Thursday, September 20, 2012

Acupuncture for Sports Injuries & Pain Management

Acupuncture Proven Effective in Pain Relief:

Acupuncture hit the New York Times earlier this month in a Sept 11, 2012 article entitled Acupuncture Provides True Pain Relief in Study:
"A new study of acupuncture — the most rigorous and detailed analysis of the treatment to date — found that it can ease migraines and arthritis and other forms of chronic pain.... Acupuncture outperformed sham treatments and standard care [i.e. pain meds] when used by people suffering from osteoarthritis, migraines and chronic back, neck and shoulder pain."
This is based on a new meta-study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine which found acupuncture to be superior to placebo and standard biomedical care in the treatment of various types of chronic pain.

New York Times article
Medscape article

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Whey: How to Make It, Where to Get It

Whey is the fluid part that results when dairy products like yogurt or milk separate. It is full of beneficial bacteria and enzymes, helpful to digestion & immunity. It can be drunken alone or used as a flavorful, nutritious addition to soups and sauces.

It's useful in for so many kitchen projects, including:

  • as a starter culture for lacto-fermented vegetables & fruits (i.e. home-made probiotic-rich pickles & sauerkraut),
  • for soaking & sprouting grains (to improve their digestibility before cooking), and
  • as a starter for many beverages (i.e. homemade ginger ale).

It's not hard to make at home. I'll provide a recipe below. BUT...

If you want to save time & effort, you (Berkeley-area-folk) can order it for pick up through Three Stone Hearth Community Supported Kitchen.


Whey can be made from piima milk, whole-milk buttermilk or yoghurt. I like to make it from raw milk because raw milk comes with the right blend of digestive enzymes and bacteria needed to cause separation to occur. 

To make whey, pour raw milk into a clean glass quart jar, i.e. mason jar. Cover the jar with a lid (or coffee filter, or clean cotton cloth) and allow it to sit undisturbed at room temperature for 2-3 days until separation occurs. You will know the milk has separated when you see white solids floating in a yellowish clear liquid. The liquid is whey. The white solid is cream cheese – also known as curds.

Next, line a strainer with an unbleached coffee filter or clean cotton cloth (such as a freshly laundered t-shirt).

Pour the liquid and solids into the strainer, catching the liquid in a glass bowl. When the dripping stops, transfer the whey into a lidded jar labeled with the date. The whey will keep in your refrigerator for about 6 months.

The cream cheese byproduct can be seasoned to suit your taste and used in your favorite recipes. It is far superior to commercial cream cheese, which is produced by putting milk under high pressure and not by the beneficial action of lactic-acid producing bacteria.

Sally Fallon & Mary Enig. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition & the Diet Dictocrats. 2nd Edition. p. 87.

How to Make Homemade Ginger Ale

Homemade ginger ale is a perfect late summer/early autumn beverage .... and it's actually easy to make!

Why would I make my own ginger ale when I can buy it at the store?

Conventional store-bought ginger ales often contain high fructose corn syrup, or other unhealthy sweeteners, as well as preservatives and "natural flavoring" for the ginger, which is another word for chemicals.

Homemade ginger ale has these advantages:
  • It contains real ginger! ... and
  • It's fermented, so it contains healthy probiotics.
These two facts means it's great for our immune & digestive systems. .... Not convinced? Please see my article on the medicinal value of ginger.



3/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and diced
1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 – 1/2 cup sweetener (rapadura, sucanat, organic raw cane sugar, or raw honey)
1/4 cup whey*
2 quarts filtered water (or, basic water, if that's what you have)

*Want to know where to get whey? Click here.


1. Peel & chop the ginger.

2. Place ginger along with all the other ingredients in a 2-quart mason jar. Stir well & cover tightly.

3. Leave the jar at room temperature for about 2-3 days while the contents begin their natural fermentation process. Monitor the taste as this process happens. It should become bubbly. 

4. After 2-3 days, transfer to the refrigerator. The ginger ale will keep for several months in the refrigerator.

To serve, strain into a glass. Because it is fermented, your homemade ginger ale will probably be stronger than most ginger ales you’ve tried in the past. If it’s too strong, dilute it with some carbonated water.  The carbonated water will also add some additional fizz. The fermentation process means that it will have some alcohol content. Dilute & serve in small amounts for kids :)

It is best sipped warm, in small amounts, rather than gulped down cold.

A little ginger ale history from Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions:

"Modern ginger ale has two ancestors. One is ginger beer, brewed and bottled at home like root beer. A fermented, bubbly drink, it was sometimes alcoholic, mostly not. The other is ginger water or "switchel," as New Englanders called it, a nonalcoholic drink prepared for farmers during long, hot days of scything in the hayfields. By Laura Ingalls Wilder's day, ginger drinks were flavored with sugar rather than with natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup or honey; and the tart taste was obtained from vinegar rather than from lacto-fermentation."

