“It’s August, there’s always more to eat”, my dad announced as he came in from his garden with an armful of green beans, tomatoes, ears of corn, and cucumbers. I was at my parents’ home in Ellensburg, Washington for a few days to help my mom recover from knee surgery.
Usually I don’t make it over to their home in August, so I was getting a rare treat of the bounty of my dad’s garden.
My dad grew up farming, and though he eventually became an accountant, you can’t take the farm out of him. All my life he’s had a huge garden, now over a thousand square feet in size and a little orchard as well. Basically a small scale farm. This time of year he and my mom are busily canning green beans, pickles, and jams of multiple varieties, drying prunes, and freezing what can’t be canned or dried. And of course, eating as much of this delicious, fresh bounty as possible.
I was happy to help with the eating.
In the Chinese five phase element philosophy, late summer corresponds to the Earth.
Earth is all about nourishment, the abundance of nature at this time of year that generously gives us almost more than we can handle. It is the nurturing love of a good parent that provides for their child’s needs. It is about home and comfort, being grounded and supported in the place that you live.
It’s about the inner peace of knowing that Earth will provide for you, that you will have enough to eat and a good home, that your basic needs are taken care of so that you can have the energy to live a good life. Earth is also about hard work. When the fruits and vegetables of the garden come in, it is time to harvest. The Earth has its own timeline, and if you can’t keep up, this abundance of food will rot and become compost.
The Physical and Mental/Emotional Aspects of the Earth Element
Earth is a very physical element, and Chinese medicine theory indicates that it governs most of the digestive system. It governs how you take in food, process it into forms that your body can use, and then distribute that nourishment throughout the body. In this way, it acts like a good parent making sure all of the children are fed. When your Earth element is healthy, you have good energy and solid muscle mass. Emotionally, you have a sense of security.
When they have more than they need they are generous with others, like a parent, but they don’t give at the expense of their own well-being.
When a person’s Earth element is unhealthy, a person’s digestive system often doesn’t function well and they may have bloating, reflux, or an overproduction of mucus. They may be eating good food but the body isn’t able to properly make energy from it, so they are often fatigued. Emotionally, if the Earth element is impaired, a person may become needy or worried, because it feels like they don’t have enough.
Or they may become so used to not having enough that they can become hardened, and no longer can receive nurturing from others. The parenting aspect of the Earth element may go to extremes and they may become overbearing and controlling of others or may become self-sacrificing to the detriment of their own health.
Mentally the Earth element governs digestion of ideas
This includes being able to take in information, break it into usable chunks, remember it and use that digested information to think clearly and create new ideas. Rumination is a word that I use to refer to both physical digestion and mental digestion – it applies perfectly to the function of the Earth element. A healthy Earth element is essential to being able to learn.
When the Earth element is out of balance then you may begin to overthink and worry, just going over the same thoughts and not getting anywhere. Or you may have brain fog and difficulty thinking at all. You may find it difficult to take in new information. It’s easy to get confused and stuck if your Earth element isn’t healthy.
There are two acupuncture meridians or organ networks in the body that belong to the fire element, these are the Stomach and the Spleen.
I will start with the Stomach organ system.
The Stomach is in charge of rotting and ripening the food that that you eat, but this doesn’t mean that it’s a bowl that food merely sits in as it decomposes. It can be thought of as the master chef, taking in food and cooking it, processing it, breaking it down into usable, nutritious pieces of energy (nutritive qi) and blood so that all of the nourishment and abundance from Mother Earth can be taken in and really feed us. All of the nutritive qi and blood that the Stomach has prepared then goes out to feed all of the other organs and tissues of the body.
Stomach imbalance can cause a range of issues, but the most common include malnutrition. Even if you are eating good food in appropriate amounts, the body can’t properly use it in this situation. You can also experience nausea and vomiting, where food doesn’t stay down and move through the body but goes back up instead.
In the mental/emotional sphere you might experience difficulty with processing information that has been communicated to you. There can be a lot of worry and anxiety – rumination – in a Stomach imbalance.
Now, I will consider the spleen organ system.
The Spleen is in charge of transportation and distribution. This is the network that takes the nutritive qi and blood that the Stomach has prepared and delivers it to all the organs, tissues and cells of the body. The Spleen is much like a network of delivery trucks. The organs and tissues can’t go out and pick up the nutrition that they need on their own.
Think about the experience so many of us had during the pandemic. We relied on UPS, the postal system and folks delivering food from grocery stores and restaurants in order to get what we needed for daily life. In a similar way, human health relies on the complex delivery system of the Spleen network. It makes sure that all parts of the body, all the organs, the muscles, the limbs, have the nourishment that they need.
