Giagia was a Chinese Doctor…

Among all the old world wisdom my giagia (Greek for grandmother) imparted on me, I have this one distinct memory of her admonishing me for something rooted in traditional Chinese Medicine. We were in Greece, specifically in the village of my mother’s childhood home, in the mid-1990’s. I was about 15 years old and had just returned from a full day at the beach. I sat on this cement block that was in the yard to wait for a late lunch to be prepared. Suddenly, giagia stormed at me, with dish towel flailing, screaming to get off the cement. I hadn’t a clue why, but obeyed immediately. Of course, when I went to sit on a rug near the front door, more screaming and flailing ensued. I gave up and just stood. During lunch, when she was calmer, she explained that sitting on stone, whether it be cement, marble or a rock in the front yard, could make a woman lose her period and her fertility. She explained that the chill of the stone would penetrate my bum up into my girly parts and then, the rest of the body.  She proceeded to detail a story in which she and another friend had gotten “colds” in their privates and ended up losing their periods for more than a year,  all because they leaned and sat on stone. Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat????? I took it in politely, but it sounded like an old wives tale woven to prevent me from looking unladylike or something etiquette oriented.

I don’t think this dog has anything to worry about!
(Original URL: http://jdombstravels.com/dogs-santorini/)

Fast forward fifteen years later to the Eastern portion of my studies in Massage. Suddenly, giagia’s tale didn’t sound as far fetched. I learned that things like “wind” and “cold” can penetrate the body at key points. One of the popular ones is GV14, a point at the C7 level of your cervical vertebrae or in layman’s, the bony bump at the base of your neck where it meets your upper back. Think about when an insidious draft hits the back of your neck and all of a sudden, you can’t move or turn your head. I can’t tell you how many clients come in with a so-called “crick” thinking that they slept funny. After a few minutes of creating some “heat” in the area, the crick always dissipates. Through conversation, I learn that they slept with either a window open or a fan facing them or if it’s in summer, the AC is to blame. The GV14 point is the meeting area of all the YANG meridians in the body. YANG being defensive energy, it makes sense that this is where pathogens, fevers and excess heat are expelled. This is also the vulnerable point for exterior conditions, like say a chill to invite itself in and wreak havoc. And just so we are clear, when the Chinese speak of “wind” they mean any pernicious influence getting into the body and doing its sneaky damage. Can you hear that authoritative voice yelling at you to wear a scarf before you go outside? That strip of cloth covers GV14 ever so perfectly. Backing up those matriarchal commands is many an acupuncture text noting that the GV14 point should be kept warm and supple at all times.

I was super curious to see if she was spot on about the way cold penetrates one’s privates . The body itself is separated into three burners, each with their own ideal climate and temperature to ensure proper function. The lower burner is where you would find the reproductive and alimentary systems of the body. It is considered a swampy environment i.e. damp and warm, but this kind of environment has a tendency to fester and combine with pathogenic factors like, oh…say COLD or heat, which are generated by both internal and EXTERNAL factors. In the case of cold, the factors are almost always from external exposure; therefore, the possibility of prolonged sitting on stone conducting cold into the “drainage ditch” that is the lower burner is a very likely one. Let’s proceed. With respect to the genitalia and reproductive function, COLD mixed with dampness really taxes the Kidney YANG. The Kidneys have a special role in fertility, as I had noted in my previous posts on baby making. It houses the JING or life force of the parent. It is one part of the pre-natal Qi necessary to conceive a baby. If the mother’s JING is weak and/or her Kidneys taxed, it will be all that much more difficult to conceive and things like miscarriage or spontaneous abortion are very likely to occur. Excessive dampness in general manifests symptoms in women like vaginal discharge and painful, copious periods. Mixed with the pathogenic factor of heat and there is burning, itching and excess. Mixed with the pathogenic factor of COLD and things stagnate, congeal in the environment and make everything heavy and static. Blood stasis equals a loss of one’s period, known as amenorrhea or extremely painful periods; i.e. dysmenorrhea.

Thinking back to my giagia’s cautionary tale, you would think that she had access to some Traditional Chinese Medical text. What supposedly had happened to her and her friend after sitting and leaning on stones reads like an invasion of damp-COLD in their lower burners. Ironically enough, the manner in which she got her period to come back was by drinking Cinnamon and clove tea. A popular herbal treatment for clearing COLD is the use of cinnamon bark, which has a warming affect internally. Well, then. The fifteen year old skeptic in me has been silenced. My giagia must have been a Chinese Doctor in some former life. God rest her incredibly wise little 4′ foot 9″ soul.

Additional Sources:

http://www.yinyanghouse.com/acupuncturepoints

http://www.acupuncture.com/newsletters/m_aug07/m_dec03/main2.htm

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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/