Traditional Chinese Medicine and You

Traditional Chinese Medicine and You

Traditional Chinese Medicine and You

How can a 5000 year old system of medicine have any relevance in today’s modern world? What could it possibly offer to a population that depends on a conventional medical model that bases everything on the facts presented by science? Every syndrome, every pain, every discomfort must be quantified and measured, must fit into certain parameters before a diagnosis can be determined. Based on the diagnosis, a regimen of scientifically proven and extensively tested treatments is then instituted and the results then quantified and measured yet again to determine how well a patient is responding.

Our western medical model excels in its scientific knowledge. Medical research has given us more and more treatment options in all areas. Stem cell research is changing the way our most devastating diseases will be treated in the near future. In just the last decade, there have been exciting discoveries in the treatment of some cancers, prolonging survival by years, not just months. But … the focus is on sickness, not health. There are new medications being rapidly approved by the FDA, but some come with devastating side effects. We only need to listen to the end of any pharmaceutical TV ad or read the numerous magazine advertisements to understand the risk factors associated with certain medication. It is also not unusual to hear that many patients are being treated with yet another medication to treat the side effects of the first medication. The end result is a patient taking multiple medications without knowing which symptom is disease related and which is side-effect related.

As a nurse, I do have faith in western medicine. As a practitioner of holistic nursing, with a foundation in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I believe that when the philosophy and principles of both eastern and western medicine are integrated, we have a greater understanding of the human body.

Sounds Familiar

The following is a scenario that I am sure is very familiar and one that most of us have experienced at some point:

When you seek out your primary practitioner with specific symptoms, invariably there will be an examination followed by a battery of tests to determine what is going on. A review of the results will hopefully lead your primary in a specific direction so that you can be referred to the appropriate specialist. You can almost feel relieved that “something” has been discovered to explain your symptoms.

But, what if you are presenting with vague, but uncomfortable or persistent symptoms? You go through all the tests, the scans and the physical examinations, but there’s nothing wrong with you. On paper you are in tip-top shape. After a while, you may begin to feel that you are crazy or maybe a hypochondriac … that this is all in your head. TCM is proficient in taking those vague physical symptoms and the state of your emotions to determine specific patterns of disharmony. Because TCM looks at imbalances in the energy system, these vague symptoms create a blueprint that enables the practitioner to identify the specific nature of these imbalances.

TCM approaches a patient differently. TCM theory is rooted in the belief that the person is a completely integrated organism. It consists of a very intricate energy system that flows through defined pathways, both superficially and deep within the organs, bringing vital Qi (pronounced Chee) throughout the body.  There are 6 major energy network pairs that are mutually dependent and mutually nurturing to each other. Each paired energy network has a specific mental and emotional quality as well as specific functions that not only incorporate the Western definition of the organ, but expands upon the functions of that particular energy.

TCM does not separate the mind and emotions from the physical body. In fact, it incorporates the belief that our emotions play a significant role in our physical health, and the state of our physical health can have a positive or negative effect on our emotions.

An Energy 101 Lesson

I mentioned energy pairs and their functions, as well as a relationship with specific emotions. Let’s take the Stomach and Spleen energy pair. The function of the Stomach energy is very much the same as that of Western medicine. It is responsible for receiving food that has been chewed in the mouth and passed down through the esophagus into stomach where the stomach acids further break down the food. The remainder or dregs are then passed into the Small Intestine … nothing new here. Here comes the TCM perspective: it is the breaking down of food that enables the Spleen energy to extract the essence, the energy of the food. This essence is then transformed into the different forms of energy needed to create blood, build the flesh of our muscles and hold our organs in place, to name a few. It is also transported in these various forms to other parts of the body.

As I stated before, in TCM the mind and emotions are not separate entities. In the case of the Stomach/Spleen network, this energy is associated with worry and overthinking. When the Stomach and Spleen energy is deficient, we begin to feel tired, especially in the morning or after we eat. This happens because the creation of energy is impaired. Have you ever used the phrase “my stomach is tied up in knots” when you are worried about something? Are your thoughts racing and your mind always on high alert? Overthinking!  Each energy network also has an associated taste. The taste of the Stomach and Spleen energy is sweet. Do you find yourself craving sugar? Is your appetite not as good as it could be or are you ravenously hungry? Each and every one of these symptoms will lead a practitioner to determine what your particular imbalance(s) is and then devise a plan of care to address the issues.

