Let's be honest... You are lying.

The world of natural health and healing is no stranger to bold claims. Many of us stand at odds with the status quo in healthcare. We are trying to change the way people think about their bodies and their relationships to disease and to accomplish those changes sometimes we get loud. We rely on inflammatory headlines (like this one) to draw people into an article or to a video. Sometimes that reliance on bold text crosses over into hyperbole and then into unsubstantiated claims about this food or that drug; about how Monsanto is trying to kill us all because Round-Up was originally designed to clean pipes (it wasn't); about how the environment is so full of mold and toxic chemicals that we all need to be regularly detoxing to avoid the diseases of modern living (interesting idea but you're gonna need to support that with some data). Here's my favorite one lately and the inspiration for this post:


"I would never feed me or my kids margarine. It's one molecule away from plastic."

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This handy little comparison has been applied to lots of processed foods to illustrate their deeply harmful nature.

"Cool whip is one molecule away from styrofoam or "Cheez Wiz is only two molecules different from garbage bags"

So here's the thing: that might be true. I actually don't know what the chemical composition is of margarine or Cool Whip or Cheez Wiz nor do I know how it compares to plastic. But that really doesn't matter. I know it seems like it might. But it definitely doesn't because lots of things are just one molecule or one DNA pair away from other things and yet those things are not at all the same. They don't have the same properties or effects on the body or the environment. For example: Humans are just a few DNA links away from Chimps. Or how about Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2)? It is one atom (not even a molecule which is a collection of atoms and much larger than a single atom) away from water (H2O). How bout you fill me up a big glass of Hydrogen Peroxide since it is only one atom away from water, it must be roughly the same right? Or if you don't like thinking about it that way, you'll need to immediately stop drinking water since it is only one atom different from Hydrogen Peroxide and is probably subtly killing your gut bacteria leading to leaky gut syndrome right? The whole comparison is patently ridiculous. 

Ok but you never fell for those kinds of memes or chain emails. You're not an anti-vaxxer or a heavy metal chelator or a chronic detoxer. You like to be healthy, eat good food, be responsible as often as possible. Awesome! That is great news! But there are some things we need to talk about. Because margarine IS a terrible product. So are Cheez Wiz and Cool Whip. And we need to talk about why they are bad products in all the ways that they are bad -- the resources used to manufacture them, the actual ingredients they contain and the verifiable effect those ingredients have on health, the environmental cost to producing the food and its packaging, and let's not forget about the taste! Those products taste terrible, especially once you free your Patty Hearst tastebuds from the stockholm sydrome they're processing from years of eating crap food. But one of the reasons that margarine and all the rest are terrible foods is not because they are one molecule away from plastic (if that is even accurate). And making statements like that one ping hard on rational radars as indicators for people who are so far gone from reasonable discussion that they can be discounted. Perpetuating false narratives about problematic foods or chemicals or processes only leads us into folly where the people who could actually regulate those industries and make changes to benefit us all, see the people screaming hysterical alarm as poorly informed lemmings who listen to the opinions of the Medical Medium and Gwenyth Paltrow as gospel and internalize their fringe points of view to help foment their distrust.

Classically, in order for a person to tell a lie, the person speaking must know that what they are saying is false. There is a presumption in the word lie that there is some intent to deceive -- to misrepresent what the speaker knows is true for some particular gain, often a gain considered nefarious or at least self-interested. So when I tell you that it's time to stop lying, maybe I'm reaching too far. Maybe you didn't know that what you were saying was false, but so much of what I see repeated on the internet is so obviously false or can be determined false with about three minutes of Googling, that it's hard to not hold people accountable for the crap they are perpetuating. 

What am I talking about?

I work in an “alternative” medicine field. I practice Chinese Medicine in America where our medical system is at best dysfunctional and at worst actively working to prevent people from getting the care they need to live healthy and fulfilling lives. In this miasma of complex health pathologies, many people are looking for answers to their woes. They are looking to understand why they can’t stop coughing or why they always feel tired; why they can’t seem to sleep or why their libido is way lower than they would like. For so many of these conditions, biomedicine has little in the way of an answer. If all the blood tests come back negative and the symptoms don’t fit a known disease, well… just wait to ‘til it gets worse then come back to see us. Maybe we’ll know what’s wrong then.

