The 8 Branches of Chinese Medicine

The 8 Branches of Chinese Medicine

By Blake Storey

We have a lot of people come into our clinic seeking acupuncture.  I get it.  Acupuncture is a buzzword----something people can easily pop into a search engine and find results.  But acupuncture--at least in my mind--does not equal Chinese medicine--and I think that this popular assumption demeans the power of this traditional healing methodology.  It is our responsibility as practitioners to educate our patients on all 8 branches of Chinese medicine.  This article is intended to give a summary of each branch and how they can be implemented in your daily life and medical practice to attain better results and more harmonious living.

 

Meditation

There is an abundance of excellent research out there proving the effectiveness of meditation practices to reduce stress, inflammation, and disease and enhance performance, happiness, and overall well-being.  However, meditation suffers from a similar problem as acupuncture that I mentioned above.  It has become a buzzword that functions as a stand-in for a much larger underbelly of theoretical and practical knowledge.  There are many different lineages of meditation, many different techniques, many different prescriptions. and many different outcomes.  The type of meditation that works, is the one that you will do on a daily basis. PERIOD. The minimum effective dose for meditation is surprisingly small--just 5-10 minutes--but it must be done daily to have an impact.  There are 3 forms of meditation that I personally practice and would recommend to anyone.  The first is a daily gratitude journal--writing down 1-5 things, relationships, opportunities, etc. that you are grateful to have in your life.  The second is a seated meditation that begins with relaxing the body and incorporates some form of structured breath-work (such as box breathing or exhaling twice as long as inhaling).  The last step is the period of time that you take to observe your thoughts and emotions as they enter your consciousness and extend compassion to yourself and others.  Seek to find the witness position, in which you can watch your thoughts without directly acting on them.  If you get distracted or anxious simply repeat, "I am loving awareness and I send compassion to myself and all things." 

 

Movement

Movement is so important that it might as well be called Vitamin M.    Sitting still for extended periods on a regular basis not only leads to shorter hip flexors, but also to shorter lives.  Our bodies are meant to move and, unfortunately, the conveniences of our modernity have made most moving obsolete--we no longer have to move our bodies to make our living, travel distances, or gather food (going to the grocery store doesn't count, unless you walk or bike there).  When we think of the architypal healthy person, they are either athletes, farmers  or centurians who still walk everywhere.  This brings up my next point.  A healthy movement practice should be an all day thing, not just that bout of exercise relegated to the 45 free minutes that we happen to have that day.  Moving continuously throughout our day is best safeguard against stiff joints, weak muscles, and the plethora of metabolic diseases that come from sitting.  So what does a day full of moving look like you may ask?  To start to form your answer, imagine that you are a 5 year-old, before you were forced to go to school and sit.  You would be standing, squatting, wiggling, fidgeting, etc. all day, and when you weren't you would be resting.  Taking that mentality into the adult world may seem like a challenge, but it doesn't have to be.  Get a standing desk, take regular walking breaks, answer your phone while walking, squat to pick random things up, stand on one leg, take the stairs, bike or walk to work, and of course work in about an hour each day for strength and conditioning, like yoga, calisthenics, etc.  Brief bouts of high intensity exercise are very beneficial for overall health, but only in the context of low level, daily movement.  Chinese medicine incorporates therapeutic practices like qigong and tai chi that are frequently prescribed to enhance the patient's recovery, and when done regularly they also prevent disease.  Don't make excuses, get moving!

 