If the Spleen is not healthy and unable to do its work, then nutrition doesn’t always get all the way out to all parts of our bodies.
In a spleen deficiency, you might experience cold hands and feet, weakness in your muscles or persistent fatigue. Many symptoms of Spleen trouble emerge when the normal transportation and transformation movement stops. Everything gets thick, slow and sticky.
This can result in build up of mucus in the head, chest, or intestines. You might have decreased lymphatic movement, or pooling of blood or fluids in the extremities – resulting in varicosities or edema. In people with uteruses this might show up as menstrual irregularities including blood clots, or lack of periods or painful periods.
In the mental and emotional sphere, if the Spleen is unhealthy then mental and emotional movement is impaired. It is difficult to move information from our memory stores into our conscious mind. Movement in general becomes difficult and you may become mentally lethargic and slow. It can become difficult to move forward toward goals, or come up with new ideas. You can find yourself stuck in the same old thought patterns, worries and insecurities.
How to support a healthy Earth element
- Eat to be Nurtured: Eat foods that you love, and eat them mindfully, really enjoying the flavor, appreciating where they came from and how they are nourishing you.
- Nurture Your Microbiome: Eat fruits and vegetables that are in season, try to eat as many colors of the rainbow that you can each day, and try for 4-6 servings per day (a serving is generally 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup uncooked). This nourishes you and it nourishes your intestinal microbiome, feeding the whole world of beneficial bacteria that live inside you. In turn those beneficial bacteria help your digestive system, your immune system and your nervous system stay healthy.
- Take Care of Yourself: Be generous with your love and caretaking, but if you start to feel burnt out or overstretched, know that it’s okay to take time to rest and take care of yourself. You can’t give if you are empty.
- White and Red Chestnut Flower Essences: Use White and Red Chestnut flower essences if you are feel caught in unproductive cycles of worry and anxiety (the spinning hamster wheel of worry) and have a hard time thinking clearly because of it. White Chestnut is wonderful for calming and centering your thoughts when your are worrying about everything including yourself and the world. Red Chestnut helps when you can’t stop worrying about others.
- Get Acupuncture!: Acupuncture is a wonderful way to support your Earth element, help keep your digestion healthy, calm worry and help with clear thinking. I am taking new patients at Watershed Wellness, and would be very happy to meet you.
Thanks for reading! May you love and feel nurtured, may you eat delicious meals, and may you enjoy a calm, clear mind. Enjoy late summer, the season of the Earth element!
It is July 2021 as I write this, and my world is reopening from the long COVID lockdowns. Hooray! The world is reopening! I can see old friends and make new ones! I can see others’ smiling faces at the store and on the street! And yet, oh no! The world is reopening! Is it safe? What about my still vulnerable patients, friends and family members? How do I even socialize with people anyway? I’ve forgotten how to do this.
A friend of mine, Elaina, described our current situation as being like how she felt when she came back from a long period of study in China.
She was prepared for the culture shock of going to China. But she was unprepared for the reverse culture shock of coming back, of being expected to fit back into her old ways of doing things and relating to people when she had been someplace so different for so long. This is where we all are right now.
We have had to live life in an entirely different manner for over a year. How do we go back to the old way of doing things? Should we even go back to the old way?
These are central questions of the Chinese Fire phase element, the element of early to mid-Summer, and right on time, we are all having to deal with these questions. The fire element is all about love, connections, and boundaries.
How do we share or withhold warmth from and with each other and the world?
A healthy fire catches and keeps burning, but doesn’t go out of control like the forest fires we’ve had in the past few years. In people the fire element shows up similarly. Without enough fire we can have withdrawal, lack of connection, lack of laughter, coldness.
With too much fire we can have insomnia, mania, anxiety and lack of stability of our emotions. With a healthy amount of fire, we have an open connecting heart with good boundaries.
Connection and the Rose
The Rose is a symbol of the heart in many cultures, and it is a wonderful example of the fire element, which is why I added it to my fire illustration above. Flowers are beautiful, showing the world something spectacular, in the case of the rose, sending out an intoxicating aroma. They say, “Come here bees! Look at me! Smell me! Fertilize me! Like a fire they change quickly, here for a short time and then gone.
Many people can get that way as well during summer. It’s a time where a lot of us want to have fun, to play, show more skin, get outside and do things. We know it doesn’t last, so we want to make the most of the summer. For me, I knew summer was really here when a few weeks ago I was out at the beach, waiting for sunset with a bunch of new friends, laughing and dancing to music around a little fire.
There are four Chinese medicine organ systems in the body that belong to the fire phase element. The Heart, the Pericardium, the Small Intestine and the Triple Burner. I'll now explain each of these and finish up by suggesting how you can cultivate a healthy fire phase element in your own life.
