but this technique does not make use of the meridian system. An acupuncturist’s knowledge of the meridian system offers her many different ways of treating a patient’s pain. For example, just because a patient has pain in her shoulder does not mean we are limited to only needling the shoulder. The meridian system can relay a message to the shoulder through stimulation in other parts of the body.

The meridian system is self-regulating in the sense that its natural inclination is toward health and wellbeing. You are biologically “wired” for health. However, influences like diet, lifestyle, emotional difficulties, and sleep patterns can disrupt the smooth flow of the meridian system. Since the circuitry of the meridian system comes before the blood and lymph networks, it is important to treat the root cause of pain, which actually starts on the level of the meridians.

The meridian system, along with the blood, muscles, bones, and cartilage, can take on unhealthy patterns as a response to physical trauma, such as breaking a hip, overusing the knees, or wearing shoes with poor support. I often look at pain as the body having adopted a “habit” of organizing itself in a particular way around a trauma as a means of protection. Acupuncture helps disrupt this response.

In a way, we can consider acupuncture passive exercise for the meridian system. By encouraging the body to redirect its energy in a healthy pattern, those knots of pain can gradually unravel. Chronic pain is not always easy to alter, but by giving the body a consistent message through acupuncture, we can often make a big impact on very stubborn problems, all without the use of medication.

Pain management is an important consideration in aging. Because exercise is not always a realistic way to work out stiff bones and muscles—especially if a patient is in a wheelchair or recovering from surgery—acupuncture should be considered in senior pain management plans. It is a simple adjunct therapy that can make a significant difference in a senior’s daily life, enabling them to enjoy the things they used to love or discover new joys in their later years.

Is Your Environment Making You Sick? Part III

damp environment

This series has covered the dangers of environmental wind and cold, but what about dampness?

In Colorado we don’t often consider the health impacts of a damp environment. After all, when we are blessed by a summer rainstorm, the water on the sidewalks typically evaporates within twenty minutes of the storm’s passing. Our environment is naturally hot and dry, but your indoor environment may be much wetter than you imagine.

Damp environments, whether hot or cold, can impact your body tremendously. Whether the dampness is coming from a leaking pipe or the natural dampness of a basement, wet environments cause their own set of health problems. Dampness, with its heavy, immovable quality, is the perfect conduit for heat and cold. When you have both cold and damp, or hot and damp, you may experience double the difficulty.

Fuzzy-headedness, stuffy noses, headaches, and musculoskeletal aches and pains are common ailments associated with damp environments. If dampness is not properly vented, it hangs in the air, potentially leading to an overgrowth of mold. Mold impacts the lungs and can irritate the skin as well. This kind of thick air also traps other pathogens, like dust, pollen, and pet dander.

Controlling damp environments requires vigilance. Using a dehumidifier in the basement is a good idea, and looking for ways to naturally open the space, either through a window or a fan system, may help. Dampness responds well to circulation, but because it is such a heavy substance, it requires a bit of artificial “lifting” through human measures.

If you are living in a damp environment, it is important to not compound the impact by creating a damp environment in your body. Ways to control dampness, whether hot or cold, are to avoid sugar, alcohol, dairy, refined grains, and processed food. Make sure you get plenty of exercise in fresh air, which will help you transform systemic dampness.

Living indoors often causes us to forget the affect climactic factors can have on our health. If you think your environment is causing you to feel sick, take this insight seriously. No matter what you put in your body, or how much exercise you get, living or working in an environment that makes you ill has a profound impact on your ability to gain traction in your recovery.

If you have questions about your constitutional climate, schedule an appointment with us to see if acupuncture and herbs might be able to help you optimize your environment for better health.

Is Your Environment Making You Sick? Part II

snow man

In Part I of this series on environmental illnesses, we looked at the impact artificial wind, in the form of fans and air conditioning, can have on the body. This time, we’ll focus on cold and your immune function.

