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.

Why Does My Acupuncturist Look at My Tongue?

dog tongue

Something you may not know about your acupuncturist is that she is used to seeing some very challenging cases. As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I have the privilege of working with clients who may be coming to my office after seeing many other practitioners. Because our medicine is not well understood in the United States, it is often used later in the disease process. One of my goals as an acupuncturist and herbalist is to change this dynamic.

That being said, I have had the opportunity to work on difficult cases and witnessed powerful changes in my patients’ wellbeing. One of the tools I use in the diagnostic process is looking at the color, texture, moisture level, and overall vitality of the tongue. Believe it or not, everyone’s tongue is different. Your tongue tells me a lot about your internal health and can offer clues to very stubborn illnesses.

The tongue illustrates the state of the organs, most specifically, the stomach. Different regions of the tongue correspond to different organ systems and can reveal heat, cold, stagnation, and phlegm in parts of the body I can’t see from the outside. I may be able to discern phlegm in the lungs or intestines from observing the tongue, or your tongue may show the cause of your anxiety or insomnia. The tongue even reveals abstract symptoms like fatigue and irritability.

The #1 thing to remember about tongue diagnosis? Don’t brush your tongue! The coating, texture, and moisture level are all key indicators of your body’s internal climate. And don’t worry. If you’ve had coffee, a Jolly Rancher, or a breakfast burrito, I am usually able to look through all of that to discern the real state of the organs. And rest assured, yours will not be the first blue tongue that has shown up in my exam room.

Is Your Diet Ruining Your Digestive Fire?

watermelon in car

Summer in Colorado is HOT, and with the onset of scorching, dry weather, we tend to gravitate toward eating cold, raw foods, such as ice cream, ice water, fruit, and salad. While it’s true that these treats initially cool our stomachs, and offer some relief from overheating, cold and raw foods can be hard on the digestive system, regardless of the temperature outside.

The digestive tract requires internal heat to process and distribute nourishment from our food and to eliminate waste products. By nature, heat is moving. (Think of a stove coil warming a pot of water; as the liquid increases in temperature, it begins to quiver until it reaches a rolling boil.) Your digestive system is similar in that it must maintain its “fire” to extract the most nutrition it can from food and liquid. An optimized metabolism is warm, not cold.

This summer, instead of working to cool your digestive tract, think of hydrating your digestive tract with room temperature foods and liquids. Often, when we reach for ice-cold beverages, we are already dehydrated and consume way more than is necessary to bring relief from a spike in temperature. This causes our digestive tracts to constrict, making it harder to process food and eliminate waste.

A few easy tips for keeping your digestive tract warm in the summer include:

  • Drinking room temperature water
  • Limiting raw vegetables to once a day, or less if you have loose stools
  • Watching your fruit intake
  • Avoiding ice cream and other frozen treats

Too much cool, raw food can wreck havoc on your stomach and intestines, leading to abdominal discomfort and even weight gain. How do you know if your digestive fire is low? Pay attention to your elimination. Loose stools are a sure sign, as are stomach pains, or lack of appetite. To prevent heat exhaustion, drink plenty of water and make sure cooked vegetables, with their high mineral and water contents, are included in your diet.

And, if you do find yourself parched, dry, and irritable, pick up nature’s electrolyte-filled cooler: watermelon. Flourishing in the summer months, the watermelon is an excellent source of cooling hydration. Its sweet taste brings moisture to the stomach and intestines, and let’s face it, what better way is there to spend an afternoon than spitting watermelon seeds off the deck?

Happy summer!

Acupuncture for Vibrant Aging

elder woman

Not many patients realize that acupuncture is a preventative medicine as well as a trauma medicine. In fact, some of the earliest developments in Chinese medicine come from Taoist practitioners who sought to preserve their health against the inevitabilities of death and old age. Longevity meant everything to early acupuncture practitioners.

Even in modern America, acupuncture is an ideal medicine for elders. With its negligible side effects, flexibility in administration, gentle nature, and low cost, acupuncture is an important contributor to vibrant aging. It is never too late to implement preventative care.

When we imagine aging, we often think of physical pain, mental confusion, difficulty moving, fatigue, and low appetite. Our zest for life diminishes, and living with discomfort becomes the new normal. Chinese medicine challenges this image of old age. In fact, our approach to health maintenance is that the body/mind/spirit are born with an innate ability to correct imbalances, regardless of age. While none of us can avoid getting older, we can subtly change our body’s energetic tendencies, leading to a better use of resources.

As we age, it becomes even more important to consciously use our body’s wisdom as a guide to healthy living. Unnecessary energetic outputs, whether mental or physical, drain us of the stamina we need to eat, sleep, move, and think clearly. The ability to gain nourishment from our food, rest at night, exercise our bodies, and perform mental functions are, and always have been, the markers of good health. Acupuncture assists older adults with these basic life-giving activities.

If someone you know is struggling with the aging process, consider acupuncture. Our medicine cares for patients well into their senior years and can provide relief from many symptoms that accompany this change in life.

And remember, it is never too late to plan for the future when it comes to your health.

 

Jumping into a Spring Liver Detox? Read this First.

woman smelling spring flowers

Spring is a time of internal and external renewal. After months of hibernation, we are ready to burst into action, just like a spring flower.