The first of these is the Heart: in Chinese thought, the heart is the emperor or empress, the ruler of the body. But the work of the ruler is not to worry about every little thing in the body and mind. The ruler has people for that (in our bodies that’s the other organ networks). The ruler’s job is to remain open and connected to spirit, to contain and hold joy, to keep time and rhythm, steadily providing an even heartbeat.
A bowl or vessel can be a symbol of the heart, which is why the fire in the illustration nearby springs up from a bowl. In ideal circumstances, the healthy heart is like an empty bowl. It’s not so filled up with stressors or worries or obsessions that it’s not able to feel love and calmness.
Keeping the bowl open and empty so that we can invite in greater love and higher connection is what makes a healthy heart.
The Heart and the Shen 神 Birds
Shen 神 is a Chinese word for spirit, and it has been likened to sweetly singing birds that nest in that open bowl space of the heart. To nurture the birds of the spirit, the heart bowl needs to be a calm, inviting space. However there are things in this world, severe stressors, shocks and traumas, that can cause those birds to fly from their nest. When that happens we don’t feel like ourselves. We may feel disassociated or numb, we may have a hard time speaking, we may be out of control or fearful and not know why. In these cases it can take time to coax those birds of the spirit back into the heart, to make their nest a safe place again.
The work of healing trauma is long and complex, involving body, emotions, mind and spirit.
The Heart Protector, or Pericardium
Because of how important a healthy and peaceful heart is, there are three other fire meridians that help to protect its peace. Surrounding the heart physically is the pericardium. The animal that corresponds to the Pericardium or Heart Protector meridian is the dog. The image of the dog in the fire illustration is a painting of one of my favorite doggos, Jethro.
Jethro embodies all of the aspects of the Heart Protector. A pit bull-mastiff mix, he is big, muscular and can appear dangerous. When a strange person or other animal approaches he has a loud fearsome bark to scare them away. However in truth he is a gentle giant, a snuggle bug who wants to crawl in your lap, or press his head into your hands so that you will scratch it for hours straight.
The healthy Heart Protector is like this, maintaining emotional boundaries so that those who are unsafe for us are kept out, and those who are safe are welcomed in.
The Small Intestine
The Small Intestine is another fire organ network. It helps us decide what is important and what isn’t. With food this translates into deciding what to absorb. With emotions and thoughts, this means that it acts almost like a secretary to the Empress or Emperor the Heart, deciding what thoughts or emotions are important enough to go to the head of the kingdom, and what would just cause needless stress and can go in the recycling basket.
The Triple Burner
The Triple Burner is somewhat complicated in its physical functions. It regulates fluid metabolism and other aspects of physiology. With respect to the Heart, its mental-emotional role is to regulate the boundaries between our Heart and groups of people and our wider social role, much like the Heart Protector does in more intimate one-to-one relationships. The social-emotional aspect of the Triple Burner helps us to navigate at work, in the grocery store, and talking or performing in front of groups. It helps us know when it’s safe to let our fire shine and when we need to hold back to protect our heart.
Keeping Your Fire Element Healthy
Now for some recommendations you can try to keep your fire phase element healthy, whatever the season.
1. Nourish Fire with Connections
Connect with friends, family. pets and others who see and appreciate your inner fire, your inner you, and who care for you just as you are. If they are nearby and you can see them in person, great! If not, call, text, email or send them a video message. Connections don’t just need to be with people you know! Books, movies, podcasts can connect you to so many others through time and place. Read or watch or listen to stories or ideas that open your heart and mind.
Laughter is the sound of the fire element. What makes you laugh? Is it funny movies or books or comics? Is it your dog or your cat or your kids or grandkids? Find something that makes you laugh every day.
3. Cultivate a sense of awe
Studies have shown that experiencing the sense of awe at least once a day helps your sense of well being, helps you make better decisions, and leads to greater life satisfaction. Awe is that feeling that comes from seeing or experiencing or learning something that expands our way of seeing the world and gives us a sense of something bigger than ourselves. On the North Coast we are rich in awe inspiring experiences. Most of the time we just have to look out the window to see the Columbia River, the forests, or the Pacific Ocean. Awe inspiring beauty is all around us.
4. Try this Heart meditation
I learned this simple meditation from my teacher Lorie Dechar, who learned it from the Heart Math Institute:
- Focus on your heart – imagine the space in your chest where your heart sits. You can put a hand over your heart to help.
- Breathe into your heart – take six or seven breaths, imagining that your breath is going into the space in your heart.
