Chinese Medicine

Practical Wisdom learned from the Winter Solstice & Water Element

Here comes Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year. I have some friends and patients who have a hard time with the cold and the darkness of winter. Winter is something that they endure but don’t enjoy. They feel a depression that doesn’t really go away until spring, when the days are visibly longer.

I have other friends who really love winter and the long, dark nights. For them, it’s time to slow down, to go inward, to stay indoors and be cozy, reading, watching movies, talking, or knitting.  All quieter wintertime pursuits. At Thanksgiving, one friend talked about how every year she tries to get a bit cozier and quieter in winter.

I go back and forth myself in my attitude towards winter. I love the coziness, and I also can’t wait for the return of the light. On the Winter Solstice, I’m so happy that the days have finished getting shorter and now we are heading back to more daylight. 

Winter is the season of the Water 水 element or phase in Chinese Medicine.

This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about spring, summer, late summer, fall – and continue below to learn more about winter.

There are three big themes for the water element: keeping reserves, flow, and cleansing.  

Let's start with RESERVES.

In winter, the trees are bare. They may almost look dead, but they are really just dormant. The energy of the tree has left the branches and is down deep in the roots, underground, resting and regenerating for the coming year. In herbal medicine, we often harvest medicinal roots in the winter because they have greater potency.

The hibernating bear represents this as well. She is sleeping and saving her energy to get through the winter until it’s time to emerge from her cave in the spring. We can see these themes in the acorn seed as well. It lies dormant underground, waiting for spring to burst up and out into the above-ground world. 

Traditionally, in winter, humans would slow down our pace and sleep more.

We would conserve food and fuel to make sure that we could get through to the spring and summer. These days, at least in the US, the majority have easy access to food, light and warmth in the winter, so we don’t really HAVE to slow down. Still, some part of our bodies are attuned to and respond to the rhythms of nature.

I know that if I keep pushing myself to work long hours or stay up late through the winter, I find myself exhausted in the spring. I don't give myself a chance to rest and restore in the winter. This robs my body and mind of the chance to heal, rebuild my reserves, and to be ready for the natural hurry and exuberance of spring.

Strangely, the past two pandemic winters have been good for me in this respect. I really slow down. I don’t leave the house much. I rest more and I’ve got more energy once spring comes.

Now, let's talk about FLOW.

There’s a part of the water element that has to do with a healthy relationship to the unknown, and going with the flow. The sea turtle is a wonderful example of this in nature. There’s trust in the unknown involved in laying one’s eggs in the sand and then going back into the ocean, not knowing what will happen to those eggs next, or how many will make it back to the water. Or swimming in the waves, where the ocean may bring food or danger or both.

The virtue of the Water phase is wisdom, which differs from knowledge.

Knowledge is about knowing information and facts. Wisdom is more about understanding how to use knowledge, often gained over time. It’s about understanding and accepting that sometimes you know and sometimes you don’t know, and sometimes you must act and sometimes wait. It’s all about being in the flow.

This brings to mind the water associated emotion of fear.

Fear can be really hard – it means to accept and flow with the unknown. Things could be great or terrible. Scary things can happen in the unknown, there’s nothing saying they won’t. Fear can be seen as Water all frozen up, no longer flowing and accepting. 

Finally, let's address CLEANSING.

Water cleans, this is obvious. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney and the Bladder are the organ networks associated with the Water element, and in both Western and Chinese medicine they have important roles in cleansing the body of impurities and waste. A polluted stream doesn’t nourish anyone.

The Bladder and Kidney organ systems.

We each have two meridians/organ networks that belong to the Water element, those are the Bladder and the Kidney. We'll start off with discussing the Bladder. The Bladder network is in charge of storing water and disposing of waste products.

Water is life. About 60% of our bodies are water, and thus is it our most precious resource. Again, the Water phase element is all about our reserves, literally so in this case. When functioning well, the Bladder keeps more water when we are dehydrated and releases more water when we are retaining too much.