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Trouble is, people want to know WHY, and they are going to look for answers wherever they can find them, and today that means going to Google and asking the question. You might find a forum for people with your symptoms or a WebMD article that hopefully doesn’t suggest you likely have cancer. You might commiserate with the online communities you have discovered and learn about different treatment options that “mainstream medicine” isn’t talking about. You might even learn about how some environmental toxin (mold, heavy metals, pesticides) or a food component (gluten, casein, fructose) is likely the cause of your myriad symptoms — how Big Pharma and Big Ag are conspiring with corporate america to keep you sick because there is good money in your illness. You might start to feel beaten down, taken advantage of, and then a lot people start to get mad. They become zealots for a new “healthy” living movement. They listen to gurus and life coaches and many of them arrive at an “alternative” clinic wanting to know how Acupuncture can help them overcome the Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) symptoms that are manifesting as fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, and depression. They read about a woman in Boulder who was able to completely get rid of her autoimmune condition by eating only sprouted greens and bananas and using Chinese Medicine therapies. They want to know what herbs they can take to help purge the heavy metals from the fillings in their teeth and what sort of cleanses they can do to get rid of the unnamed toxins coursing through their bodies every day. And because people in medicine are usually in that business because they want to help people, we answer their questions and guide them along our own experiences and impart our own biases and points of view. It’s completely natural this whole process. And its completely misguided.

Don’t get me wrong. Heavy metals and pesticides are dangerous and harmful. Mold can set up shop in your sinuses and lungs and cause all sorts of problems. Unmanaged hormones and neurotransmitters can wreak havoc on people’s sense of health and well-being. The problem comes in when we start to assume that we are not actually part of the world around us. That we are individuals, fighting against other individuals, fate, and the poor choices of people in the past instead of realizing that we are a continuum. Not people in a continuum but the continuum itself. We are just as responsible for processing chemical contaminants, as we see them, as the rocks and the oceans, and the clouds. We are dynamic members of complex web of living creatures and biomes but we construct our realities. We give breath and life to our diseases. We give in to the idea, created millenia ago, that our bodies are corrupt and will ultimately betray us either through their irrepressible desires or through their inevitable mechanical failure.

Instead, we have to begin the practice of seeing ourselves as part of the global whole, not truly separate from other living things on the planet, certainly not separate from other humans, and definitely not independent of the people that have come before us. Our health is a complex constellation of factors that is more than a little influenced by our internal narratives, and commiseration can be empowering to know that you are not alone in your struggle but can quickly become a toxic echo chamber where a path out is beset on all sides by people selling snake oil. No matter what your suffering looks like, there is a way to feel better. It relies on you more than on celery juice enemas or high-quality supplements that cost a lot of money. It requires that you lean into your history and on the wisdom of humans collected over the 30,000 years we have been wandering the planet. Harmony with the world around you, not viewing disagreement as conflict and conspiracy, feeling the changes in the seasons and shifting your lifestyle accordingly, giving yourself the empowered permission to make big changes in your life that might at first glance seem impossible — these are just some of the practices that lead us away from the outrage that margarine is only one molecule away from plastic (factual reality still unknown) and into an informed intellectual position where we can truly assess the claims of healers and salespeople without the weight of conspiracy and exploitation at the front of our minds.

 

The time is now. Stop sharing BS articles that aren’t based in reality. Stop feeding your outrage machine. Embrace your life as it is and ease into change when it feels right. Cultivate your appetites for food and distraction. Give yourself permission to be powerful and in control but also know that leaning into the swirling river around you is often the best way to find satisfaction. You got this.

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Behold The Humble Ginger Root: Understated Workhorse of Good Health

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Ah the ginger root — the edible rhizome of the flowering ginger plant Zingiber officinale. This increasingly common kitchen herb has many more tricks up its sleeve besides making your curries and stir-frys really sing.

Chinese Medicine assigns two types of descriptors to any sort of herb or food - Nature and Flavor.

These two categories of description tell us about the intrinsic qualities of a plant, animal, or mineral and give us insight into how to use that item either as food, medicine, or both. Fresh Ginger has a warm nature and an acrid/pungent/spicy flavor.