Nutrition

Listen here all you vegans, paleo nuts, carnivores, etc. There is no one correct human diet.  Only the diet that is correct for you.  The body is capable of adapting to a variety of different food inputs (within reason). New evidence in the fields of genetics and microbiology is pointing to the importance of customizing our diet to work better with both our genes and our gut microbiome.  As long as you are satisfying your body/microbiome necessities with appropriate amounts amino acids, water, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, there is a vast landscape of food varieties to explore.  That being said, not all food choices are created equal.  Nutrient bio-availability is the name of the game when it comes to eating well and living a long time.  Eating is an intrinsically catabolic (meaning breaking down) activity for the body and can leave a lot of inflammation in its wake if we are not careful.  To reduce this potential damage of this process, be sure you are consuming the cleanest sources of food (organic produce, grass-fed animals, wild caught fish, etc.) and incorporating antioxidant rich plants and spices into your meals (try to eat as many different colorful foods as possible).  Avoid simple sugars and processed carbohydrates and fats, which hide in pretty much everything that comes packaged in a box.  Stick with whole ingredients and also consider forgoing large quantities of dairy and alcohol.  On that note, forgoing food for a while (also known as fasting) has been shown to be hugely beneficial for our cellular metabolism and longevity.  I personally only eat between noon and 8pm, fast for 24 hrs once a week, and work in a 5 day fast every 3 months.  (Disclaimer: be sure to consult a health professional before you start any fasting regimen, as there are more variables to consider than you may imagine.)

 

Massage

In my Chinese medicine program, before we were allowed to insert needles into people, we were first taught how to interact with our patients through the time-honored traditions of Asian body work.  We primarily learned Shiatsu and Tui Na, while also incorporating fire cupping and guasha.  This allowed us to form a solid base of understanding for the landscape of the human body and begin to apply treatment methodologies without needing to know about needling techniques.  One of our teachers taught us that needles are just extensions of our hands and fingers, not replacements for them.  This perspective emphasizes the importance of palpation as both a diagnostic and treatment tool, and most of my acupuncture treatments begin with feeling for the most tender or reactive points.  Those are usually the most powerful ones in my experience.  The power of massage to relax the body and directly move blood and qi cannot be overestimated.   For maintenance, I would recommend some form of body work every two weeks.  For more serious illness patterns, and especially in the elderly, I would recommend once or twice per week.

 

Cosmology

This refers to the study of the ancient Chinese texts, namely the I Ching and the Tao Te Ching.  Both are pictographic representations of elemental natural truths about humanity and the universe.  They have been translated into many different languages; however, any translation will create distortion, so the best way to study them is to learn to read the original pictograms.  In lieu of that, the interpretations can be quite useful for our purposes here.  I use a translation of the I Ching by Carrol Anthony and a translation of the Tao Te Ching by Brian Walker.  The way to use these texts can vary greatly, but what I personally practice and recommend is a daily or weekly reading.  In the case of the I Ching you begin with a question in mind and then use coins or sticks to randomly pick the proper passages to read.  As this is a bit more tedious than most Westerners have patience for, I would just suggest you pick one reading and focus on its message for the rest of the day/week.  The beauty of these texts is that they are philosophical rather than religious in nature, meaning they can be applied outside the context of our encultured prejudices and backgrounds.  They speak to the process of becoming more compassionate, enlightened, and happy beings, rather than dwelling on the attainment of those states.  They share a similar ideology to Greek/Roman Stoicism and can often be mistaken for being detached or fatalistic, but that is only a half-baked interpretation at best.  Detachment from the ego and its desire for attaining fixed states (such as success, achievement, fame, fortune, etc) is precisely the method for actually attaining happiness and joy.  Cosmology goes very well with the practices of meditation, and I really couldn't imagine one without the other.  

 

Feng Shui

Feng Shui has become fairly commonplace in the Western vernacular.  The literal translation is wind  water and it refers to the arrangement of our immediate environment to promote health and wealth.  It applies to more than just  not living too close to a graveyard or setting up your bedroom so that your bed isn't in the way of the door.  The art/science of Feng Shui actually refers to a copious litany of recordings taken over millennia of which minutia of house and village layouts corresponded with which event factors (good and bad).  Often times these would be more correlative in nature and not necessarily causative, but they still represent thousands of years of recorded observations which would be a little silly to call insignificant.  And just like any traditional form of knowledge, the most useful bits tended to get passed on generation to generation, until we are left with empirically accurate-yet difficult to explain-practices that just seem to work (see Acupuncture section below).  The way that I choose to view Feng Shui, though, is a bit more straight forward and applies to a much broader concept of designing for success.  In other words, make your environment support your goals.  If you want to get more daily exercise move closer to work and either bike or walk; if you want to do less sitting at work, get a standing desk; if you want to be more relaxed, listen to relaxing music; if you want to be more generous/wealthy/healthy, surround yourself with books and people who exemplify these characteristics.  The idea of faking it until you make it applies to how you arrange your wardrobe, your house and your personal life.

