Summer is here! There are five seasons discussed in traditional Chinese medicine, and here in Northern California we experience all of them - Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Fall and Winter. My colleague Erin Wood L.Ac and I love learning and teaching about the art of 'harmony health' - how we can enhance our wellness and sense of well-being by moving in harmony with earth cycles. What types of illness are we prone to at certain times of year? How can we prepare in this season for the next? Over the next few weeks, we'll be sharing a mini-course in holistic practices for Summer and Late Summer. Subscribe to our blogs to get all the updates, and follow #tcmsummerwellness on Instagram
Curious as to why Chinese Medicine practitioners recommend against icy cold drinks on hot days? Check out this article I wrote a few years ago explaining it - plus a few recipes for my fave summer sippers!
As acupuncturists and herbalists, we like to offer alternatives to standard American or Western practices for ‘beating the heat’ that are not health promoting - icy cold drinks, that American favorite, come to mind. Access to refrigeration and summertime ice cubes is relatively recent. Before the Big Gulp with Ice, traditional summertime beverages helped to hydrate us after sweating and balance our bodies to feel more at ease in the heat. But why do TCM practitioners recommend avoiding a giant icy drink? When the body is very warm, dumping ice cold into the system causes a shock - if you've every had an upset stomach after downing a freezing drink on a hot day, or had loose stools or a headache after snowcones, ice cream or other super cold foods, you've felt the effects. Very cold foods can have a milder long term effect on the digestive system too - the digestive system is like a fire, and very cold foods make it harder to get a good flame going. (Read the NPR article linked at the bottom of this post for the modern science behind avoiding cold drinks).
Why not try these tasty treats!?
Mint and Chrysanthemum Tea: Bo he and ju hua are a classic pairing for heat and wind - great for the kind of dry heat that makes allergies flare up. It has a pleasant taste that’s palatable to most people - a little sweetening with stevia leaf, honey or rock sugar makes it even easier to drink. It’s also delicious cool.
Green Tea with Hibiscus: This is a great iced coffee or iced tea substitute as the green tea provides a gentle lift of energy without overdoing it like more caffeinated beverages. Hibiscus offers a refreshing sweet/sour flavor that benefits the liver and nourishes yin, and a beautiful red color, resonating with the Fire element of Summer. It is used in traditional medicines around the world to cool the body and improve hydration. I combine equal parts of both and make sun tea in a large mason jar.
Cantaloupe Agua Fresca: Aguas frescas (cool waters) are refreshing summer beverages made from fresh fruit, popular throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. They can easily be made without sugar for a sweet, refreshing taste of summer that doesn’t knock your spleen out and kick your blood sugar in the butt. Mix equal parts ripe cantaloupe and water in a blender and puree. A tiny pinch of salt will improve the hydrating effect and make it taste sweeter. Add a little bit of grated fresh ginger, especially if you tend towards digestive upset like gas and bloating.
Bonus recipe: try a tart and refreshing fruit shrub from my colleague Erin Wood L.Ac
All of these are delicious cool or at room temperature - but if you’d like a little accessible science to help share the wisdom of avoiding cold drinks on hot days, here’s an investigation from NPR that explains from an allopathic perspective why cold drinks make you hotter. A votre santé!
Angelica & Peony: Radiant Natural Health and Beauty products are created by an acupuncturist and herbalist. Contact me for samples and information about enhancing your practice with Angelica & Peony!
Jade gua sha tools are increasing in popularity in the West as folks find out about this beautifying and soothing skin care technique. I've used jade gua sha tools in my skin care treatments and my own skin care routine for a long time, and now you can get one for yourself! I also put together a little video demonstrating how to use your new tool, and a 5 minute organic skin care routine that will leave you with glowing skin and close your day with some self-care. Enjoy!
At this weekend's class I taught with Denise Cicuto on essential oils and the 5 elements, folks had a lot of questions about how to buy quality oils, and how to know who to buy from. I'm resharing this article I wrote on how to make smart purchasing decisions. One question I'll address right away - folks always ask me about the big multi-level marketing companies, and here's my answer. I don't weigh in on the quality of the oils, but I don't consider multi-level marketing to be an ethical business model, so I will not buy any type of product from an MLM, including essential oils.