If the Bladder cannot do its job, there is often an imbalance in your body's water – dry & brittle or swollen and soggy!

There can also be urine retention, infection and organ damage. The Bladder meridian is the longest one in the body, running from the inner part of the eye, over the back of the head and neck, down the back, buttocks, hamstrings and calves, and then the outer ankle and foot to end at the littlest toe. Eye, back, and leg issues can be related to blockages in this meridian. 

Mentally and emotionally, there can be issues with fear when the Bladder organ system isn’t healthy.

Either too much fear, especially fear of not having enough, or not enough fear with excessive risk taking. That fear of not having enough can lead to hoarding resources. When in balance, there is less fear of not having enough, and there can be more generosity and trust.

The Kidney organ system separates out impurities, overlapping some with the functions of the Bladder, though technically the Kidney separates and the Bladder expels. The Kidney system sends water to the whole body, in this way nourishing every organ and cell. It is also the storehouse of our Ancestral qi or energy reserves, the oomph that you came into the world with when you were born and that carries you through your life, gradually diminishing as you get older.

When you have used up your day-to-day energy from food and breath, you can draw on these reserves.

When you have to use your will to push and go further, either physically, mentally or emotionally, you are using Kidney energy. This energy can also be depleted by pushing too hard for too long—going with too little sleep, too much stress, too much work, not enough good food or water uses it up. Long-term use of drugs can also harm the Kidney.  

The Kidney organ system is the creator of bone, marrow and the brain.

It also governs the ears (which even look a little like kidneys) and the reproductive organs. Kidney system health is an important part of fertility and reproductive health. The Kidney system also is involved with diseases and conditions that people are born with – congenital conditions.

Ways to Support Your Water phase element!

Rest and Sleep

In higher latitudes, winter used to be a time for working shorter hours, sleeping more, talking and dreaming about the year that passed and the year ahead, but not a time for action. Modern life has made it possible to work long hours, stay busy and sleep less in the winter, but your body still needs that time of slowing down and regenerating. Sleep more, pay attention to your dreams and rest.

Get Your Cozy On

What can you do to help yourself slow down and get cozy? Maybe it’s a fire in the fireplace or a wood stove. Or perhaps it’s your favorite blanket on the couch with a good book or TV series. For some it’s fuzzy slippers or a bathrobe. Anything that helps you slow down and enjoy this Water season is worth consideration!

Bone Broth, Soups and Stews

Soups and stews are great in the winter. They are a great way to stay warm and get lots of nutritious vegetables and protein. Plus, most soup recipes are great for leftovers throughout the week. This helps you spend less time cooking and more time resting. This winter I have been using my slow cooker and instant pot twice a week to make yummy, nutritious recipes.

Here’s the latest one I’ve tried (it was delicious): Three Sisters Butternut Squash Chili

If you eat animal protein, bone broth is another great thing to cook up.

As I've mentioned, the Kidney organ system and the Water phase rule our bones – it's a deep symbolic association in Chinese medicine. Bone broth is rich in minerals and collagen and is supportive to your gastrointestinal tract and joints. It can even help with sleep!

Here’s a recipe and more information on the benefits of bone broth. You can either use the broth in other recipes, or just drink four to eight ounces as a daily tonic.

Moxibustion nourishes the water phase element deeply

Acupuncture and moxibustion

You may have heard of moxibustion before. It’s deeply warming and restorative, and I’ve found over the years that most people find it deeply comforting as well. It works well with acupuncture to build up depleted energy and soothe aching joints and muscles.

If it feels like your reserves are down or your flow is blocked, or if you are having a hard time with any of the other physical or emotional issues that I’ve discussed in this post, come in for some acupuncture or naturopathic care!

Lessons from Metal – Inspiration & Letting Go

This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about spring, summer, late summer and winter. Read below to learn about SPRING!

