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The Controversy of Cleanse

For a few years I've noticed "cleansing" has become one of the more popular health trends. From juice-fasts and the “master cleanse” to shake replacements and fasting, the idea of purgation for health is a huge fad. Several patients have asked my opinion, so hopefully this article sheds some thoughtful consideration.

Generally, my first response echoes a Taoist teacher’s proclamation: “extremism!” Many current trends urging us to cleanse are clever marketing tools that successfully manipulate a pervasive Victorian idea we Americans buy: that we are fundamentally “unclean.” This is much like the current misrepresentation of germ theory, which ignores the equally important factor of internal environment, with an over-focus on fear of invaders (I’ll digress from political parallels). The assumption that we must force the body to purge itself of evil disregards the genius this body already employs every second of each day; always taking what it needs and discarding the rest, without our help or knowledge. The push to cleanse also employs a dualism of bad/good, which is an unrealistic black-and-white view. From the Taoist perspective, everything is qi, so by purging, we get rid of the good with the bad. Inevitably, this creates a pendulum affect; our intelligent organism reacts to being “cleansed” by holding on tighter, to brace for what
might be coming again. In other words, purgation is often followed by
congestion, the very thing the “cleansing” was attempting to address. A similar example is the epidemic of overweight/undernourished bodies suffering in our culture; when presented with nutrient-deficient products (masquerading as food) and nothing to burn, the body in all its wisdom holds on tight to any energy source available.

All that said, there is also time for everything in the seasonal cycle of life, and our job in natural medicine is to support this process. Though its not here yet, soon spring (cycle, not necessarily weather!) will bring its time for renewal, starting over, and cleaning the slate. Throughout agricultural history, it was naturally time for cleansing, because of the scarcity of food; as storage of last fall’s harvest thins, plants shooting up are sparse and small, and animals (us included) just begin to tap into the energy stored during winter’s hibernation. Like a pea shoot pushing up or a baby goat finding its first legs, the qi of spring is new, and delicate.

Also, the environment and our bodies are now forced to act less subtle and rhythmic than for much of history. Thousands of chemicals have been introduced in the last 50 years, with little study and/or regulation. For instance, the FDA still doesn’t regulate cosmetic products (so you might find this site helpful in the meantime: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/). I once found the following interview that was compelling for two main reasons (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/nature/interviews/vomsaal.html, with studies here; http://endocrinedisruptors.missouri.edu/pdfarticles/pdflist.html). First, that there is such a clear link between plastics and endocrine disruption (particularly when endocrine disorders such as thyroid dysfunction are rampant). Secondly, that this article is twelve years old; we know what hurts us, but continue to mass-produce, and blame disease solely on genetics. Of course looking at examples in a bigger picture such as how some get sick and others don’t, we know there are multiple factors, like one I often address in my practice; the state of the gut flora. But we can’t deny that an overload of chemicals known and unknown on our unprepared bodies is likely at a level unprecedented in history. So how to look at this evidence without fear but with respect for both the cycle of changes in which we find our current situation, and the delicate nature of our qi?

First, we need to be very mindful of the season. When I talk about season, I actually mean the timing of things, in the cycle of life, more than weather. However, in Vermont the weather is also an enormous factor. As a colleague once said, “most don’t realize that cold, in our (Chinese Medical) tradition, is a pathogen!” This means that during winter we can learn from nature, that this is the time to hibernate and store, not to purge. You can look at Lake Champlain for a great example of this; ice forming is an example of fluid consolidation; things are getting slower and quieter. Our bodies are doing this in a similar sense; slowing down, consolidating, bringing everything down and in. If you honor this now, you have more to offer during the rest of the year. Think of it as investing in savings, so you don’t blow through all of your cash and end up in debt when spring and summer come!

Then when spring arrives, if you still feel naturally drawn to give your body a little cleaning out, you can follow these guidelines to ensure it is gentle and effective. The first and simplest way to cleanse is to notice what is not in line with our natural, easy state of being, and remove it. For instance, “I can’t work through the afternoon without a sugary snack,” or “I can’t relax without a glass of wine.” This can be tricky at first, because as members of modern life, most of us have subjected ourselves to everything from artificial light to caffeine to supplements to replace our inherent ability to perfectly cycle with natural movements of sleep, wake, work, enjoy. So if life doesn’t currently allow time and space for noticing, the next option would be to remove what is stimulating/sedating; take out caffeine, sugar, and alcohol for a few weeks.