The treatment may include Amma™ massage, appropriate herbs, hypnosis, or a referral for acupuncture, counseling or psychotherapy, even a medical professional. Nutritional recommendations are a must. (Think about it … the food we eat has energy. What has more energy … fresh vegetables or a Slurpie?) The course of treatment focuses on the balance and integration of mind, body and spirit. It incorporates treating the whole of the patient, not just the physically affected parts. This is just a small example of how TCM practitioners view their patients.

Western medicine can tell you what has happened. Eastern medicine can tell you why symptoms are happening. More importantly, the imbalance(s) can be addressed when the symptoms are still in the beginning stages and more easily resolved. Even with all the advances of our current medical model, the way patients are treated has become more and more fragmented. There is a specialist for every part of the human body. While this enables the specialist to target their particular specialty, it often leads doctors to a more narrow scope of thinking.

Inclusive, Not Exclusive

Today’s medical model has made practicing medicine very challenging. Individual medical practices are being swallowed up by large profit-motivated corporations. The time constraints placed on physicians, which enables them to see a greater number of patients per day, does not allow for the flexibility needed to fully address their patients’ individual needs. Furthermore, because each patient has a multitude of specialists, there is usually little communication between practitioners and rarely any one physician overseeing the coordination of patient care. It can be compared to an orchestra without a conductor. While everyone may be playing their particular instrument beautifully, there is no coordination of the music and it sounds discordant and disconnected. As far as a patient goes, it is easy to lose sight of that patient as the sum of all his parts.

I have great respect for both Eastern and Western medicine. That said, it shouldn’t be an “either or” choice, but an integrative approach that is inclusive, not exclusive. I envision a time when our medical system changes from a “sickness maintenance” focus to one that promotes prevention, education and early intervention to dramatically change our outcome to one of optimal health and well-being. There would be an interdisciplinary approach where all the practitioners involved in an individual’s care would be communicating and conferring under the leadership of the primary provider. Preventive care would be the cornerstone of the plan, not the afterthought. In the long run, it is this system of medicine that will significantly reduce the cost of health care while ensuring that everyone has access to this new integrative medical model.

Start Your Engine – What Kind of Car Are You?

Start Your Engine – What Kind of Car Are You?

In my younger days, I once drove a blue car fondly named Yoda the Toyota … a noble but ancient vehicle that for the longest time just kept running, defying all the odds! And I should add here, despite all the neglect as well. The Force was definitely strong in Yoda! But even Yoda had its limits and finally succumbed to the Dark Side! With age comes Wisdom and with that, not only a better car, but better care.

We choose our car for reasons as individual as we are. Of course, we want a car that is dependable. Its main purpose is to get us from point A to point B and, everywhere else in between, in one piece. We trust in our car to do its job and for that to happen, care and maintenance is essential. Oh sure, we try to keep our car looking its very best. Maybe it hits the car wash once a week … gets all spiffed up and shiny inside and out. Who wouldn’t want a nice looking car to drive around in?

But, it’s the inside workings that makes all the difference. Would you expect your car to run without gas? Or fill up at a station where the gas gets watered down? Never! Would you forget to have the oil changed? Check the brakes? Miss an inspection? Not likely! How about driving around on bald tires? Of course not! That would be irresponsible!

So what’s my point? Just this … we take better care of our cars than we do our own bodies! It’s the truth! Do you take your body out for a spin like your car? When was the last time you spent an enjoyable hour outside in the fresh air and sunshine? Do you think about nutrition? What kind of fuel are you filling up on? How would you answer the following questions? This is not a test … this is between you and, well … you. I challenge you to answer with complete honesty:

  • Have you ever skipped breakfast?
  • Do you eat at a fast food restaurant or deli more than once a week?
  • Does your vegetable intake consist mostly of corn and potatoes?
  • Does most of your food come from a box or a bag?
  • Do you find yourself snacking on the “Cs” at night (cake, cookies, candy or chips)?
  • Which do you drink more often: water or soda?

What we put into our bodies is like the fuel we put into our car. And just like our car, how can we expect to perform at our best level if we are continually eating devitalized, over processed foods laden with sodium, sugar, trans-fats and heaven knows what else? We have reached epidemic levels of diabetes and heart disease. If you are daring, check out the chemicals that are used in conventional farming. Pesticides and herbicides leave residue on our food which we ingest and our liver has to detoxify.

