||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
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
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
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
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