Sage Advice: Wisdom from My Grandmother

girl on the edge

As a child, I was very close to my maternal grandmother. A former Navy WAVE and an airplane mechanic during WWII, my grandmother was unlike most of the other older women I knew. For one, she didn’t cook. My grandmother’s idea of a home-cooked meal was sliced potatoes and onions fried in butter, a reminder of her Polish-Russian childhood in Chicago. She was also fine with eating M&Ms for dinner or cracking pistachios while watching TV and smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table.

Hailing from the Windy City, she was a Cubs fan, but she’d root for the White Sox, too. As long as Chicago baseball was on TV, she had a favorite. Always embarrassed of her thinning hair, she wore a wig my whole life and only changed out of her slacks for a skirt when someone graduated or passed away.

When I was about ten years old, my grandma was diagnosed with bladder cancer. After her surgery she spent the rest of her life emptying a catheter bag every few hours. It was a good thing my grandma had such a robust sense of humor because her catheter schedule was unforgiving. Whenever she stood up from a game of cards to excuse herself so that she could empty her bag, she told us it was “Howdy Doody time,” a reference to the old black and white children’s television show. Her non-existent bladder was calling.

My grandmother always spoke to me as if I were an adult. She accepted that I was capable of understanding life experiences beyond my age. In keeping with her faith in my ability to comprehend the bigger things in life, she told me one truly amazing story.

During her cancer surgery, she’d gone through a near-death experience on the operating table. When I asked her what it was like, she folded her hands—she had the most lovely, slender fingers—and said, “All I can say is that you have nothing to be afraid of.”

“You mean of dying?” I said.

“Right. Of dying.”

What a gift to give a little girl.

 

Since starting my work with elders, I’ve discovered that the vulnerability of childhood can mirror the vulnerability of old age. Whereas childhood is imbued with the hope that accompanies a bolt of growth, development, and physical transformation, in our culture, the breakdown of the physical body is often seen as a tragedy.

There is not a clear social role for elders in the United States, especially if they are not a part of traditional family units, such as LGBTQ seniors or elders who live in isolation. As a culture, we have a lot of work to do when it comes to embracing our seniors as sources of wisdom and guidance, in matters both big and small.

I often ask myself how different our society would be if we respected our elders as living treasures. How much healthier would we be if we examined what it means to have a long life—even with its many triumphs and failures? What if we regarded old age as an honorable stepping-stone toward our transition from this world into death?

The sheer mass of knowledge our elders carry in their life experiences is deeply moving for me. And yet sometimes, even without our knowing it, we prevent older adults from having a voice. Or we diminish the power of their experiences by reducing them to being “cute” or “sweet.” Sometimes, I think, we are actually afraid of what they want to say to us.

It is becoming more and more important that we fight our tendency to ignore or shy away from the challenges of old age. After all, America is aging; we hear that announcement everywhere. As caregivers, we are in a position to learn so much from the people we serve. Also, in more plain language, our elders are going where we are going before us. They are pioneers of the human body and the human spirit. To mistakenly believe they are moving backward because they cannot participate in our fast-paced, hyper-driven culture is an insult to the journey they are walking. They are clued into some other rhythm of life that runs beneath the surface of all our lives if we are brave enough to examine it.

Many of the clients I work with live in what I would characterize as physically small orbits: they may rarely leave their homes, and their contact with the outside world is often very limited. No doubt, some elders prefer it this way. Plenty of my patients are happy being solitary. Others, however, long for community connection, conversations, and a chance to feel involved. Like many people, they want to contribute.

It is my experience that many elders long to care for us, to guide us younger folks toward living positive, healthy lives. Even though I am hired to take care of my patients, my patients also nourish me. They tell me to slow down. They advise me not to work too hard. And they are genuinely happy for me when I take time off or visit my family. They care about me.

One of my favorite pieces of advice came from an elder in her 90s. “You think you have a lot of pep, but you don’t! Don’t overdo it.” This kind of insight is commonly called “sage advice,” meaning it is earned through the wisdom of time and experience. Elders are living repositories of this hard-earned knowledge—intelligence that cannot be bought. If we listen, our grandmothers and grandfathers, our fathers and mothers, have so much love to give us. Sometimes that love comes from having learned something the hard way, maybe in a way they are not so proud of but are willing to share with us so that our paths become easier. What a blessing.

