Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks





Back to Basics: Diet and Cellular Nutrition
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.

Previously, I introduced qi and began to discuss its cultivation. Today we're going to examine diet and cellular nutrition with the underlying premise that food is medicine. Proper nutrition is more than minimizing carbs, or the proper combination of vitamins and minerals. It is even more than the flavors or herbal qualities that we consider in Chinese medicine. A healthy diet must be expanded to include the concept of vital energy, or qi, in our notions of what to eat. At its most basic, in order for food to have qi in it, it must look at least a little like how it looked in nature. Protein bars and soylent green do not count. By the time folks are desperate enough to try acupuncture, many of them are literally starving to death. They have gone months or years without eating a single living thing.

How Many Servings Per Day?

Before we get too mystical, however, it is helpful to look at what the USDA recommends - a daily serving of 4-6 different vegetables and 2-4 fruits to meet our basic nutritional requirements. That's like 10! Let's be honest, most of us are lucky to get one or two. I stress different vegetables because in southern California, some consider iceberg lettuce salad a vegetable. Not a lot of nutrients there. And, in order for the body to heal, there must be a surplus of qi and nutritional building blocks. That means extra…

No, You're Not That Toxic

In addition, many people mistakenly believe they are full of toxins and should be cleansing, moving that colon, and take herbs that are ultimately detrimental to their overall condition. While TCM includes treatment for parasites and toxins when the condition warrants, I find the oriental approach to diet is gentler, with an emphasis on strengthening the body's ability to use the food we take in. We are not so full of toxins as many would have you think, and toxins alone are not the cause of your disease or fatigue, although that notion has become widely popular. The body has an innate intelligence. When you give it food that has life force in it and basic nutrition, many times parasites and toxic situations resolve themselves, without the harshness involved in some of the cleansing rituals.

Fresh Seasonal Foods

Begin to support the healing process by enjoying a balance of fresh foods that are in season. Please note that fresh does not necessarily mean raw. Many of us have digestion so poor that even if we ate all those raw fruits and veggies, they would not be absorbed properly anyway. Fresh vegetables that are lightly steamed (not boiled to death) have plenty of qi and vitality in them, and are more easily assimilated by the body.

"You will be assimilated."

Let's clarify for those of you who may understand "assimilation" as a term associated with the Borg on Star Trek. It is the job of the body to absorb and process all the nutrients in the foods that we eat. How well the body is able to do that depends upon 1) the quality of the food we are eating and 2) our own ability to actually take in that nutrition. This is assimilation.

Our ability to absorb nutrients from food can decline with age, and is affected by our general health. Smoking dramatically decreases absorption. Those undergoing chemotherapy or HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy) find that their medication can damage the lining of the stomach and intestine so that it is more difficult to digest food. Individuals with severe illnesses or layering western medication may find their digestion impaired. Chinese medicine and acupuncture can be very helpful in this area - by helping the body better assimilate its food we increase the amount of qi available from the food, and we are then able to better digest our food. It is a positive feedback loop.

For patients with digestive concerns, eat simply - limit meals to a starch with veggies, or a protein with veggies rather than both. Think unleaded - eliminate heavy sauces and creams. Fruit can be eaten alone, and then followed with a simple protein for those with blood sugar concerns.

A Word about Supplements

While the Chinese materia medica has used herbs for thousands of years, as do many native healing traditions, the inclusion of supplements as part of TCM practice is a bit more recent, but not outside the scope of our medicine. If we go back to the concept of qi cultivation, and include all the dynamics that happen at the level of the cell, we can include all the advances made in chemistry and cell biology, and use them to our advantage within the scope of oriental medicine. Food is how we provide the body with the building blocks needed for cellular processes including repair, and missing even a few micronutrients can make the process much more difficult.

It is helpful to be realistic: it is difficult, if not impossible to get everything we need from diet without a lot of work - the shopping, chopping, scrubbing, cooking, stewing and chewing…Oy. Save yourself some anguish and find a good multi-vitamin, with additional herbs or supplements as needed.