Sally Fallon & Mary Enig, PhD. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition & the Diet Dictocrats. Revised Second Edition.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Featured Herb: Ginger

There are so many herbs in the Chinese pharmacopoeia used to strengthen and regulate the function of the Spleen. It's hard to choose just one.

Ginger is a fabulous herb when you want to add a bit of warmth & spice to your life!
---And it's easy to integrate into daily meals & household use!

Note: When we talk about strengthening and regulating the Spleen, we are basically talking about improving the way our body digests food, assimilates nutrients, transforms food nutrients into usable energy and transports that energy to all the cells of our body--- ensuring the integrity of cells and tissues and providing energy which allows us to think and function on a daily basis. For more on the Spleen in Chinese medicine, please see related articles:

Late Summer Reflections: Transition, Earth Spleen
Nourishing Earth: Chinese Herbalism & the Spleen/Stomach

Ginger: Zingiber officinale

Ginger is used daily in kitchens throughout South Asia (where it was originally cultivated), East Asia and to a lesser extent West Asia. Africa and the Caribbean. The rhizome of the ginger plant is used.

In Chinese herbology, we think of ginger like this:

Fresh ginger is spicy and warming and has a special affinity for the Lung, Spleen & Stomach.
As a medicinal herb, ginger has the following uses:

  • In the treatment of colds and flus, when the patient feels weak and has chills, ginger gently helps to open the pores, induce mild sweating and help eliminate the invading virus. If the patient is warm and feverish, though, we'd use cool spicy herbs, like peppermint, instead of ginger.
  • It can alleviate nausea and vomiting. It's useful in morning sickness or in alleviating the side-effects of cancer treatment, especially when there is cold in the stomach. (When there is heat in the stomach, we combine ginger with cool or cold herbs--bamboo shavings or coptis root, for example-- to stop vomiting.)
  • Ginger reduces phlegm in the Lungs to treat cough and chronic Lung problems.
  • Finally, ginger is said to eliminate toxins from food and from other herbs.
Fresh ginger doesn't tonify the Spleen per se, but it helps the Spleen and Stomach work more efficiently by warming and stimulating them. In biomedical terms, ginger has constituents which mimic digestive enzymes and stimulates the production of gastric juices and lipase.

The Spleen is easily harmed by cold. When the Spleen is weak and cold, dampness and phlegm accumulate in the body. One of the places phlegm loves to hang out is in the Lung. Ginger is great at getting rid of phlegm in the lungs and the respiratory tract, and helping to reduce the production of phlegm in the first place.

Dried ginger is also used medicinally in Chinese medicine, and is considered to have different properties from fresh ginger. It is more warming than fresh ginger. Whereas fresh ginger warms the surface of the body, opening pores and inducing sweating, dried ginger is one of the most effective Chinese herbs for warming the inside of the body. It is used to "rescue yang," or to stimulate metabolic activity in yang deficient patients. Yang deficiency is characterized by weakness, slow metabolism, pallor, cold extremities, weak circulation, edema, etc. It could even be used in cases of mild hypothermia. In biomedical terms, it acts on the central nervous system to raise blood pressure.

Dried ginger has an affinity for the Heart, Lung, Spleen and Stomach.  Some additional uses include:

  • alleviating stomach & abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea due to cold,
  • alleviating cough, wheezing and fluid congestion in the lungs due to cold
  • stimulating menstruation, regulating the menses or stopping excessive uterine bleeding in women, when these are due to cold.
In all of these cases, dried ginger would be combined with other suitable Chinese herbs. Obviously, dried ginger would not be the herb of choice is the ailment were not due to cold (or weak, slow metabolism). This is important because many conditions treated in a modern acupuncture clinic stem from heat, yin deficiency (autoimmune conditions are often in this category) and other etiologies, and must be addressed differently. The coldness described here is often due to long-term weakness and chronic illness. In the long term, excess heat and yin deficiency results in yang deficiency.

Small amounts of ginger, usually fresh ginger, are often included in Chinese formulas because ginger acts as a carrier. It helps move other herbs through the blood, increasing their effectiveness and absorption rate.

Ginger has come into prominence in western naturopathic medicine, where its uses include:
  • appetite stimulation
  • alleviation of joint pain due to arthritis by increasing blood circulation
  • alleviation of gastrointestinal distress: may be helpful in cases of nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, gas, and even menstrual cramps
  • cardiovascular/cerebrovascular health: consumption 5 grams of ginger per day has been shown to slow the production of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in the liver, and to prevent the adhesion of circulating platelets.
This article from the University of Maryland Medical Center summarizes some of the many clinical trials that have been conducted on ginger.