What can add to the confusion are all the different theories on nutrition: low carb, high carb, high protein, high fat, no fat … the list is endless. So I am going to keep it fairly simple. There is no “one size fits all”. What works for one person may not work for you. But here are the basic things you need to know. In fact, I’d guess you already know them. For instance: what has more nutrition in it … a Twinkie or an apple? No brainer, right? We need to eat more nutrient dense food. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Remember that the darker the color, the more nutrients it has. Think green: broccoli, kale, swiss chard, spinach, escarole, broccoli rabe … loads of vitamins and minerals. Go for deep orange and yellow: sweet potatoes, turnips, winter squash, carrots. These are just a few examples. Eat all the natural colors you can: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, etc. Mother Nature has provided us with a rainbow of nutrition. Free range chicken, beef, eggs, grass fed dairy products … much healthier than the factory raised versions. Choose whole grains that haven’t been processed beyond recognition.  Drink filtered water, not soda and if you must have fruit juice, make it 100% and water it down to reduce sugar intake.

Start doing your homework. Read the labels. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, most likely it’s loaded with chemicals. Try new foods. Look for interesting recipes. But above all, keep it as clean and unprocessed as possible.

The bottom line is this: do you want a body that runs like a sleek luxury car or are you happy spending your life just getting by in an old jalopy? After all, the choice is yours.

When the Winter Blues Give You the Blahs …

When the Winter Blues Give You the Blahs …

Just when you think that this winter may finally be over, Mother Nature decides to give us a one-two … or is it three? … punch of snow, wind and all around just miserable weather. Even those lovely little sprouts of green peeking out from the earth seemed stunned! So why winter? Is there any purpose to this time of cold and dreariness? Actually there is. In these cycles of nature, there is always a positive within the seemingly negative aspect of this season. In the beginning of winter, we saturate ourselves in the whirlwind of “The Holidays” only to plunge headlong into the doldrums of January and February. No wonder we feel down, depleted and blah! We’re exhausted!!!

In ancient times, before there were things like electricity, computers and cell phones, human beings were much more attuned to the cycles of nature. The rhythm of life was in harmony with the rhythm of nature. The days revolved around the hours of daylight which determined our awake time and our cycles of sleep. There was a time for activity, time to be outdoors, time for planting crops, time for harvesting the crops. Foods were available according to the particular seasons. We weren’t eating salad and strawberries in winter or eating heavy stews and root vegetables in summer. In our modern world, we have access to every variety of food imaginable. But it’s cold outside! Why would you want to fill your body with cold summer fruits and raw salads? We need to warm up, not cool down! Imagine a cold, snowy winter’s day. Wouldn’t a nice bowl of soup or hearty chili just hit the spot? This is the time to nurture your body with warmth, not add more cold.

When the sun is the furthest from earth and the land appears barren and cold, the quiet of winter sets in. Energy is more internal and as a result, our own energy levels are also lower. Winter is supposed to be a time of solitude, a time of reflection. It is a time when we have the opportunity to review the past year and determine what has worked for us and what is no longer useful. It is also a time for planning … laying out the blueprint of your own dreams, desires and goals. Once you’ve decided on the direction, winter is also the time to lay the groundwork for implementing your plans.

Remember that Spring is right around the corner. Our earth is beginning to awaken. Pay attention to the  leaves and flowers as they burst forth so rapidly that it seems as though overnight our Earth transforms from drab to vibrant green. Pay attention to the food that will be naturally available: asparagus, baby greens, spinach, watercress, spring onions … so alive and so life affirming! Enjoy it all!

Spring is the time for action! It’s the time to plant that garden of your dreams and desires. As the energy emerges from deep in the Earth and our energy is returning, those winter blahs will just fade away!

Nurses – Jack of all Trades, Master of Everything!

Nurses – Jack of all Trades, Master of Everything!

THE NURSE …

Nurses are special people. How many times have you heard that said and perhaps thought to yourself: “You have no idea how special I really am!”

I am a nurse. My background is varied but I spent many years as a Critical Care nurse, rotating between CCU, ICU and Telemetry. The premise behind this rotation was that we would be able to care for any critical patient, whether a surgical case or a cardiac case … in fact, we were prepared for whatever case we were assigned to, care for any patient who needed our specialized units. Each nurse was proficient in starting IVs, rendering postoperative care and emergency bedside procedures too numerous to list. We were the first line of defense between the doctors and patients, translating medical terminology into everyday language so both patient and family could understand what was happening and thereby be able to make more informed choices.  We provided whatever emotional support was needed to help our patients and their families navigate what could be the most terrifying moments of their life. All the while, we were performing the assessments and technical interventions needed to keep our patients stable, acutely aware that stability could literally change in a heartbeat.

Nurses are the eyes and ears of the doctors who depend on us to alert them when a patient’s condition is changing. We rely not only on our clinical expertise but also on our intuition … that inner feeling that tells you something is wrong even though the data is inconclusive or the symptoms vague. Have you ever trusted your intuition and were able to intervene before a change became a major clinical event? Most of us have.