Items that are warm in nature have effects that fit with that word. In the case of ginger in particular, it has the ability to warm the body physically, especially throughout the digestive system and even on the surface of the skin. We often find ginger combined with foods that tend to be cooler in nature like pork or shrimp and many people have used it for generations to ease an upset stomach. In fact, it is one of the key ingredients in remedies to relieve morning sickness.

As for it’s flavor, you might see acrid, pungent, or spicy used to describe this plant because finding the exact word to translate the Chinese word xīn 辛 is a challenge. None the less, if you were to bite into a slice of fresh ginger, you would get a real sense for the potent flavor of this root.

Ginger Root as your Winter Defender

Fresh ginger’s nature and flavor give it a particularly powerful ability to prevent a nascent cold or flu pathogen from getting settled into your system and wreaking havoc. So get some fresh ginger root when you are at the store next. Store it in the pantry with your potatoes and onions so that you will be prepared this season.

Now you know the feeling: you wake up one morning and you feel a little off. Nothing super obvious but a little slower, maybe a slight ache in your neck and a tickle in the throat. You’re not sick but you feel like you might be soon.

That is the time to grab your ginger and follow these instructions:

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1.) Take about 2 inches of ginger or a piece about the size of your thumb and slice into thin pieces.

2.) Put the slices into a large-ish coffee mug and cover with boiling water

3.) Let that ginger steep until the liquid is drinkable, about 5 minutes

4.) Strain out the ginger pieces and mix in a spoonful of local honey, molasses, or good quality brown sugar.

5.) Drink your spicy ginger tea with its slight sweetness until its all gone. Then immediately hop into a hot shower.

6.) Wash up in the hot water until you’ve got a slight sweat going on. Change the temp to something a little cooler. Finish up and dry off.

7.) Bundle up and stay covered through the day, especially your back and neck and if you’re outside, cover your head too. Stay out of the wind or drafty areas.

8.) Drink lots of water throughout the day and eat your veggies. Lots of ‘em!

When you get home from work or school, you can repeat this process including the hot shower. The goal here is facilitate your body’s natural pathogen fighting abilities and push the infection out through your pores. Using ginger like this at the very first sign of sickness is essential to making it work for you. Wait too long and the picture will change and you’ll need more expert help to get better.

I tried it but I’m still feeling sick!

Now sometimes, you miss the window where ginger alone is effective for stopping colds. In that case Chinese Medicine has several more tricks up its sleeve to help you get better. And one of the best parts about those tricks is that they often involve more honey, cinnamon, and dates. Treating cold and flu is definitely one of our betting tastes remedies!

If you feel like you haven’t been able to kick out that icky feeling before it took hold, get in touch with a Chinese Medicine provider in your area ASAP before that sore throat turns into something much more nasty.

Chinese Medicine is NOT Energy Medicine

Travis Kern MAcOM, L.Ac.

Feel the resonant, cosmic, potent, masculo/feminine, Gaia/Kwan Yin presence

Feel the resonant, cosmic, potent, masculo/feminine, Gaia/Kwan Yin presence

Ok, ok, ok! Put down the crystals friend. I'm not insulting your sense of energy and the flow of cosmic forces through the human experience. Well, I'm not directly insulting those sensibilities, but I am questioning how we understand the language of Chinese Medicine and by extension a whole host of "New Age" concepts like energy healing, auras, chakras, vibrational medicine, and many many others. And by the way, the New Age is hardly New any more. It fact, it has it's own vocabulary, jargon, and style that gives it a distinctly dated feel. 

So here's the rub: Saying that Chinese Medicine or Reiki or Yoga or Aura Atunements are energy medicine makes a significant assumption about the nature of reality -- an assumption that is based on a distinctly Western understanding of what it means to be real and extant and is heavily influenced by the moral dimensions of Christian thought, especially the sort of Christian thought that was brought to the American colonies by our ancestors. So there are really two dimensions of assumptions that I want to explore. The first has do with what is real and the second has to do with Satan waiting for your in the wilderness. Let's begin.