To further support the liver, eat organic produce and grass-fed/pastured animal products. We are lucky in Vermont, because we can be directly in touch with nature’s wisdom. Root vegetables, sustainably-raised animal foods, and other sources of “qi-storage” such as fermenting and canning are easily available and commonly practiced. Fairly soon, spring greens such as mustard, dandelion and arugula will be available from CSA's and at farmers’ markets. These greens are bitter--stimulating bile--thus draining, the perfect cleansers. You can also add starting the day with half a lemon squeezed into a glass of water, which encourages the liver to flush.

Lastly, acupuncture and herbal medicine are the ideal cleansers; non-invasive, and perfectly balancing, by consistently supporting the body to store what’s needed and flush the excess. There are particular point
prescriptions designed for “detoxification,” and a plethora of herbs
that can be tailored in your specific formula to gently flush the
system.

Ideally, our lifestyle year-around provides a light load for the
liver, enabling it to “clean” on a regular basis. However, since life
is multi-faceted, with some components more toxic than others, spring
will be a perfect time to tap into our natural cycle and start fresh. But for now, continue storing a little longer. With the new year upon us (Chinese, of the Wood Horse, starting today!), you are probably feeling the urge to move forward already. But if you can continue to cultivate a little patience and a lot of nourishment, this summer and especially a year from now, you will notice how much more deeply energetic you become.

Enjoy the last weeks of cozy reflection, while dreaming of all the potential and possibility soon to sprout up. Please call or email with questions, and to set up an appointment for some storing and cleansing support!

The Community of Healing

I have long been interested in the crossroads of community and healing. Moving to Vermont (July 2012) after 13 years in the San Francisco Bay Area was part of this exploration; is community something that can be found anywhere? Is healing the same? Can I foster both wherever I go, and where do they meet? Vermont exceeded my hopes; healing and community indeed meet here, and have continued to grow in their dynamic exchange.

Lately, my excitement about the communal nature of healing has been particularly piqued, while listening to lectures by Bruce Lipton. He talks about cellular disease being, literally, isolation. So what does this mean on the macro-level, in our daily life?

To me, it is the idea that illness is usually not a sudden incident, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Rather, it is part of a larger context of cause-and-effect patterns. We see in the world around us that symptoms — cultural, economic, or physiological — are part of a larger system. Nature provides the best teacher of such symbiosis; it is the ultimate example of community. Luckily, the most leading-edge doctors and scientists are now bringing this to our attention.

But Traditional Chinese Medicine knew this a long time ago. For thousands of years, practitioners have been looking to nature to learn how elements and systems function. Without modern distractions, or current medical tools (such as imaging or blood tests), the Chinese utilized our most powerful human tools of observation and analysis. Acting as the first scientists, they felt the pulse, looked at the tongue, and developed a sophisticated system of diagnosis based on their observations. Chinese doctors used metaphors based in nature to describe patterns of health and illness. They took hundreds of herbs over hundreds of years and recorded the effects. They developed Acupuncture; the insertion of fine needles at points on the body, which are part of a specific point prescription, to treat an organism’s carefully diagnosed imbalance. And lucky for us, they wrote it all down.

As a lifetime student of this complex medicine and its wise worldview, I feel honored to utilize its tools of Acupuncture and herbal medicine to help patients feel better. However, a major part of community health that I’m learning from Chinese Medicine’s Taoist roots is that the practitioner’s job is not to “bestow health” upon a patient. Rather, I am a partner in the patient’s journey of “unlearning.” Together, we peel back layers of conditioning (physical, mental, and/or emotional), to facilitate a person’s intelligence coming forward. By intelligence, I mean an innate knowing; the body and soul understand how to be healthy.

As an example of how this works, I’ll explain what one of my teachers means when he says “Give them feet.” All traditional healing systems emphasize digestion; help the patient digest and you improve assimilation. This is logical; if the body can break things down, it absorbs and excretes better. But assimilation means more than just digesting food and utilizing nutrients. Its how life is taken in, processed, and transformed into energy. So if I can help a patient digest, assimilate life, I help to put his feet on the ground. I help him strengthen his ability to discriminate, trust his inner logic, and make decisions based on his natural “appetite,” rather than logic outside himself. As a result, he is more of an asset to his internal and external community.