The Wisdom of Professionals

I cannot stress enough the importance (and ultimate cost savings) of working with a licensed practitioner to help guide you. All of us have yielded to, at one time or another, the temptation to try that one new supplement that our friend raved about, thinking it might help (and did it?). Confession time, how may of us have an entire shelf or section of the counter devoted to various bottles, lotions, and potions? It adds up. The clinical training required by a licensed practitioner is much deeper than the theoretical knowledge obtained by reading about herbology from a textbook. In the brief encounters when you seek a recommendation from someone over the counter at Henry's or Whole Foods, there is simply not enough patient information obtained to make a safe and informed recommendation. For folks who require several western medications, who are immuno-compromised or undergoing chemotherapy, drug and herb interactions are no joke. It is extremely important to for these individuals to work with someone who is competent in both eastern and western biomedicine.

A few things you may not be aware of:

1) The over-the-counter herb and nutrient industry is fairly unregulated. Not all supplement companies are honest - you cannot guarantee purity, manufacturing grade, etc. It is worth the few extra dollars to buy professional grade herbs and supplements from a licensed practitioner. Many OTC supplements and herbs often pass through the stool without being digested at all. Professional herbs and supplements are often formulated to improve absorption. Your practitioner will know how to take them in a way to maximize their potential. In addition, patients who self-medicate with herbs and supplements run the risk of a) not taking enough of what they need, b) missing something or c) taking far too much. There is a reason that some of these are called micronutrients, micro as in small, tiny. More isn't necessarily better; sometimes it's just more.

2) Ask your practitioner to discuss in detail how and why they think a particular herb or supplement can help you, and give an estimate of how long they anticipate that you might need it. Supplements and herbs are expensive, and I think it behooves us all to keep costs down. That being said, there are herbs and supplements that have been miraculous for my patients. We could never have achieved that kind of success with acupuncture alone, and some may be needed long term. But we work hard to find the lowest dose that will achieve the desired effect. Every few months or so, check in with your practitioner and ask them to help identify specific changes that can be attributed to the herbs or supplements. There may internal changes to your condition that are not obvious to you, but are vital for a full recovery. If cost is an issue, work with your practitioner to help prioritize what is most important medically.

Let me end our discussion of supplements by saying that there is no treatment, not once or even twice weekly acupuncture visits, and all the herbs that money can buy, that will replace what you put into your body every single day. It is unfortunate that our medical advances have minimized the consequences of repeatedly denying good nutrition to the body long term.

But the taste…

Sigh. This may be the single most common complaint for every American herbalist. No way to make it pretty, some of the things I recommend taste pretty foul. We work with capsules when we can, and when we can't, I bring out the General: Hold your nose and get it down. We are not children; we are adults with a condition that requires serious herbal medicine. Our ability to rise above the need to have everything taste yummy is what separates us from the animals. Nike said it best: "Just do it."

For meals, though, we need to be compassionate and realistic about dietary changes. It is an integral part of daily life, after all. We cannot reasonably expect someone who has lived for years on fast food and take out to be happy with the prospect of shopping for and preparing their own meals. I fall short here quite a lot. Gradual, workable goals allow everyone to become comfortable with lifestyle changes, without alienating their inner 4-year-old (you know, the part of us that just wants to watch cartoons, eat pizza every night, and party like it's 1999). Making friends with your inner hedonist is vital to learning to eat kale, or take those nasty herbs.

One example of this can be seen with a patient I had last year. To keep it simple, I asked him to eat just one green thing a day, just one. This was something he could wrap his mind around - felt manageable. At first, it was the lettuce inside the burger. But he began to bring awareness to what he was eating - he noticed it for the first time in his life. As he shared this with his friends, they were included in the process, giving him a hard time if he had not eaten something green at a meal. Gradually one green-thing-a-day morphed into an entire serving of veggies, then shopping for them and planning for them. I knew we had struck pay dirt when his mother proudly informed me that he ate broccoli for breakfast earlier that week.

There's nothing exciting about gradually rebuilding health and life through a return to "basics." No time-streams to cross, no imperial fighters to dodge. There's nothing magical about twice-weekly visits for bodywork that can be expensive, herbs that taste like dirt, being forced to eat gross vegetables that nobody likes unless covered with a thick cheese sauce. We haven't even gotten around to the importance of fiber!

But by taking the small step of acknowledging that food is medicine, and that we increase the body's healing potential by choosing food with qi in it, we can make a giant leap on the road to recovery.

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