Psychosomatic Medicine

Acupuncture chart from Chinese medical text circa 1340s A.D.

There is nothing worse than going to a doctor with a host of symptoms and being told there is nothing wrong with you. Many people who appear on the program, Mystery Diagnosis, (my second Discovery Health obsession next to the The Food MD) have had this experience. I recall one particularly disturbing episode, where a young woman complaining of extreme gastrointestinal distress was prescribed an anti-depressant by one of the many doctors she sought answers from. Confused, she asked how these would help her to which the doctor responded that her condition was basically all in her head. When a physical illness or condition is caused by or aggravated by a mental factor it is termed psychosomatic. Essentially, that is how this young woman’s doctor viewed her illness. Many years later, she was properly diagnosed with severe endometriosis, a condition where the cells of the uterus grow in other places of the body causing cramping, severe bleeding and infertility to name a few. In her case, the cells had grown into and over parts of her GI tract. She had a full hysterectomy and a section of her large intestine removed in order to reclaim some quality of life. Take that, anti-depressants!

As you can glean from the above story, defining an illness as psychosomatic carries with it an intense social stigma here in the west, even though almost all physical illnesses have mental factors that determine their onset, presentation, maintenance, susceptibility to treatment and resolution. When doctors dismiss symptoms like in the case of this young woman, the rest of the world follows suit. The person who is suffering internally and externally is labeled “dramatic” or even worse, a liar. For thousands of years, Chinese medicine viewed the psychosomatic as the greatest key to diagnosing deeper illness and imbalance in the body. The strength of the nervous system and physical state of the individual (including their environment) is assessed in order to understand the degree in which an organ or a system is affected. Every symptom is taken into account and treated seriously, with the objective being to restore balance. Moreover, the eastern approach considers how interconnected the body and mind are.

The biggest physical bully is emotional stress, which can infiltrate suddenly or slowly, over a long period of time. Even from a western perspective, stress can be incredibly destructive, wreaking havoc on connective tissues, digestion, vascular integrity and the body’s restorative sleep cycles if not managed properly i.e. not just a script for anti-depressants. In Chinese medicine, if the nervous system of the individual is weak, the symptoms of illness will be more psychological. On a physical level, the organ most affected by the emotional stress will be the weakest/dysfunctional one. Whatever the natural emotions associated with this organ are, they will become stronger and more destructive to the nervous system overall. As the organ breaks down, it takes the system it is associated with along for the ride, leading ultimately to disease. If the emotional stress comes on suddenly, it will affect the Heart and the Lungs. If it is gradual and long term, it will take a toll on the Liver, Spleen and Kidneys. Even more specific is the type of emotional stress broken down into these 5 categories: tense/chronic, shock/sudden, sadness, rumination and fearful emotion. This gives an even more precise view of the affected organs/systems in the body, further honing the treatment approach.

Our young woman with endometriosis would have been assessed as having a strong nervous system in the beginning, as her symptoms were predominantly physical. By the time she had gone to see the doctor who prescribed the anti-depressants, she was exhibiting a combination of physical and mental symptoms. This would signify that her nervous system was deteriorating. If she had also gone to see an eastern doctor from the get go, much of her later suffering might have been alleviated, as the weakest organ, her large intestine would have been addressed immediately with herbs and acupuncture/bodywork. Since organs are partnered in the Chinese system of yin/yang (solid/hollow), the untreated large intestinal dysfunction would have affected her lungs. This woman developed an eczema like rash all over her trunk and extremities that would get worse every time she had a violent bout of diarrhea. The skin is considered the 3rd lung of the body in Chinese medicine. This symptom developed 5 years after her initial bout of gastrointestinal distress. After ten years, she began to bleed copiously during her period, which lasted over two weeks. Initial blood tests had already indicated she was mildly anemic, but this massive blood loss rendered her immobile. Ironically, during this time, her large intestine dysfunction seemed to dissipate; however, as soon as the period would end, the violent diarrhea would return. At this point in her illness, the Spleen had become involved. Responsible for creating Blood/Qi and keeping things upright and in their proper place, it’s no wonder that when she finally got her diagnosis 15 years in the making, this was the most affected organ. (Note: One could even argue that the Spleen could have been the weakest organ overall, but I won’t complicate things for the reader) The cells of the uterus growing out of control outside of their proper place is demonstrative of Spleen weakness. The uncontrollable bleeding led to a massive loss of Qi that just couldn’t be replaced by her depleted system. The only solution, at that point, was to remove the uterus and large intestine to prevent the out of control cell growth from migrating elsewhere. While organ removal can have detrimental affects on the Spleen, it proved more harmful to keep the stagnation in there than to remove it. If I were this young woman, I would seek out an acupuncturist to help me keep my nervous system strong and balance the loss of the organs that were surgically removed. They would be able to recommend herbs and dietary changes to support her treatment. After watching this episode, it made me all the more fired up about Integrating Eastern and Western medicine. If East met West from the beginning, she and others like her would have been spared a lifetime of suffering. We would all have a better understanding of our body-mind relationship and keep the stigmatic tongue wagging at bay.

SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING:

http://www.dragonrises.edu/learning-opportunities/articles-books/

http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/

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Anger Management

Even the most balanced person in the world, when triggered, can completely lose it. Anger is a strong, uncomfortable emotional response to something or someone that has provoked you. It is how we psychologically interpret an offense, wrongdoing or denial that is often met with a desire to retaliate. It is our immediate response to stop a threatening behavior or situation that many psychologists believe has a primal function to ensure survival. However, in excess, anger can have many physical and mental consequences. Think of a pressure cooker. You can only let the steam inside build up for so long before the whole thing explodes.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…a pressure cooker meltdown in action.

For the last few weeks I have been functioning in a fog of anger resulting from an unfortunate series of events outside of my control. All attempts to go with the flow are challenged on a daily basis as I try to weather this Category 5 Super Cell ravaging my life. With my blood already boiling in its channels, add the 90 plus degree weather and humidity here in NYC, and I feel like I am being cooked from the inside out/outside in. Therefore, it is no surprise that my digestion, skin and sleep have all gone awry. In Chinese medicine, emotions and physical illness are closely tied. Anger causes excess heat in the body, so my feeling of being cooked is spot on. The emotion itself is tied into the Wood element, whose governing organs are the Liver and Gall Bladder per Chinese 5 Element Theory. Physiological functions aside, these organs function to drive us forward in life, set goals and get things done. Despite my best efforts though, I have been feeling like all my attempts at forward movement and reasoning are met by impenetrable brick walls that hit back. The buildup of anger causes an imbalance of excess manifesting in digestive dysfunction, headaches (especially behind the eyes, as is the case with a migraine), muscle tension and tendonitis especially in the pathways of the organs (lateral leg, flanks of the torso, shoulders and neck). These are just some defining symptoms for these organs, but as we all know, when one thing is out of whack, other areas of the body will be affected.

All the elements in Chinese 5 Element Theory have a generational and controlling/controller relationship. This means that each element and its organs have the capacity to nurture and be nurtured by other elements. They also have the ability to pull energy back from other elements and vice-versa as a sort of system of checks and balances to keep everything harmonious. In the case of Wood, the Liver and Gallbladder are nurturers of Fire (there’s the HEAT again) which is comprised of the Heart, Pericardium (the bodyguard of your Heart), Triple Energizer (your Immune system and temperature regulator) and Small Intestine (the almighty discerning organ of what should stay and what should be eliminated both in your body and in your life). So you see, if there is an imbalance in Wood, some of that excess is going to visit the child. The best way to address this would be to make the nurturer of Wood stronger, in order to suck some of the energy out. That would be the Water element, comprised of Bladder and Kidney. These meridians run from the head down the spine into the back of the legs and then up the interior legs starting from the middle of the sole of your foot all the way up to your clavicle. It’s a good amount of somatic topography to cover and has a major role in all our life functions. What do you need most if faced with adversity? A good strong back bone and inner resilience. What do you need if there is a FIRE a-brewing internally? A whole lot of WATER.

The excess of anger in Wood has the potential of over controlling the Earth element, which includes the Stomach and Spleen. Appetite and digestion would be affected, as I am seeing in myself. What is typical is a feeling of fullness which translates to a lack of appetite and a total aversion to hot food. In my case, despite the excess heat in my system, all my body craves is spice. This, I learned recently, is a huge no-no because it will only serve to feed the overheated beast. When in doubt, food should be lightly cooked and no extreme of temperatures should be entering one’s mouth. There are many “cooling” foods that aren’t necessarily cold. If anything, they are more water rich, which quells the fire and also detoxifies. Some examples are lemon, orange, watermelon, celery, Daikon (Chinese radish), kelp, tomato, chrysanthemum tea and seaweed. The Metal element consisting of Lung and Large Intestine are the controllers of Wood and are greatly affected by the buildup of heat, which rises. My normally clear complexion has seen some eruptions and with the skin being the 3rd Lung of the body, it is clear how the heat is trying to escape. Hello, inflammation! Large Intestine, the great eliminator of waste in the body, can’t do such a great job under these circumstances. Bouts of constipation and poop with undigested bits demonstrate this. Hence, why it is important to adjust your diet. And apparently, some of the biggest builders of heat in the body aside from spice are caffeine, certain vitamin B supplements, sugar, alcohol and adrenaline (stress hormone produced in times of high alert, kind of like now).