- Feel into your heart – imagine a place or person or animal that brings you a positive feeling, and keep breathing into your heart as you imagine bringing the positive image and feeling into your heart space.
5. Use “Rescue Remedy”
This blend of five Bach flower essences is readily available in stores or at the clinic and is something I recommend often to folks who are experiencing great stress, or those who have had a shock or trauma that is keeping their heart from feeling calm and relaxed, or has caused those Shen birds to have flown from the nest altogether, leaving them feeling as if they aren’t connected to their body.
Four drops or one tablet, four times per day can be very helpful at easing some of that stress. Finding a good counselor is essential as well and an important part of healing the heart and mind. You don’t have to go it alone.
6. Get Acupuncture!
Acupuncture is a wonderful way to support your fire element, calm stress and anxiety, and help with the healing of heart and mind. I am taking new acupuncture patients at Watershed Wellness, and would be very happy to meet you.
Thanks for reading! Now go out and laugh, feel awe, connect, and enjoy the summer, the season of the Fire element!
The five elemental phases, also known as the five elements, are a key theoretical structure of Chinese medicine.
The five phases are:
- Water / 水 / Shui
- Wood / 木 / Mu
- Fire / 火 / Huo
- Earth /土 / Tu
- Metal /金 / Jin
The phases are not static, but flow in a cycle, one generating the next.
The Chinese correlated each of the phases to a season. The water phase element relates to winter. The wood phase element relates to spring. The fire phase element relates to summer. The earth phase element relates to late summer. The metal phase element relates to fall. At the time I am writing this article, we are at the end of winter moving into spring. This means we're experiencing the shift from the Water phase element into the Wood phase element.
In Winter there is Water.
A few years ago I was lucky to be in Hawaii for a class in February, and I spent a lot of time on the beach just sitting and looking at waves and listening to their rumble and crash and swish. For me it was an experience that was healing. The wordless time helped me to refuel after a depleting stretch of months. The water phase has this quality. In East Asian traditional medicine it is thought to be the original source, a deep well of energy that you are born with and draw on through your life.
It is dark, quiet, a womb, wordless, original and first.
It corresponds to winter, which in nature is the time of hibernation, sleep, the time of waiting and regeneration. Water is the mother of the next phase or element, wood, but we can’t rush that transition (as much as we might want to get to Spring sometimes) we have to give it it’s quiet time so that we can sleep, and heal, and regenerate. We need to go inward to the dark, to listen to our deepest quiet self, to give ourselves time to just be. All of nature in our latitudes needs this quiet time. If we try to skip it, try to push through we risk burning up and burning out.
Wood comes soon enough!
Water can also be compared to a seed. Buried underground and in some places under snow. Dormant. Waiting. But at some point, the seasons change. We start to move into Spring. There’s a different feeling in the air. Maybe it’s the little more sunlight that signals us. Spring starts to move, everywhere around us and in us as well.
The Wood element is all about that feeling of spring.
Wood refers to living plants. Its color is that bright, new green that you see in new leaves, just as they pop out. There’s a tremendous amount of energy in this new phase. Think of what it must take for a seed to go from this thing that almost looks like a little rock, to burst up and out and grow and grow and grow, as much as it can, as exuberantly as it can, until it reaches the potential of who it can be.
That drive to grow and change and be is incredibly powerful. People who have a lot of wood energy tend to have a voice that always sounds like a shout. Little kids tend to be more woody than adults—think of a playground and all the yelling and exuberance.
The emotion associated with the Wood phase is anger.
This can be a tough thing. Some of us (I’m thinking of myself) tend to avoid anger. And why? I’d say for myself I’m afraid of that anger that comes from frustration and lashes out indiscriminately. I don’t want to get hurt by that stuff! And I don’t want to hurt other people. And that can be what Wood anger is if it is repressed, or stifled, or misdirected.
But Wood anger can also be a virtuous thing. It can be thought of Constructiveness, or Heroism. Healthy Wood anger is seeing that things are unfair, to yourself but especially to others, and using that tremendous energy of Spring, of the growing plant, to speak up, do something to correct that unfairness. It’s Robin Hood and Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King Jr.
There are ways we can best stay in balance as we move into the Wood phase element.
- Like a growing plant, we need to move! Get your body moving with a walk, dancing, or other exercise every day. This will help with releasing stress and improving circulation, two aspects of a healthy wood element.
- Clean out the waste from winter so that you can use all that Spring-Wood energy! Drink lots of clean fresh water every day. The organs of Wood are the liver and gallbladder. Herbs such as Milk Thistle, Burdock, Oregon Grape and Nettles can be supportive to your liver and gallbladder health. Nettles are also great for spring allergies.
