Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Updated September 16, 2004





Living Optimally vs. Healing Disease
or, "If Superman can't Save you
Because of Your Kryptonite,
Can Rocketman Defeat
Mr. Hyde's Invisible Rubberbands?"

by Brian Benjamin Carter, MS, LAc

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine. He teaches at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and maintains a private practice in San Diego, California, and is the author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.

Looking for a quick fix?

Most PulseMed visitors come in via Google looking for specific info about their complaint- sinus infections, infertility, migraines, whatevah. Many leave after reading the page they came for. But some realize there is more here - not just more articles, but an entire system of wellness medicine. In a typical month this year, a tenth of PulseMed readers are return visitors. One out of every 20 visitors comes back three or more times a month. And one out of every 83 of them comes 10 or more times amonth. But most (89%) are looking to heal their chief complaint and move on.

We'll fix you

In medicine, we call it the chief complaint because it's your most worrisome, and your highest priority. That's why most of you come to an acupuncturist or to And we are duty-bound to help you relieve your suffering.

So you don't have to come back forever

But when we understand the underlying causes, the living habits that led you to this problem, we also have a duty to educate. We want to tell you how to change so you don't get that same problem again. We aren't trying to lure you into more visits just so we can pay for our Hummer H2 or house on the hill. We're trying to make you self-sufficient so you can live well without us. No matter how much we like you, we're trying to get rid of you - the right way. J

Otherwise you'll get sick again and again

If we just treat your chief complaint, and don't educate you about prevention and living well, we're silently complicit in your future health problems. There's no guarantee that we can change your lifestyle. That's your decision. But if we skillfully present you with alternatives and explain their benefits, we've done our job.

I believe some healers neglect this task, for a variety of reasons, among them:

  • Lack of time (real or perceived)
  • May not believe patients want to pay for personalized preventive education
  • Get tired of saying same things over and over again
  • Believe people won't change anyway
  • Interested in fixing, not prevention
  • Believe prevention doesn't work

Well, is it true? Are you unwilling to pay for an extra 15 minutes to understand where your problem came from and how to prevent it? Are you unwilling to change your habits, your foods, your exercise, etc. to live better and prevent disease? If not, you need a healer or resource that does this.

So you need an education of sorts…

That's one of the functions of this website - I write not only about what people are searching for online, but also the things I've said over and over to my patients. After five years, I still haven't said it all. And that's also the function of my new book, Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind. All the acupuncturists I've talked to want to direct their patients to a resource that will give you an opportunity in your spare time to get a better understanding of Chinese medicine. The books already out there haven't quite cut it.

Because after the screaming is over…

My main purpose in this article is to show you that there's more to healing than fixing the big screaming current problem. If you forget that, you'll go back to the same old things that got you where you were. It's almost a cliché by now, or perhaps it's becoming a proverb: one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

You'll need to live well so you can prevent future diseases

Wellness is living in a healthier way. What you do to live and feel well are often the same things you'd do to prevent disease. For example, you might take Vitamin C, Coenzyme Q10, and essential fatty acids (EFAs) because people like Andrew Weil have recommended them, claiming that they improve your physical and mental function, make you feel better, and prevent disease. And they do.

But we're used to one-shot deals

I think many miss out on real healing because of how we expect medicine to be. For decades now, medicine has been like auto repair. You get in a wreck, take it to the shop, get it fixed, and go on - like going to the emergency room. Or, you get a milder but disturbing symptom like anxiety, depression, or sinusitis, you get a prescription the doctor, you get a drug from the drugstore, and then go on with life.

And that's not how Chinese medicine works

Herbal medicine is similar to the drug model, but more personalized, and your formula should change as you improve and get more balanced. It also will change if you get a cold or flu.

Acupuncture affects more than just the physical, but it's delivered like physical therapy. No one who needs physical rehabilitation would expect to go just once and be all better. Yet some go to an acupuncturist, not quite believing in it, yet expecting a miracle cure in one treatment.