When you don't know anything about essential oils, buying them seems like a no-brainer: they're everywhere! The health food store, the drug store, online stores and probably your neighbour is distributing for one of the new multi-level-marketing companies. When you learn a little bit more, suddenly it seems overwhelming: adulteration, crop variation, species variation, synthetic contaminants, organic vs. conventional... how to make sense of it all?!
Quality of essential oils is a huge topic, encompassing health concerns, international trade agreements, honest differences of opinion and multi-million dollar lawsuits. This little blog post is not intended to be exhaustive, but to share some of my own navigation through these waters with fellow acupuncturists who seek to use essential oils in their own lives or practices.
Recognizing a quality supplier
1. They know what they're talking about and share information responsibly
- if the supplier is making unfounded claims such as disease treatment powers, or recommending uses of essential oils that are not generally regarded as safe or suitable for laypeople, I steer clear.
2. Their material and labels are clear and contain necessary information
- I want the label and sales material to clearly state the species of plant the oil was extracted from, the country of origin, if it is certified organic or other external certification, the method of extraction, and any additional ingredients. Here's a comprehensive example from Mountain Rose for bergamot oil. Extraction method of bergamot oil determines whether the oil contains bergaptenes, which cause the photosensitivity reactions that are a serious caution in using bergamot oil. This is vital information to have available when purchasing this oil.
3. Their prices make sense
- essential oils are incredibly precious. It takes thousands of pounds of raw plant material to make an ounce of essential oil. If a price is 'too good to be true,' it is. Check out the results of laboratory testing on a $20 'essential oil' starter kit recently offered at a big box store. Cheap prices for oils are created by adulteration - either with a carrier oil (this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as it's clearly labelled and you know what you're getting), with cheaper species such as lavandin for lavender, or rose geranium for rose, or synthetic additives such as menthol in peppermint. Caveat emptor!
4. They offer test results or other quality control evidence
- Your supplier is purchasing from growers and distillers, many all over the world, and must rely on their initial quality control. Good companies have documented methods of verifying that the oils they are buying and reselling are the real thing. Here's an example from Osadhi, talking about the testing they do on oils. I recently joined the Blue Tansy Analysis facebook group, which pools donated funds to pay for third party testing of essential oil companies. This can be a real rabbit hole of science + politics, but both the test results and how a company deals with adverse results (which can happen even to excellent companies) is very educational.
5. They are recommended by practitioners you trust
- This is the 'fuzziest' of my recommendations. But in addition to fancy laboratory testing, 'organoleptic' testing is also important - this is the sensory analysis made by an experienced practitioner based on their years of experience. It's very important in the identification and quality control of raw herbs, and can be equally so for essential oils. Taking in person classes with respected teachers gives you the opportunity to smell high quality essential oils and experience the subtle differences from quality, country of origin, freshness etc. Here's an example of organoleptic analysis by Robert Tisserand on a peppermint essential oil that turned out to have synthetic adulterants:
Our Essential Oil Expert comment after an organoleptic assessment (sniff test!): This essential oil smells very pleasant, but it lacks the “clean” odor of a quality peppermint oil. It is over-sweet and reminiscent of a peppermint and dark chocolate candy. This would be consistent with a low concentration of added ethyl vanillin, a powerful odorant that smells of vanilla/chocolate. (Source)
I hope this has been a helpful overview of some of the factors to consider when purchasing essential oils! They are powerful medicine, and our globalized world means we have access to oils we might never otherwise smell, let alone use in our daily lives - but it also means we're not distilling our own essential oils from flowers we grew! It's up to us to make responsible choices and support the companies that are striving to ethically and sustainably bring these oils to us.