Primary Assumption in the term Energy Medicine: You can understand what is real and you are distinctly part of "real"

This assumption asserts that reality is a collection of solid objects that are animated by another force called "energy" or "spirit" or "vibration," and it is this other force, separate from the solid objects that it animates, that creates the activity of life. It doesn't matter which word you use to describe this separate force because they are all touching on the same idea, and they all conjure a similar image to mind -- that of the meat-filled, skin bag human excited and propelled by an ethereal, mysterious force that might be translucent like Casper, glow from the fingertips like an Xman, or pulse around the body like a rainbow disco show only visible to those with the gift.

This image presumes that human beings are composed of two opposing, dualistic natures, one of substance with little character which is plagued by base instincts and another of heavenly light and cosmic potency that is glorious and mighty to behold (if you have that ability of course). Hold on champ! We've got a problem - dualism is a fundamentally limiting perspective. Instead of understanding and knowing the infinite complexity of existence, we're stuck with only two forces to make sense of our experience. 

"But that sounds just like Yin and Yang," you say! "Aren't you a Chinese Medicine practitioner? A student of Dao? How can you dismiss this idea?"

The thing is, you're almost right. It is almost Yin Yang Theory. Except that Yin and Yang are just parts of a complex system that is not based on two things. It's based on one thing: Dao. Which emanates to two things: Yin and Yang. Which begat the three things: Heaven, Human, Earth. Which birthed the four seasons and the five elements and then the ten thousand things (i.e. everything else). Yin and Yang are part of a larger constellation that is not about substance but about movement -- about change. In fact, Yin and Yang are concepts that reflect the way that things change, not what they are but how they move from one state of being to another. It is a constant question of interplay and dynamic transformation. To be one thing is to stagnate and ultimately to descend into permanent suffering.  

Assuming that you can manipulate the energy of something demands that the energy of whatever you are manipulating is a component part of a mechanized whole, that it is like gas in a car or circuits in a computer. Standard biomedicine doctors are trying to fix the parts of the substance (the things they can observe and measure), and contemporary energy workers want to work with the ethereal (the things they can sense and feel). Each group is really doing the same thing -- being a mechanic who is repairing the part of the structure or spirit that is broken. But what if you are not actually made of substance or spirit? What if you're not really made at all in the way that most of us think of it. You're not a peanut butter sandwich and you're not a multi-phasic dimensional ghost. Stop assuming you can repair anything and/or stop assuming you have magic powers. I wanted to be McGyver and I wanted to be Hermione too but that ship has sailed. You can help bodies remember how to be whole and functional, but it's not because you shot invisible light and good vibes out of your forehead and fingertips, or because you replaced 1000 knees in surgery. 

Now let me be clear....
You can't help bodies return to physiology and dynamic health with  magic, nor can you do it with biological science. This is not a rational science apologia. The acupuncture needles aren't stimulating cytokine/immunoglobulin/heat protein cascades through your lymph/immune/cardiac/myofascial systems either. Well they might be doing those things if we could actually measure them (which we can't seem to... but one day amiright?), but that's not why it works. At least, that's not why it works within the framework of the system that created that tool. Chinese Medicine is not dependent on lab tests and petri dishes, nor is it dependent on belief or electric energetic forces. It is reliant on the observation of dynamic movements in nature, the earnest effort to understand those movements, and to apply the concepts that those changes represent to the human condition. Because as it turns out, we aren't actually separate from anything around us.  We don't have dominion over all the other things on the planet. The idea that we are superior or wholly unique from everything else is part of that morality stuff I mentioned earlier. Gosh we have so much to talk about.

And I guess this explanation still isn't very clear. 

How about a comparative example?

Setting: Ancient times - when people were superstitious and dumb

There are definitely bad things that live here. Maybe even a ROUS...

There are definitely bad things that live here. Maybe even a ROUS...

So here you are walking along through the woods when suddenly you realize you have strayed into the forbidden swamps of the ancestors. Here is a no-pass land, long slapped with a metaphorical verboden sign because it is well known that the spirits that live in this place cause illness and death to those that enter. Though if you are strong and young and still possessed of the good stock given to you by your own ancestors, it is possible to survive a walk through these bogs, but nonetheless, a travel pass is not recommended. Yet here you are. Suddenly bitten by a swarm of gnats and assaulted by foul-smelling air, you bolt from your position across the swamps and back home where within a day you start to feel ill.