The wheel of the year continues to turn, and the seasons are shifting as well. Fall is here, and this is the season of Metal 金 in the five element or five phase system. If you're interested, you can read my last article about the late summer season and the Earth phase element.

Image by author

Dying back and preserving what is valuable

The phrase above captures the essence of the Metal element. Fall is a time when the abundant sun and energy of the summer starts decreasing and plants die back. Deciduous trees’ leaves turn color, and then the trees let go of those leaves. Everything that can be released, is, so that plants and animals can conserve energy and have resources to survive the winter.

It is a time of deciding what is valuable and must be kept, and what can be released. What nature lets go is valuable too. Leaves, vegetation, and everything that dies becomes compost, rich soil that will feed new life and new growth when Spring and Summer come back around again.

At the end of September and beginning of October I passed a big milestone!

I wrapped up my practice in Vancouver, Washington so that I could live and work full-time here in Astoria. I am so happy to be here full time. But those last two trips back to Vancouver in September were hard and sad. I had been practicing in Vancouver for over a dozen years. The people who were coming in for visits that last month were regulars, people who had been coming in to see me often through those years, and the patient-practitioner relationship was deep.

I had known them through health and illness, through divorces and new relationships, through births and deaths of loved ones.

Image by author

We had laughed and cried together, and I was very sad to be leaving them, as they were sad to see me go. Yet it was time. My life had brought me here, to Astoria, to the astounding beauty of this place and a wonderful relationship, good work, and wonderful new patients and coworkers. The time had come to let my old practice go so that I could fully step into the next phase of my life. I will always cherish the memory of my time there in Vancouver, but the time had come to move on.

Sadness and grief

The emotion associated with the Metal element is sadness and grief, and I’ve noticed that I and my patients often feel this more in the fall. Because this time is sad, and it is a loss. Dying and death, letting go and moving on are essential parts of life for all beings, including us humans.

The Lung and Large Intestine

We each have two meridians/organ networks that belong to the Metal element, the Lung and the Large Intestine.

The Large Intestine

The Large Intestine has the role of clearing out all the garbage, the waste material left after the body has extracted what it needs from food. This is so important, as the waste material that a person doesn’t need can often be toxic. Chronic constipation, if it gets to a certain point, can make a person very, very sick. That waste matter needs to be released so that it can become compost, where once again it has a use and can help nourish life.

Similarly sometimes a person has to let go emotionally. Life changes and all of us have to go through a process of grieving and eventually letting go of big things and little, keeping valuable, precious memories.

The Lung

Tiger is a symbol of the Lung organ system – Image by author

The Lung network is responsible for breathing, taking in oxygen and energy (qi) from the air and helping it to move through the entire body. It’s not just the physical Lungs but all the upper airway passages as well and the skin and hair. All of these define boundaries between the person and the outside world.

Both of these apply to the Lung network, the physical aspect of taking in new air, and the mental/emotional/spiritual of new ideas and creativity and spirituality.

When the Lung is functioning well, it’s easy to breathe, the skin is healthy people are full of vitality and creativity. When the Lung network is not doing well there can be various physical diseases of the lungs and skin such as asthma, allergies, eczema and so on. There can also be a lack of creativity and inspiration, a sort of lifelessness and dullness, rigidity, and a feeling of grief and loss from being cut off from something bigger.

A healthy Lung organ helps us to have a connection to heaven, as a healthy Spleen and Stomach helps us have a connection to Earth.

Ways to take care of your Metal element

#1 – GRIEF – Allow yourself to be sad if it comes up for you.

A lot of hard things have happened in the past few years and most of us have experienced loss of some type (loved ones, work, normalcy). This is a time of year that that grief will naturally come up. Let yourself experience it and be present with it, it will move in its own time, but it’s important to feel it. It might be tiring, it might be hard, possibly the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. This is okay.

#2 – INSPIRATION – Embrace what inspires you.

Books? Music? Walks on the beach or in the woods? Religious services? Time with friends or family? Take some time for whatever helps you feel creative and in tune with something higher.


