Why You and Your Parents Don't Need To Suffer As you Age

Does it bother you to think of yourself getting older? It bothers me. I can feel the aches and the pains already. I can feel the slow but definite decline in energy, flexibility and strength of my body. I can sense the descent of my intellect and the clouding of my memory. Fewer adventures and more routines. More trips to the doctor’s office and more need for my friends and family to take care of me. But that’s the reality, isn’t it? I mean, I guess we’re all going the same way, so why not just accept it?

If the above narrative doesn’t sit well for you, then you have made it to the right place. Somehow in the vast expanse of internet land, you made it here. Congrats!

Everything I have seen in my short but lively career as a Chinese medicine practitioner suggests that most of the negative experiences we associate with the aging process need not come to pass. But in order to understand how our experience may differ from the common definition of aging, we must look at why suffering is a possibility as we age. Once we understand the problem, then we may understand its solution.

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How Bugs Can Heal Chronic Pain & Disease

“I hate to sound like a broken record,” said one of my teachers, “but a lot of her problem is due to blood stagnation.”

Dr. Greg Livingston and I were chatting before one of our herbal shifts at the school clinic. We were discussing the details of a diagnosis that one of our patients had been given on the shift the week before. Blood stagnation is the name of a pattern that we learn to identify and treat in Chinese medicine. According to the medicine, stagnant blood is the root of many illnesses. If blood doesn’t flow correctly, pain will result and various organ systems will become undernourished. Malnourishment and lack of flow will then cause other problems and lead to a whole host of diseases and bizarre symptoms.

I smiled at Greg’s remark. It was a familiar piece of advice, but one that bared repeating. Greg was one of the few westerners to go to China, learn chinese, finish a P.H.D. in Chinese medicine, and then study with various doctors who had decades of clinical experience. Greg got excellent results in the clinic. He consistently understood and could explain why he would give treatment the way that he did. He was one of the teachers that I had become closest to while in school. He is someone that I still consider a friend and mentor to this day.

“But why use the bugs Greg?” I asked after glancing at the patient’s herbal formula. “What would lead you to the conclusion that we need to break the blood?”

My question was linked to the way we learn to classify herbs as singular medicinals at school. The category in Chinese medicine that most of the insect medicinals are placed in, is called move the blood. The move the blood category has several gradients of intensity, the strongest of which is called break the blood. That is where the bug medicinals reside.

“Well,” he replied, “the bugs don’t necessarily move the blood any more intensely than Dang Gui 当归 (Angelica Sinensis) or Chuan Xiong 川芎 (Sichuan Lovage), what makes them unique is that they go to the luo mai.”

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The Power & Poise of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Travis Cunningham L.Ac.

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    Where I live in Portland, Oregon, many people share an interest in natural medicine. There are two Chinese medicine schools in town, a Chiropractic school, a Massage school, the oldest Naturopathic school in the country, and a medical school which specializes in Integrative Medicine. With such an abundance of natural medicine to choose from, why would someone pick a medicine that does not draw its roots from local soil? Wouldn’t it be better to choose medicine that is grown, stored and processed here? Why should people give Chinese herbal medicine a shot?

    All of these questions are valid. And as a Chinese medicine practitioner, I have been asked them many times. The answer lies within the uniqueness of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment that Chinese herbal medicine can offer. This begins with the medicine’s focus on relationship.

Understanding the Relationship

The focus of a Chinese medical assessment is not based on the physics of what is happening in your body. This assessment is actually more concerned with understanding the relationship between your component parts (e.g. your organs, tissues, or bones). Our understanding is expressed using a kind of symbolic language. These symbols are taken from activities and movements that ancient people observed within nature and then observed that those natural processes had an apparent likeness to activities within the human body.

Knowing the History

The Chinese Medicine understanding of combining herbal remedies is backed up by thousands of years of writing and experimentation. The older writings that exist on the various topics of herbal medicine also have hundreds of years of commentary and discussion by physicians of past and present. In a very real sense,  Chinese herbal medicine has close to two thousand years of peer review. This fact alone may suffice to make it worthy of consideration for modern people.