 

Herbology

The Chinese consider herbs to be different from food insomuch as they are much stronger in action and taste.  The Chinese Materia Medica consists of over 350 different substances, mainly plant parts, but also animal parts and various minerals, and it breaks each down into specific tastes (bitter, sweet, salty, astringent, bland and aromatic), temperature profiles, and acupuncture channels that they enter.  Again these connections were not handed down on golden tablets, but rather came as a result of millennia of careful observation of herbs and their effects on the body.  Unfortunately, humans are flawed creatures and he Chinese made a few very critical mistakes largely due to cultural attitudes about certain herbs and longevity/virility.  I won't get into too much detail here (you can research more on your own), but lets just say the ancient Chinese consumed a lot more mercury, lead, human urine, and rhino penis than I think was necessary to health.  All that being said, our culture is not without its own faults of abusing substances.  Just consider the current opioid epidemic, or the rampant alcoholism or toxic load from environmental pollutants that we currently deal with.  Again, humans are far from perfect.  The most useful piece of information from the Materia Medica is how the herbs interact and enhance each other to treat a wide variety of modern diseases.  They have a much broader range of action than pharmaceuticals or plant extracts, which usually just contain one or two compounds, and because of this they are much safer to use while still being effective.  The main difference is that they are usually not stand alone treatments, and per the theme of this entire article, must be combined with other therapies and lifestyle changes to have the maximum benefit.  I tend to use herbs that are adaptagenic--adjusting to the body's natural equilibrium as need--with the occasional use of herbs that will have definite effects one direction or the other.  This way of prescribing helps the body to manage its own process of disease recovery.  Herbal remedies are far underutilized in our Western culture in a large part because patients don't seek herbal treatment soon enough and/or look for quick pharmaceutical answers to symptoms rather than seeing the symptoms as signs that the body is healing.  A great example of what I mean is the use of NSAIDs to chronically suppress pain or headaches.  The pain is a signal to the body and brain that there is a deeper issue that needs to be resolved, and by covering it up with an NSAID we are putting a muffler on the feedback system.  A more mature approach would be to take an inflammation reducing herbal formula, pursue  acupuncture/body work, clean up one's diet, and correct one's movement patterns.

 

Acupuncture and Moxabustion

Finally, we circle back to where this whole discussion began.  Acupuncture is great.  Don't get me wrong.  But have we ever asked why it is great (both as patients and practitioners)?  The list of explanations is quite exhaustive and range from placebo to increased blood flow to the complex cycling of qi in the extraordinary vessels.  The truth is that all of those explanations are correct and that it doesn't matter which one you believe.  It actually doesn't even matter if you believe acupuncture works at all--you can still get benefit from getting treated.   Simply the act of acupuncture can produce positive effects independent of the patient's thoughts on the subject.  Conversely, acupuncture can also have neutral effects and deleterious effects--usually caused from inexperienced needling or a patient's idiosyncratic neural wiring and attitude.  Luckily, these neutral/negative effects are self-correcting when viewed in a more comprehensive view of Chinese medicine--one such example is accelerated healing after a treatment which initially exacerbated the symptoms temporarily.  Again, acupuncture is just a tool in a much broader view of the human body and health.  The points themselves are time-tested to produce results.  Moxabustion (which I am grouping with acupuncture) has been scientifically shown to increase white blood cell count and has a pronounced physical heating effect on the tissue that it used on.  Heat brings more blood and thus more healing.  There have been countless books written on the subject of acupuncture and moxabustion, so I don't feel like I need to go into great detail on how they work.  What is my philosophy towards administering acupuncture/moxabustion? Simple.  Be safe with techniques and follow some repeatable and testable format for treatment.  The rest is kind of like watching a good magic trick.  Sit back, get out of the way, and let it work.

 

Conclusion

The body of traditional Chinese medicine is vast.  As patients and practitioners we should do ourselves the service of learning about the diversity of its many branches.  I often use the metaphor of a potted plant to describe holistic medicine to my patients.  In order for it to thrive, we need more than just the plant and the pot.  We need to provide rich soil, appropriate sunlight, and clean water.  The more variables of health that we can account for, the more resilient we will be to disease.  Use the power of synergy to its maximum advantage and don't lose the forest for the trees.  Become more than just an acupuncturist.  Become a well-rounded healer.  Become a well-rounded human.

 

Invest in Your Health

Happy 2017 everyone!

The turn of the year is historically and symbolically considered a time of reflection and new goal setting.  An opportunity to get your life back in order--to start that exercise program, eat better, sleep more, stop smoking, etc.  I am all for new year resolutions, but let’s take a serious look at the numbers.  48% of Americans make resolutions each January 1st, yet only 8% ever see them through.  So what happened to the other 40%, and more importantly, if you made resolutions, how did you avoid dropping out?

 

As a new business owner, I (Blake) have spent the better part of 2016 deeply immersed in the world of personal and business finance, and it has given me many insights into how resources are spent and how they mature.  I thought it would be an interesting topic to extend some of the more useful investing ideas towards how we can better invest in our health.  Here goes nothing!

Set Goals

Resolutions are forceless if they aren’t backed up by goals and, more specifically, if they don’t follow the S.M.A.R.T. principle of effective goal setting.  That means they must be Specific (I want to lose 30 pounds by July 1st, not I want to lose weight), Measurable (something you can put a number on, not an unquantifiable feeling), Achievable (set realistic goals that are just at the edge of your imagination but not so far beyond that you will be disappointed--when in doubt undershoot a little bit rather than overshoot because you can always make a new goal once you have achieved the old one), Relevant (make the goal relevant to something important in your life so you will be motivated to achieve it--I want to lose 30 pounds so that I will feel great in my swimsuit), and Time-Bound (this is the accountability part, and it usually works better if you have a few smaller deadlines built in--5 pounds by month 1, 10 pounds by month 2, etc.)

Make a Plan

I heard a great quote recently--”those who don’t make a plan, plan to fail.”  If you don’t take the time to invest in a well thought out plan for your health, then it’s like betting on yourself to fail.  Following the S.M.A.R.T. principle, take enough time out of this week (YES, THIS WEEK) to sit down with a pencil and paper and plot your course.  If you put this off, it won’t get done, and the only person you can blame is yourself.  If you need help drawing up a plan of action, just ask a friend or family member that you find to be driven or motivated.  If that’s not useful, find a healthcare practitioner whom you trust to help you plan.  We are paid professionals and won’t waste your time setting you up for failure.  And what exactly will that plan look like?

 

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

We’ve all heard the tortoise vs. hare parable.  I have found it to be true about 99% of the time.  Whether you are spending your money, or embarking on new health changes, consistency is way more important and reliable than intensity.  Starting an intensive exercise or demanding diet with no prior conditioning or discipline is almost always guaranteed to fail.  It is just a simple fact of human nature.  A far more sustainable plan is to make small changes which will add up over time, becoming the foundation for much greater changes down the road.  For example, consider starting your better health resolution by simply drinking the recommended daily amount of water each day (which, by the way, is somewhere between 2.7 and 3.7 liters).  Once you can easily do this task, you are ready to conquer the next one and will have more energy, drive, and hydrated tissue to do so.

 

Choose Your Battles, Win the War

The 80:20 rule of financial investing applies beautifully to health investing.  It means that your time is best spent on the 20% of improvements that yield 80% or more of your total gains.  In other words, what are the smallest things you can change to get you the greatest results?  For example, you want to lose weight but know that you have an uncontrollable sweet tooth that keeps you craving sugar and storing body fat.  This sweet-tooth, then, should be your primary target.  You can then research simple ways to start tackling this beast and begin the slow and steady race.  Proper hydration, by the way, is a simple starting point.  After the simplest task is complete, you can start on the next one--eating more fiber, protein, and good fats (which will help your blood sugar from crashing and creating cravings in the first place) or getting one more hour of sleep each night (which will improve your metabolism), whatever.  This will obviously require some research into your life and habits.  If you have trouble being honest with yourself, getting a friend or paid professional to point out some areas is advised.  