Using Ginger in the Household:

Late Summer & Autumn are great times of year to begin integrating more ginger into your diet. Late Summer is the time of year when the energy of the Spleen & Stomach is at its height, and Autumn is the time when the Lung is prominent. Ginger supports all of these organs, and helps to warm us and boost our immunity as winter approaches.

I always keep fresh ginger root in my fridge. I like to grate a bit of ginger pulp onto a warm dish of food at any meal. A bit of grated ginger is a must for me in a bowl of hot soup, especially miso. A few thin slices of fresh ginger, or a bit of dried ginger powder, can be sauteed in oil along with onions and garlic as the base flavoring for any vegetables. Ginger, garlic and onions have lots of antioxidants and prevent the formation of free radicals when oil is heated. I always toss a slice of fresh ginger into the rice cooker before I cook rice. It adds a lovely aroma and brings all the medicinal benefits listed above.

It's easy to make ginger tea: just boil a few slices of ginger in a pot of hot water, strain & drink. Add chamomile to the ginger tea to ease menstrual cramps. For sore throat, or first signs that you're coming down with a cold, add some peppermint or fresh green onions to your tea-- then bundle up & sweat out the virus.

Here's a fabulous recipe for homemade ginger ale.

You can use this ginger tea externally as well. Soak your feet in a bowl of ginger tea to head off a cold. A poultice of ginger (mashed ginger pulp, or even just a washcloth soaked in ginger tea) applied to sore joints and muscles can ease pain, arthritis and rheumatism. Applied externally to the chest, it breaks up lung congestion and expels mucous. Poultices of fresh ginger applied to certain lung points on the back of the body is a classic Chinese asthma remedy. A wash of warm ginger tea can be applied to the lower abdomen during childbirth to ease labor and delivery, and to the perineum to prevent tearing during delivery. A ginger poultice applied to the low back will warm and support the Kidney system, boosting energy and immunity. Just be careful to let the poultice or wash cool before you apply it externally to prevent burning.

A Few Words of Caution:

Ginger has a pretty mild effect on the body, but, as with any food or herb, you don't want to overdo it. Limit consumption of ginger to 2-4 grams per day. Just a bit will do. 

While small amounts of ginger support digestion, too much ginger can irritate the digestive tract. Pay attention to the way your body responds to it. Too much ginger may also interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and dietary iron. Ginger can thin the blood and it can elevate blood pressure slightly. Those taking blood thinners, barbiturates, beta-blockers, insulin or diabetes medications should consult with  about ginger since it could conflict with these medicines. Ginger may stimulate uterine contractions so pregnant women should be careful how much ginger they ingest, limiting it to one gram per day. If you have any doubts, talk to a qualified herbalist or other medical practitioner.

Other than that, have fun spicing it up!

Tierra, Lesley, L.Ac. The Herbs of Life: Health & Healing Using Western & Chinese Techniques.

Bensky & Gamble. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica.

Classroom lectures from Briahn Kelley-Brennan, L.Ac.

Nourishing Earth: Chinese Herbalism & the Spleen/Stomach

The Spleen & the Stomach are the organs associated with Late Summer and the Earth Element. In Chinese medicine physiology, the Spleen & Stomach are responsible for digestion of food, assimilation of nutrients and production of energy we use to think and function on a day-to-day basis.

Many herbs in the Chinese medicine pharmacopoeia are used to help the Spleen and Stomach function optimally.

A truly skilled practitioner of Chinese herbalism can assess a patient's physiological imbalances with an astonishing degree of subtlety. Indeed, the Chinese pharmacopoeia includes multiple herbs that perform very specific functions, depending on just what is needed to help a patient feel better.

To underline the subtlety of this system, I can't resist posting a list of "treatment strategies" employed by traditional Chinese herbalists to improve Spleen & Stomach function. Each of these "treatment strategies" has a specific Chinese name, along with a list of herbs to choose from which help perform that function:

  • Tonify the Spleen
  • Build the Center & Uplifting Qi
  • Warm the Spleen:   the Spleen is damaged by cold
  • Move the Spleen
  • Harmonize the Center & Qi in the Central Burner
  • Emolliate acute Mid-Abdominal Distress
  • Raise Central Yang and Lift Collapse: where the Spleen fails to hold things in place or raise clear Qi to the head
  • Aromatically Dry Damp:  Dampness is an outcome of Spleen weakness, and hinders Spleen function
  • Transform Phlegm
  • Percolate Damp
  • Disinhibit Damp
  • Drive Out Water Rheum
  • Nourish Stomach Yin:  in cases of excess dryness, heat or inflammation in the Stomach
  • Clear Stomach Heat:  the Stomach is harmed by heat & dryness
  • Purge Stomach Fire
  • Dissolve Food Accumulation
  • Harmonize the Stomach & Descend Rebellious Qi
  • Control Acid

How the Spleen & Stomach (i.e. Digestive Health) Came to Occupy a Central Role in Traditional Chinese Medicine:

So why is all this meticulous attention paid to the function of the digestive system?