I've collected some ways of understanding insomnia and solutions that most folks can do themselves. Chronic insomnia that doesn't resolve with these kinds of approaches or is severely affecting your ability to function needs attention. Please find a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine or holistic medicine in your area for treatment and further support - email me if you'd like help finding someone in your area. Visit TCMTalk on Pinterest for more resources and links
Do this first: BASIC SLEEP HYGIENE PRACTICES
- Keep your bedroom clean and uncluttered. Change sheets regularly and purify air with filters and/or plants
- Use your bed for sleeping, relaxation and sex - not work
- Go screen free or at least be sure to use a light modulator
- Make your bedroom as dark as possible
- Develop sleep rituals - having a bath, journalling, meditating, (here's some ideas)
- Keep your bedroom cool
Top tips for “Wood Element” insomnia:
The Wood Element is the dominant element in the Spring time. It is associated with the Chinese medicine organ systems of the Liver and Gallbladder, and related to self-expression, the free flow of energy, and the expression of anger and self-assertion (learn more in Denise's TCMTalk on the Wood Element) Dysfunction and imbalance in the Wood element shows itself when your sleep is disrupted by anger, stress, frustration and overwork. You might find yourself waking in the middle of the night (during the 'Wood Element' time of day) and tossing and turning, with your mind going over the day’s events or the causes of your frustrations
The prescription for this kind of sleep trouble is to relieve and release the congested energy and emotions which are backing up and disrupting your sleep with mind-body-spirit practices that benefit the Wood Element and the Liver-Gallbladder system.
Yoga + qi gong for the liver/gallbladder/wood element - to help in discharging energy from those systems with stretching and gentle movement - we’ve shared a few videos on our pinterest board, and I especially love the Qi Gong videos of Mimi Kuo-Deemer, like this one for the Wood Element
Massage especially for foot and leg massage, or the sides of the head - use an aromatherapy blend like Move Wood, Swimming Dragon oil, or make your own with the essential oils that harmonize and move stagnation in the Wood Element - Denise has a great infographic sharing some of our faves and how to use them.
Herbs + foods: herbs that help move and benefit the Liver/Gallbladder and can relax you into a good night’s sleep include mint, lemon balm, cardamom, chamomile, and bupleurum or chai hu, (especially combined with peony root or bai shao) cumin, fennel and ginger. These aren't designed to knock you out, but rather help balance out your energy through the day - try drinking a spicy or minty blend in the afternoon.
I like to add mimosa blossom or he huan hua, to my Swimming Dragon tea blend to relax and release the liver and promote sleep. Water with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice is a good morning beverage for folks suffering with liver congestion and stagnation. Try mixing equal parts (about a tablespoon each) of honey and apple cider vinegar into a big glass of water for a balancing sweet and sour health beverage to begin the day. Eating lots of veggies, whole foods and getting enough fiber also helps keep everything, including your stagnant energy, moving!
Worry Journal - this is a way to help manage stress and worry: you write down everything that’s weighing on your mind so you can release it before sleep. It goes well with bedtime rituals and keeping screens and work out of the bedroom. You leave the day in the journal and enter into a different space/time for sleep and restoration.
Meditation practice - meditation is something we recommend for every condition and stage of life! For when you’re feeling very pent up, try walking meditation. You can even do it if you awake in the night and can’t get back to sleep - get out of bed and do walking meditation for 10 or 15 minutes and then try to sleep again.
The Wood Element and the Liver-Gall Bladder system are working hard in these times to cope with the onslaught of external stressors, environmental toxins and daily frustrations that we are all living with, especially those of us in oppressed and marginalized communities. Denise and I hope these ideas and strategies and everything we share through TCMTalk can support your wonderful body in harmony with the energies of the Universe and help you as you do your work in the world.
To celebrate the beginning of Spring, Denise of Cicuto Acupuncture and I are having a special Spring Sale on all our 5 Element Healing Anointing Oils! 15% off all the blends, and 20% off the WOOD element ones, the element of the spring season.
Curious about how to use blends like these for balance and well-being? Last year Denise and I recorded a video with some advice on using all the blends and specifically the WOOD element ones for common issues like stress, insomnia, irritability, headaches, moodiness and other fun symptoms of modern life. Watch the video below and follow me on Instagram where Denise and I are sharing more about the Wood element and spring balance for the next few weeks.
