Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Five Flavours of Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine there are certain flavours associated with each organ system pair.  Bitter is associated with the Heart/Small Intestine, sour with the Liver/Gallbladder, sweet/bland pairs with the Spleen/Stomach, pungent and spicy with the Lungs/Large Intestine and salty with Kidney/Bladder.

Flavours are also assigned to foods and herbs some of which may be surprising.  There are the obvious ones such as lemon, lime and pickles are sour, clam shells and kelp are salty being from the sea.   Herbs that are frequently used in cooking such as rosemary, scallion, garlic, cinnamon, clove, ginger, basil nutmeg, dill and peppers are all pungent.  Some are cooling, others are warm/hot.  Many common fruits, vegetables and nuts are sweet including apple, date, apricot, beets, carrots, potato, squash, almond, coconut and walnut.  Bitter flavour food is difficult to find and often not appealing alfalfa, bitter melon, romaine lettuce and rye are some common examples.  Many Chinese herbal formulas have a bitter quality to them as most people will get adequate sour, pungent flavours, probably too much sweet and salty and not enough bitter.  It is important to get a variety of flavours in the diet to ensure the organ systems remain in harmony.

Flavours can be used therapeutically as well.  Pungent flavour stimulates digestion, disperse mucus, induce sweating, disperse blood stagnation and promote the circulation of Qi.  Salty flavour is used to soften lumps, knots, stools and hardened parts of the body as well as counter toxins, purify the blood.  One word of caution though using table salt therapeutically is not advised as it usually poor quality and the food sources will have other nutrients to help regulate the body.  Bitter flavour can reduce inflammation, infection and is beneficial for moist/damp conditions.  This may explain a recent study which showed the lungs had receptors for bitter taste causing the airways to open.  From a Chinese medicine perspective conditions such as asthma and COPD have a damp component to them and although it would appear pungent flavours would be beneficial for the lung system it appears that bitter may be even more beneficial as it can provide the greatest opening of the airways.  Sour flavour is astringent therefore used to restrain excessive sweating, urinary dripping, diarrhea, flaccid tissues and prolapse.  Sweet flavour is very common and is used to energize and calm the body, nerves and brain.  It can also moderate the harsh taste of bitter foods and is often used in a small amount in herbal prescriptions to harmonize the formula and make it more palatable.    

Using TCM to Treat Anxiety

Anxiety can be a normal reaction to stress which helps people cope with isolated situations such as an exam, new job or activity, however according to the National Institute of Mental Health there are roughly 40 million American adults over the age of 18 that have an anxiety disorder in any given year.  This means approximately 18% of the adult population suffers from some type of anxiety disorder whether it be post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder or phobias.

Pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy are mainstream treatments for anxiety however some people look to more natural therapies for treating anxiety conditions.   A recent study confirmed there are natural therapies that are effective.  Some specific herbs such as passionflower and kava along with nutritional supplements have shown positive effects for anxiety or anxiety related disorders.

Herbs such as passionflower are different than the herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. In TCM herbal prescriptions are created based on symptom analysis and the resulting diagnosis.  Herbs are combined to maximize the efficacy and minimize side-effects and toxicity.  There are some common herbs used in prescriptions based on which organ systems are involved.  According to Chinese medicine theory anxiety is primarily related to imbalances in the Heart, Kidney and Lung organ systems.  Herbs such as, dan shen (salvia), hu po (amber), he huan pi (mimosa tree bark), fu xiao mai (wheat), long yan rou (dragon eye flesh fruit), fu ling pi or fu shen (poria fungus skin or around root), wu wei zi (schizandra fruit) and lian zi (lotus seed) are frequently used in formulas used to treat anxiety.  As mentioned previously they are usually taken in combination with other herbs according to the individual's diagnosis.

Acupuncture is also very effective for treating anxiety often people coming in for other conditions will report they feel calmer, more centred and able to cope with stressful situations better.  Acupuncture treatment like Chinese herbal medicine is based on an individual's diagnosis and a point prescription will be formulated accordingly.  There have been some studies that show both body and ear acupuncture have some benefit for reducing anxiety symptoms.

Other alternative treatments such as Reiki, massage, music and binaural sound have also shown to be effective therapies for anxiety.  As with any condition it is recommended to consult your healthcare practitioner to assess which therapy will be most beneficial for your condition

Friday, October 22, 2010

Healthy Brain

There is lots of talk these days about how to keep your brain healthy and functioning optimally into old age.  People worry that our constant twittering, texting and computer time will have a negative impact on memory, concentration and long term brain function hence the development of new games and products such as nintendo ds brain age and the new found popularity of classics like crossword puzzles to stimulate brain activity.  

It is recommended to learn new skills to create neural pathways in the brain to keep it healthy over time.  Language and dance are often touted as good activities for the brain and recent research on bilingual children confirms it.  Multilingual children were found to adapt to changes easier and focus better in confusing environments.  In one study bilingualism helped to slow the onset of dementia, including Alzheimer's by about 4 years.

Diet plays an important role in overall health including brain health.  The nutrient luteolin which is found in vegetables and herbs such as carrots, peppers, celery, rosemary, peppermint and olive oil has been found to decrease inflammation in the brain which can be responsible for decreased memory and cognitive function.