Chinese medicine is thousands of years old. As with any tradition of this  magnitude, there are numerous different schools of thought & sub-traditions within traditional Chinese medicine.

A major school of thought emerged in the 1200s and 1300s which viewed the Spleen & Stomach (digestion) as having central importance to health and healing. The leader of this school was a physician known as Li Dong Yuan, who lived from 1180 to 1252 C.E.

Dr. Li was responding to the overuse of cold medicinals in the herbal medicine practiced at his time. The Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia has lots of herbs that are strongly anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral. In fact, at Dr. Li's time, many Chinese herbalists were having success saving patients from life-threatening infections. --- Yes, it's true: the Chinese had herbal "antibiotics" a thousand years ago, obviously well before the invention of antibiotic drugs in the west. The trouble with these herbs is that they were very cold in nature. Cold herbs damage the function of the Spleen and Stomach. Because the Earth organs (Spleen & Stomach) are the root of a person's day-to-day energy, Dr. Li observed that patients who had taken too many of these cold medicinals became weak over time.

Based on his observations, Dr. Li put forward a theory that most diseases are due to injury to the Spleen and Stomach, which occurred as a result of taking cold medicinal herbs, overeating, overworking, or emotional strain. He expounded on this theory in a book, Pi Wei Lun, or Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach.

Very basically, Dr. Li proposed that all patterns of chronic illness and weakness could be cured by improving the way a person digested and assimilated nutrients--- that is, by supporting the function of the Spleen and Stomach.

Dr. Li is famous for developing an herbal formula called bu zhong yi qi tang, or Tonify the Middle and Augment the Qi Decoction. This formula which combines eight common Chinese herbs, including the roots of ginseng, astragalus and angelica is still widely used today.

What Is the Relevance of Dr. Li's Work and the Pi Wei Lun Today?

The "Spleen & Stomach" (Pi-Wei) school of thought expounded by Dr. Li has occupied a significant place in Chinese medicine practice right up to today.

Many acupuncturists, including myself, name Dr. Li as one of their heroes.

Our modern-day medical scenario has something in common with what Dr. Li observed in his day. Biomedicine has given us critically life-saving antibiotics and other powerful drugs. Antibiotics are extremely cold in nature (as are vaccinations). Western medicine is exceptional in its ability to fight infectious disease; but few would argue that antibiotics and many other drugs take a toll on our long-term health. Antibiotics injure our digestive systems and can have a cascade affect on other body systems.

Traditional Chinese Medicine includes strategies to fight infection and heal serious injury and illness. But the real advantage of Chinese medicine over biomedicine is its ability to strengthen people constitutionally—making them less vulnerable to illness in the first place. Chinese medicine is also exceptional in remedying chronic illnesses and chronic pain in many instances where biomedicine has little offer.

Supporting digestive health by supporting the Spleen & Stomach through acupuncture & herbal medicine is central to helping people recover from chronic illness, moderating the damaging affects of biomedical drug regimens, and strengthening people constitutionally. A healthy Spleen brings nutrients to all cells, ensuring their integrity, and to the muscles, ensuring their strength. Of course, supporting the Spleen is not the only thing we need to do. We often have to remove pathogenic factors that build up when the body is not functioning optimally. We need to support and regulate different organ systems. For example, when the relationship between the Spleen and Liver has become imbalanced, or when the prolonged Spleen dysfunction has weakened the Kidney, these organ systems need to be rebalanced.

In the end, constitutional strengthening is almost always a part of the recovery process, and the Spleen is almost always central to this.

The Chinese pharmacopoeia has an enormous array of medicinal substances that improve the function of the Spleen and Stomach. Most of these medicinals are in fact quite gentle, but can have profound effect in regulating energy, moderating any illness process.

I'll close this article with a list of treatment strategies & herbs, reprinted from the Institute for Trasitional Medicine's very comprehensive website:

SPLEEN QI DEFICIENCY (pi qi xu): primary symptoms include decreased appetite; sallow complexion; fatigue; shallow breathing or shortness of breath; little desire to talk; epigastric and/or abdominal bloating (especially after eating); loose or unformed bowel movements. Secondary symptoms may include weak or emaciated extremities; edematous extremities; inhibited urination; decreased amount of (pale colored) menstrual flow. The tongue typically manifests with a pale body, toothmarks, and a thin white coating; the pulse tends to be weak and slow.

Representative Herbs: codonopsis (dangshen), astragalus (huangqi), atractylodes (baizhu), hoelen (fuling), dioscorea (shanyao), lotus seed (lianzi), coix (yiyiren), dolichos (biandou), jujube (dazao); citrus (chenpi), shen-chu (shenqu).