Valentine's day is here, and we're inundated with images of hearts as a symbol for romantic love. February is also 'Heart Health Month,' focused on heart disease in a literal sense. It's also Black History Month, a good time to acknowledge the burden that experiencing racism and oppression have on health, notably cardiac health. Hearts have been on my mind so I dug into the Traditional Chinese Medicine view of the Heart energetically, as well as the physical organ.
The heart holds the office of lord and sovereign. The radiance of the spirits (shenming) stems from it. - Nei Jing Su Wen
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Heart is the seat of consciousness, the Shen. Like an Emperor seated in a vast cinnabar throne room, our heart requires stillness and calm to make the highest level decisions that keep our spirits in tune with our deepest selves and our heavenly destinies. In the vision of the human as a well-ordered society, the Heart-Emperor is protected and aided by the other officials, the organs and conduits of the body that allow it to remain in contemplative meditation and connection with our true self. When we're balanced, we're able to respond appropriately to life events, to avoid over or underreacting, and to proceed in harmony with our true desires and natures.
Traditional Chinese medicine texts recognized all varieties of heart conditions and understood clearly blood circulation and the role of the physical heart. Acupuncture and herbal medicines can be very helpful in preventing and treating heart disease. From the kitchen pharmacy, there are many food herbs which can be taken daily as tonics for cardiovascular health, including maintaining healthy blood pressure and circulation. Here are a few faves:
Hawthorn Berry Tea: Hawthorn has been extensively studied as a cardiovascular health supplement, including all parts of the plant, berries, leaves and flowers. In TCM, the berries are used to aid in the digestion of fats, and from a Western perspective seem to lower serum lipid levels.
Chrysanthemum Blossoms: I often use the bitter, refreshing tea of these flowers to aid with allergies and eye irritation, but the same energetic action that sends energy down to calm eyes and headaches can act to lower blood pressure. Hawthorn berry and chrysanthemum blossom tea is a tasty cardiac combination.
Heart-friendly Foods: Despite what we were taught for many years, fat consumption by itself is not the guilty party in heart disease. Overconsumption of sweet, refined and processed foods increase inflammation in the body and our bodies reaction to it can result in stagnation and impaired circulation. Eating a whole foods, balanced diet with an emphasis on vegetables and fruits is a vital move for all of us. Foods with an especially beneficial effect on the heart and circulatory system? Try celery, onion, garlic, carrots, apples, pears and tangerines. Black fungus, shitake mushrooms, water chestnuts and mung beans are other tasty recommendations.
The Emotions of the Heart
The Heart holds a powerful symbolic role in many cultures. Associated with the element of Fire in the 5 Element cosmology, spiritual and emotional dysfunction of the Heart can show up in a variety of ways.
Too Hot: An excess of Fire element affects our Heart energy with overexuberance. We can't stop talking, our minds race. Our sleep is disrupted, especially falling asleep. Anxiety and restlessness can make us feel overwhelmed and make it difficult to think clearly. In addition to proper treatment with a practitioner, cooling foods and herbs and calming activities such as meditation can help chill us out and give our Hearts room to breathe.
Too Cold: Deficiency in the Fire element often manifests in physical symptoms of coldness and poor circulation, but emotionally we can feel detached, listless and depressed, unable to access our feelings or communicate them. Together with treatment, warming herbs and foods and gently stimulating activities can help stoke our Heart fire.
Check out 5 Element Healing Anointing Oils for some gentle aromatherapy designed to support the 5 elements and our emotional well-being.
Wishing you a happy heart!
The Tao of Nutrition, Maoshing Ni and Cathy McNease
The Treatment of Modern Western Medical Diseases with Chinese Medicine, Bob Flaws and Philippe Sionneau
Nourishing Destiny: The Inner Tradition of Chinese Medicine. Lonny S. Jarrett
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, Giovanni Maciocia
Chinese System of Food Cures, Henry Lu
Healing with the Herbs of Life, Lesley Tierra
Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, Dan Bensky and Andrew Gamble
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, Mary C. Tassell, Rosari Kingston, Deirdre Gilroy, Mary Lehane, and Ambrose Furey
(I wrote this article a few years ago but I'm referring back to it as my patients and I look to let go of some habits with the fresh air of January...-Kirsten)
It's January! A time of year when many people think about changes they'd like to make in support of the life they'd like to live. Making healthy changes is great - when it's done with love and in a way that's sustainable! Enjoy the video version with a TCMTalk on this topic!