So what do I do with all this HEAT? Aside from the adjustments to my diet, I sought out some bodywork to bring my nervous system down. Two hours of point work and muscle release specific to the organs involved in my excess heat and I finally felt a still point in the madness. A day later, I was boiling again over yet another uncontrollable situation. In my mind I tried to go back to the still feeling I had when my practitioner’s hands came off of my head, but it was hard. There were moments during our work together, where he had me breathe with a deep long “oooooo” sound which tied into the release of my Large Intestine. I channeled that sound, thought of a song that I could sing under my breath as I walked the streets of NY and much later, at work between clients that would settle me down. And, it kind of worked. Sort of ironic that therapeutic touch and music, my two loves in life, were exactly what smoothed my feathers out.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES

“Between Heaven and Earth – A Guide to Chinese Medicine” by Harriet Beinfield, L.Ac. & Efrem Korngold, L.Ac. O.M.D (c) 1991 Ballantine/Wellspring

“Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies” by Leon Hammer, M.D. revised version (c) 2010 Eastland Press

http://www.pingminghealth.com/article/581/warming-and-cooling-characteristics-of-common-foods/

Jury rigged

One of the most valuable skills anyone can possess is the ability to temporarily fix things with whatever is available to you in the moment. There was a whole television series in the 80’s based on this skill, which I watched religiously. “MacGyver” was the perfect mixture of adventure and science to my young little mind and Richard Dean Anderson was so, so believable in his role. He cracked eggs from a chicken coup in South America over his car radiator to stop its leaking, so he could drive and escape the bad guys. Turned a coffin he was placed in, into a makeshift jet ski to escape “za Germans” — my hero!

MacGyver at work!

In classic American fashion, we use the term jerry rig to denote a patch job or temporary construction, which is incorrect. The proper term is jury rig, which is a nautical term stemming from makeshift masts and yards made in case of damage or the loss of the original mast. It’s a weak and temporary method; basically enough to help you steer your ship into the nearest port and get properly fixed. Same idea applies in everyday life. Jury rigged problems buy you time, but end up being a lot worse down the line if they aren’t addressed sooner than later.

In these precarious economic times, it’s understandable that jury rigging may be the only manner in which to address issues. However, keep in mind that a home is only as strong as its foundation. If the leg of your massage table is starting to come loose, it’s only a matter of time before the putty you used to secure it wears off and your client ends up on the floor. It may be worth investing in a new table. Believe it or not, there are affordable options out there, if you take the time to look. $108 dollars spent is better than a lawsuit. With respect to injury, trying to work through the pain of muscle spasms in your back by jury rigging your office chair is only going to get you out of work faster than if you take a personal day to get a massage, see the chiropractor and/or doctor to deal with it. Energetically speaking, if everything in your life is a patch job, you can never really move forward. Eastern theory indicates that the inability to think, plan and execute relates to the Liver and Gallbladder being out of balance.  They present with the following symptoms: muscular weakness in the limbs and back, irritability, sudden bursts of anger, migraines, indigestion, sinus issues and depression to name a few. For a more comprehensive list of symptoms, pick up a copy of Korngold’s “Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide To Chinese Medicine.” Acupuncture and Shiatsu massage both effectively address this type of imbalance and your practitioner can give you aftercare in the way of dietary modifications and stretches to support the work they have done. This is especially good if you cannot afford to do more than a few sessions. Life is too short and precious to be jury rigged. Do all that you can to permanently fix your problems, internally and externally.

The Energetics of Making Baby

This is an addendum to my previous post about Fertility Massage.

Keeping that bun in its oven is harder than most people think!

Chinese medicine teaches that in order for a woman to conceive and maintain a pregnancy, a combination of organs need to work in harmony. Any weakness in either one or all of these organs makes baby making all that much harder, if not impossible. However, unlike the fertility treatments of the Western medical world, the Eastern approach is much more cost effective, easily accessed and non-invasive. One of these approaches is the acupressure massage known as Shiatsu, which is performed by yours truly and a host of massage therapists in this hemisphere of the world.

Much like acupuncture, acupressure massage addresses specific points along meridians that form pathways of energy or Qi (Chi). These pathways correspond to twelve vital organs in the body, as defined by Chinese medicine. The organs, represented by their meridians, serve a particular physiological and spiritual function. Any state of disease or imbalance can be explained by either an excess or a deficiency. In order to understand how Shiatsu can help with fertility and beyond, here is a brief overview of the energetics of making baby.

One word – JING. This is your life force; the Qi that you have stored up from birth given to you by both parents. The organ responsible for storing this prenatal energy reserve is the Kidney. As we age, our JING begins to deplete naturally, but those who live hard and abuse their bodies deplete it faster. In general, any lifestyle or chronic condition that taxes your body, depletes your life force. When a person dies, the Chinese say it is because their JING has run out. Hence, when a woman has a depleted or weak JING, there is simply not enough to provide for the prenatal Qi necessary to conceive a baby. If she is able to conceive, JING is necessary to consolidate the pregnancy; therefore, the fertilized egg would have trouble planting itself in place.

Speaking of baby staying in place, the womb-home needs to be in tip top shape and position in order for the fetus to develop and grow those 9 months. The organ that is responsible for holding things in their proper form is the Spleen. The additional role of this organ, according to Chinese medicine, is to create blood. The walls of the womb are a dense network of bloody tissue (i.e. the placenta) which both cushions the fetus and feeds it by way of the umbilical chord. If the Spleen is weak, the womb and food source will be compromised making a miscarriage all that more likely.

While the baby develops physically, it is necessary for it to also do so spiritually. The baby’s consciousness comes from the Heart, the organ responsible for housing the spiritual soul. The Chinese believe that the soul comes into the body on the 81st day of life, which would be around the tail end of the 1st trimester. If we take Judeo-Christian debate out of this, essentially the first trimester is almost like a trial period; make it out of that third month and your risk of miscarriage drops significantly. I found that most women I know were reluctant to announce their pregnancies until they were out of their 1st trimester, so as not to “jinx” them. This mentality is rooted in medical fact. Miscarriage is the most common type of pregnancy loss, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) with most occurring within the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. (http://www.americanpregnancy.org)

Lastly, pregnancy can be very stressful on the body. Not only does blood and nourishment need to flow freely to the developing baby, but the musculo-skeletal system of the mother needs to be able to adapt to its growth. The Liver is the organ the Chinese say governs the muscles and sinews of the body. It regulates the flow of blood/Qi to wherever it is needed, as it is needed. The ever changing state that is pregnancy demands a lot of the Liver. Therefore, this organ needs to be kept strong. A difficult pregnancy (i.e. limited mobility, muscular insufficiency, structural deformities, etc.) and even more difficult delivery are usually associated with weakness in the Liver.

Unlike other forms of massage, Shiatsu is performed with the client clothed in comfortable attire that does not restrict movement. The work can occur on either a mat or a table, depending on the client’s comfort and needs. The main goal is to tonify or strengthen the above organs involved in conception, maintenance of pregnancy and the health of the mother. Should you have a history of infertility and/or chronic miscarriage, the Spleen and Kidney would be the main focus of treatment. Their pathways of energy run along the lower limbs. So does that of the Liver. To tonify, the therapist would likely employ slow, deep and broad pressure to these points along with various stretches to unblock any stuck energy. Of course, each session would be customized to the client based on a detailed assessment and re-evaluation post treatment. The price range for a Shiatsu session varies depending on where you live, but expect that most will be priced between $65 and $120 US for a 60 min session. If this seems like a lot, know that many practitioners provide packages at a discounted rate or sometimes even sliding scale. In addition, many schools of acupuncture and massage have student clinics where treatment is offered at a heavily discounted rate. There is an application process involved and sometimes there can be a waiting list, but once you are accepted into the clinic, the quality of treatment is held to a super high standard. Students have to keep detailed records and write treatment plans, all the while consulting with supervisors on client cases. This option is a great learning experience for them and a cost effective opportunity for you.

 

 

 

The skinny on Detox treatments

On almost every spa menu you encounter, there is at least one or more treatments offered that promise to detox the body. Often these treatments are also listed as “slimming.”  They run the gamut of simple to downright high tech in their descriptions and promises. In order to really understand how these treatments work, or don’t in some cases, it’s important to clearly define what toxicity is and how our bodies naturally deal with it.