Representative Formulas: Four Major Herbs Combination (Si Junzi Tang); Six Major Herbs Combination (Liu Junzi Tang).

DOWNWARD COLLAPSE OF SPLEEN QI (pi qi xia xian): primary symptoms include weak voice; shortness of breath; fatigue; bloating sensation right after eating; prolapsing sensation in stomach and abdomen (wan fu zhong duo); (bianyi pinshuo); or possibly prolapse of anus due to chronic diarrhea; or prolapse of stomach or uterus. Secondary symptoms may include dizziness; unclear sensory perception (especially blurry vision); poor appetite; spontaneous sweating; mental and physical fatigue; diarrhea. The tongue typically presents with a pale body and a thin white coating; the pulse tends to be weak and empty.

Representative Herbs: astragalus (huangqi), codonopsis (dangshen), atractylodes (baizhu), dioscorea (shanyao), dolichos (biandou), cimicifuga (shengma), pueraria (gegen); bupleurum (chaihu), citrus (chenpi).

Representative Formula: Ginseng and Astragalus Combination (Buzhong Yiqi Tang).

STOMACH YIN DEFICIENCY (wei yin xu): primary symptoms include dry lips; frequent thirst sensation; dry throat; sticky sensation in the mouth; poor appetite; sensation of emptiness, stuckness, or pain in epigastric region. Secondary symptoms may include hunger sensation without desire for food; constipation; restlessness; sensations of surging heat. The tongue typically presents with a red body and a mirror surface without coating, or with a red body and little coating, or with a dry tongue and little moisture; the pulse tends to be fine and rapid.

Representative Herbs: glehnia (bei shashen), ophiopogon (maimendong), yu-chu (yuzhu), dendrobium (shihu), raw rehmannia (sheng dihuang), trichosanthes root (tianhuafen), Asian pear juice (li zhi), sugar cane juice (ganzhe zhi); bamboo skin (zhuru).

Representative Formulas: Glehnia and Ophiopogon Formula (Shashen Maidong Yin), Boost the Stomach Decoction (Yiwei Tang).

SPLEEN YANG DEFICIENCY (pi yang xu): primary symptoms are spleen qi deficiency symptoms with an emphasis on cold signs, such as abdominal pain that improves with the application of heat and pressure; cold extremities; poor appetite; abdominal bloating; loose or unformed stools. Secondary symptoms include decreased taste sensation; little desire to drink; edematous extremities; inhibited urination; increased amounts of clear vaginal discharge. The tongue typically presents with a pale and tender body and a white and slippery coating; the pulse tends to be deep and fine, or deep and slow.

Representative Herbs: dry ginger (ganjiang), aconite (fuzi), evodia (wuzhuyu), zanthoxylum (chuanjiao), clove (dingxiang), atractylodes (baizhu), codonopsis (dangshen).

Representative Formulas: Ginseng and Ginger Combination (Lizhong Tang), Fill the Spleen Formula; Magnolia and Atractylodes Combination (Shipi Yin).

COLD DAMP OBSTRUCTING THE SPLEEN (han shi kun pi): primary symptoms are a general sense of heaviness in the body and/or the head; discomfort or bloating in the abdomen or epigastric region; reduced taste sensation; little or no thirst; abdominal pain; unformed stools or diarrhea. Secondary symptoms include no appetite; nausea and vomiting; sticky sensation in mouth; puffy face; edematous extremities; bags under the eyes; increased vaginal discharge. The tongue is typically fat and has a greasy white coating; the pulse tends to be soft and moderate.

Representative Herbs: red atractylodes (cangzhu), atractylodes (baizhu), hoelen (fuling), magnolia bark (houpo), citrus (chenpi), pinellia (banxia), tsao-kuo (caoguo), agastache (huoxiang), (peilan), perilla stalk ( zi sugeng).

Representative Formulas: Magnolia and Citrus Combination (Pingwei San); Magnolia and Hoelen Combination (Wei Ling Tang).

DAMP HEAT IMPLICATING THE SPLEEN (shi re yun pi): primary symptoms are stuffy sensation in the subcostal and epigastric regions; abdominal bloating; poor appetite; dry and sticky sensation in mouth; aversion to greasy foods; nausea and vomiting; general sensation of heaviness; jaundiced eyes and face. Secondary symptoms may be body itch; fever; dark and scanty urination; obstructed bowel movements. The tongue typically presents with a greasy and yellow coating; the pulse tends to be soft and rapid.

Representative Herbs: capillaris (yinchen), bamboo skin (zhuru), red atractylodes (cangzhu), atractylodes (baizhu), hoelen (fuling), polyporus (zhuling), alisma (zexie), chih-shih (zhishi).