- Garden! Plant your own leafy greens, which are also great for liver health and feed healthy gut bugs.
In the coming months, I will post more about the other phase elements as we move through their seasons. Until then, go out and grow!
After a lot of research and discernment, we have made significant updates to our cancellation and no-show policy, and as of February 1, 2021, we will be making a concerted effort to enforce it. This marks a big change for us because, while we've always had a cancellation policy, we've frankly struggled to know when and how to enforce it. After a lot of discernment and research, we feel ready to move forward.
Because change is hard, and we're all amid a whirlwind of change in other ways, we wanted to lay out the reasons behind the change in hopes it will ease the transition. If, after reading this, you still have questions or concerns – please don't hesitate to reach out to us.
The basics of the new policy
- AS ALWAYS – We ask for notification of your intent to cancel or reschedule 24 hours or more before your appointment. If you cancel/reschedule within 24 hours, that's a late cancellation. If you just don't show up, that's a no-show.
- Always always call to cancel as soon as you can if you believe you are sick with a viral illness. Particularly during this era of the pandemic's ongoing spread, we want to give a wide latitude to cancellation due to illness. You will not be charged even if this is within 24 hours of your appointment.
- Likewise, if a close contact has been diagnosed with COVID-19, please call to cancel as soon as you can, and you will not be charged if this is within the 24 hour cancellation window.
- You will be charged $50 for violations of our late cancellation policy. There are additional penalties for repeated violations.
- You can read all the details on our cancellation policy page.
The purpose of the cancellation policy
We have a cancellation and no-show policy in place because we have limited resources, and want to use them to best help the community. When a person cancels late, it is often impossible to fill the slot they vacated. This creates a chain reaction of lost opportunities that have real impacts on real people's lives. Our intent is NOT to make others' lives more difficult or to create a punitive environment. Our concerns about finding the right balance are why we've taken a while to craft our approach.
When there is an appointment on the books, our practitioners and staff are here, ready to serve you. The
clinic has been prepared for your arrival and the flow of practitioners through rooms and other resources is determined. Usually, your practitioner will have done some preliminary research appropriate for the upcoming appointment, and their understanding of how their day will unfold includes your appointment.
Repeated interruptions here cause a lack of easy flow through the day and week, as practitioners scramble to figure out what to do with a new window of time. Further, of course, the practitioner loses income when the appointment fee is not paid. Like anybody, practitioners need reliable income to live. The stress of frequent income loss impacts practitioners the same way it would impact anyone.
Our primary purpose in enforcing our policy is to ensure that practitioner time, skill and energy is respected.
Respecting other patients' needs
In Clatsop county, as in many rural counties, healthcare resources are limited. This, combined with the high skill level of our practitioners and our robust in-house insurance billing, means that our practitioners are very busy. In the case of our massage therapists, they are often booked months out. It's unfortunate, but there's just not enough supply to meet the demand.
When a person late cancels or doesn't show up, that potential appointment is lost. For some patients, massage is critical to their regular functioning, and it's hard for them to not be able to get in regularly. By not showing up for an appointment, a late canceller misuses a limited resource that could have been used by someone else. Nobody wants that!
The precariousness of small business
The last year has been hard on everyone. Small businesses like ours have been hit on multiple levels, and the fun isn't over yet. We've been very lucky to have ongoing growth and support from our patients as well as grant and loan funding from several sources – keeping us afloat during a rough time. But the expenses and challenges of operating under these circumstances are real, and every little loss takes us closer to having to reduce services or even close.
Recovering some money when a person cancels isn't going to restore that appointment lost, but it will help to ensure that the practitioner gets some of what they would have made and that the clinic can continue to pay its bills. And, hopefully, the accountability structure the fee creates will just help motivate all of us to pay a bit closer attention to our calendars and communications.
We'll be monitoring how the policy works, listening to your feedback, and adjusting as needed. Thanks for your ongoing support and your help in keeping our doors open and our practitioners happy.
As an accompaniment to the movement studio's focus on the breath this month, we'll be offering articles looking at the themes surrounding the breath and the lungs through the lenses of our other practitioners, modalities and various perspectives. Enjoy!
In Chinese Medicine each anatomical organ is associated with an entire energetic channel network that runs through the body. Additionally, each organ network serves as a symbol that has resonance with the natural world. It resonates with a particular season, direction, color, emotion, sound – there are many symbols the Chinese have associated with the organs over the years. If you want to dig in a bit deeper, you can read this brief article on Eric Grey's website, Chinese Medicine Central, about the classical Chinese concept of organ systems.
Understanding our physical organs through symbol offers us the opportunity to relate to our body in a more accessible way than the mere anatomical functions that we are familiar with through textbooks.