The lymphatic system is your body’s sewage drainage system. It’s a complicated network of small vessels that run alongside your veins, ferrying fluid laden with cellular waste products and toxins into nodes that filter the fluid and eventually dumping into an enormous vessel that brings everything back into the heart for re-use. Any part of this network goes awry and your body gets backed up in its own toilet water. The physical repercussions of minor back ups are bloating and swelling in the extremities, usually caused by diet and lifestyle (i.e. too much salt and sitting). Major back ups can manifest in a condition known as lymphedema, most commonly occurring when lymph nodes have been removed or blocked by infection. The system fails in such a way that the extremity swells to incredible proportions. Often the skin around the area will begin to break down and get infected if the lymph fluid is not manually moved by highly trained professionals specializing in a form of massage called MLD . Really scary. Really toxic. See below for a tame example:

A typical case of Lymphedema

Detoxification treatments deal with the minor backups. In Chinese medicine, the skin is referred to as the third Lung, as it is a living breathing organ, drawing in Qi (energy) from the air through its pores. Issues with one’s skin were often indicators of a systemic condition that would be treated with tonifying, detoxifying herbs and heat. In keeping with this theory of outside manifests inside, detoxification treatments are applied to the skin in order to draw out internal toxicity. The application of “sea” mud or clay is used to assist in this process. What is interesting about these mineral rich organic compounds is that they have a negative charge. To spare you all the chemistry lesson on the quick, toxins including viruses and other impurities have a positive ionic charge. The negative attracts the positive up to the surface. When they meet, a reaction takes place that neutralizes the toxin. Tingling of the skin and warmth are byproducts of this reaction. Apparently the medicinal property of clay/mud has been known since the time of the ancient Egyptians and even prior. Clay was used by the ancients as an anti-inflammatory/anti-septic both topically and internally, where it had a laxative affect on the GI tract. It was also found that the presence of clay chokes the air out of Candida (yeast infections) and dries out boils, acne and other skin eruptions. Most spa treatments involving a mud or clay application are followed by a wrap in some kind of heat sealing foil, which promotes sweating. Sweat combined with the ionic neutralization of toxins really double teams the release of impurities for what can be a more thorough detox through the skin. There is a nominal amount of water weight lost from the detox wrap, which is where the “slimming” effect comes into play, but you will need to hydrate in order to replace lost electrolytes after the treatment. Will your skin feel taut and brighter? Yes, temporarily. Will you need to do this every week? Depends on your lifestyle. I believe a clay/mud wrap detox can be done once every 6 weeks, much like a facial, to help eliminate impurities if you actively upkeep your system between treatments. Hydration, exercise and a diet rich with enzymes from fresh fruits and vegetables are what I would suggest to keep things on track. If you know you are the type that is prone to excess (too much of anything is never a good thing), perhaps the detox should be done more often; however the more you do on your own to restore balance to your body and keep the drainage system working well, the more effective these treatments will be for you.

Here are the things to be wary of when choosing a Detox or Slimming Treatment:

  • Promises of ridding your body of fat/cellulite: You are born with a certain amount of fat cells that can get bigger if you gain weight or shrink in size when you lose. They can pucker close to the surface of the skin, which is what we call cellulite, with the loss of collagen associated with age and/or lack of muscle tone. Only liposuction, an invasive treatment performed by a surgeon, removes fat cells. At best, the look of the puckering might be smoothed out by the drawing up and out of fluids in the spaces between the cells. Also, there may be a small reduction in weight, which we know is water loss, that can make the client feel lighter and tighter, but only temporarily….
  • Promises of  permanence: Any loss of inches, weight and/or tightness of the body is only temporary. Once you drink or eat anything post treatment, the “weight” will be back on. Diet, proper hydration and exercise can build up muscle tone  and shrink fat cells for a permanent result, if maintained.
  • Any detox treatment that encourages the purchase of supplements and/or diet packs: There is a commercial incentive here. They are selling the product more so than the detox. There are plenty of dubious supplements on the market that are not subject to FDA regulation for fat burning, weight loss and detoxification. If you have such an interest in the internal detox, consult a nutritionist or Chinese herbalist who will assess your diet and lifestyle in order to recommend what is best for your individual systemic needs.
  • Detox treatments that involve anything other than a clay/mud application: Some places will advertise applications of coffee, chocolate, honey and herbs, etc. None of these have the ionic relationship that the mineral clay/mud has with impurities; therefore, scientifically speaking, how can they effectively detox? They may feel nice, even luxurious, when rubbed onto the skin, but actually pulling toxins and water out? Not so good.