Representative Formulas: Capillaris and Hoelen Five Formula (Yinchen Wuling San); Capillaris and Hoelen Four Formula (Yinchen Siling San).

THE SPLEEN CANNOT CONTAIN THE BLOOD WITHIN THE VESSELS (pi bu tong xue): primary symptoms are general signs of spleen qi deficiency, such as pale face and tendency towards diarrhea, accompanied by signs of bleeding, such as blood in the stool, nose bleed, gum bleeding, subcutaneous bleeding (purpura), increased amounts of menstrual bleeding or continuous spotting. Secondary symptoms may include other spleen deficiency symptoms, such as decreased appetite; fatigue, bloating after eating; shallow breathing or shortness of breath; cold extremities; skinny constitution. The tongue typically presents with a pale body and a white coating; the pulse tends to be soft, fine, and weak.

Representative Herbs: codonopsis (dangshen), astragalus (huangqi), atractylodes (baizhu), tang-kuei (danggui), dioscorea (shanyao), lotus seed (lianzi), roasted ginger (paojiang), longan (longyanrou), baked licorice (zhi gancao).

Representative Formula: Ginseng and Longan Combination (Guipi Tang).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Late Summer Reflections: Transition, Earth, Spleen

There's been been a lot of change in the air during the past few weeks. The long, exuberant, sunny days of summer have suddenly given way to to a crisp coolness. In the Bay Area, hints of dampness and fog have begun to appear in the evenings and early mornings, broken up warm sunshine at midday. The angle of the light is becoming less direct and darkness falls earlier as the sun moves further on its southward journey with each passing day.

For family-folk, many of our kids just started another school year. Last week I tearfully dropped my daughter off for her first day of preschool. Many adults are making changes in, or recommitting themselves, to their routines of work and study.

Indeed, this is a big time of transition for us as a culture, in our yearly circuit around the sun. Things may feel very busy on one level with the reestablishment of routines. However, stopping for a moment to feel the slight coolness of the air or to observe the way the afternoon sunlight falls, one might notice a special sort of stillness amidst this transition.

The classical Chinese calendar has a name for this time of year, which we don't find in the west. It's called "Late Summer." In addition to the four seasons Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, the Chinese calendar has a fifth season known as Late Summer, which starts in August and lasts for about a month.

Late Summer is actually the very center of the year, considering that the Chinese calendar begins in February, at the beginning of Spring.

As the "center" of the year, Late Summer marks the transition between the Yang part of the year (the growing, expansive energies of Spring & Summer) and the Yin part of the year (the retracting, receptive, inwardly-focused qualities of Autumn & Winter).

In the Chinese agricultural calendar, Late Summer was the time when the produce of the land became abundant as a result of the warmth and the labor of summer. People would pause momentarily in their work to enjoy the early agricultural returns, to rest and prepare for the great work of the harvest.

Late Summer is like the moment when the pendulum stands still before reversing the direction of its swing.

This moment is considered the biggest transition in the year; but the Chinese calendar also applies the "Late Summer" title to four lesser transition periods. These are approximately fifteen day periods surrounding the two solstices and the two equinoxes.

So, the ancient Chinese recognized a common quality, Late Summer, in each seasonal or cosmological transition. As with every other season, Late Summer has its own set of correspondences and, of course, considerations for maintaining health, happiness and well-being.

Late Summer Corresponds to EARTH

In the five-element system of Chinese philosophy, the period of Late Summer (and seasonal transitions) corresponds to the element Earth.

Think of the expansive energy of new ideas (Wood, element of Spring) giving rise to the upwardly-blazing energy of action (Fire, or Summer). The fiery flame of summer has now given way to ash, transforming into the rich, fertile soil out of which our food nourishment grows. This soil comprises the solidity of our earth.

Indeed, of the five elements, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal & Water, Earth is the one that is the most solid and material. While, Wood, Fire, Earth & Metal all correspond to one of the four cardinal directions, Earth corresponds to the Center.
It makes sense that in times of intense transition (seasonal, cosmological, cultural, personal), we reconnect with the Earth element to keep us "grounded & centered."

Late Summer Corresponds to Food Nourishment, Digestion & Assimilation

One of the most satisfying ways of "grounding and and centering" is by eating food. With all the great late summer produce coming to us through the farmer's markets, this is an especially delicious time of year to do just that.

Eating reconnects us with the earth on a daily basis. All our food nourishment comes from the earth. Food nourishment not only nourishes and regulates every cell in our body, enabling us to function on a daily basis, but on a subtler level, it reminds us of our humanity and of our connection with all species and with earth herself.

Earth Organs: Spleen & Stomach

The Spleen and the Stomach are the organs of the body associated with Late Summer and the Earth Element.