Beginning to explore these connections within our own body can open new ways of relating to both our internal and external environment, and also be an aid in our personal healing journey. These symbol associations are based upon an intricate science developed from the wisdom of ancient Chinese civilizations who closely recorded the interaction between the human body and the seasons/cycles of planet earth and the cosmos. Just as plants go through cyclical changes each year, so do we as humans.
Learning to live in harmony with these changes are key to our health, happiness and longevity.
We can understand this concept by examining the Lung organ network. The Lungs are a symbol of harmony as seen in the ever present rhythm of our breath. The Lungs have the ability to bring in what the body needs (oxygen) and discard what no longer serves (carbon dioxide), constantly maintaining balance. The Lungs are an important organ network in the Fall and Winter as they are related to our immune system. They have a close connection to our skin and serve as a barrier for keeping harmful pathogens outside of the body.
The Lungs are also connected with the metal element, which has a downward direction, resonant with the season of fall.
During fall the energy above ground is moving down and in, preparing to enter deep within the earth for wintertime hibernation and the eventual springtime regeneration. An example of this can be seen by observing a tree in the fall, who drops its leaves down to the ground. The leaves then decompose into the soil and after a long winter, provide nourishment for the roots of the tree and new green springtime growth.
By bringing awareness to what is happening in nature, we are able to understand how our body and being can best be in alignment during particular times of the year. Thus the fall is a good time for letting go of what we do not want to carry with us into hibernation and beyond. Energetically we begin to conserve our resources, drawing the outward yang energy inside to our core, lighting our internal fire that will keep us warm and inspired throughout the dark of winter.
Developing a qigong or movement practice as well as a breathing practice during this time can greatly benefit our health.
In the early spring the tiny seed requires robust energy in order to burst through the thin frost covering the earth. We too as humans rely upon the adequate energy reserve that we intentionally stored and carefully guarded within. When the springtime comes we will be strong and fit for bringing our new creations and dreams fully to life once again.
One final thought is that the Lungs are particularly sensitive to grief.
Grief can arise due to many of life's ups and downs, including: loss of loved ones, loss of parts of self and longing for a reality other than what is. Grief is a natural part of the human experience and shall be honored as such. Just as the tree may grieve the loss of it's leaves as they fall to the ground, the human too may grieve the loss of whatever was. But both the tree and the human are constantly reminded that the future holds the steady rhythm of the untold mystery of regrowth.
Interested in learning more?
We have a weekly Qigong class instructed by Hilly Shue, LAc that incorporates theory from Chinese Medicine in a gentle and informative way. This gentle movement class is accessible to everyone. Questions? Reach out!
Interested in what Qigong looks like? Check out this short demo by Hilly.
In this episode, I sat down with Amanda to talk about judgment, and non-judgment, in the holistic healthcare environment.
In particular, we examine some of the things that commonly hold people back from getting care due to worries about judgment around:
- Body image, such as body hair, body odor or weight gain
- Social factors, such as identification as gay or trans, or having low income and so being unable to wear “fancy” clothes
- Political and intellectual factors, such as having a very conservative viewpoint when you believe your practitioner to be quite liberal
It's just a quick 20 minutes, and we hope it will provoke questions – check out the form on the main podcast page to share your thoughts.
Occasionally a patient won’t be able to come to an appointment for one reason or another, because life is complicated. However, there is one kind of cancellation that I find really strange: a patient cancels their appointment because they are sick.
Now, obviously, if someone is too sick to leave their house, then this is completely reasonable. But the prevalence of this phenomenon makes me think that I have neglected to educate my patients about how effective our medicine is at treating acute illness.
So here, dear reader, is the scoop on Chinese Medicine and common bugs.
Chinese Medicine, like all medicine, grew out of daily necessity. Over thousands of years, practitioners have learned to treat the maladies that their communities and families have suffered from. This certainly includes chronic and terminal conditions, like arthritis and cancer, but the most common afflictions that affect us are illness and injury.
While we think of illness in the modern industrialized world as mostly uncomfortable and annoying, epidemic illness was the leading cause of death in much of the ancient world. The flu virus continues to kill thousands of people a year in the US alone, even with our modern medical systems in place. Imagine the destruction it would have wrought without these systems.
Ancient physicians, then, were spending most of their time treating and curing epidemic illnesses.
In fact the vast majority of the herbal texts that have been passed down to us through the ages concern the stages that exogenous (coming from outside the body) illness pass through in the human body, and how to treat every presentation at every stage. Treating an illness early is always best, but we can’t control when a patient will come to see us, so we have intricate systems for treatment regardless of the timeline.