In Colorado, we have highly fluctuating weather. We inevitably have a streak of warm, sunny days in winter, and people often respond to these sudden bursts of springtime by wearing shorts and sandals outside. No matter what the daytime temperatures reach in February, we can be sure it will be very cold once the sun goes down. As much as we enjoy the psychological respite from winter on those rare warm days, temperature fluctuations are difficult on the body, mostly because we don’t remember what season we’re in.

Your body becomes biologically attuned to your outside environment. If you live in a temperate climate, your body will adjust to having four seasons; if you live in a warm, damp climate, you can be sure your body will accommodate the constant pressures of that environment. Because we create artificial living and working environments within the larger context of an ecological climate, we are exposed to many microclimates on a daily basis. Think of your warm bed, your hot shower, your cold air conditioning, your frigid office, and the comfort of your bathrobe. Your body moves between environments constantly—and your immune system needs to be strong enough to manage the demands of these spaces.

Drafts and cold air make the immune system work overtime. Biologically, we are not built for cold. All of our metabolic systems require warmth to function properly. If you already run cold, forced air conditioning, high-power fans, and ice water are very hard on your system. The outside temperature steals that much-needed warmth, and your body has to work harder to protect itself.

A few ways to keep the cold from robbing you include wearing socks or slippers when walking on tile floors, keeping a scarf nearby if you are in a cold office, covering your ankles, drinking warm tea and eating warm, cooked foods, and not getting cold at night. All of this seems like common sense, but I cannot tell you how many patients I know who will sit at their desks for an hour, freezing, before they’ll stop working to grab a sweater!

If you run cold, consider how important it is to make sure that whichever microclimate you find yourself in, you remember your underlying condition. Don’t be afraid to wrap up, bump the air conditioner up a few degrees, or wear boots a little later into the spring. Your immune system will thank you.

Next time, what to do about living in damp environments.

Is Your Environment Making You Sick? Part I

windy environment

Environmental irritants are a common source of illness. Whether you are living in a home with black mold, or sitting beneath a dirty air filter at work, your environment plays a role in your health. While we may know to limit our use of caustic cleaning materials and change our vacuum bags regularly, there are other ways your environment may be making you sick.

Indoor environments have their own weather systems. Because we live in the modern era, we can easily control the temperature of our home, office, and car. If we run hot, we will blast the air conditioner. If we are always frigid, we’ll carry a cardigan or a shawl with us everywhere we go, even into a grocery store in the summer.

Indoor weather patterns have a big impact on our health. Let’s take the example of the air conditioner being set to “high.” For some people, cool air is exactly what they need to recover from blistering temperatures outdoors. If the person works outside, they may crave the cool comfort of central air because it is the only respite they get from the heat each day. Totally normal, right?

Here is where air conditioning can become a problem. Sitting beneath an air conditioning duct or sleeping with a fan blowing directly on your skin creates a “windy” environment in your home and in your body. When humans are exposed to wind, this environmental factor can enter the skin and cause havoc. Bell’s palsy, a condition marked by a sudden drooping of the face, is a pathology of unknown origin in Western medicine. In Chinese medicine, we see this as wind entering the channels and disrupting the flow of qi and blood through the meridians.

This may seem hard to fathom, but your body is actually quite open. The pores of our skin are tiny portals to our inner environments, and wind is able to force its way through those doors, especially when it is propelled via a fan. Cold wind is particularly damaging to the body. For these reasons alone, consider circulating the air in your house or office in a way that does not force the wind directly toward your body, especially your face.

Next week we will look at the role microclimates play in our immune function.

Five Chinese Herbs for High Summer

girl eating watermelon

Mother Nature is in full bloom in high summer, and these five Chinese herbs are the perfect antidotes for the heat.

Watermelon: Considered by many to be the fruit of summer, watermelon is naturally full of the nutrients, electrolytes, and liquid we need to stay hydrated in extremely hot weather. This wonderful, sweet fruit also offers a kick of sugar, which can revive us when we’ve overworked in the yard, taken a long hike, or danced in the sun at a summer music festival. I recommend buying, cleaning, and cutting up a watermelon once a week and leaving it in the refrigerator to use as a preventative medicine as well as a quick-recovery herb if you become overheated.