So you've decided to let go of some habits that don't nourish you - or cultivate some that do. Great! One of the keys to sustainable change is enlisting support. While you're getting cheered on by the people in your support network, you can also add some herbal cheerleaders to the mix. I've rounded up some herbal and essential oil allies that can give you a boost at some of the changes you might be making this month.
(Important message: herbs and essential oils are powerful medicine! This article is not intended to diagnosis or treat you. I strongly recommend that you enlist the support of a licensed physician of Traditional Chinese Medicine or other qualified professional so you can fully experience the benefits of herbal medicine!)
Quitting: smoking, alcohol, sugar and other substances
Acupuncture and acupressure are very helpful in reducing withdrawal symptoms, and your TCM physician can also prescribe a customized herbal formula for you that can reduce anxiety, withdrawal and cravings, no matter what substance you're eliminating. Generally, regulating the flow of energy in the body is the goal, as we support the body through the discomfort of cravings and learning to produce the feel-good chemicals we relied on our drug of choice for.
Easy to access herbs to try at home during this time include: spearmint leaf, dried orange peel, cinnamon, clove, lemon balm and fennel. Look for these herbal allies in a pre-made blend, or make your own tea with bulk herbs (try a tablespoon each of the leafy herbs, and a teaspoon of the denser ones). You can also try an infusion bath - use tea bags or cheesecloth to steep herbs in your bath water.
Essential oil helpers include carrot seed oil (especially for marijuana), roman chamomile, lavender and lemon (this duo is especially good for sugar cravings) Here's some guidance on different methods of applying essential oils.
Healthy Habits: regular exercise and quality sleep
Looking to make exercise a habit this year? Chinese medicine, broadly speaking, helps you have more energy by either boosting insufficient energy, or moving stuck energy. Try energy boosters like ginseng, jujube, Chinese yam, goji berries and reishi mushrooms, or energy movers like dried orange peel, fennel and cardamom. Essential oils like patchouli and grapefruit help move and transform energy as well.
Herbal helpers for restful sleep include mimosa flower, lemon balm, lavender blossom, chamomile and zizyphus (jujube seeds). A supplement like Natural Calm is an easy alternative to traditional sedating herbs made from oyster shell and fossilized bones. Essential oils known as sleep aids include lavender, sandalwood, mandarin, chamomile and ylang ylang.
Attitude Adjustment: self-love and self-discipline
Thinking about a new attitude this year? Support some self-love with heart-opening herbs like mimosa flower, zizyphus, or the traditional formula, gan mai da zao tang: licorice root, jujube fruit and wheat berries. Essential oils for self-love include patchouli, rose, geranium and ylang ylang.
Self-love starts with self-care: if you're trying to amp up your self-discipline and keep your health a priority, herbs and essential oils to firm your resolve include walnuts, fenugreek, black sesame seeds, and essential oils of rosemary, ginger and vetiver.
If you have questions about using herbal allies in the new year, or would like some help finding a Physician of Traditional Chinese Medicine in your area, email me!
Some sources used in this article:
- Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, Revised Edition, Dan Bensky and Andrew Gamble.
- Clinical Aromatherapy, Peter Holmes
- Healing with the Herbs of Life, Lesley Tierra
- Materia Medica of Essential Oils, Jeffrey Yuen
This is an article I wrote when I was a senior intern at acupuncture school, over ten years ago - it still pretty much sums up what I think about 'detoxes' and 'cleanses' and I hope you find it useful! -Kirsten
The flurry of the holidays has died down, and even here in California there is a certain dreariness to the months of January and February. The days are still short, it's cool (or downright cold), we're probably all broke and a little bloated after overindulging in every way through the month of December.