Chills and fever take hold of you and the local healer declares that you have been possessed of a foul force from the swamps. It has broken through your charms and defenses and that you will need the smoke of healing herbs and the poultices made of tree barks to cure you.  It's hard to know which spirits are the ones that are attacking you and without that info, the healing approach is in broad strokes. But you are young and from good people so hopefully the protection offered to you from your own family spirits will be strong enough to survive. You'll make it. A little worse for wear but you make it.  


Setting: Contemporary Times - when people know what's real and aren't bound by ridiculous assumptions

It's just a casual walk in the woods. Good for you, right?

It's just a casual walk in the woods. Good for you, right?

So you're hiking in Mt. Hood National forest when you realize that it's colder out here on the trail than you had imagined and you don't have a nice North Face fleece to cover up with. It's cool you think, punning to yourself quietly, and you carry on with your hike. You've been assaulted by a few No-See-Ums while walking along but you brought your handy bug spray so you're pretty comfortable. By the time you get back to your car though you've got a little sniffle and you hope it doesn't get worse.

The next morning you are sick. Sneezing, hacking, your through feels full of razor blades and you know you need to see the doctor. They tell you that you have a bacterial infection in your throat and lungs. These pathogens probably entered through your mouth and nose and set up shop while your immune system was depressed by the cold. These bugs are causing your symptoms, but they're not sure which one's they are. So take these antibiotics to see if it'll get rid of them and if not, you're young and strong with good genes. You'll be ok. A little uncomfortable but Ok.


Comparison: They are the same thing.

Both of these scenarios describe a similarly observable process. They both are looking at a sick person and trying to understand how that person went from being healthy to being sick. Each of them relying on a set of knowledge and a system of analysis to determine the answer to the question. Now I don't mean that one is real and one is a metaphor for something real. I mean that these stories are just using particular vocabulary to describe the same thing. Healthy becomes sick. Microbes and spirits? The same thing. Whoa snap! I know. I sound like a crazy person to both camps but seriously just sit with it a minute. Have you ever seen a microbe yourself? Have you ever seen an ancestor spirit yourself? Have you been to Havanah before? Yeah like in Cuba? But all or some of these things are real? How do you know? What is it to be real? Whew ok, lets take a step back from the post-modern, relativistic anarchy and just breathe.

In

and out

Just breathe a second, and feel the air. 

I am not trying to collapse the world down on itself to say that all the things are just one thing, in fact that they are not even "things" as such, and that how you view the world, no matter which frame of reference you are using is not more or less real than any other. That, in fact, there is no sense of real because nothing is fixed, and everything that we truly understand or try to understand is a moving target. Wait, actually that is what I am doing. 

The parameters of our language create boundaries around our experience by the nature of description. Can we understand things without words for them? Can we see that energy and body are not separate nor are they joined? They are the same thing moving in different spheres and observed in different frameworks. By observing a phenomenon we are intrinsically changing it (concept credit to a white guy from a while back who probably didn't actually think of it but got credit for it anyway).

Chinese Medicine isn't Energy Medicine because that is a limited and erroneous description. People don't get better because my acupuncture needles manipulated their energy flow or because your invisibly glowing hands moved their cancer out of the way or because your good vibes made The Secret come to life. It's because when we work in a sphere that is speciously described as an energy space, we are softening the edges of our own "realness" and experiencing ever so briefly the interconnected fabric of Dao. Our pattern of health and wellness is laid over the pattern of disease and disorder when those boundaries are loosened, and they interact. I don't do anything accept make the space; open my mind to the very difficult idea that what we are all experiencing is only an infinitely small fraction of what is moving in, around, and through us. The actual healing that happens is the flow and movement of existence on a macro scale. You can cut out a tumor or lay in downward-facing-dog or chant or take pills or smoke drugs to solve your ails, but none of those things is the treatment really. They are tools to accessing the pattern of things. Not a magical pattern to be stored in some grimoire or a rational pattern to be tracked by electron microscopes -- just the pattern that even gives us the framework to read grimoires and see microscopes. 

A little jazz hands or maybe spirit fingers or maybe it's just waving. But the demons are waving at YOU!!

A little jazz hands or maybe spirit fingers or maybe it's just waving. But the demons are waving at YOU!!