From a Chinese medical viewpoint, the Spleen (often said to include spleen & pancreas) and the Stomach can be thought of as encompassing the whole digestive system. They are responsible for break-down of food and assimilation of nutrients. Among the functions of the Spleen and Stomach are:
  • deriving usable nutrients from food, 
  • transforming the food we eat (as well as the air we breathe) into Qi and Blood, and 
  • transporting nourishment (in the form of Qi and blood) to every cell in our body.

Day-to-Day Energy 

The Spleen and the Stomach, i.e. the Earth organs, are the source of energy which fuels our activities and thought processes on a day-to-day basis. Because of this, they are also called, in Chinese medicine, the "Root of Post-Natal Qi." (or the "Root of Post-Heaven Qi")

The Kidney, by contrast, is considered the "Root of Pre-Natal Qi."  Pre-Natal (or Pre-Heaven) Qi encompasses the energy, qualities and characteristics we inherit from our parents, our ancestors and, if you will, our fate or karma. Pre-natal Qi (or Kidney Qi) is our deepest, foundational, resource of energy. It can't really be changed or augmented, but we do use it up over the course of our lives. It can not be easily replenished.

Post-natal Qi, on the other hand, is refreshed on a daily basis by the food we eat and the air we breathe.

While we have little control over our Pre-Natal Qi, there's a lot we can do to improve our post-natal Qi. Indeed, we have a new chance to do this every day through food and lifestyle choices. The Spleen and Stomach perform critical functions for us every day, but are prone to fatigue and overwhelm. Here are some ways to support the healthy function of your Spleen and Stomach:
  • Eating nutritious food (and this is a particularly delicious time of year to do that!)
  • Getting enough rest (your Spleen doesn't work well when you're tired & overworked!)
  • Reasonable amounts of exercise (help you break down and assimilate food)
  • Receiving acupuncture and/or herbal medicine
As an acupuncturist, when I want to boost a patient's day-to-day health, energy level, or immunity, or even to improve their mood or mental function, I most often look to the Spleen and Stomach, because it is the Spleen and Stomach which provide the energy we use every day. Indeed, digestive health affects nearly every aspect of our well-being.

Health and Imbalance in Late Summer

Let's return to the theme of transition. For people with strong digestion, or healthy Spleen and Stomach function, Late Summer can be a time of grounding, centering and flourishing health.

However, when Spleen and Stomach health is weak (and this is not uncommon, given less-than-stellar diets and high stress-levels that we face), Late Summer can be a time when health problems appear. Acupuncturists always notice more patients coming to the clinic at this time of year with "Spleen and Stomach imbalances": sometimes digestive upset; sometimes fatigue or malaise or exacerbation of chronic health conditions; sometimes complex emotional issues.

Some factors that weaken the Spleen & Stomach

In Chinese medicine we say that cold, damp foods weaken the Spleen, while (and I think this is of secondary importance) hot, dry foods can injure the Stomach. In terms of Stomach health, it is important to avoid very spicy, dry or deep-fried foods, coffee, alcohol, some vegetable oils heated to high temperatures. These can cause Stomach heat, an overproduction of Stomach acid and give rise to symptoms like heartburn. More importantly, one should avoid eating excessive amounts of cold or raw food. This includes raw food diets, raw salads, cold or iced drinks, soy that is not fermented, many dairy products, and.... yes, ice cream. In order to digest cold  or raw food, the body uses a great deal of Yang energy to heat it before it can even break it down into something usable by the body. This seriously taxes the energy of the Spleen. Spleen weakness, in turn, often results in formation of "dampness" and phlegm in the body. As the dampness or phlegm accumulates, it generates heat, which can lead to various inflammatory syndromes, etc.

Most western medications (i.e. antibiotics and vaccinations) are harmful to the Spleen. While critically life-saving in the face of infectious disease, they are often extremely cold energetically. If you have to take a western medication, it is advisable to work concomitantly with an acupuncturist or other holistic health practitioner to mitigate damage to your digestive system.

Eating too many sweets also weakens the Spleen and results in the production of excess phlegm. Many these days are also saying that grains are cold in nature and, eaten in excess, can weaken the Spleen. If you eat grains, take measures like pre-soaking or sprouting to improve their digestibility & availability of nutrients.

Other factors that damage the Spleen and Stomach include eating at irregular times, overeating, eating too little or not eating enough protein. Excessive pensiveness or worry, excessive use of the mind in the case of studying, and not getting enough rest also tax the Spleen. Finally, any chronic disease tends to weaken the Spleen.

Common Physical Symptoms of Spleen Weakness Include:

  • Poor appetite (the Spleen is responsible for digestion; appetite will be poor if the Stomach is weak)
  • Weak muscles (muscles and flesh are under the jurisdiction of the Spleen)
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal distension, bloating
  • Loose stools
  • Weight gain/overweight
  • Edema
  • Digestive problems
The energy of the Spleen is said to hold blood in its vessels. Some types of bleeding, such as excess uterine bleeding, as well as varicose veins and easy bruising, relate to Spleen weakness.

