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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!