Another story shows how healing is community by nature, and is related to the idea of “nailing one foot to the ground.” We all have a sense of the importance of routine and regularity, particularly if we spend any time with the elderly or infants. So I often instruct patients to start by eating the same breakfast around the same time every morning, or in some cases, just eating breakfast. This may sound simplistic, but a survey conducted at a school of Chinese Medicine illustrates the power of this concept. Essentially, Hispanic patients who ate a daily staple of beans, rice and corn were compared to Euro-American patients who did not have a daily staple, and the Hispanic patients responded to Acupuncture and herbal medicine much more quickly and successfully.

Guided by this philosophy of creating stability and facilitating trust in a person’s innate wisdom, my treatments consist of three basic elements. The first is talking with a patient about her life. I listen to her experience, and encourage her to help me understand what she most needs. We talk about how the little things we do every day are powerful in the long run; like drops in a bucket, what we add slowly but surely over a lifetime will determine the bucket of health we carry around. Along these lines, recommendations ranging from food to brain retraining are discussed. How to nourish one self is a guiding principle, so I’m listening for the best way to support you in doing this.

The second element of treatment is Acupuncture. From a Western Medical viewpoint, it encourages the release of endorphins, which relieves pain and supports the all-important immune system. Acupuncture also helps the body transition from a “fight-or-flight” mode to “rest and digest;" in other words, mitigates stress. The Chinese Medical perspective can also put it simply; Acupuncture either moves what’s stuck, slows down hyper-function, fires up hypo-function, or in most cases, a bit of each. For the patient, this means lying down, having around 12 fine needles inserted, resting (often sleeping) for 30-40 minutes, then waking feeling very relaxed. Many patients describe the post-acupuncture feeling as calm, yet energized.

The third element of treatment is herbal prescription and/or additional supplementation. The Chinese Medical Pharmacopoeia consists of around 400 herbs, which are combined specifically for the patient’s constitution, symptoms, and how each herb compliments another. Talk about a community! And my post-graduate studies in functional medicine have made me aware of some other basic support (such as nutrients or probiotics) that is often helpful in assisting the body with optimal function and repair. I order as-needed, and only from trusted sources.

Treatment might consist of any or all of these three elements, depending on the patient. The idea from Chinese Medical theory is always to be assisting you with calibrating to the seasons (meaning rhythm of time cycles) through eating, resting, and taking herbs, so imbalance or disease will pass through, rather than becoming chronic. In some cases, regular Acupuncture sets up the body to better accept other practitioners’ treatment plans. In others, well-timed treatments address specific pathologies such as hormonal imbalance or an injury.

One more key component worth mentioning is that a major aspect of community (healing) is expecting results. Often “community” is a nice idea that gets too lost in process, and we forget that effectiveness matters. I feel this way about my treatments; as one teacher has said, “stand by pole, see shadow!” He means we should expect to see results of the treatment immediately, or the doctor needs to question her diagnosis. This has been my experience; you should feel something in the first couple treatments. How long it will take to fully resolve your issue is dependent upon several factors. But some sort of change is almost always noticed in 1-3 treatments.

The longer I practice and the more I learn the latest perspectives on neural biology, the more I understand how Chinese Medicine works, and it is truly profound. We are a community to our core. The more I can foster this as a practitioner, the more I can facilitate healing for all of us. The alternative of isolating a patient and her pathology just doesn’t seem to be working so well anymore. However in China, when someone was sick, everyone in the family would take herbs and eat rice porridge, even when the ill person could not. This is the spirit I hope to foster in my practice, and I welcome you to take a seat at the table!

10 Free Ways to Support Healthy Digestion

According to Chinese Medicine, digestion is more than just breaking down your food. This is miraculous in and of itself, if you think about it; your body takes a sandwich and turns it into useable fuel, in a matter of hours! But we also think about digestion as the larger intelligence of assimilation and discrimination; what do I take in, and what do I leave behind. So some schools of thought attribute all health fundamentally to your ability to utilize such intelligence. Several of my teachers have said "just get the patient to eat and sleep, the rest will take care of itself."

So much more to be said on this topic, and to be covered in articles to come. For now, here are ten quick and easy ways to support your body's ability to nourish you. Do not underestimate the power of the simple; what we practice every day matters more than anything else!

1."Rest and digest": breath, smell, and taste slowly, enjoying your meal, making it easier for your body to break it down

2. Stick to healthy daily staples

3. Eat "breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper", eating an early dinner (no big meals 3 hours before bed)

4. Eat regularly and rhythmically: around the same time each day, before you get overly hungry

5. Stop eating before you are full

6. Refrain from drinking cold beverages with meals; instead, have a little warm water or broth

7. Choose "real food": whole, organic, fresh and local

8. Spare your body from pollution: choose not to eat processed, refined, or packaged

9. Incorporate lacto-fermented/probiotic foods into daily meals (non-vinegar sauerkraut and pickles, kim chee, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, beet kvass)

10. Drink soup broth: more healing and nutrition than any vitamin, and easier to absorb

Happy Brain, Healthy Body

Here in New England, awfully far from the equator, we are feeling winter's knock on our door. Though the weather has been relatively mild, the sun sets just before 4:30, and leaves bid farewell to branches, crunching underfoot. This is the beckoning of big yin; grandmother nurturer calls us to slow down, begin storing, and enjoy more quiet contemplation, rather than the constant action of summer's big yang. It can be a welcome time for stew on the stove, in bed earlier with a good novel, and anticipation of snow.

However, this is also the most difficult transition of the year for most people; sunshine and outdoor time are less available as easy sources of health and happiness. By now most of you are probably familiar with the hype around getting enough Vitamin D. But as winter is upon us, what else will keep our bodies and minds healthy, and why exactly are things like Vitamin D helpful?

Well first of all, what do you think Acupuncture, exercise, sex, and chocolate have in common? Much like that sunshine-outdoor time, they all make you feel good, right? Well it turns out, there is little better for your health than feeling good. Yes, it really is this simple, and this isn't woo-woo stuff, this is science. What these four feel-good things have in common is that they induce the body to produce endorphins. Endorphin essentially means "endogenous morphine," or your body's very own happy drugs. When your pituitary and hypothalamus release these neurotransmitters (chemical messengers), your immune system is boosted, your brain tells your body to have less pain, and as we say in qigong, "hao la"; all is well.

So getting endorphins is essential to health, and as the season of heightened susceptibility to depression and colds/flu is upon us, its time to up your daily intake of all-things-feel-good. Come see me for more of this type of prescription (yes, my doctor said to "feel good" every day!). But if you are hesitant to gorge yourself on chocolate (moderation is also good for you!) and the other three aren't always realistic in everyday life, what else can nourish your neurotransmitters and immune system?

There is a lot of hype about Vitamin C, which could be an article in and of itself, so for now I will simply say two things; first, most C supplementation is ascorbic acid, which is not only synthetic (as Michael Pollen says, its not just the Vitamin C in broccoli the body needs, its the broccoli) but also only the preservative part of the entire bioflavanoid complex the body actually needs and uses. Secondly, C might be less important for immune health than adequate amounts of D3 (cholecalciferol), fats, direct sunlight (no sunscreen, that's right, I said it), and enough good gut bacteria (probiotics). As it turns out, these things also make your brain happier, so we see a connection here.

As I was explaining to a patient the other day, germ theory was revolutionary to medicine (late 19th Century); it saved so many lives when we accepted that the body could incur infection from outside entities. However, where much of western medical thinking has gotten stuck, is failing to recognize the other, equally important half of this picture, which is the internal ecosystem. If only the outside invasion mattered, and the internal territory were irrelevant, everyone would get the same germ in the same way at the same time. As a personal example of why this isn't entirely true, I noticed when I was working at a community clinic, seeing up to 60 sick patients a week, I didn't get sick once the entire year. However, at another point in my life when I wasn't working much, I was sick every other week.

It might be thought that in the winter we are in closer quarters, with less ventilation, so germs spread more easily. This might be part of the picture. But what else happens in winter? Less sunshine, less Vitamin D. These two synthesize via the natural oils on our skin and the cholesterol in our body (yep, its not evil, we need it). Without adequate levels of D, not only do we get depressed, but calcium/mineral absorption drops, which lowers pH of tissues, making them inflamed and more susceptible to infection. So this might explain the previous example; though I was in close quarters with multitudes of coughing and sneezing folks last winter, I was taking Cod Liver Oil and a Vitamin D3 dropper daily, and of course, doing my best to get my daily endorphins!

Hopefully this all explains a little more why keeping your internal ecosystem happy is so vital to health, and highlights two powerful ways for you to do this; getting adequate endorphins and Vitamin D.

Contact me with any questions about how to feel good every day and why this is more important than you could even imagine. I can't wait to talk with you! In the meantime, I'm wishing you an abundance of winter warmth, reflection, and robust brain and body health.

 

Caring for ourselves as Autumn approaches

by Brooke Moen, MS, L.Ac.

"The trees are confused!" proclaimed my brother in Iowa. But it seems the trees are telling us; Autumn is approaching. According to the Chinese calendar, the last push of growth has happened and the fall harvest is upon us. A couple weeks ago I saw some trees teasing with a few yellowish leaves. I thought the same thing; "no, the trees must be confused! Perhaps this short summer and the brief cool spell just sped things up a bit too much." This might be true. But in the cycle of things (patterns of "qi," which are cyclical and calculable), there is no confusion, it's time; to retire exhausted yang, and welcome the slow growth of little yin. What exactly does this mean?

An easy way to get a sense of this is to tune-in to what you've been feeling lately. The cooler nights, the impulse to push forward, married with the inability to do so, as well as you might have a month ago. The middle of the summer was the "yang" time of year; full of energy and vitality. Now this is declining, and as it descends, we also begin a sort of ascending to the peak of yin; toward the dark, quiet time of year, the time of cultivation, instead of action.

Yang and Yin describe relative aspects of things; yang is motion and mechanism, or function, yin is material, the "stuff." To understand the yang side of things, think about a teenager; lots of fire, energy, like the sun. So then yin would be more like grandma; less forward motion, or output, but more quiet wisdom, like the moon.

So how does the declining of yang and beginning building of yin at this time of year inform us about how to live? The beauty of nature is that we ​are ​it, so we actually don't have to ​do ​anything, its already happening. This time of year we go back to school, spend less time running around outside, perhaps start to go to bed earlier and get up earlier. So to get a sense of this, just notice what is happening naturally.

If you are interested in becoming more attuned to these cycles, there are some basic recommendations. We can thank the Chinese for this;  thousands of years of living according to these cycles. And why would we want to do this? Simply put, less struggle. Less struggle means less resistance, less resistance means less disease.

Here are five recommendations for an easy transition from summer to fall, to keep you healthy, and give you more qi (energy) all year around:

1. Do less
As kids go back to school and we all feel the end of summer vacation, this can be a tough one; culturally, we seem to be encouraged to do ​more. ​But we can begin to at least practice, in tiny increments even, what its like to let things happen on their own; to allow, rather than to push.

​2. Eat and go to bed earlier
As the sun fades a bit sooner, we can eat dinner a little earlier so as to head toward sleep earlier too. Though we've all been indoctrinated to "8 hours of sleep," people throughout time (with no electricity) have lived by the sun; more sleep in the winter, less in the summer.

​3. Love your lungs and liver=less allergies
Autumn is the time of the lungs, and the mirror season to the liver (Spring), which is a common pattern of disharmony resulting in allergies. If you react to ragweed, or leaf mold, or just springtime blooms, getting support in the fall and spring will result in less symptoms all year around. Acupuncture, herbs, and certain dietary modifications are enormously helpful. But you can also think about the emotions of grief (lung) and anger (liver); welcoming the nostalgia of fall, feeling and facing grief, so it doesn't need to turn into anger and resentment later.

​4. Less cold food, more liquid
Its time to shift from less salads and raw fruits and vegetables to more easily digested cooked foods. At the height of the summer, when our qi is abundant, we can afford to "fire up the digestive oven" to internally cook our food. But as qi lessens, we want to conserve, so cooking our food makes it easier for the body to break it down. Also, if you think about preserving food for the winter, its the same for our internal liquids; we want to cultivate enough to make it through the winter, so beginning to add more soups and broths to the menu.

​5. Enjoying discernment
One of my favorite offerings of Autumn is that of "deciding what stays and what goes." Its the time of metal, and the paired organ to the lung, which is the large intestine; the grand organ of what stays (assimilating nutrients) and what goes (waste). Though the wide-open summer of "yes yes to everything!" was so fun, the chance to become more discriminating is welcomed now. This can be big like cleaning out closets, or small like saying no a bit more often. We are making room to store all that nurtures us over the winter, so when spring comes again, we have something of value to offer, to ourselves and others.

Enjoy this transition and don't hesitate to let me know how I can help!