#3 – BREATHE – That's it, just breathe.

Fully and mindfully. A good deep breath moves your belly and your chest. Take ten deep breaths and feel the new oxygen and energy coming in, and the old carbon dioxide going out.

#4 – RELEASE – Have regular daily bowel movements.

Make sure that you are letting go of your waste. Eating fiber and vegetables, walking or other movement can help.

If this isn’t enough, there are Chinese and Western herbs and remedies that can help you get back on track. Come in for a visit for an individualized plan.

4 Keys to Benefitting from Chinese Herbal treatment

Chinese herbal treatment is not the conventional choice for treating disease among most people in the United States. Since it is not the mainstream option, the average American doesn't have much basis of understanding Chinese herbalism. With more conventional therapies, such as pharmaceuticals, we are taught both informally and formally about what they are and how we are supposed to take them. We learn these things in school and by doing research, of course, but also absorb a lot through everyday media, conversations with practitioners & social cues.

For most of us, that's not true for Chinese medicine. The lack of familiarity can present problems in Chinese herbal treatment in a variety of ways. In my private practice, I try to educate my patients as much as possible during the appointment, as well as in follow-up emails, so they can benefit from their herbal formulas. The following four points are the most common advice I share with patients and represents a simple roadmap for best benefitting from Chinese herbs.


#1 – Be consistent in taking your herbs

The majority of my advice in this article is designed to deal with one central feature of herbal treatment – it is fundamentally gentle medicine. This does not mean it cannot be powerful – it can be! This does not mean it can never hurt you – it can! But it does mean that the effects overall tend to be gentle and subtle over the short term. Chinese herbal treatment largely acts in an almost sedimentary fashion, layers of accumulation that build resonant health over time.

For that reason – consistency in treatment is absolutely essential. Yes, of course, consistency is also important with many pharmaceuticals. But because the effects of herbal treatment tend to be subtle in the short term, people are more likely to forget to take their herbs due to the lack of obvious backlash from missing doses.

There is a surprisingly huge difference between being, say, 80% consistent and being 100% consistent. This is frustrating for patients! We all hate to be bound by medical routines – but my clinical experience is clear. Consistency matters – a LOT. When you take your herbs as directed, if they are properly prescribed, you will see results over time.

#2 – Be patient with your Chinese herbal treatment course

For the same reason – the medicine's fundamental gentleness – you need to be patient. Some formulas are fairly fast acting, especially those designed to treat acute problems. But many of my patients are on formulas that may take 3-6 months to fully manifest their effects. Reasons for this include the intensity or depth of the presenting pathology, or due to some feature of the formula itself. Regardless of reason, rushing treatment that is meant to be done slowly rarely yields positive effects.

There's another reason for taking it slow and easy. The VAST majority of my patients need more than herbal treatment to find their way to lasting health. Herbs are a piece of the puzzle, as are other medical modalities. But lasting lifestyle adjustments and new approaches to life and work are often critical for full healing to take place. The long, slow, intentional method of herbal treatment gives patients opportunities to discover what adjustments might need to be made in their lives, and to make them.

One important note – in the kind of herbalism I practice we tend to change the precise composition of the formula quite a bit. This is particularly true when we're treating something like a cold or the flu, as well as during the early stages of any treatment. So, patience has to manifest not only in taking the herbs as prescribed over a long period of time, but also coming in for re-checks as requested in order to ensure your treatment is perfect for you.

#3 – Pay careful attention to your experience while being treated

As you are being treated – consider keeping a journal and recording your physical and mental experience daily. This journaling can be simple or complex, analog or digital, and never needs to be shared word-for-word with anyone. The journal should really just be a tool or a reminder to pay careful attention to your experience as you are being treated. This will help you spot both positive effects that may otherwise be too subtle to notice over time, as well as tracing any aggravation of symptoms or other challenges.