We know acupuncture's benefits are cumulative. It's like filling up a water balloon, one ounce a week over a few months. If you stop before it's full, before the balloon's neck has been tied off, life's happenings will shake the water out of the balloon. You may lose all your progress.

I've treated a number of complaints like muscle spasms, and regardless of where they are located - shoulder, hips, or back - even if we eliminate other causes like posture, work habits, or physical asymmetries, we still have to treat it until it's gone, and then some. Long-term problems behave like memories, and acupuncture erases them - in this case, the muscle spasm needs to be forgotten, completely erased.

The Chinese have the habit of treating a few more times after the symptom is gone to 'consolidate' the treatment. That makes it permanent. I was a bit skeptical about this procedure, so I let a patient go without the extra treatments (his supraspinatus muscle spasm had progressively improved over six weeks and finally was completely gone) - he wanted to save the visits left on his insurance in case other problems came up that year. Lo and behold, the next week, he was back. The pain had begun to return. We got rid of it then, and treated it a couple more times, and it stayed gone. Now I always suggest consolidating the treatment. It's like tying off that water balloon's neck. Now just be careful where you throw that thing…. Hey!


So, of course acupuncture makes sense for physical rehab, but what about the kinds of things for which we'd just see an MD once, get a drug, and go on with life?

Even mental and emotional treatments take time

I can't say whether psychiatric drugs fix or just mask problems like depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Obviously, simple sedatives for insomnia just knock you out and don't get to the root causes. On that note, even Ambien, given the sleepwalking, anger, and other episodes people have (and don't remember) on it, only deals with part of the problem.
But acupuncture and herbal remedies, which appear to make more fundamental balancing and normalizing changes, take time and work progressively.

Because the needles are teaching your nervous system

One of my acupuncture teachers, Marly Wexler, used to say acupuncture was "putting information in," and that we needed to keep doing that so your body would get the message. That analogy fits with the scientific data about how acupuncture works - it stimulates afferent nerve fibers, which send an impulse to the brain, which in turn responds differently to different points. Zang-Hee Cho of UC Irvine found via PET-scan that certain foot points stimulate the visual cortex of the brain in the same way light shined into the eye does.
This process of inputting information via acupuncture appears to work the way learning does. I am not a neuroscientist - so correct me if I've got it wrong - but I believe memories, habits, even pain are, at least in part, well-established patterns of brain activity.

This is a complicated area to study, let alone to explain - for example, modern research demonstrates that mental content and brain activity can be correlated, but cannot be shown to be causative. That means that changing neurotransmitters or stimulating the brain can change the mind, but we cannot say for sure that mind is a product of brain. And what about the organ transplant people who have the memories and desires of the organ donor? This is metaphysical, and difficult to discuss!

And teaching is a process that takes time

Regardless, few people can learn new information in one shot, let alone new habits, new perspectives, or new ways to feel and be. Since acupuncture stimulates and works through the nervous system and brain, it changes the way our brain directs our body, and the way our brain works. This takes time.
Acupuncture 'normalizes'. I say this because: our medicine's cumulative experience over thousands of years does not warn of some great danger of choosing the wrong points; acupuncture students find that they either get incredible results, reasonable results, or no result at all; the only ways to damage a patient are strictly physical, and are almost impossible to do if you've been properly educated and licensed. Acupuncture is either basically innocuous, or restorative to one degree or another.

Students may hang out with ruffians or play video games instead of studying
As we live, we get caught in bad cycles, develop bad habits, indulge unhealthy cravings, and the longer we do these things, the more deeply grooved in they become.

What's worse, bad habits are easier to reinforce than good ones. Good ones are easier to lose and harder to get. Remember, I'm talking about habits, memories, and grooves, because we're dealing with the nervous system and brain.

Homeostasis is our superhero

Fortunately, we have homeostasis, the body's inborn ability to maintain health. This is immunity, self-repair, blood clotting, etc. The forces of good, the janitors and trashmen, the police, the military, and the ER, all rolled into one.