We also understand, based on these systems, that every person’s presentation is different, and requires a different approach.
One person’s cold may start in their chest as a hot and dry cough, while another’s manifests as profuse clear runny nose and a mild fever. Treating these two presentations differently results in a faster recovery in each case. By carefully observing your specific symptoms, we can craft an acupuncture treatment and an herbal formula that will be tailored to your exact experiences and completely resolve all of them.
We also know that proper treatment of acute problems prevents chronic ones.
This is a key concept to understand. A lingering cough from a simple cold can become a long term problem as the lungs’ ability to regulate themselves becomes more and more compromised. Such a process can predispose a person to chronic bouts of bronchitis, asthma attacks, or lung infections.
By completely treating the issue the first time, we never have to deal with any of those problems down the line. For those who already have a chronic health condition, this is doubly true. Autoimmune disease, chronic pain and depression all sap our body’s immune systems and create increased openings for acute illness to become chronic.
With this in mind, my advice is to seek out care when you first feel sick.
That woozy feeling in your head, the tickle in your throat, and the snot you woke up with this morning are telling you that you are already mounting an immune response to something. This is our opening to set you up for the shortest and least painful illness possible, and maybe even a complete avoidance of further symptoms.
And don’t worry about getting me sick; this is my job!
My Chinese herbal lineage focuses on deep understanding of the most venerated text of Chinese herbal medicine, the Shanghan za bing lun.
The first, and most well known, part of this text (often referred to simply as the Shanghan lun) contains information about treating diseases that are caused by factors outside the body. In particular, the vast majority of the formulas in the text treat the common cold, other viral respiratory infections & the secondary infections and complications that come from them. So, you could say that I spend a lot of time thinking about the topic of colds & flus!
Different types of colds?
Chinese medicine (CM) discusses various types of colds – which we call “external invasions,” to differentiate them from diseases caused by food, drink & strongly disordered emotional states. The symptoms of the external invasion, and the method for treating those symptoms, varies based on the character of each type of cold. In the simplest way of looking at it in CM, there are colds that are more “hot type” (with higher fever, yellower phlegm) versus those that are more “cold type” (with lower fever, runnier nose).
But further differentiations exist, based on the origin of the pathogen, the health status of the person invaded, and so on. The Shanghan lun differentiates the varieties of symptoms of exterior invasion into six stages, called Conformations. The conformations are a complex theoretical construct, so we can only sketch the outlines here. If you're interested in getting a bit more information, you might want to read about it on my website for students and practitioners of CM.
The conformations relate to the way a cold develops, and also helps us to see the difference between “regular colds” and more virulent & severe epidemic type invasions. The conformations themselves include physical structures, various bodily functions, acupuncture channels and other diverse parts of the human body. In other words, each conformation is not a single structure, but a mixture several structures and functions.
In a way, each conformation is like a landscape – and as a cold travels through each of the six landscapes, the way it manifests, and the way we treat it, changes.
I list and briefly describe the conformations below in order from the most superficial / exterior layer of the body all the way into the Jueyin which is the deepest level, the most interior to the body. As disease travels through the conformations, it changes character. The more exterior layers (yang layers) look more like typical cold & flu symptoms, and so it is from the chapters describing these disorders that most of my formulas come from when I treat this type of disorder.
- Taiyang – Taiyang contains the Bladder and Small Intestine channels & organ networks, as well as aspects of our immunity, our water metabolism and more. This is the most surface layer, and when struck, the typical symptoms of a mild cold are the result. Runny nose, mild congestion, an often lower grade fever, body aches, frontal headaches and low energy can all be the result. We treat this stage of cold by forcing the pathogen out & strengthening the surface to prevent reinvasion.
- Yangming – Yangming contains the Large Intestine and Stomach channels & organ networks, and thus has a lot to do with digestion, but dysfunction here can also impact mental state (anxiety, mania) and temperature regulation, among other things. We are proceeding more deeply into the body here, and if a cold or flu reaches here, the symptoms tend to be more severe. Very high fevers, even leading to bleeding, severe headaches, sinus trouble including congestion, and certain types of hot lung conditions can all be the result. We treat this stage by cooling down the body and allowing the body to release as much built up matter and energy as possible.
- Shaoyang – Shaoyang contains of the Gallbladder and mysterious Triple Burner channels & organ networks. The impacts of this conformation can be VERY diverse as befits the layer of the body that is getting so much closer to the interior (yin). As cold or flu symptoms, Shaoyang symptoms tend to be back and forth (fever AND chills), less acute and can also hang on for much longer. People who are repeatedly getting sick within one season, but never really having a fever or serious acute symptoms are often trapped in the Shaoyang stage. This can be harder to treat, and we do so by helping to “harmonize” the yin and yang aspects of this stage.