So about Satan and the forest:

If the world is dominated by two forces: body and spirit, up and down, hot and cold -- then one of the core anchors of a dualistic world view is that Good and Evil also stand in opposition to each other. God and Satan. Even if you're a polytheist or a nature worshiper, what is the fundamental relationship at play in your pantheon? My guess is probably Good and Evil. Or if you're a super modern person maybe it's Good and Apathy. Even still, this idea of good and evil is reflected in our love of spirit and energy and our derision of animal and substantive. Our society looks at our physical selves as machines in the process of decline and popular nutrition and baseless science is constantly trying to purge your body of all the toxins it has absorbed or created, all in an effort to restore your pristine, "natural" self. Your clean soul, free from the dark influences of indulgence and a lack of self-control. Take your vitamins even if you don't feel like they do anything for you because it's important to build up health brownie points for the time in the future when your skinbag starts to fray.

Satan has long been depicted as waiting in the dark forests of the Americas. Living and working through people of color and natives, warping their minds and filling them with notions of unmarried sex, demonic chanting, and the reverence for the very natural world that has been infused with disease. That same fear has been at the heart of Western empirical thought even as the very people who started the Enlightenment worked to release themselves from the shackles of what they saw as an oppressive religion. And yet, the idea of your body as flawed and impure has persisted, even among people spending time at Free Love Ashrams.

But wait, you're a free-thinking atheist (sometimes agnostic) who has spend years working and studying the Eastern Ways and you know that the world is in fact filled with poisons and horrors that must be purged.

Sure. Ok. But if you are taking a collection of plants and supplements that have words attached to them like: natural purgative, anti-inflammatory, emetic, demulscent, restorative, curative, immuno-supportive; and you are consuming these products with the aim to "purge toxins," to "cleanse the liver," or to "expel  heavy metals," then you should know ahead of time which toxins and metals you are targeting and then you should have some way of measuring whether or not those things are actually happening. You are living and working in the world of biomedical, reductionist science (even if the treatment is called natural and chemical free) because you and your practitioner are thinking about your body in this substantive way -- that you are biological machine who needs its oil changed because ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS/MOLD/FUNGUS/GLUTEN/NIGHTSHADES. But fear that these toxin monsters are lying in wait with henchman from Big Pharma and Monsanto who are all waiting to destroy you is just the Devil in a new form. It is the Puritans exacting control from 500 years in the past. Western culture has not shaken the influence of Abraham, and American culture in particular has made a new religion of fitness and health among some of the least healthy and high-strung people on the planet.  

And look, I feel that tension myself every day. We are all of us in the US entwined with our past and our history. We have not left it. We have not evolved beyond it. It is our ancestry -- in Chinese Medicine terms, it is our cultural Jing. And we can't start being vegetarians until our great great great auntie has had her fill of steak. 

So how how about those action items?

The only way out of the mind bend is to work to internalize every day that how we have been trained to know and understand the world is not objective. Science with an capital S is not without a point of view -- not without assumptions in the same way that our tribal or religious ancestors made assumptions about reality. The fact that you saw a video on Facebook of a virus attacking cells and injecting its DNA into those cells to reproduce is not itself evidence of an incontrovertible truth about existence. The real truth is that almost no one has seen with their own eyes what that video showed you. It was made in a computer, an example of what we believe is happening based on our observations of lots of other factors. When your doctor tests your blood for infections, they don't look at your blood in a microscope and see all those badboy microbes puttin' a beat down on your cells. It's more complicated than that and much less exact. Certainty is an armor against the scary truth that profound humans have been spouting on about for millennia: The world is largely unknowable in any concrete way and sitting with the certainty that things are the way they seem to be, is the root of inquisitions. The only certainty is that there is no certainty (concept credit to Neo or did Confuscious say? Look for a meme. I'm sure it'll be a wrong attribution).

Chinese Medicine is NOT energy medicine because there is no energy and there is no medicine. And of course both energy and medicine do also exist. Sort of. The answer is Yes and it is No. Because the answer is not what is important. It's the space between the answers and the transition from one answer to the next which gives us the only real insight into what is.

Now jump on into the comments pool. It's pretty warm this time of year...

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.

Analysis:
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