My grandmother died fifteen years ago but, thankfully, not before she told me about her experience on that operating table. What a gift to ease the heart and mind of a little girl who, like all of us, is worried about what death will bring. How could I ever repay her for sharing that insight with me, that amazing wisdom she garnered through her own body and mind? I will carry her words with me all my life.

Now, as I work with elders who are approaching death, I am reminded of my grandmother’s sage advice: don’t be afraid. What better gift can we give one another than the mercy of solace? And what better source of comfort and confidence than a kind soul who has walked the path before us?

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!

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.

Love Yourself First: Self-Care for Health

womaninsunlight

In my work as an acupuncturist, I often see women who are exhausted. Fatigue is a symptom of overextension and can be linked to different factors: diet, sleep habits, exercise, work schedules, and chronically low immunity. Yet a single condition tends to connect these women to one another: they have never been supported in implementing a self-care plan.

At its most basic, self-care is doing kind, loving, nourishing things for you. The uncomfortable secret of why women do not prioritize their wellbeing is that, for many, self-care is synonymous with selfishness.

This belief is intimately connected to our traditional role as a caretaker. We do things for others at the expense of ourselves, burying our needs for those of our children, parents, partners, and even our friends and co-workers. After years of self-neglect, we inevitably reach the point of burnout.

What I have learned working with women who do prioritize self-care is that this is a habit. We can—and must—free ourselves from patterns of self-deprivation in order to find the health we crave.

But how do we do this? The true key to overcoming exhaustion is in offering acts of kindness toward your body, heart, and mind every single day. Once self-care becomes your habit, unimagined opportunities for healing will be available to you.

All it takes is waking up to the preciousness of your closest friend and ally: you.

 

Self-care is not self-indulgent

Self-care is often confused with self-indulgence, which is one reason women feel so uncomfortable with the act. When you think of self-care, you may immediately imagine cruises, massages, and facials. True, these are delicious gifts, but self-care is much deeper than what you can buy for pleasure.

Self-care is really self-compassion.

Having compassion for yourself means you recognize your value and protect it the way you would another being’s. You acknowledge your human goodness and pledge to keep it safe so that you can experience the fullness and freedom of life.

When you give up self-care, you abandon much more than new clothes, fancy dinners, and vacations. You forfeit the chance to explore your deepest hopes, fears, desires, and joys. Perpetually preoccupied by others’ needs, you remain disconnected from your personal creativity and potential.

The deprivation that comes from ignoring your needs is actually a terrible roadblock to fulfillment and leads to unforeseen obstacles that often show up in the body.

Because women tend to give to the point of exhaustion, the temptation to make reactive gestures of self-care—like planning elaborate spa appointments or shopping sprees—prevent you from noticing support opportunities that are available right away.

Start by thinking small and cumulative, rather than big and complex. Self-care does not need to be elaborate, but it must be truthful. It must come from the immediacy of how you feel in your body, heart, and mind right now.

What one thing can you do today to make self-care a habit? It can be a simple commitment, such as a 10-minute walk after lunch, meeting a friend for coffee, or scheduling an hour to write or paint.

What can you give yourself this very moment that will inspire you with authentic hope and joy? What can you do to fill your cup, even just a little? The minute you say YES to meeting that need, healing energy becomes instantly available to you.

 

The Promise of Self-Care

When creating a self-care plan, I encourage you to focus your aim. Don’t settle for “good enough”. Choose acts of self-compassion that make you feel good to the bone. “Good enough” will continue to leave you with a nagging sense of exhaustion so don’t be afraid to name exactly what you need and make it real.

As we learn to provide ourselves with what we actually need in life, we create the opportunity for others to receive the same nourishment they require to thrive. Self-compassion allows us to be more giving, genuine, and open because we engage with our world from a place of fullness rather than depletion. It is a simple but profound path to reclaiming our value while enriching others.

Ultimately, self-care is an act of respect that grows in power each time we honor ourselves as worthy of love, health, and happiness.

I invite you to share this article with your friends, daughters, mothers, and partners. Together, we can encourage one another to embrace self-compassion as the first step toward authentic healing.