- Taiyin, Shaoyin & Jueyin – The Shanghan lun text I have been discussing goes into detail about the treatment of deeper layers of the body as they are impacted by the consequences of external invasions. However, because these look less like what we call “cold” or “flu,” I'll not discuss them here. The same goes for the next two layers..
I hope to talk more about the conformations and how understanding them can help you respond better to cold-season illnesses. But, for now, with that general idea explained – a word on customization of cold treatment.
Different types of people, different treatments – right?
So, there are different types of colds to begin with, but there are also different types of people having those colds! One of the most important things about Chinese medicine as a distinct profession in healthcare is how we focus on the customization of treatment to the uniqueness of the individual patient. If a person is very weak, with a thin and deep pulse, not having much of a fever and the cold lingers for weeks, we will treat them much differently than a person who comes in with a big fever, big pulse and very rapidly moving illness. Doesn’t that just make sense?
You may have a different herbal formula than your partner with a similar cold!
That's the outcome of true customization of treatment. But, of course, sometimes I find myself prescribing very similar formulas to a large group of people. While customization is important, it’s also true that many people react similarly to particular colds traveling through their town. And there are some types of treatment or supplementation that help most people feel better. This is why we see standardized over-the-counter remedies on the shelves in the first place – they are a convenient way to help large groups of people. So, as a practitioner, or for you as a member of the public, we have to find the best way to balance customization and convenience.
Over-the-counter remedies and Chinese herbal medicine – the case of Yin Qiao (or Yin Chiao)
For many of my patients, the first Chinese herbal formula they ever took was in the form of several small tablets called Yin Qiao San – said to be great for the common cold. Many people swear by the remedy and keep it on hand just in case. In fact, there are some Chinese medicine practitioners who ask their patients to keep it on hand for just this reason. This formula was formally written down in a book published in 1798 devoted to exploring “Warm diseases,” so those types of illnesses that are either caused by warming factors, or expresses itself through heat type symptoms, or both.
It contains cooling, lightweight herbs like honeysuckle flower and forsythia seed pod.
This formula is appropriate for people who have hotter cold symptoms such as : fever, burning sore throat and a tendency to a more rapid pulse & yellowing tongue coat (especially as the cold progresses). In the basic CM way of looking at things, a warm or hot pathogen creates these symptoms. Warm and hot pathogens are traditionally more likely to be encountered in warm climates. If a cold came from a more cold type pathogen – such as those typical in my home in Oregon – then this formula would most likely NOT be appropriate. Further, when the cold goes into the interior, causing a phlegmy cough or profuse nasal discharge, this formula wouldn’t be appropriate regardless of the nature of the exterior invasion.
In other words, Yin Qiao San can indeed be effective – for certain types of colds and not others.
What are the potential consequences of using a formula that isn’t appropriate for the type of cold or other disorder you’re experiencing? Fortunately, Chinese herbal medicine is powerful – but also very gentle. Yin Qiao San is quite cooling, but it is also relatively easy on the body and the dose typically taken is too small to do much damage. So while there are Chinese herbs that can cause serious complications if you take them when they are not indicated for your condition, this particular example is not one of those.
That said, if you need warming treatment and take cooling herbs instead, there are undoubtedly consequences for the yang of the body. Long term, a person who inappropriately takes Yin Qiao San may find lowered surface immunity or mild digestive problems. That the consequences may not be severe in this case, though, doesn't mean we shouldn't attend to always taking the right herbal formula for our situation.
How do you avoid taking the “wrong Chinese herbal formula?”
Does the highly customized nature of Chinese herbal medicine mean that there can be no on-hand remedies a patient could self prescribe? Of course not. There are general treatment strategies that assist nearly anyone who is experiencing the symptoms of a cold or flu. For instance: increasing fruits and vegetables, decreasing sugar and strenuous physical activity and staying warm and hydrated will help virtually anyone have a better time with a cold or the flu.
But, if you would like to take a more active role to treat future colds and flus, or you have developed complications from one – like a chronic painful cough – seeking out treatment from a licensed Chinese medicine practitioner may well be part of an answer. If you come in for a visit, I will use CM diagnostic techniques, including a wide ranging discussion with you, to help determine the best treatment for an existing cold – or the prevention of one in the future. While I would be unlikely to prescribe Yin Qiao San, it being outside of my lineage and climate, I could certainly recommend a group of herbal formulas to have on hand for potential situations that would be appropriate for your constitution.
This is just a brief overview of the issues involved in treating colds and flus with Chinese herbal medicine. Questions? Get in touch – maybe I’ll write a future article about your question!