At minimum, tracking the nature and intensity of the primary symptoms you are hoping to treat will be helpful. But, listing any range of your experiences may also yield important information. Even if you're not a journaler, simply find a way to increase your awareness of your experience so that you can notice the changes as they are happening.

If you are a person with a lot of health anxiety or body dysmorphia you may find being more aware of your experience to be uncomfortable. You should talk to your practitioner, as well as any mental health support you have, about these challenges. Above all, don't engage in any activity that increases your own distress or pushes you to disengage with treatment.

#4 – Report your experience in detail to your practitioner

Part of the role of increasing your awareness is so that you can make more detailed reports to your practitioner when you come in for check-ups. Because Chinese herbalists typically do not use blood tests, radiological imaging and other conventional testing methods in our diagnosis, we rely on self-reporting of signs and symptoms from the patient more heavily than other practitioners.

It can be frustrating to figure out how to describe vague or confusing feelings to your practitioner! However, trying to develop increased awareness and working to articulate that awareness to someone you trust can be a valuable part of the healing experience. With time, you will find it easier to explain the movement of the interior landscape of your body.


These four simple interrelated pieces of advice will help you to get the most from your Chinese herbal treatment, whether you see me or another practitioner. If you are an herbalist, or an experienced herbs patient, is there any other advice you would pass on to folks new to herbalism? What has helped you get the best results in your own treatment?

Share your thoughts with us on Instagram or Twitter!

The Abundance of Late Summer and the Earth 土 Element of Chinese Medicine

This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about spring, summer, fall and winter. Read below to learn about SPRING!

“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!

Images created by author

Fire Season – Summer in the time of COVID

This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about spring, late summer, fall and winter. Read below to learn about SUMMER!

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. 

Fire mandala image created by author

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

Rose image created by author

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 Heart

Fire bowl image created by author

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

Fire dog image created by author

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.

2. Laugh!

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!

Water to Wood – Lessons from the Birth of Spring

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The five elemental phases, also known as the five elements, are a key theoretical structure of Chinese medicine.

This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about summer, late summer, fall and winter. Read below to learn about SPRING!

The five phases are:

  • Water / 水 / Shui
  • Wood / 木 / Mu
  • Fire / 火 / Huo
  • Earth / / 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!

Our new cancellation policy

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.

Respecting practitioners

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.

Acupuncture Treatment of Neck Pain at Watershed Wellness

 

In no other time in history has remote connection been such a vital part of every aspect of our lives. Work, school, and even our social interactions with loved ones are dependent on accessing our world with heads down for extended periods of time to connect with each other through technology. It is no surprise, then,  that we have been seeing an increase of patients at Watershed Wellness seeking relief from neck pain. We're also seeing all the  symptoms often accompanying neck pain such as headaches, tingling, numbness, and the referral of these symptoms down the arm and upper back.

Fortunately, biomedical research is begining to demonstrate the effectiveness of acupuncture treatment for neck pain. In one of the largest studies to date, an analysis of 29 studies involving close to 18,000 participants showed that acupuncture relieved pain by about 50%. The research, published in 2018 in The Arizona Pain And Addiction Curriculum Faculty Guide, conclusively demonstrates that acupuncture treatment of neck pain is an effective, non-invasive and affordable approach to reducing neck pain without the use of opioids, especially over the long-term (1).

Acupuncture treatment for neck pain will vary for each individual, because the differential diagnosis of patterns of imbalance based on Chinese Medicine theory varies for each person.

 

For example, Cervical Spondylosis is a type of degenerative disease wherein the cartilage lining the vertebrae on each side of the disk wears away over time, resulting in less room for the nerves attached to the spinal cord to pass between the vertebrae. The acupuncture treatment of chronic neck pain for this type of condition would be to tonify deficiencies in the body to support the body in restoring strength in bones and tissues in addition to moving qi and blood to relieve pain. There are many such chronic conditions that cause neck pain that can be effectively treated with acupuncture. However, some people are surprised to learn that acupuncture is also an excellent choice for acute causes of neck pain.