A Finnish study analyzed the link between B12 and Alzheimer's.  Two components related to B12 were monitored in Finnish seniors aged 65 to 79.  Homocysteine, which is and amino acid related to mental decline, heart disease and stroke and holotranscobalamin, the marker for B12 in the body were tested.  Those with higher levels of homocysteine had a greater chance of developing Alzeheimer's over a seven year period, while each unit increase of holotranscobalamin reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer's by 2%.  

There are many approaches to helping prevent or delay the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's.  Although leisure activities can be beneficial to brain function it is important to protect your brain from injury.  Trauma to the head from bike accidents, contact sports, skiing and skating increase the chance of developing Alzheimer's later in life.  It is also important to get regular restful sleep, manage stress and find time for relaxation where the brain has a chance to recharge.  Activities such as yoga, meditation, tai chi and breathing exercises are all beneficial.

From a traditional Chinese medicine perspective acupuncture is a great way to reduce stress, improve sleep and allow the body to enter deep relaxation to enhance rejuvenation.  There are even certain acupuncture points which can impact the brain.  Although the terminology in TCM for enhancing brain function is different, we talk about strengthening Kidney Essence, nourishing Heart Blood and tonifying Marrow, which is the spinal cord, brain, bones and bone marrow.   Acupuncture is just one of a few modalities that can help brain function, herbal and dietary therapies are also beneficial.

Herbs and food can be used to help balance out organ systems which may contribute to declining brain function later in life or they can be directly used to promote cognitive function.  Certain foods are considered to be brain tonics, such as walnuts, blueberries, kiwi, kidney beans and supplements like vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids which can be found in salmon, tuna, halibut as well as some nuts and plant sources.

There are many herbs used to prevent mental decline some well known such as gingko biloba, ling zhi, ginseng, gou ji berries and others used more in traditional Chinese medicine formulas to strengthen the Kidney essence such as he shou wu, rou cong rong and wu wei zi.  

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is breast cancer awareness month according to the NCCAM, which is part of the National Institute of Health in the states.  Awareness for different types of cancer primarily focuses on raising money for finding a cure.  This post will cover more complementary therapies and how they can help people cope with the side effects of cancer treatment both physical and emotional.  The site breastcancer.org covers several types of alternative therapies which can be used in conjunction with standard medical treatment. 

Acupuncture has been shown in some studies to help with various symptoms related to cancer treatment such as fatigue, nausea, anxiety, depression, hot flashes and insomnia.  With regards to breast cancer and acupuncture a recent study has reported that acupuncture has some benefit for relieving vasomotor symptoms such as hot flashes in women receiving antiestrogen treatment.  In addition to relieving the hot flashes participants reported increased libido, improved mental clarity and energy.  Another study found that joint pain and stiffness, which is a side-effect of aromatase inhibitor therapy for breast cancer can be improved with acupuncture treatment.  The National Cancer Institute provides a summary of acupuncture, results of studies using acupuncture as a modality for various types of cancer, including breast cancer

Traditional Chinese medicine, which includes acupuncture, herbal medicine, qi gong and meditation is discussed in a three part series.  Part one discusses herbal therapy in the prevention of breast cysts, while part two has a special focus on pre and post operative acupuncture, post operative herbal perscriptions and radiation.  Part three discusses acupuncture and herbal remedies to manage side-effects of conventional treatment such as nausea and vomiting, depressed immune function and peripheral neuropathy.

Chronic Pain - types, treatments and self care

  • pain continuous for more than 3 months
  • pain has persisted after a condition or injury has healed
  • pain frequently recurs 

  • low back pain
  • headaches/migraines
  • arthritis
  • nerve pain
  • pain associated with long term illness such as cancer
How pain becomes chronic varies depending on the condition.  In the case of low back pain it may have started out as an injury which may have never completely healed.  Osteoarthritis on the other hand is a condition that progresses over time due to deterioration of the cartilage which provides cushioning for the joint.  Nerve pain may develop from a long term condition such as diabetes whereas headaches may be due to long standing stress or tension.

  • loss of appetite
  • sleep disturbances
  • depression
  • decreased energy
  • acupuncture
  • herbal remedies or supplements
  • massage/tui-na
  • tai chi
  • qi gong
  • meditation
Acupuncture needles are inserted into specific areas of the body to regulate the flow of Qi.  When Qi is blocked there will be pain.  Qi can become blocked through various mechanisms such as trauma or injury to the body, long term emotional distress, internal imbalances such as digestive, circulatory, respiratory and gynecological disorders will all disrupt the flow of energy or Qi in the body.  Specific points are chosen for their pain relieving quality as well as to balance the body.  

From a more Western perspective acupuncture has been shown to affect areas in the brain that are related to pain control.  As well acupuncture has been shown reduce pain transmission by overloading nerve gates with impulses.  Acupuncture also affects blood vessels by causing constriction or dilation through the release of vasodilators.  Endorphins, serotonin and noradrenaline are also released during acupuncture.  Although they may not directly affect pain they do have the affect of promoting a sense of well being.

Several studies on acupuncture and different types of pain have been done.  Below are links to a few.
Osteoarthritis of the knee
Low back pain
As well studies have been done on pain and other complementary therapies
Tai chi and osteoarthritis
Yoga and back pain
Meditation and pain

Please check with your health care provider to ensure a particular therapy is appropriate for your condition