Keep the Ball Rolling

Healthy living is all about momentum.  The happiest and most successful people are not the ones who have the most money or the best genetics.  They are the ones who can take the worst situations and keep moving forward.  As a species, we are hard-wired for optimism.  It is what gets us out of bed each morning and looking for answers as to how to live a better life.  If you are reading this now, you are part of this optimism.  Simple and daily practices like I discussed above are the tried and true way to get the ball in motion and keep it in motion.  Sure, it will take a little effort to get the wave in motion (especially if it hasn’t moved in a while), but once it is moving, there is nothing that can stop it.  In time, you will reach your own goals and inspire those around you to do the same.  I wish you luck and support on this journey!

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got allergies?

 It's that time of year again--Spring allergy season--and like countless Americans, if you experience a worsening of any of the following symptoms this time of year:

 

-sneezing,

-stuffy nose,

-sinus pressure,

-headaches,

-itchy and/or red eyes,

-sore throat,

-clogged ears,

-skin rash or itching,

-foggy brain,

-Joint pain,

-asthma or difficulty breathing,

-fatigue,

 

...then you might just have seasonal allergies.  

 

What causes allergies in the first place?

 

Allergies are not caused by some foreign bacteria or virus that we catch or pollen attacking our bodies (although it may feel that way sometimes).  The truth is, an allergy is actually an over-reactive state of our own immune system.  Those swollen sinuses, buckets of buggers, and itches everywhere are our own body's reaction to otherwise harmless external stimulants (called allergens).  That's right...your own body is making you miserable.

 

Why is this happening?

 

The answer is quite simple.  Your body is in a state of stress, which is disrupting how the immune system is supposed to normally function.  Consider this example: Imagine a busy intersection in a city.  When operating normally, cars move to and fro in a ordered manner.  Now imagine what would happen if the stoplights all broke...utter chaos.  That is the effect that stress can have on our immune system. Cortisol, our body's #1 stress hormone, suppresses our immune system and can cause major immune dysfunction.  Chronic stress and leaky gut (which we will talk about in a sec) are at the root of why your body is behaving the way it is.

 

Why treat symptoms, when you can treat their source?

 

The typical Western approach to allergies focuses on reducing symptoms using a combination of anti-histamines and decongestants, and also suppressing the immune system using steroids or other immuno-suppressant drugs.  The Western model does not look at the root cause of the allergies--a malfunctioning immune system.  In fact, in attempting to suppress the immune system, Western treatment is pouring more gasoline onto the fire.  Remember our friend cortisol from before?  These steroidal medicines are all derived from cortisol, and like the other immuno-suppressant drugs, cause more immune disruption.  So what's the solution you may ask?  Fix the stoplight (the immune system)!!!!

 

It starts in the gut.

 

 

The first line of defense for our immune response is in our gut lining and our skin.  These are the barriers that all things (including allergens) must cross in order to enter our body.  Chances are that if you are suffering from allergies you have a compromised gut lining, which comes from years of eating a less-than-optimal diet.  This is one of the reasons why allergies my take a while, years even, to develop.  The gut lining is slowly being compromised and then one day the dam breaks loose.  The typical American diet is chock full of foods, chemicals and compounds that cause gut inflammation.  This inflammation translates directly into immune system malfunction.  One need only search "Leaky Gut" to learn more on this.  The good news is that the gut can be healed, and it heals quickly.

 

If you can eliminate, or significantly cut down on, the following list of highly-inflammatory foods, you should see dramatic results (almost immediately) in your allergy symptoms:

 

-sugar (including soft-drinks and juices)

-refined carbohydrates (white bread, chips, white rice, etc.)

-coffee

-alcohol

-dairy

 

...but why stop there?

 

The bigger picture.

 

 

While cleaning up our diets is a crucial component in reducing allergy symptoms, it is just a piece in the much larger picture of stress reduction and holistic health management.  Better health is a commitment--a process, not a magic pill--to proper nutrition, sleep and exercise.  Here at Chattanooga Holistic Medicine we are equipped to help guide you along this process, as a team.   Schedule an appointment today and discover the better, healthier life that awaits you. 

 

 

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