A question I am often asked is "should I 'detox'?" Many people feel that their bodies are clogged with toxins, and that some tough love is in order. Fasting, gallbladder flushes, high colonics, herbal 'cleanses' and other methods are all popular. I would wager that sales of those products, many touting weight loss benefits, peak at this time of year. So what does Chinese Medicine have to say about 'cleansing'?
In Chinese Medicine we view the body as an interconnected and balanced system. The digestive and eliminative system is analogous to a pot on a stove. Food goes in the pot, and the fire underneath cooks it, producing steam that rises up. In an ideal situation, the fire burns hot but not too hot, and there is the right amount of food in the pot, with the right amount of moisture to produce lovely, fragrant steam. (as a side note, the Chinese character "Qi" or "vital force" is of a rice pot with steam rising out of it.) When we have overloaded or underloaded the pot, or if the fire is sputtering, or burning out of control, we have an imbalance, and uncomfortable symptoms result.
The body has its own mechanism for restoring balance. In western terms this is called homestasis, or self-regulation. In the acupuncture clinic we facilitate this with herbs and acupuncture, but most important is letting the body return to its own natural balance. If we suddenly empty the pot, it can all too easily be scorched or cracked. And scrubbing it out with clorox is similarly too radical a solution. Personally I feel many of the more 'radical' detox methods contain an element of self-disgust. We feel we have overindulged so we punish ourselves by starving or taking harsh herbal brews that keep us in the toilet, contemplating our sins.
The student of Chinese Medicine views the body as something to be treated gently and with love and respect. Alright, fine, you say. But what do I do about feeling maxed out after 3 weeks of canapes and candy canes?
Acupuncture and herbs can both be used by your practitioner to ease symptoms like constipation, bloating, gas and heartburn. At home, try digestive herbal teas like mint, ginger, citrus peel and fennel seed, or hawthorn berry tea, a tasty and traditional remedy for digestion, especially helpful for fatty foods.
Dietarily, it is important that your body have nourishment to continue its work. To ease the burden on your digestive system as you recover from a period of overindulgence, one of the best foods is congee: traditional chinese porridge. Usually made with rice, it can be made with any grain or legume, and can be quite convenient when you use a slowcooker. (A great book about using congee as medicine is Bob Flaws' The Book of Jook). Slow cooked whole grains, proteins like fish and chicken, and steamed vegetables are all nourishing, easily digested foods that will feed your body without taxing it. Foods to avoid are cold and raw foods, including vegetables like salads. Many people are surprised at this advice, but salads and raw veggies are actually quite hard to digest. We are not herbivores like cattle. Our bodies have to 'cook' the vegetables once they are eaten. Many patients find they have more energy and less digestive problems when they switch to cooked veggies. Steering clear of heavily flavoured foods is restful for your system, and of course artificial and processed foods are always best avoided.
In the end, remember that January is just a month like any other. Certainly it is an opportunity to 'start fresh,' but so is every day, every moment, every breath.
ess in gezunterheyt/eat in good health
The fall is a great time to take extra care of our lungs - this is when cold and flu season starts and the dry, windy weather kicks up allergies, coughs and other lung issues. For all of us in the Bay Area the awful fires this year have layered on a heavy burden of toxic smoke and breath-taking sadness, fear and shock. With my colleague Erin Wood of Erin Wood Acupuncture and Herbs, I'm offering a special afternoon class and treatment clinic at Vibrant Health and Wellness in downtown San Leandro. Learn herbs, foods, essential oils and breath work to help restore your lungs and prevent and treat cold and flu. After the workshop, we'll relax into a community style acupuncture treatment to boost your immunity and help you breath easy (needle free options available!)
Space is limited, $30 including samples and treatment. RSVP here.
Vibrant Health and Wellness in downtown San Leandro is home to an intimate upstairs workshop space. There is some parking including handicapped spaces behind the building, and lots of free street parking. The workshop will be held up one flight of stairs with a bathroom on the same level as the class. We will be using essential oils during the class. Call or email with any questions and I hope to see you there!