Another function of Spleen energy is to hold things up and to raise clear Qi to the body. Weakness of this capacity, known as "Spleen Qi sinking," can result in organ prolapse or diarrhea. Also, when clear Qi is not rising to the head, there can be headaches or we can feel dizzy or foggy-headed, depressed, or lack mental clarity and focus.

It can't be overemphasized that the Spleen is, in many ways, the foundation of the body's energy and health on a day-to-day basis. By "transforming and transporting" nutrients throughout the body, the Spleen ensures the integrity of each cell and organ. Weakness of the Spleen can lead to weakness of other organs. It is frequently an aspect of many, many conditions seen in the acupuncture clinic. There is increasing consensus, in eastern and western medicine, that digestive issues lie at the heart of many health concerns. Some that I've seen in my clinic recently include: eczema, psoriasis, autoimmune conditions, reproductive health, asthma, lowered immunity/frequent colds, chronic sinusitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and mental/emotional health concerns. Of course, all of these conditions require specific treatment protocols based on individual presentation; however, in each case, improving the function of the Earth organs was an important element of treatment.

Mental and Spiritual Qualities of Late Summer/Earth

Symbolic associations with Late Summer and the Earth element include:
  • stability
  • material manifestation
  • strength
  • adulthood
  • maturity
Ability to Manifest/Executive Function:
Late Summer is the time when the ideas and inspiration of Spring, through the energy and hard work of Summer, begin to manifest in material form. If Spring corresponds to childhood and is characterized by dreaminess and idealism, and Summer to youth (enthusiasm, vigor), then Late Summer corresponds to adulthood -- ideally, our time of greatest material productivity and accomplishment. Late Summer is the time of our lives for being productive adult citizens in our societies & communities.

People who are good at bringing ideas and inspiration to material fruition are said to have a strong Earth nature. They possess a strong ability to discern their life's purpose(s), and to transform ideas and thoughts into commitments and actions. Earth qualities and skills include:
  • clarity of thought
  • concentration
  • study, memorization
  • reflection, evaluation
  • decisiveness
  • intention-setting
  • clear expression of needs and ability to get support
The Earth element appears in our lives as our ability, in the words of Lorie Eve Dechar, to "apply our spirit to the world of forms."

People with a weak Earth element may have trouble transforming ideas and thoughts into commitments and actions. Spleen weakness gives rise to dampness and phlegm in the body. Mentally, this will manifest as worry, obsessive thoughts and rumination, an obsession with what other people are doing & thinking of us--which can result in trouble sleeping, and an inability to move ahead on projects.

Healthy Relationships:
The Earth element represents the Center. Positioned in the center, Earth relates to our ability to be in relationship with other human beings and our environment. It relates to our ability to nourish ourselves and to give and receive friendship and love. People with strong Earth element have healthy relationships and a strong relationship to community. They are able to nourish themselves and to help others without being drained. The effectively express their needs and get help from others.

People with weak Earth have a harder time forming relationships or being in community. Either they do not form relationships, or they have trouble setting limits and boundaries in personal relations. A weak Spleen gives rise to the production of damp and phlegm in the body. In interpersonal relationships, a person with weak Earth may form unhealthy attachments. He/she may be clingy and co-dependent.

In Chinese medicine pediatrics, children with overly permissive parenting typically have weak Spleens and dampness-related conditions. Excessive permissiveness and a lack of firm boundaries has a similar effect to eating too many sweets. (By contrast, overly strict parenting can produce children with excessive Liver fire. Physical symptoms include headaches, poor sleep. Mental characteristics are anger and aggression.)

Weakness of Earth may be a constitutional attribute, or the result of personal history or lifestyle issues, such as:
  • overwork and fatigue, 
  • excessive worry, 
  • early childhood or family issues--particularly needing to care inordinately for needy family members,
  • dietary issues (especially excess sugar consumption), etc.
In Chinese medicine, there is no separation between spiritual qualities and mental abilities. Acupuncture and herbal treatment aimed at boosting the Spleen Qi and Blood will also improve focus, clarity, and executive function and bring about more balance in personal relationships. On a physical level, improving the Spleen's function will help the body digest, assimilate and utilize nutrients. Spiritually or mentally, the Spleen relates to capacity for digesting experiences and impressions, and transforming these into values, ideas, actions, interpersonal relationships and material manifestation.

There is much to say about Late Summer, the Earth element and the Spleen and Stomach in Chinese medicine. Future blog posts will expand on some of the ideas introduced here.

Here are some links to more information on:
functions of the Spleen & Stomach in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Institute for Traditional Medicine.
Earth Element in relation to spiritual & mental health from Lorie Eve Dechar, M.Ac., author of Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing.