Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks





Back to Basics
by Jennifer M. Moffitt, MS, L.Ac., Dip. OM

Jennifer Moffit is a Licensed Acupuncturist with a Masters of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine. She received a Bachelor's of Science in Environmental Toxicology at UC Davis, teaches Oriental Medicine to medical students at UCSD, and practices in San Diego at the West Coast Center for Integrative Medicine.

I had the good fortune last night after work to go for a walk out in the canyons near my home. It was an unusually warm day ("near record temperatures"), and it felt like summertime. On the way home I happened to pass the yard of someone who was watering and the pavement was wet - that special smell, only found in summertime, was in the air.

With the approach of summer, I think of the rising yang, and what a good time it is for those of us who practice Oriental medicine. Yin and Yang are the basis of our medicine, a fundamental subdivision that the early Chinese scholars used to try and describe the nature of the universe.

Yin is everything that is cool, and moist, water, black, night, winter, nourishing, calm, and immobile. Yang, on the other hand, is the pure fire element: warm, moving, summer, upward, vibrant, and energetic. Everything in the universe breaks down into the balance between yin and yang. Nothing is firmly one or the other - there is always a small element of yin within the yang, and a small element of yang within the yin. While Chinese medicine can seem foreign in the beginning, the basis of the medicine is really about restoring this intrinsic balance within the body.

For those who suffer from chronic pain or illness, the change of seasons is a great time to work on resolving their condition. Spring and summer are about nature's increasing yang: flowers begin to bloom, gardens grow, and there are more daylight hours. The yang energy is moving up and out as growth and development. We are not separate from this process - it happens in us as well. Thus, we can use the nature of the season to help reinforce the healing process.

Going With the Flow

For many, going "back to basics" seems too simple. We like things complex and multi-layered. Our lifestyles move at a hectic pace, supported by technology so dizzying we can barely keep up. We have become used to having the world at our fingertips - all the answers to our problems merely a "Google-click" away.

Somehow, it seems that we have lost touch with the process, the enjoyment of the journey itself. We have become so goal oriented and used to having instant results that often we don't realize the inner process needed to support it.
We want medicine to be the same way.

Our over-reliance on pharmaceuticals and technology has created a false picture about the body and the healing process in general. Everything should be quick, easily diagnosed and measurable. Hollywood shows like ER have only reinforced this notion, luring us to think everything should be neatly resolved in a one-hour segment, and that we can look good while doing it.

It is interesting that no one on these shows ever has a chronic degenerative problem that is difficult to diagnose or treat. It's always the cool flashy stuff, multiple organ transplants, racing with the little refrigerated lunchbox through the hospital in the nick of time…

But our advances in science and medicine have not translated to better health or a better quality of life; in fact, many of us feel worse than ever before. We are a nation struggling with obesity. Endocrine, autoimmune, and cardiovascular disorders are widespread. Chronic degenerative conditions like Alzheimer's are on the rise, and almost 10% of our children have been diagnosed with attention deficit or behavioral disorders. Where has science failed? Why hasn't technology led to true healing?

It's not a lack of information; we're more knowledgeable about the importance of sleep, nutrition, exercise, and prevention than ever before. But for some reason we don't really get what that means on a daily basis in the form of action. We can't believe it could be so simple as what we put in our mouths, or how we structure our day. The dazzling power of emergency medicine has blinded us to the subtle (and even obvious) signs of a body moving out of balance, of impending illness or injury. Then, when we fail to overcome that bad cold, or the muscle strain becomes chronic, we wonder why.

It Begins With Qi

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is the presence of qi (pronounced chee), which governs all the functions of the body, and allows healing to occur. Qi is defined as vital air. In Chinese kanji, the character is pictured as the vapor coming from grains of rice. It is a great image, and it illustrates the easiest way to cultivate it: from the food that we eat and drink. When I teach TCM to medical students, I describe qi as a qualitative expression for all the cellular processes in the body: ATP production, protein synthesis in the mitochondria, DNA and RNA replication, mitosis and meiosis, and endocrine balance, all of which result in a measurable quantity of vital substances for the body. Blood chemistry panels including blood sugar, hormone levels, CBC, liver panels are all quantitative ways of measuring how effectively the body is doing its job.

But we are more than the sum total of our blood chemistry - there is a synergistic process by which all of these separate reactions come together to sustain the body. It is how we function reasonably well even when we haven't had enough rest, or we've eaten too many tacos. But what about when there's no discernable problem, and the body still breaks down? What has happened then?

This is when it helps to understand both eastern and western medicine. TCM allows us to consider not only the measurable aspects of qi in the body (in the form of blood, cellular chemistry, etc.), but also movement - how and where it flows, and how too much here and not enough over there can result in pain, chronic disease, and fatigue. It explains the relationships between the different organ systems, and how disharmony in one can lead to disharmony in the entire system. TCM provides a way for us to restore proper balance by using acupuncture, herbs, supplements, foods, etc. - either alone or in combination.

Admittedly, many people find the concept of wellness a little nebulous, so I try to keep it real for them. Everyone recalls, even dimly, a time when they felt great, full of energy, and free from pain. It's not esoteric. Pain-free and full of energy equals good. Tired, stressed, sick all the time, and in pain equals bad. My job as a practitioner of TCM is to figure out where your wires got crossed, where you got unplugged, and reset the circuits your body needs to begin the healing process. That is an important point to remember - no treatment or practitioner can fix you - all physicians, no matter what style of medicine they practice, merely help make it possible for your body to heal.

As an acupuncturist in my first years of practice, I think I lost sight of this - newly credentialed, ready for action - let the healing begin! I was incredibly results-driven: if everything wasn't neatly wrapped up for a patient in a month or two, somehow I had not done my job. This was partly out of compassion - having suffered from debilitating chronic pain for more than a decade (what drove me to alternative medicine), I did not want anyone else to suffer like I had. I wanted it over quickly, so that they could resume their lives - business as usual. But my own healing process wasn't that way. It took much longer due to my resistance to basic laws of nature that I could not, or would not, believe made a difference in the process, and which my training as a scientist caused me to dismiss as superstition.

So all that said, what are the basics? What are the natural laws that seem to support health and how can we use the season to help support those changes?

No magic here, I'm afraid and most of you already know the answer: qi gong, tai chi, diet and cellular nutrition, bodywork, sleep, exercise, play, prayer, and acceptance. While this may seem like yesterday's news (been there, done that), some of the details added by Chinese medicine might surprise you.

In this series of articles, we'll re-examine the "basics" necessary for health by including both eastern and western biomedical concepts, in time for you to take full advantage of the spring and summer season. Stay tuned for my next article!

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All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.

Copyright 1999-2074, Pulse Media International, Brian Carter, MSci, LAc, Editor