Defining the Symbol

Natural experiences like heat, cold, dampness, dryness, and wind, are described as they appear in a person’s body presentation. Shaking, for example, with its sudden appearance and disappearance, tremor and vibration are caused by wind. The ancients observed the air suddenly moving and gusting, shaking the leaves of the trees and blowing debris along the ground, and they carried this experience to their understanding of human physiology.

Symbols such as Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, were also chosen to emphasize patterns of functional movement within the body. The Lungs and the Large Intestine both descend and consolidate, as is the movement of Metal in nature. The Lungs breathe in air (descent), and consolidate the essence of air into nourishment for the body. The Large Intestine descends the stool and consolidates moisture for optimal elimination. Every major organ is looked at by a similar likeness with a corresponding movement in nature.

The ancient Chinese found that when these movement patterns were happening harmoniously and in just the right amount, a person was happy and healthy. While, a disharmony or mismanagement of these movement patterns led to disease. When these nature-based symbols are used together in an evaluation, a Chinese medicine practitioner can form a type of diagnosis called a pattern. A pattern reflects the relationship of harmony and disharmony within a person’s body.

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Finding the Pattern

All Chinese medical treatment, whether acupuncture, moxibustion, cupping, gua sha, or herbal medicine is done to address a person’s pattern. This is different than targeting the person’s disease (as is done in biomedicine). If we seek the destruction of an illness we require a force to eliminate it. If, however, we seek to restore a pattern of functional movement, all that we require is a guide. This guide can be less forceful, but it must be precise. The cultivation of precision is the skillset of the Chinese medical practitioner. This skillset is practiced through a careful differentiation of the pattern. 

Lets look at an example:
Two people catch a cold. Person A, has chills and fever, a slightly irritated sore throat, a headache on the sides of their head, and itchiness in the ears. Person B, has chills and fever, an intensely swollen and painful throat, and is sweating profusely.

Biomedically, these people may have the same virus attacking their systems. But in Chinese medicine, what is important is the pattern that such an illness presents within the individual. And in the example above, the pattern is different.

In person B, the intensely swollen, painful throat and profuse sweating indicate a heat pattern. In person A, the sore throat is less severe. The itchiness in the ears and location of the headache indicate that the illness has reached a different pathway (the Gallbladder or Shao Yang layer). The Chinese medical treatment will be different for each case, as it will tailor to the individual’s pattern.

As you can see, the pattern not only tells us about the disease, but also the relationship between the disease and the person’s constitution. This relationship is given a symbolic name with the terms discussed above (Example pattern: wind-heat invading the exterior). Treatment is given to principally address this relationship, and help assist the person restore their health (Example treatment principles: clear heat, vent wind, secure the exterior).

Choosing the Formula

To execute the above principles in the form of a treatment, a formula is chosen. A formula is a set of procedures that follow the direction of a treatment principle. In acupuncture, a formula is a list or set of acupuncture points, and the needling techniques of each point. In Chinese herbal medicine, a formula is a set of herbs given at a particular dosage and frequency of administration.

Chinese herbal medicine studies not only the effects of an individual herb, but pays particular attention to how that effect changes when herb A is combined with herb B. Herbs in combination can emphasize certain functional principles, or unlock new actions entirely.

The hot herb Fu Zi (Aconite) can be used to treat invasive cold patterns like neuropathy of the limb, by warming and dispersing the cold influence. But Fu Zi can only become a tonic for the heart, when it is combined with other sweet herbs like Gan Jiang (Dried Ginger) and Zhi Gan Cao (Prepared Licorice Root). In this case, Gan Jiang and Zhi Gan Cao also act to nullify the toxicity and harshness of Fu Zi, making the decoction or tea, safe to drink. While if you were to take Fu Zi by itself, the remedy might actually be dangerous.

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Treating the Person

The strength of using Chinese medicine ultimately stems from the medicine's focus on treating the person. The perspective that Chinese medicine comes from is a view that believes in health as a natural phenomena. Health doesn't need to be forced, it can simply be encouraged. And with the right encouragement, a natural state of health and happiness can resume. Ease is, after all, easier than disease