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Change for Health; Where to Start?

Happy Love Day! Though Valentine's Day can be fraught with Hallmark visions inspiring complicated feelings, I always welcome this day as a chance to feel grateful for all the love in my life. So I'm writing today about one thing I love more than almost anything: the power of change.

What does this have to do with health? I've been thinking a lot about this, for many years, but particularly at the turn of a new year. Especially this one; we are a week into the Year of the Fire Monkey, which you may have already noticed is a quick trickster, the harbinger of swift changes that you may need but might not have seen coming. I'll write about this in an upcoming post, and will be speaking about the Chinese New Year next month.

But for now, I'd like to touch on the importance of change to our health. On a broader philosophical level, health IS change; as the planet turns around the sun, day turns to night, and we are born, age and die, we can know that change is truly the only constant. So movement is a fundamental component to health and harmony; without it, we aren't alive, both literally and metaphorically.

How then do we think about this on a more mundane level? What changes are essential to health and longevity? Media will tell you that it's in the next smoothie, gym membership, and most importantly, how you force yourself to take and do these things because someone said they are healthy. We so want this to be true, because we are seeking simple solutions. Life is complex; wouldn't it be nice if health were not?

Perhaps it can be simple, and I suspect it doesn't lie in a smoothie. But we can boil it down to essential components. Recently I listened to a couple podcasts that inspired me to think about the basic changes we must commit to in order to have lasting health. As I consider the thousands of patient stories I've heard over the years, and my own powerful health journey, it seems there are two potent places to start: the food we eat, and the thoughts we think. Of course we must consider exercise, stress-reduction, relationships, etc., but let me explain why it comes down to choosing good food and thoughts first.

1. Changing the food we choose

Food can feel as if it's become so complex and confusing, with competing information coming out regularly, that we become overwhelmed and default to what is familiar. But really it just comes down to eating food that is truly food! In this podcast, brilliant farmer and author Joel Salatin explains very clearly, that good food choices are essential to our survival. The only way to save ourselves and the planet is to eat real food; the kind that grows in good soil, close to home. One powerful example he gives is a study of grocery-store (factory-farmed) eggs versus farm (pasture-raised) eggs; the former was shown to have 48 mcg of folic acid (important nutrient) per egg, whereas the latter had 1,038 mcg! So when we think it's too complicated and expensive to eat organic and local, we need to consider the money saved on vitamin pills and doctor visits. Eating real food is no longer a consideration, it's the foundation to health that we can't afford to ignore.

2. Changing the thoughts we choose

Even the concept that we choose our thoughts is new to many of us. Though thoughts arise, and can seem out of our control, with practice we can choose which ones get more air-time than others. This is the practice of meditation; just watching what comes and goes, nothing more. And it turns out this is not just an eastern spiritual practice (or western, if you consider prayer); it is the way to a healthy brain. Functional MRI's show the amygdala shrinks (less stress) and other grey matter grows (more smarts!) in a brain that engages in regular meditation (which can just mean being aware of your thoughts).

Stanford brain surgeon James Doty talks here about the power of the brain-heart connection, and explains a bit about neuroplasticity. That's just a big word for the awesome fact that our brain can change and when it does, it changes our world. He cites one of my favorite tools that I often give to patients, which is that the brain cannot tell the difference from fantasy and reality. For instance, if you think about exercise, your muscles will respond as if they are getting exercise. So when we put our thoughts (and therefore our senses) into a state of ease and pleasure (or even training!), the body responds accordingly. Do we still need to exercise and do we still want to take the actual trip to the Caribbean? Yes of course, because we have a body for a reason, to enjoy it! But the key here is that until our brain is on board with a perspective of gratitude and compassion, all bets are off; change comes first from the "supercomputer."

So how do we implement new choices around food and thoughts? This may sound simple, but because we are a society steeped in the privilege (and handicap) of abundant choices, we are often overwhelmed and therefore paralyzed. What I often tell patients is that less is more; as my teacher used to say, "simplicity is a demanding partner but enormously generous." Abundance does not lie in acquiring "more," as our culture wants you to think (so you'll buy stuff).  It lies in the richness of qualitative choices. If you value your health, then make this your daily compass, and make very small choices accordingly. Let them add up to a life nurtured by a healthy brain and body. Your cells are listening; what are you telling them?

If you want help brainstorming healthy choices around food and thoughts, please contact me. I love to think about how we can all feel happier and healthier. This is what I think about when people ask if I have a specialty. Yes I do acupuncture, but what I really do is support all of us in our purpose as human beings, which is to connect, create, and thrive. I'm so lucky and I thank you for participating! Questions and comments welcome below and via email; brookemoen@gmail.com. Much love, good food, and a happy brain today and throughout the year!

 

 

Strong Winter Immunity: Getting Healthy

I'm writing from the couch, in pajamas, while I recover from the aftermath of holiday travel. My normally bullet-proof immune system (years of inoculation via sick patients!) could not stand up to the assaults of too much yang during the most yin time of year. What does this mean? Yang describes motion and mechanism, heat, moving and shaking, while Yin describes material, stillness, quiet and reflection.

So which could you imagine was the dominant force during a trip to Colorado to see family and friends that involved the following: multiple flights, sick kids, altitude/dryness, skiing, alcohol, coffee, sugar, late nights and mega-social time? Not that these are bad or unhealthy things, of course these are the great joy and spice of life, and ultimate holiday gifts! But as a follow-up to an overly busy (excess yang, deficient yin) life that doesn't change with the season, this is the perfect storm for illness.

This presents an ideal opportunity to tell you how to strengthen your immune system. Though after beautifully cold and snowy Colorado it barely feels like winter has come to Vermont, this is still the season of colds, flus, sinus and ear infections, and a big dose of depression for many (which I'll address in the next post). But these are not inevitable, and there are much more effective prevention and treatment options available besides shots and drugs, minus the side-effects.

First I'll tell you what I did to treat myself once I got sick (easy staples), and then address what I would do differently next time (prevention).

Treatment Staples from the Chinese Doc

1. Kitchen Medicine
After texting with colleagues to prescribe a Chinese Herbal Formula for myself, I realized a few things about Chinese Medicine that are important for patients to know. First, our pharmacopeia (herbal medicine) is extremely complex, specific, and effective when done by a qualified practitioner. So it's not something for self-treatment. When you are sick, go to an herbalist (like me) and have us prescribe a formula for you (we studied this for 4 graduate years and beyond, after Pre-Med Prerequisites like Anatomy, Physiology, Chemistry, Physics, not to mention Mandarin, so we ought to know how to help!).

Secondly, not only is it difficult, it is no fun to treat yourself! It was hurting my brain to think it all through. But it made me feel already better that people wanted to think about what would help me. When you are sick, get care, it's part of the medicine, we need each other.

But we have a lot in our own kitchen already that can really help. Here are a few staples:

-Soup. Ideally you'll have bone broth glugging away in the crockpot when you're sick, like I do right now . But in a pinch, a good chicken soup from an Asian restaurant or even boxed broth is better than nothing. Not only is soup easy to swallow when your throat is sore and you're congested, it supports immunity, lowers inflammation, and packs a punch of amino acids, vitamins and minerals, and l-glutamine. One study showed bone broth inhibits neutrophil migration (helps a cold).

-Herbs and Spices. Cinnamon and Mint are two key helpers to keep in your kitchen. Cinnamon, called Gui Zhi ("guay jer") in Chinese, circulates and as we say "releases the exterior." This basically translates to supporting the immune system to kick out pathogens. Mint, called Bo He ("bow huh") is a powerful throat-opener, and as you may have noticed if you drink a cup of strong mint tea, nice and cooling.

-Honey. Raw is best (active) and Manuka even better (anti-microbial). Honey soothes the throat and fights pathogens. It is so good at killing bugs and regenerating tissue, that many hospitals use it on serious wounds.

-Sauerkraut. More probiotics and Vitamins A and C than most anything else. Probiotics are like "fertilizing your garden": a healthy gut means stronger immune system and less inflammation.

2. Effective Available Supplements
Like herbs, it helps to have guidance from a practitioner so you don't waste your money. But some basics are easy to find and high enough quality to be worth it, especially when you are sick and can only do a quick trip to the store.

-Vitamin D3. An oil-based dropper (simply in coconut oil) is the easiest to absorb. A big dose of this at the onset (contact me for more dosage recommendation) can ramp up your immune system so you don't get sick. This one is so important for those of us in darker climates or anyone who doesn't get at least 20 minutes of direct sunshine 4 times per week, and not just for immunity but also mood and bone health, to name a few.

-Cod Liver Oil. Yummy! Actually there are some that taste pretty good, like Carlson's or Nordic Naturals, covered up with lemon oil. This nutrient-dense super-food supplies Vitamins A, D and E, as well as fatty acids, that all lower inflammation and boost immunity.

-Elderberry Syrup. Ok this makes up taste-wise for the Cod Liver Oil! Though Elderberry is an herb, I consider this a supplement because it takes little diagnosis to administer; it can be used generally and widely. Often they will contain honey or echinacea for general immune-enhancement. But Elderberry alone is a great immune-booster, and the syrup calms sore throat and cough.

Prevention (or what I'd do differently next time to not get sick!)

1. Schedule Stress
Before I left for holiday vacation I did what we all do, which is pack it all in and run around. Excess work, exercise, shopping, socializing, running as if there are no limits. As excessively privileged westerners, we have few natural limits and don't value them, so don't set them for ourselves. But this isn't how nature works; inherent in life is the fact that the sun always sets and everything ages and dies, as two major examples.

I noticed in previous years when I attended a meditation retreat during the holidays, not only did I not get sick, my whole year provided more robust health and fortitude. When we "store up" at the right time, we have more to expend at other times. Otherwise life has a beautiful way of giving us limits anyway; illness makes us move at the pace of winter, imposed hibernation! But if we have an eye on prevention, we can slow down and take even moments of calm and self-care before this happens.

2. Diet
The holidays are ripe for inflammation and immune suppression via food. Though sharing meals and treats are a beautiful way of sharing love, many of our bodies are not up for the "heating" effects of common holiday foods. So if you are indulging in more wine, caffeine, sugar, chocolate, meat and dairy than normal, expect that at some point your body will say enough is enough. I could feel this on Day 2 of coffee, but since it is such an addictive stimulant, I decided not to listen and kept indulging even after developing a sore throat. Now I'm back on green tea and "Throat Coat," and in hindsight, would have ditched the coffee sooner, just as an example.

To be clear, I'm not saying coffee (or any food) is "bad" or that it caused me to become sick. I'm saying we all have a threshold for physiological stress, which is brought on by our own unique factors, and health means paying attention and adjusting accordingly.

3. Listening
This is always a theme in my thinking as a practitioner and my writing about health, because it has been the foundation of healing both for my patients and me. Particularly during times such as the holidays, when our own voice can get crowded out by old family patterns and cultural pressures, it is too easy to stop listening to what we truly want and need. But we continually practice, and in doing so, rather than striving to get it "right," the practice itself builds trust between you and yourself.

The way the body listens to the psyche is like a toddler listening to a parent; they are registering every signal and adjusting accordingly. This is how our nervous system actually forms; by attaining information from the formed ones around us (adults). So if we use our powerful "supercomputer" brain (parent) in service to the body (toddler), it can end up thriving. More simply, this just means the very direct sensation-relationship inherent: rest when tired, eat when hungry, stop when full. 

I hope these immune-supporting tips are helpful, and can not only mitigate some of your winter cold symptoms, but prevent you from getting sick altogether. Of course Acupuncture is my favorite immune-booster! Not only does it increase circulation and decrease inflammation, but if you get treated regularly over time, your immune system will regulate and you will get sick much less often. I have seen this over and over with patients and of course with myself over the last 10 years. But if you do get sick, please know that an Acupuncture treatment greatly eases symptoms and often kicks the pathogen right out, especially if caught early.

Please call with any questions and know that I appreciate all the learning that comes from my patients, readers, friends and family. We are getting healthier together!

 

 




Winter Wisdom

Though writing is one of my favorite pastimes, its been over a year since I've indulged in this blog. I have been busy with acupuncture treatments and cosmology readings, learning and teaching, travel, moving my practice downtown, friends and family visiting, and a newly ignited love of dance (after a 20 year hiatus!).

Also, the first half of this Wood Goat year brought significant challenges, in comparison to the previous Wood Horse year, which was a bit smoother for me (read here and watch here if you are curious about this cosmological perspective). I'm grateful to report that the end of this year is offering more ease and joy. This Wood Goat flavor is sublime: the sweet love of friendship, community, connection, and creativity. I am again reminded that this love is our fortitude. And at the end of the day, we have little control over many events, but we have each other, and we have resilience, and this makes or breaks the richness and contentment of our small human lives.

So just as I'm learning with dance, whatever muscles you haven't exercised are going to be a little weak until you are consistent again; this is true with writing too!  But as we enter winter, season of "water" in the Chinese medical system, I'm re-visting this writing muscle, as I'm called back to the invitation of reflection. Awkward, and necessary. This is how we transform the chaos and darkness of the winter/water element into the cultivation of wisdom. Water, like winter, the end of life, aging and death, has its own challenges and opportunities. It informs us of all that is available to our lives, bodies, and most importantly our perspective (which informs the rest first). What does it have to teach?

Since the current style of reading and writing demands a reasonable fit to our shortened attention spans, I will offer a list. My concern with such a list is that it's yet another attempt at "fixing" ourselves and our lives (when we aren't actually broken!). But I'm also committed to the digestibility of what I have to offer. It's like I tell patients when they wonder why I only put in a few needles, or why the nutrient-dense calorie content of diet matters; more isn't always better!

So here are 5 health opportunities offered, for your transformation, from winter and the water element. In the midst of holiday intensity, which leaves many of us feeling conflicted and lonely, I'm so grateful to remember the true grace and enormous support of this season. If we use it well, it can be like money in the "energy bank": nourished and met, we have so much more to offer ourselves and thus each other. Chinese Medicine is always looking at the long view, from the viewpoint of reciprocity. Our conduct and our world are meeting and making each other, nothing separate. A simpler way of saying this is if we listen to ourselves and meet those needs, we are nicer and life is easier!

5 Winter Health Tips from Chinese Medicine

1. Practice the "Yoga of No"
Leaving the Bay Area (CA) for Vermont, I hoped to find inherent simplicity; a slower, simpler life. Though this is truly more available in Vermont, I'm still amazed by the myriad of social and professional options and opportunities.  Constant choice is a dangerous modern gift; indeed we are incredibly lucky to have so much available to us. And there is a price; what we gain in options, we lose in simplicity, the contentment of just being, the nourishment of a nervous system at rest. As a remedy, my teacher suggested "practicing the yoga of no"; each time you say "no thank you" to an invitation for excess doing and going, you bring your energy back to yourself, and open up space for simplicity and ease.

2. Lead with Joy
I often recommend this powerful practice to my patients; use the first 5-10 minutes when you wake up in the morning to experience the simple and powerful joy of being embodied. Specifically, notice what you love, what feels good; the soft bed, cool sheets, light coming through the window, your quiet home, the excitement of tea or coffee coming, all the parts of your body that don't hurt, just as a few examples. At the end of the day (or the beginning, in this case!), wisdom is so simple we constantly miss it; like the opportunity to love the body and life we are in, from the minute we open our eyes!

3. Nourishing Food
Not smoothies and salad; in the winter, everything slows down, and the body asks for "pre-digestion"; this is what cooking, fermenting, stewing and slow-roasting provide. If food is broken down a bit before we ingest it, our body doesn't have to work as hard, then we can store that energy instead of using it (spring and summer is for planting and growing; fall and winter is for harvesting and storing). So focusing on soups and stews (my favorite health staple bone broth of course), cooked and nutrient-dense vegetables, grass-fed/pastured meat and eggs, soaked/sprouted grains, and warm beverages, with salads and fruit on the side, holding off on iced drinks and raw food until summer.

4. Creative Outlet
We are here to create. So much so, that we can't help but to do it; from the forming of a thought to a sentence, to making a meal, to imagining our lives whether for the next hour or decade. Capitalist culture fundamentally drives us toward production, sometimes sacrificing our basic need to be creative as regularly as we eat and sleep. So find your outlet; for some of us it's as vast as performance, and for others it's as simple as drawing a sweet picture on a note to someone you love. Water shows us how creativity takes a myriad of forms and has endless options; from ice to condensation, giant and loud ocean waves to a drop of dew on the tip of a blade of grass.

5. Power of Observation
The wisest thing we can do is watch. I often get this feeling looking at the lake and trees; they sit there so wisely, as we rush around like a bunch of ants, thinking the building of our particular hill is so very important. Meanwhile the seasons come and go, the lake hardens and then breaks, the trees bloom and shed, life itself doesn't care about our drama! So we can practice this too, and its a powerful form of love. I watch discomforts, anxieties, pains, and habits, arising and passing like a winter storm. I watch the thoughts, some embarrassingly judgmental, others tiringly mean to myself, those old patterns. The more I watch, the less I'm blown around, and they hold no more power over my sense of myself or my actions. This is love; we can't "try to love ourselves," but we can observe all that is not love, giving it less importance, moving on to loving all that is easy to love, all around us.

I wish for you the satisfying contentment that can come from practicing reflection, as we enter another dark winter. Know that as a practitioner and fellow stumbling human, I am here to support you with the potent medicine of wisdom, nature, and love. Please don't hesitate to contact me with comments, questions, and any health challenge you'd like help meeting. I'm here with you and for you!

 

 


 

Dealing with Overwhelm

Recently I was nearly overcome with feelings of overwhelm. It is slightly vulnerable to write this in a professional blog post. Perhaps we are not supposed to admit that we have uncomfortable feelings, in our culture, and particularly as professionals. But connection has always been a powerful part of my medicine, and my direct experience provides valuable information to me as your fellow human, and hopefully permission for you to have whatever experiences you have, comfortable or not.

So overwhelm came to visit. With my practice bursting at the seams, I was trying to squeeze everyone in, while keeping a sane enough schedule for myself to eat and see the outside light. Then the tyranny of the to-do list chose this opportune moment to start shouting inside my head. "Should should should" chugs the busy train. All that is yet to be done, simply must be given attention at this very moment!

I stopped in the middle of this thought-storm to wonder about what my mind was saying to me, and if any of it were actually true. I noticed how small my world suddenly looked from that perspective, and how scarce; not enough time, not enough resources, is essentially what those thoughts are saying. As I looked around and saw my colleague, patients, and friends frequently experiencing these same thoughts and feelings, I had to wonder about what we've all agreed upon as "normal." Standard American Pace says you must produce, multitask, and stay cool among it all, and if you can't, then you probably need anti-anxiety/depression medication.

I'm reminded of a story that pierces right through this. A colleague and mentor recently told me about a friend of hers, a Buddhist from Tibet. This Buddhist woman said to her; "please describe this feeling of overwhelm you Americans talk about, because I do not know the experience of this." Overwhelm and anxiety are foreign concepts in their culture. Incredible! This points to an extraordinary truth about our experience; though many emotions are universal, many are created by our cultural mind.

According to this article in Mother Jones, the myth of multitasking is hurting our brains. Apparently it is also hurting our hearts. To me, overwhelm boils down to "I can't do all of this." Not only is this a stressful shut-down, making it harder for the brain to attend to the task at hand, it can wear down our sense of capability. In reality, we are doing more than has ever been done before, faster, and more efficiently. We are highly productive.

But what are we producing? For instance, I am able to essentially run my practice entirely alone; online scheduling, smart phone, insurance clearinghouse, etc. mean no receptionist, intern, employees or partners necessary. Drop-shipping from the pharmacy in New York means I don't need to stock an herbal pharmacy or mix the formulas myself, I just email them the prescription and the formula arrives in a couple days. I am certainly grateful for the ease of these services that make my practice possible. But what I gain in "fast," do I lose in "connected?" Is it really healthy to not need any help?

I can't help but wonder, though it's efficient, is it effective? In terms of Chinese Medicine specifically, it is so effective, that it is being practiced with many limitations in our country, and it is still getting wonderful results! So that's not the part I question. What I'm wondering, is how we can attend to our lives, both personally and me as your practitioner, from a place of effective having precedence over efficient. I am wondering if efficient is part of the disease, so the cure must come from elsewhere.

My anthropology background always leads me to think about how other cultures are living, and how it is serving their health. In a survey about happiness, the Danish were found to be top of the list. Their high level of happiness came down to having low expectations and riding bikes everywhere. But it also had a lot to do with work-life balance, which points to valuing effective over efficient. Effective "people-care" means our value is connectedness, and our cultural actions follow to support this. We value the production of satisfaction over the production of more stuff and money. Though stuff and money are important, the obsessive production of it all has become our American illness, and the sacrifice is our health.

I'm reminded of one wise teacher's historical perspective. During graduate school, he told us we would all become good doctors, because we are living during a time much like the Song Dynasty. During the Song, excess reigned, much like it does here for us now, so people didn't take care of themselves through food, rest, etc. The doctors had to become very adept at complex diagnosis and treatment. During other parts of China's long history, doctors were not so necessary, because the culture was less sick.

I hope as a culture we can look around at history, and much of the rest of the developed world, and learn how to put value back into connectedness; not the wireless kind, the human kind! I know we are all hungry for it. Until then, how do we medicine our overwhelm? What did I do the other day to step out of my own overly efficient thought-spiral and back into the connectedness of my life? For me, it often comes down to three things: 1) question the thoughts, 2) connect with the people I love, and 3) get outside. Perhaps this is medicine even for the duality of effective vs. efficient; can we efficiently reconnect? Each small moment of quickly leaving those thoughts and coming back to ourselves creates this value of connectedness as a whole; it's probably the most powerful thing we can do.

So here are some tips on how to efficiently reconnect during times of overwhelm. Do you have any ideas? What is your experience of overwhelm, and your medicine when you become anxious? I would love to hear from you! Until then, I hope these tips are useful, and I wish for you a most connected life!

1) Breathe. It sounds so simple, but it's our most immediately accessible tool for getting out of the mind and back into the body. Focus on where the breath is coming in and out of your nose, notice thoughts trying to take you away, gently lead yourself back to feeling this sensation.

2) Look around. Notice your surroundings, all the physical support available, all the mundane reality of the very moment, all the stillness that is actually there, despite the chaos of the mind.

3) Reach out. Touch the floor, the wall, your desk, get some physical contact to reassure your nervous system that there is indeed a boundary. Get a hug if you can!

4) Take a walk. Step outside and walk around the block, even a few minutes to smell the breeze and look at the sky.

5) Call someone. Connect with someone you love, as a reminder of what is important, and that stress comes and goes, but your foundation remains.

Acute Injury: How to Heal Rapidly

This is a personal story highlighting the power of Chinese Medicine and meditative mind practice in treating injury. Since I'm lying with a bum ankle elevated rather than treating patients today, its a great opportunity to highlight injury treatment from the Eastern perspective. Also, the nature of pain is eternally fascinating; we have a lot to learn, and its time to evolve in our thinking about where pain comes from and how to handle it. When we can do this, it transforms our experience of life.

I'm reminded of a Chinese parable that I think of as the "we'll see" story. In short, its a series of events that goes something like this; a man gets a horse for his son and everyone says "oh how wonderful" and he says "we'll see." The son falls off the horse and breaks his leg, everyone says "oh how awful," and the man says "we'll see." Then the son can't go to war because of his leg and everyone says "oh how wonderful" and the man says "we'll see." And so on; the point being that no one event can truly be judged as good or bad; only time and a broader perspective will tell the how the story goes.

Running full-clip down Mount Philo yesterday, I was certainly thinking "oh how wonderful!" Until I found myself on the ground, having suddenly twisted an ankle, searing pain and swelling flooding in. So many lucky and unlucky parts of the story, but in summary, kind strangers got me off the trail and into my car where I could wait for a friend to come get me. While waiting, I was able to utilize the needles, herbs, and topical ointment I had in an emergency kit. Needles in the opposite ankle and wrist, and capsules of Yunnan Bai Yao to swallow. This is a formula with the primary herb "San Qi," known mostly to stop bleeding, but the formula also helps with inflammation, pain, circulation and trauma. The ointment, "Traumeel," is a homeopathic with the primary ingredient Arnica, applied topically to reduce pain, swelling and bruising.

Having done all I could do, I sat and waited, while the pain intensified. As I noticed I was sweating and holding my breath, I remembered what I experienced at my last Vipassana (10 day silent) meditation retreat; that I am no longer scared of pain. It is a sensation, nothing more or less, and its something that can be watched and noticed, in all of its intensity. When this has been practiced, felt all the way through to the other side, this tool can be called upon during times of acute pain. Immediately I felt better; pain no longer swallowing me up, just my body sending pain signals; rather than overwhelming, just noticing, even interesting!

After calming my body, anxious thoughts began to flood my mind about what this would mean for the rest of my summer, joy of exercise, ability to drive, see patients, and run a business. This is where the "hao la" (all is well) of Qigong practice (meditative movement), and research and experience with neural retraining (dnrsystem.com) came in. Basically, the brain doesn't know the difference between what is actually occurring and what you tell it is happening; so what you think about what is happening makes all the difference. So I immediately shifted my focus to all the wonderful parts of this story, and my surroundings; that I wasn't at the top when it happened, that it could have been so much worse, all the help I was getting, all the healers I have available to me, the beautiful day, etc.   A calmer mind means a calmer body, thus healing and repair is more easily and quickly available.

My friend took me immediately to an acupuncture treatment, and then to a friend and gifted practitioner, Sylas Navar. Sylas practices Tui Na, which is essentially Chinese Medical Massage. It is the tradition of bone-setters in China; basically, the doctors who put the martial artists back together after they beat each other up. He saw that my external malleolus (ankle bone) was a little out of place, so massaged the area and gave a gentle adjustment. Then covered my ankle in San Huang San, or "herbal ice." This poultice brings the swelling/inflammation down, without the constricting nature of actual ice, and also contains herbs to promote circulation, which is key to healing. Or as Sylas says "movement is life, ice is for dead people." He also gave me an internal Dit Dat Jow, a traditional formula for sprains/bruising/contusions.

After the acupuncture and treatment from Sylas, I was able to bear weight on my ankle. I went home and slept through the night, waking up with only mild swelling, aching and stiffness. No bruising, sharp pain, and no painkillers. Less than 24 hours later, I am ready to drive. Tomorrow, though probably still hobbling, I feel confident enough to go to work.

Am I disappointed and would I prefer that this didn't happen? Of course! But as a friend and I discussed upon returning from our annual visit back to Iowa, to spend time with our close community of family and friends of 30-some years, change is the fabric of life. Ironically, the one constant is the thing that always surprises us, and that we are consistently bucking against. I was reminded of this again just yesterday, before my lucky/unlucky incident. I ran into a patient I treated for fertility, who is about to give birth. This was just after hearing about another patient who is in the hospital with cancer metastases.

Whether its birth, death, or just an injury, perhaps we control even less than we imagine. But what can we control? We can be open to changing our thinking, and this changes everything. As my teacher Liu Ming says, "circumstances do not make your life." Certainly we hope for supportive circumstances and do all we can to work toward that type of life. But when change occurs, we can move with it, and this flow is what healing is all about. This is not esoteric, this is where the rubber hits the road. For instance, could you ever imagine a sprained ankle could heal without ice and Advil? Could you imagine such an injury providing gratitude for friends, healing, and an opportunity to slow down? And what about experiencing first-hand all the tools available for healing, through Chinese Medicine and working with the mind? Not too long ago, I certainly could not have imagined any of this. But as I lie here, drunk on the summer breeze, excited to continue sharing this knowledge and experience one step at a time, I couldn't feel more grateful for falling down a mountain yesterday!

If you'd like to know more about treatment of injury or anything else mentioned here, don't hesitate to contact me. In the meantime, I wish for you a joyful summer, full of movement and ease!

 

Losing Weight by Gaining Life

As spring has finally come (despite snow this past week to remind us its not summer yet!), I notice many people experiencing low appetite. Often its just not exactly knowing what sounds good right now. A patient and I were discussing how it feels very seasonal; no longer the time of stored food (roasted root vegetables, stews and soups), but cold and fresh salads and fruit don't feel quite right either. This is a natural expression of the cycle of time; in a truly agrarian society, now is when grain storage is running out, but fresh vegetables have not quite sprouted yet. Hence you have a springtime fast. Spring is also the domain of the liver, so the perfect time to do what we can to support our body's beautiful filter! If you are wanting to cleanse, this is the time to do it. I always recommend doing this moderately (more on that here).

Often this is also the time that issues of weightloss come up. Culturally, this is a big topic around holidays. But seasonally, right now is when many feel a sluggishness from winter that can't quite be shaken. There is an extra desire to get back on those new year's resolutions, and often a frustration at how difficult it feels to shed extra pounds. It would seem like an easy equation; calories in, calories out. But if this were true, we wouldn't have such an epidemic of frustrated people who can't maintain their set-point.

Yes its true that we are more sedentary than ever, with easy, high calories at constant arm's-reach. But the picture runs slightly deeper and more complicated than this, and anyone who has ever wanted to fit into their clothes better (which is probably the majority) knows this to be true. In this article I'll touch on my observations about the roots of this topic, some basics to keep in mind, and some resources to look into if you're interested in learning more.

Regarding the depth and complexity of weightloss, there is too much to cover in just one blog piece. But I do think there is a common theme in our culture of overfed and undernourished. Then we focus on one part of the duality (overfed) while neglecting the other (undernourished). There are so many other examples of this cultural way of thinking. One is Germ Theory; we focused on the invaders and forgot the piece about the internal ecosystem. Another is in the history of GI research; Dennis Burkitt studied African cultures with robust GI health and brought us the importance of fiber, but we forgot the part about nourishing grass-fed animal fats and the enzymes and probiotics of fermented foods. Veganism has brought the importance of vegetables, the concern over consumption of factory-farmed animals, and the help of enzymes. But it neglects the importance of our inability to digest cellulose, the consumption of grains damaging our external and internal ecosystems, and how essential pre-digestion is to vitality (more on this in an upcoming article).

Similarly, the narrow focus only on the overfed part instead of the undernourished is leaving people wondering why they have introduced plenty of restriction, but their body is not responding. Of course keeping meal portions reasonable and getting a good amount of regular movement are essentials for a healthy body weight. But many are doing this and still not losing weight. Often this is a symptom of taking care of the overfed part but continuing to neglect the undernourished.

What do I mean by undernourished? There is the aspect of nourishment that comes through a nutrient-dense diet. This is essential for the healthy functioning of all of your systems, but also for signaling your body about satiation. Fat is what makes you feel full. Every wondered why the more sugar and carbs you eat, the more you want? Or why you can eat plates of salad but still not feel satisfied? That's because fat tells the body we've gotten what we need. So am I telling you to go out and eat donuts as a weightloss plan? Doubt that would work! But healthy fats from grass-fed animals, butter, ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil deliver nutrients and warmth to your body, and tell you that you've been satisfied. A diet without these will never be a diet that grounds and satiates the body. We are made of protein, fat provides energy, and carbohydrates are like fuel. You cannot live on fuel alone; you need just enough to burn, and the rest to build a body.

That said, I am not a proponent of "paleo" or really anything extreme. Though I think some diets work for some conditions for some amount of time always, the goal is to find what fills us up, brings us joy, and makes our body want to metabolize at a healthy rate. Which brings us to another aspect of being undernourished. Almost always, when we delve into issues of weight, we come to the crossroads of emotional and physical holding. Our parents and culture don't come equipped with tools for the healthy processing of complicated emotions and experience, so most of us don't naturally inherit these tools. If we don't somehow learn them on our own, our body bears the brunt. We might create a layer of protection around ourselves in more ways than one. Not to mention the epidemic of mothers who had mothers that were worried about their weight, which they couldn't control, so they try to control their daughters. To break this cycle, as adults we must learn to get off our own backs, and feed ourselves the love that our moms couldn't always give themselves or their daughters.

So what if your diet is nutrient-dense and your emotional baggage is sifted and unloaded, but there is still extra weight and perhaps a sense of undernourishment? The question then might be, in what way does your life need to be fed? After years of asking patients "what do you need today?," and as I learn from inspiring thinkers (such as Dr. Lissa Rankin) to ask "what do you need in order to heal?," I am now asking patients "what would you love to do?" Tears usually come, and answers are things like "dance more," "quit my job," "tell my husband what I really want," "let myself drink coffee," "stop being a sounding board for my mother." So although we think there is a simple prescription for healthy and happy that includes going to the gym and drinking smoothies, this is often not enough, and usually no replacement for a whole picture of nourishment.

If we look around at other cultures, we can see that this overfed/undernourished epidemic is very American. Yes we sit too much and have an overabundance of junk food. But there is also the issue of sensuality of experience, of connectedness. Two examples come to mind; one about the rich food in Europe, and the other about the effect of western television on Fiji Islanders.

While backpacking in Europe during college, I remember noticing the majority of people in France, Spain and Italy were fairly thin. At the same time, each of these cultures were enjoying cheese, chocolate, and wine. They also enjoy long, social mealtimes, naps, reasonable work hours, easy healthcare and education. Also much of the food supply is still different; no GMO's, more organic, more ancient grains and traditional preparation, basically a life of less mass-manufacturing. This is a life more nourished, and the body responds; when one is truly "fed" from all aspects, the body gets what it needs, and no longer needs to crave, or hold on to excess.

The Fiji example is a study I once heard about that showed the majority of 4th grade girls expressed eating-disordered behavior only a year after the introduction of western television. Prior to this, these islanders found a robust body to be a sign of fertility and abundance, and prided themselves on the image of a curvy woman as evidence of a successful society. The tyranny of impossible expectation is reaching our psyche before we have any idea. This ignites a deep assumption that we need to control the interactions of our body and environment in order to look right, to be "good." This inevitably backfires, because this wise organism responds to control by pulling the other direction, often resulting in "out of control."

How does this translate in practical terms? Simply; if starved in any way, the organism will find a way to get fed. If it can't get what it needs in one way, it will overcompensate in another. Also, metabolism needs movement; movement of the body, of emotion, the warmth of fat, the endorphins of joy. If we shut any of this down with the false sweetness of sugar, stimulation of media in place of the nourishment of connection, pushing ourselves through the boredom of the gym instead of exercising our heart through dance or breathing fresh air or looking at trees, this wise organism will know.

So what to do? Ask yourself how to get fed. In basic food terms, if this is more confusing than ever, come see me and I'll teach you about a nutrient-dense diet. You can also investigate the resources I list at the end of this article. If you have the food part down, ask yourself how else you might be undernourished? If you haven't heard your heart sing in a while and you know how to find its voice, then this is your medicine. And if you don't know how to make it sing, even better, you get to find out!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject so please write to me with any questions or leave comments below.

In the meantime, here are some resources to support you on your journey toward a fully nourished life, and a body that responds accordingly:

Transformational Weightloss: http://www.foodsanity.com/online.php
On a nutrient-dense diet: http://www.westonaprice.org/
More about fat and calories: http://garytaubes.com/

Why the cold feet? Supporting Circulation

Here in Burlington we are digging ourselves out of over a foot of snow, so winter is still well on our minds! In the Chinese calender, spring has come; yin is diminished, and in one system this "qi node" (two week mini-season) is called "insects stir." This means yang has not yet peeked out; the insects aren't running around or procreating just yet, the shoots haven't come above ground, there is just a tiny stirring just below the surface. So how does all of this translate for our common lives? Well like I said, in Vermont, its easy for us to get a sense; the light has changed, we feel the impulse to move forward, but there's also a feeling that it's not quite time yet. Especially in this Wood Horse year, its good to check our impulse; going with the "second thought" as a friend used to say. Lately I've been letting myself get excited about an idea, plan, or impulse, and then just allowing it to simmer a bit, and if it feels just as good the next day, then its a go.

In the meantime, the cold stillness of Water Snake winter is still lingering. As part of this, I've noticed an epidemic of low circulation (particularly among women). Sure a cold environment contributes, but this trend was apparent when I practiced in California too, so there's more to the story. In this article I'll touch on what might be impeding our circulation and what you can do about it.

First of all, what is circulation, and what is happening when its inhibited? Of course we are referring to how the blood is moving through the body, through the vessels, oxygenating tissues. From the Chinese Medicine point of view, we are also talking about synchronicity of functional relationships; is there enough yang (energy/warmth) to push yin (fluids/blood)? Often the answer is no, so why is this? As is often the case, I see this as a modern life issue, consisting of a few main factors; stress, digestive strain, thyroid and adrenal deficiency, excess sitting, and stimulants.

How does stress affect circulation? Stress, which is so pervasive it has become nearly a status symbol ("oh I'm sooo busy"), kicks our nervous system into sympathetic mode (fight/flight) daily. As I'm sure I've mentioned in other articles, we are probably designed to handle this a handful of times a year (running from a tiger), not per day. So you can imagine the toll of this chronic condition. Regarding circulation, when we are in fight/flight mode, the body finds it unnecessary to push blood everywhere; its reserved only for the "emergency" organs and senses in the acute situation. So then we practice this enough, and the body creates a chemical signature for it, because the body is so wonderfully adept at patterning!

Digestive strain is also pretty rampant. This is a multifaceted issue, but one contributing factor of particular importance is excess "cold" food, especially during winter. By cold I do mean temperature, like ice and smoothies. But by cold I also mean raw, uncooked. There is a lot of hype around raw food, and we do need some enzymes. But for much of the year (hibernation time), we are storing and conserving energy rather than spending, just like the rest of nature. So when we require our digestive system to "cook" everything that goes in, there can be little energy left to do other things like circulate. That's why we cook in the winter (even if its not a cold climate); in the cycle of life, there's a time for everything. Sometimes we need more movement and enzymes (summer), other times we need more storage and easy digestion (winter).

Thyroid and adrenal deficiency are all too common these days, most likely due to stress and environmental toxins. This is a huge and complex topic, so the simple way of thinking about it is more stress=less endocrine harmony. Again, the body puts hormone balance low on the list when it's focused on surviving! And when there is a lower functioning hormonal axis, there is less circulation of everything; blood, hormones, brain activity, to name a few.

Lastly, we should consider the common office-life coupling of excess sitting and stimulants. Anyone with a desk job can feel that too much sitting is not what this body is meant to do, and it makes everything inside feel stagnant. So to remedy this stuckness, we indulge in excess stimulation; computer-time, coffee, even too much running. This all sends adrenaline through the system, and our vessels get "pumped up." In small doses this is just fine and often very beneficial. But when these two become extreme ends of the spectrum (stagnate, then push), one never really feels quite right unless stimulated.

So what are the icy-toed to do? Perhaps the healthcare question is always this: how do we live in the stressful world we've created? The simple answer is always balance; finding the middle-ground between sedentary and stimulated, learning what harmony feels like. Regarding stress, its more stressful to try and get rid of stress! So "tuning in" is always a nice option; how does this action or substance feel, where can I say no, could I pull back just a little more? Not that pulling back is more important than going and doing, it all matters. But as a culture we over-emphasize pushing, so it's my job to remind us of the equal importance of nourishing and tending.

More specifically, I recommend some tips in the areas of food, movement, and general body support. One of the easiest foods to add is cinnamon. Have you noticed how ground cinnamon "poofs" when you pour it out? In Chinese Medicine we call this "dispersing," and it has this wonderful warming and circulating affect inside the body. Cinnamon stick tea, and/or just adding cinnamon to your food in the winter, can greatly enhance your circulation. Other warming foods that also support the adrenals and digestion include fats such as butter, ghee and coconut oil, and sea salt, which contributes minerals and stabilizes blood pressure if it's low (common with poor circulation and low endocrine function). In addition to warm and cooked foods, digestion is also supported by fermented foods, which are rich in enzymes and probiotics. They break down the rest of your food, taking the pressure off your digestion, leaving energy for circulation. Sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, and miso are some examples.

Regarding movement, we know exercise is always helpful. But as I mentioned, we can also get too much of a good thing, and if you notice you only feel good and warm when you are breathing hard, you might be over-doing it. I remember hearing a study comparing heart and lung assessments of middle-aged men, a group of runners and a group of tai chi practitioners. The tai chi practitioners actually came out ahead of the runners. This shows us that movement, and harmonizing in particular, is as important and effective for bodily processes as getting your heart rate up. So simply get your blood sloshing around on a regular basis; 10-20 minutes every day will be just as good (and maybe better) for your circulation as going for a 5-10 mile run several times a week.

In terms of overall bodily support, there are so many options. First and foremost, anything you can do to promote more sleep and less stress will help; less stimulants, more laughter, less worry, more fun, making your body the priority of your schedule, remembering you will never get it all done, but you will always need a body! Acupuncture and Qigong are unmatched in their ability to encourage the deep and lasting balance of all systems. Hydrotherapy and epsom salt baths are also two of my favorites. Hydrotherapy just means alternating hot and cold water (bath, shower, or sauna), which is an amazing circulation tool. Epsom salts contain magnesium, which relaxes the muscles, sedates the nervous system, and draws out toxins. Add some lavender oil and you are lifting depression and calming everything down even more.

Regarding endocrine support, I mentioned some of what the adrenals love. They also love a nervous system in rest-digest mode as often as possible; setting boundaries, taking naps, eating a nutrient-dense diet, and not pushing. This last one is so often overlooked but we all know the feeling; when you are spending a little more qi than you have. Start to recognize this feeling and instead of getting anxious from pulling back, thank yourself for nourishing your adrenals, and trust this will make you infinitely more productive in the long-run. The thyroid loves a low-toxin environment and diet, no xenoestrogens (such as plastics), as few pharmaceuticals as possible, a clean liver, iodine and selenium. The latter two can be found in seaweed and brazil nuts. There are also so many incredible herbs and herbal formulas to gently but powerfully support your endocrine system. One of my favorite spring liver herbs is Milk Thistle. I also love Nettles because they both nourish and cleanse. But to truly support the relationship of hormones to each other and to circulation, an herbal prescription is ideal.

I hope this information leads to warmer feet and hearts! Enjoy the sprouting of spring wherever you are, whether its under the sun or a blanket of snow. Please don't hesitate to call or email and let me know how I can support your health and happiness!