But we're Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde

But there is something else at work… the thing that urges us to make unhealthy choices, to revel in self-destruction, to give up on good things, to forget how good doing the good things made us feel but to vividly remember with your whole body how good the bad things make us feel. I'll let you name that phenomenon yourself

Classic Chinese medicine (originally based in Taoist philosophy) associates it with the po, or the spirit/essence of the Lungs, which is bodily awareness, coordination, and proprioception. The po is considered more yin than the hun, the spirit of the Liver, which is more yang. It is even the location of the impulse for suicide and death.

Translator Philippe Sionneau reveals the old Taoist description of these beliefs. "Whil the three hun sustain life, the seven po favor the death principles. 'Man lives [and] consequently he follows the Hun. Man dies [and] consequently he follows the Po,'(Yu Han Mi Dian (1) - Secret Book of the Jade Case). This is particularly true for the 'three corpses' (san shi), which are actual morbid and deadly processes within life itself."

A horrible topic. But the main point is, Chinese medicine has a name for this unhealthy urge within us. Freud would correlate this with part of the Id, or baser primeval instincts, and thanatos, the death instinct, which corresponds to anything destructive.

These two forces, destructive and construction, fight it out within our personalities, and one or the other gains strength from our associates, attitude, motives, goals, values, and other influences. Geriatric researchers have concluded that a positive attitude is the main differentiator in those who live the longest. Many people, not the least of which Dale Carnegie, W. Clement Stone, and Norman Vincent Peale, would tell you that positive attitude is essential, perhaps even primary.

Does this have anything to do with health? The findings of researchers in Denmark who followed 314 elderly men and women found that negative thoughts and worry, regardless of whether the subjects appeared negative to others, could be detrimental to health. (2) Of course, this is just one study, not a comprehensive review of the research.

Where is Super-homeostasis and what's his Kryptonite?

Where's homeostasis when we need it? (Think Niagra Falls and the falling kid - where's Superman?) Homeostasis, our inner healer, is a limited force. If overwhelmed, we must help the body get back to a place where it can become active again. You have an inner healing capacity, but it can't withstand everything. Your Mr. Hyde, your bad impulses, are kryptonite to homeostasis.
If you eat poorly, think negatively, work too much, and don't rest, you're using all your resources without replenishing them. You're gonna crash and burn. Once a disease process roots/grooves itself in, it takes serious effort to get it out of there.

Rocket(wo)man vs. the Rubberbands

Think rocketship trying to leave Earth's pull. It needs force enough to leave the ground and shoot through the stratosphere, and more to break free of gravity's invisible rubber bands.

To leave disease behind, you must develop momentum, continue to push, give effort until you break free. You can't just push a little here and there every once and a while. If you do, you might as well give up, because your efforts are erased by gravity, by disease inertia.

Healing momentum can come from herbs, foods, acupuncture, acupressure, exercise, laughter, basketball, rock climbing, pizza - oops, sorry, forget the last few there - changing what's around you to better influences, and so on. But you must have these consistently enough to build enough momentum (we call that 'mo' around here) to escape the forces holding you back.

Ok, so take off.

10… 9… 8…


  1. Texte taoïste tiré du Zang Wai Dao Shu (Canon externe des livres taoïstes) cité page 274 par le Dao Jiao Yi Xue (médecine taoïste) écrit par Gai Jian Min et publié par Zong Jiao Wen Hua Chu Ban She (Editions des religions et des civilisations) en 2001, à Bei Jing. Oh yeah, Philippe is French.
  2. Thomsen DK, Mehlsen MY, Hokland M, Viidik A, Olesen F, Avlund K, Munk K, Zachariae R. Negative thoughts and health: associations among rumination, immunity, and health care utilization in a young and elderly sample. Psychosom Med. 2004 May-Jun;66(3):363-71.

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