Though the above scenario describes my experience as a critical care nurse, wherever a nurse practices in the hospital, the level of excellence and dedication to the care of the patient is the same and always the primary focus.  Nurses are on the job in schools, businesses, nursing homes, rehab centers, clinics, hospice and home care. They are there at the beginning of life and at the end of life, and everywhere in between. They ride the ambulance with paramedics and fly with patients in helicopters to and from hospitals so the seriously injured can get the specialty care needed to save their life.

There is no room for error and the responsibility is enormous. While we celebrate when a patient makes it through a crisis, how many times have we cried when the battle was lost? We work weekends, holidays, days, evenings and nights. Ask a nurse how many birthdays, school recitals and family celebrations have been missed because of a scheduled work day. Believe me, in most cases, too many to recall.

So what would possess a relatively normal human being to put themselves in this line of fire? The answer is fairly simple. It’s their calling … their vocation. We all have our individual and collective reasons. The main one though is that nurses are among the most compassionate beings on the planet. They have a willingness to put others first.

However, there is one area that nurses do not excel in … taking care of themselves. We are used to giving of ourselves and that’s a wonderful attribute. We will advise everyone else what to do to improve their health and cheer them on while they do it. But when it comes to caring for ourselves, we usually come up short. In a profession that requires that you perform your job at 150%, self-care is vital.

So here’s the truth: When you are taking care of yourself, you give of yourself from a place of strength. When you are healthy, grounded and strong, you are capable of giving with more joy, more empathy and greater mental clarity. When you are exhausted, overwhelmed and not taking care of yourself, you don’t have the physical and mental strength needed to be proficient in your work. You are more vulnerable to feeling angry and resentful which only increase the pressures of the job. Mistakes are more likely to occur when you are not at your best. Furthermore, when you are stressed and tired, you are also more vulnerable to physical injury. Neck, shoulder and back injuries are all too common events for nurses.

So … self-care? What do I have to do? How do I start? Here are some helpful suggestions:

  • Proper nutrition: nutrient dense foods are vital to health and well-being (I seem to remember well-meaning family members thanking the nurses with donuts and cookies!)
  • Exercise: weight bearing and strength training, aerobic: walking, swimming (you don’t have to be an athlete. You just need to start moving!)
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing – oxygen is the most vital substance in the body; no O2 = no life; when stressed, we tend to hold our breath or our breath becomes shallow.
  • Counseling – whether psychologist, social worker or counselor, there are times the stress can be overwhelming. You see more death and destruction in a week than the average person will see in a lifetime.
  • Massage (especially Amma™ therapy … yes I am biased!) – you are constantly twisting, turning, lifting and how about that tight neck and those rock hard shoulders? Did I mention how good it feels to relax?
  • Acupuncture – great for muscular skeletal issues, relaxation, just about everything
  • Yoga – stretching everything, moving with breath and mindfulness, improves balance & focus
  • Hypnosis – a drug free method to overcome smoking, overeating, stress, detrimental habits (and … it works!)
  • T’ai Chi & Qi Gong (energy exercise) – strength, flexibility, focus, increased energy
  • Strong, supportive social network – we all need a shoulder to cry on and friends and family to laugh our behinds off with! Loving supportive people in our lives improves … well, everything!
  • Hobbies, areas of interest: singing, acting, knitting, kayaking, gardening, reading, etc.; start something that brings YOU pleasure (what a concept!)
  • Spirituality – however you define your Higher Power, finding your place of inner peace is so important; clearing out the exterior clutter makes room for all the good things life has to offer.

The imperative is to schedule time for yourself that will address your own needs, not the needs of others. This needs to be a priority, not an afterthought, or “when I have the time”. Making time to pay attention to yourself is the most important thing you can do for yourself. It’s right up there with eating nutritious food that supports the creation, not the depletion of energy.

If you’re having difficulty coping with a personal issue, get help! There are a myriad of social workers, counselors, psychotherapists out there, just waiting for your call. If you are a smoker or over eater, if you can’t sleep or you’re afraid of flying, make an appointment with a Certified Hypnotist who can help you through these issues. Find a yoga teacher, a personal trainer and exercise buddy to help keep you motivated to being the best you can be.

It’s also the perfect time to explore your spiritual identity. Whether you have a strong connection to a particular religion or belief system or you have no idea which direction to take, connecting with a spiritual teacher or group can help you on your journey to inner peace.

You are a nurse! You help people, you guide people, you encourage people to be the very best they can be. Now it’s your turn to discover your own best self, your own optimal level of well-being.

After all, the world needs you!