Many people look to harness the energy of spring by adopting a liver detox.

This could be as simple as juicing for breakfast or as radical as drinking lemon water with cayenne pepper all day. The problem is that, for many modern Americans, radical cleanses are too shocking to their systems.

A cleanse—though it may sound like a good idea to the mind—is no picnic for the body, especially when it is undertaken in the midst of a hectic lifestyle. Why? Because the liver and digestive organs are already taxed.

In a radical cleanse, toxins and metabolic wastes are shed from tissues very deep in the body. Your system becomes flooded with junk, which is why you may feel achy, crabby and weakened. It is the liver’s job to cleanse the blood of these toxins. Every time you submit your body to a radical cleanse, the liver has to work double-time. As much as it might sound great to get rid of all that waste, your body may not be strong enough to work with this cascade of toxins.

Moderate, deliberate changes in diet and lifestyle over the course of a few weeks will support the liver without adding to its stress of daily filtration and detoxification.

Slow, consistent, cumulative changes are easier for the body to integrate and maintain. After all, it wasn’t your body that said, “Give me all those cookies!” Be patient with your liver as it detoxes from goodies like alcohol, caffeine, sugar and processed foods.

Introduce seasonal gems like spring greens and fresh herbs. Be conscious of your fat and meat intake, but never go hungry. Hunger damages the stomach qi and can lead to long-term changes in your digestive health.

Above all, remember, your liver is your friend.

If you feel sure a liver cleanse is in order, seek the help of a health professional who can support you physically and emotionally as you detox. Allow yourself the time and space to transform on a deep level. Don’t force yourself to move from winter into spring too quickly.

Because we are so ready to change, spring tempts us to overdo even a healthy lifestyle. After all, we want of feel better right now! Just be gentle. Your body, like the earth, will be happier with a gradual transition.

Feature Formula: Gan Mai Da Zao Tang

Dried red jujube
Dried red dates

Gan Mai Da Zao Tang—or Licorice, Wheat and Date Decoction—is a 2,000-year-old formula created by the Chinese master herbalist Zhang Zhong Jing and recorded in the classic text Jin Gui Yao Lue. Although this blend of three herbs may look simple, its effects on body, heart and mind can be profound, if it is matched with the right patient.

Gan Mai Da Zao Tang is used in cases of “Zang Zao”, or what the Chinese call “Restless Organ Syndrome”. This state of agitation is associated with frequent crying and mood swings, poor sleep, irritating bodily sensations, fatigue and feeling emotionally low.

Each herb in the formula serves a unique role. Licorice gently boosts energy by helping the digestive system. Wheat berries calm the spirit and anchor the mind. And those beautiful red dates? They soothe rattled nerves and moisten dryness.

I like to think of Gan Mai Da Zao Tang as the hug you offer a friend who is going through a difficult transition. Its sweet taste and gentle nature make this formula easy to digest, and its simplicity works well with other herbs.

If you are suffering through an emotional storm, ask us if Licorice, Wheat and Date Decoction is right for you.

Is Anxiety Ruining Your Holiday Season?

anxiety surrounded by people in train station

In a previous post I looked at the role of the Heart in social anxiety and offered a simple heart-opening exercise to help anxiety sufferers stretch their social muscles (Help for the Heart in Social Anxiety).

For some, the holidays are a truly challenging time of year. While family and social engagements can be festive occasions, some people become paralyzed by the obligations of the season. Friends and family members who love parties, dinners, and overnight guests are often unaware that these situations can cause distress for people with anxiety.

Many people have been taught to respect the “holiday spirit” by agreeing to the spree of shopping, eating, and socializing that has become Thanksgiving through New Year. Anxiety sufferers are no exception. They dress up for parties they don’t want to attend, join dinners that trigger fears of ridicule, and return to homes where they may feel uncomfortable or unloved.

In fact, this warm, sentimental, joyous time of year can elicit feelings of anxiety and insecurity on a massive scale.

I feel it’s important that we recognize this is all too much for some people. The frenzy of spending, eating, traveling, drinking, and socializing can actually deplete us of the energy we require to feel nourished, especially during the dark months of winter. Often anxiety is a signal that you should stop and reevaluate your situation. More than ever, the holidays may require you to practice conscious self-care.

If winter obligations are causing you discomfort, consider reducing your commitments for the sake of your health.

Anxiety can come from any number of sources—money, over-scheduling, spending time with people with whom you don’t feel connected, even needing to board your dog while you travel across country. The sheer volume of expectations during the holiday season can create a cumulative feeling of helplessness and instability.

To manage these feelings, start by telling yourself I accept this anxious response as a signal that I am overwhelmed. This year I promise to take better care of myself so I am able to participate in the events and activities I actually enjoy.

If you encounter a friend or loved one wishing to bow out of a social opportunity—a company party, a family ice-skating outing, a gift exchange—consider that they may feel stretched thin. Most of all, don’t take their disengagement personally.

By allowing others to care for themselves, we create space and goodwill toward our own needs.

This season comes like clockwork each year, yet our lives may not unfold on the same schedule.  Through respecting your needs during the holidays, you will be better able to appreciating the small miracles of the season—body, heart, and mind.