Acute causes of neck pain include car accident, sports injury, neck sprain from a poor sleeping position, or any number of traumas. All of these can cause sudden and debilitating pain in the neck that can be aided by acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture theory focuses on the creation of qi and blood stagnation in channels and tissues after these acute events. Needles are used, often employing special techniques, to reestablish the normal flow of circulation, thus allowing the body to resolve the blockage fairly quickly – alleviating the pain. The duration and frequency of treatments varies based on the condition and the healing ability of the individual. While acute cases of muscle strain may resolve in a few sessions with frequent visits, chronic conditions may take longer as resolution of the underlying deficiencies will be necessary for continued relief.

Research continues to examine the benefits of non-invasive procedures for managing acute and chronic pain conditions, including the acupuncture treatment of neck pain.

As explained in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “researchers determined that up to twelve 50-minute acupuncture treatments over several months were more effective for relieving chronic neck pain than customary treatment with pain relievers and physical therapy” (2). Depending on the chronic or acute cause of the neck pain in addition to the precise location of pain, the acupuncture treatment itself will be unique to each person. In the acupuncture treatment of neck pain, needles might be gently inserted directly into the neck, shoulders, and upper back, but do not be surprised if points on the hands and ankles are used.

These are often referred to as “distal points.” Acupuncturists view the body as having a “highway” system in which 12 meridian channels can be accessed from specific points along the channel to elicit a healing response in different areas of the body. These distal points for treatment of neck pain are considered to be especially useful for acute disorders, and are also suitable for more chronic ones. Our classical texts, many reaching back thousands of years, help us think about the channel system and the unusual nature of these distal points.

For instance, the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine) says,

“The three yins of the arm go from the organs to the hands. The three yangs of the arm go from the hands to the head. The three yangs of the legs go from the head to the feet. The three yins of the legs go from the feet to the abdomen.”

Biomedical research as well as the classical texts of Chinese medicine all indicate how acupuncture can contribute to the treatment of neck pain.

Call Watershed Wellness today to schedule an acupuncture appointment to see what this modality can do for you.

 


References


(1) Villarroel, Lisa., Mardian, Aram. “The Arizona Pain and Addiction Curriculum Faculty Guide.” ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SERVICES September 1, 2018. Accessed June 20, 2020. azdhs.gov/audiences/clinicians/arizona-pain-addiction-curriculum

(2) “Is It Time to Give Acupuncture a Try for Pain Relief?” Harvard Women’s Health Watch, vol. 23, no. 6, Feb. 2016, p. 3. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=c8h&AN=112372422&site=ehost-live.

A basic primer on the Chinese medicine view on living seasonally

From a Chinese medicine perspective, it is essential that we learn to live in harmony with the seasons. There is, of course, no monolithic “Chinese medicine perspective” but all lineages and even more modern interpretations of Chinese medicine theory discuss the health benefits of seasonal awareness.

The recent movement around local and seasonal foods is a nod to the importance of this timeless principle. People are recognizing that living in accordance with their immediate spatial and temporal environment is not just for hippies (although, for them too). Food tastes better, is more healthful, is less expensive and somehow just FEELS better when it is eaten at the right time for the place that one is in.

But the Chinese philosophy on living in balance with seasonal energy goes farther than food choices. In fact, most of what I have found in the Classical texts of Chinese medicine has nothing to do with food.

1. Physical/mental/spiritual activity levels and types

The guidelines regarding activity go into every realm of life, just as the seasonal energy touches us everywhere – all the time. In the Neijing one of the first practical recommendations concerning seasonal living involves activity.

“During this season [spring] it is advisable to retire early. Arise early also and go walking in order to absorb the fresh, invigorating energy” (From Maoshing Ni's translation)

2. Social activity levels

This is perhaps simply an outgrowth of #1 – but I think it is easy to overlook. We naturally gather together in the summer – although in the United States, some of our most “together” holidays are in the winter. Just as we should limit excessive physical activity in the winter, so should we ramp down our social activity.

3. The color, smell and feeling of the surrounding environment

Paying close attention to the seasonal changes is important in resonating with their energy. All of our senses should be engaged in the study of our environment. It makes sense to similarly alter our internal environment to some degree. Letting your decorations follow the ebb and flow of nature will help you to become closely in tune with seasonal energy. Of course, you will want to keep balance as well – so surrounding yourself with emblems of Metal during the Fall is not necessarily the best way to go, but there are simple, effective and gentle ways to remind yourself of the seasonal energy even when you must be inside.

All of this and much more is included in the kind of lifestyle counseling that naturally grows out of Chinese medicine theory on the energy of the seasons. We’ll be discussing more specifics about each season on the blog in articles to come.

Do you have a favorite season? Which one and why?

The long, frustrating road to healing chronic disease

“Am I ever going to feel better?”

If you’ve struggled with a long-term illness, you may have asked yourself this question.

Maybe you’ve suffered with chronic pain, or a challenging digestive disorder, or a recurrent skin problem or some other ailment for so long, you’ve forgotten what it feels like to be well. To be ‘normal.' Maybe somebody has told you your condition is permanent. Perhaps you’ve been given a diagnosis and told it will be with you for life. Maybe you’ve even stopped asking yourself the question if you can be well again.

There is a lot I could say about Chinese Medicine’s perspective on chronic illness. I could tell stories of miraculous cures I’ve heard from my teachers and mentors, or discuss my own successes as an acupuncturist and herbalist in treating complex diseases.

I could even talk about my own experiences as a patient, suffering from disorders that were never supposed to get better, but which did with regular treatment. But I’m not going to do any of that here.

Instead, I would like to let the tradition of this medicine speak for itself.

I am going to quote a passage from one of the world’s oldest medical texts1, a work that has guided the practice of Chinese Medicine for over two thousand years.

Here is what it says on the subject of chronic illness:

“Now, when any of the five major organ systems has an illness, it’s as if one was pierced by a thorn, or soiled by dirt, as if there were a knot, or something closed. A thorn may have pierced one for long, and yet it can be pulled out. A stain may have existed for long, ad yet it can be cleansed. A knot may have been tied for long, and yet it can be untied. A closure may have lasted for long, and yet it can be opened. If someone says an illness with a long duration cannot be removed, then that is an erroneous statement.

“Now, those who are experts in the use of acupuncture needles, when they remove an illness, that is as if they pulled out a thorn, as if they cleansed a stain, as if they untied a knot, as if they opened a closure. The illness may have lasted for long, and still it can be brought to an end. Those who state that it cannot be cured, they simply have not acquired the necessary skill.” 2

If you’re feeling hopeless about your health problems, I want you to take a minute and read those paragraphs again. Really let them sink in.

If you are suffering from a chronic illness, I want you to save that passage, and take it out and read it whenever you feel like things will never get better. Health is a journey, and sometimes, it is a long and winding one. The terrain can be rough. It may seem you are moving backwards. There may be moments when you feel lost. But progress is always possible.

As a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, I am here to walk that journey with you, every step of the way. I am completely committed to restoring your well-being, and I invite you to commit to the possibility of your own recovery yourself.



1 This text is called the Ling Shu (靈樞). It’s the second half of a medical treatise called the Huang Di Nei Jing (黃帝內經 ), or the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.

2  This is a paraphrased version of Paul Unschuld’s translation of the Ling Shu. The original text in Classical Chinese is:

今夫五藏之有疾也,譬猶刺也,猶污也,猶結也,猶閉也。刺雖久猶可拔也,污雖久猶可雪也,結雖久猶可解也,閉雖久猶可決也。或言久疾之不可取者,非其說也. 夫善用鍼者,取其疾也,猶拔刺也,猶雪污也,猶解結也,猶決閉也。疾雖久,猶可畢也。言不可治者,未得其術也。