Mint: Mint is energetically cool and grows like a weed in the summertime. In fact, some gardeners consider anything in the mint family to be a major pest because it is so prolific. Take advantage of the availability of fresh mint by using it in your cooking or making a tea out of the leaves. Steep a large, crushed amount of mint in hot water for ten minutes, then transfer that to a pitcher filled with ice for instant iced tea. Mint is also particular helpful for stomachaches and intestinal upsets after ingesting oily, heavy foods. The light and cool nature of this herb make it the perfect accompaniment to hot weather.

Mung bean: Many Americans are unfamiliar with the lovely green mung bean, but this ingredient is actually quite common in some Asian cuisines. Mung beans are energetically cool and help the body drain excess water. As a very mild diuretic, you may think mung bean would be the wrong choice for summer. As with all herbs though, its efficacy depends on your personal constitution, as well as where you are living. Mung bean is useful in hot, damp environments, like the American south and the Midwest, where high levels of humidity can leave our insides feeling like a swamp. Incorporate mung beans in summer salads or soups, or make a tea from the rehydrated beans. You may find you develop a taste for this little green herb.

Barley tea: Barley, or Job’s tears, is another common ingredient in Asian cooking and is often found in teas designed to cool the digestive system. Like mung bean, barley helps the body drain excess water, which can improve digestion and cool the stomach. Many Americans don’t think of drinking teas made from grains, but barley is an excellent place to start. Simply boil the herb in hot water and simmer for twenty minutes. Next, drain the liquid from the herb, allow it to cool, and enjoy. Of course, if you are celiac, or gluten-sensitive, skip the barley tea and consider one of the other herbs on this list.

Chrysanthemum: Chrysanthemum tea is an excellent choice if your eyes become red and irritated in hot weather. This could be due to environmental irritants—like pollen or dust—or you may simply express heat through your eyes. If red eyes are a problem, chrysanthemum tea can bring great benefits. Considered a powerful herb for eye health, this flower has a delicate flavor that lends well to hot or cold infusions. Just remember that chrysanthemum does not need to be steeped for longer than five minutes. Also, if you have allergies to any plants in the aster family, it’s best to avoid chrysanthemum. Try mint instead.

This summer stock your pantry with these easy-to-find Chinese herbs and use them to prevent and treat mild cases of dehydration, upset stomach, and heat exhaustion. If you find one of these treasures really works for you, consider nurturing and growing them in your garden next year.

Just be sure to put the mint in its own pot!

Going on an Elimination Diet? Give Yourself a Month

woman holding ice cream

Dietary adjustments are hard. When I recommend dietary changes to patients, I ask them if they can commit to one month of effort. The annoying truth is that elimination diets, such as gluten- and dairy-free diets, can take time to show results. Often patients abandon an elimination diet too early to effectively evaluate its impact. Other elimination diets, like sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, show almost immediate results, leaving little room for doubt. I have never heard anyone say they felt better, physically, eating more candy and doughnuts.

The “costs” of an elimination diet can be surprisingly high. Not only can it be more expensive to buy items that substitute for foods you are accustomed to having, there is a time cost to learning to cook new foods or find restaurants that meet your needs. Maybe you are the only person in your house launching this diet, which is a challenge in itself. There can be mental costs to starting a diet as well, such as saying no to your mom’s chocolate cake. It’s important to factor these costs into your plan.

Giving a diet less than four weeks to prove itself is usually a formula for failure, setting you up to ping pong between deprivation and bingeing. Drastic changes are hard on your body, your mind, and in some cases, your wallet, so don’t shortchange your ability to honestly evaluate your results by giving up too early.

Once you see real results—increased energy, better digestion, fewer headaches—you will be inspired to keep going. The costs no longer feel so high, and the payoffs more than make up for your efforts. This takes time, though. Pick a four-week period, plan in advance, and get help if you need it.

Acupuncture offers wonderful support during elimination diets. It curbs cravings, optimizes your digestion, and helps your body flush out residual toxins and metabolic wastes. Together, we can come up with a plan that will enable you to get the most out of your diet so that you see lasting results.