Anxiety seems to be an common experience in our modern age, and the number of people I treat with anxiety continues to grow with no end in sight. Popular approaches target the mind/brain (meditation apps, medication) but I believe it's equally important to release the body from tension and stress and not by over exercising to the point of exhaustion or injury. For me, yoga is an effective way to shift the body from an amped up, fight or flight response into a more restful and calm place. Having studied and practiced different kinds of yoga for many years, I'm able to pick a number of poses that I can easily do all at once or throughout my work day to achieve calm, and I can do them in place without props or a mat. If you haven't ventured into the world of yoga, it might be helpful to start with these five poses, which were highlighted in the NY Times wellness section on its subscriber website: Child's pose to relax the muscles of the neck, shoulders, back and hips; Plank pose to strengthen the abdominal muscles while also lengthening all areas of the spine; Cobra pose to stretch the low back (half Cobra modification for beginners), Down Dog pose to relieve back pain, release neck and shoulders and encourage deep breathing in the belly, and Tree pose to help with core strength and balance. Books and websites can provide instructions for how to enter and exit each pose and cautions for when to avoid these poses.
I treat pain conditions on a regular basis, and a majority of these conditions are brought about by injury, overwork/repetitive strain, and poor posture. Postural strain increases with our engagement with electronic gadgets or holding ourselves during specific activities that locks the body into an abnormal position where the muscles and supporting tissues of the spine become tense, imbalanced and irritated. Stress can magnify pain symptoms, and if stress levels and posture aren't simultaneously addressed, the pain pattern can become a chronic cycle.
Better posture is achievable; this takes awareness and daily practice. The head should rest over the heart, not pulled forward or down. Shoulders can creep up and be pulled forward; move shoulder blades down and towards each other to counter the forward position. The goal here is to keep the muscles of the shoulder girdle down and relaxed. In a seated position, the lumbar spine should rest against a chair back or car seat, not held in a slumped position.
Keeping the spinal segments aligned and muscles relaxed means that spinal nerves aren't constricted and the chest and thoracic cavity have more space for expansion. This frees the chest for fuller breaths, which in turn can reinforce relaxation throughout the body. Carrying this practice into daily life may help prevent stress on joints and injury to surrounding musculature. These adjustments will go a long way to support long-term health.
Aromatherapy is one of my favorite adjunct therapies to use in the treatment room and to recommend to patients who struggle with imbalances in mood, sleep disturbances, and challenges with focus, cognition and memory.
When essential oils are inhaled, scent molecules travel through the nose; this signal is picked up by the olfactory nerve and sent straight to the brain, specifically the limbic system, where many neurological processes affect emotions, memory formation and storage, and learning. Using oils can work quickly to elevate mood and calm the mind. In Chinese medicine, this type of therapy is addressing the shen aspect, essentially the health of the spirit.
Oils are made from plant extracts, and like Chinese herbs, plant extracts have unique medicinal qualities, attributes and uses:
Lavender, clary sage, geranium, rose and other floral oils can be uplifting and impart relaxation, helping patients to ease into sleep. Oils that can help with cognitive function/learning/focus are oils derived from conifers and eucalyptus, lavender and melissa, rosemary and peppermint. Sandalwood, francincense, palo santo, rose, lotus and exotic floral notes are known to affect the mood and may ease anxiety and depression.
To enjoy the scent of essential oils throughout the day, I put a few drops on a cotton ball and have it nearby (in the car, at work), inhaling periodically to bring awareness, clarity and calm to my mind.
There are six external pathogenic influences that can affect the body - wind, cold, fire, summer heat, damp and dryness. These pathogens enter through the weak and unprotected layers of the body and may cause disease in patients whose immune systems are weak. Theories about disease developed in areas of China where environmental influences were strong; for example, in areas where "warm" diseases were prevalent, usually in the south, practitioners developed herbal formulas and methods for treating conditions such as malaria and infectious diseases. Bell's palsy is seen more frequently in northern climates where wind and cold predominate, and so there are protocols for treating this condition.
As we head into winter, it's helpful to dress accordingly and shield yourself from the elements. Eating warming meals is a strategy for fortifying the body and digestive system against cold and damp weather.
Patients may not think about how the environment plays a role in health and disease, but the development of Chinese medical practices were built on observation of how the population was affected by external influences. Practitioners today are trained to look for those influences that may be adversely affecting their patients and suggest ways to counteract them - just another way of treating the patient in a holistic manner.
The vagus nerve, one of the the cranial nerves and the longest autonomic nerve in the body, connects the brain to the digestive system. It is a pathway for neurotransmitters, and according to research, helps regulate inflammation in the body. Issues with vagal "tone" -- that is a low level of activity/function -- may contribute to conditions such as IBS, depression/anxiety, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
Disruption of gut flora (dietary factors and meds (antibiotics) can have an impact on physical and mental health. The brain-gut axis is being targeted in therapeutic approaches to treating mood and gastrointestinal disorders.
There are several ways to strengthen the function and increase the activity of the vagus nerve, such as receiving acupuncture, massage and chiropractic care. I like to reinforce my treatments by suggesting patients to combine these modalities. Other techniques are gentle yoga and exercise, chanting and meditation, laughing, singing and belly breathing. Belly breathing utilizes the diaphragm, and by expanding the diaphragm, the vagus nerve is stimulated. The results: lowered heart rate, a gentle massage of the digestive organs, and a quick switch of the mind/body into relaxation quickly (especially good in times of stress/anxiety).
The cooler weather of fall is here, and patients with colds, allergies and sinus problems are seeking relief with acupuncture right now. If you are not properly protected clothing-wise (still wearing shorts/sandals?), or are worn down by continual stress, then the seasonal shift in temperatures and weather patterns may catch your immune system by surprise.
The lungs are associated with fall; any deficiencies with respect to lung function will be amplified during this season. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are the first level of protection for the body, as the lungs open into the nose and are associated with the skin, our barrier to the outside world. This is the time to strengthen the lungs to address sinus problems, excess mucous or dryness of mucous membranes, recurrence of colds, bronchial issues, or skin issues.
According to Chinese medical theory, fall is the time for turning inward and consolidating energy for the winter months. What does that mean for daily life practices? Discontinue eating raw vegetables and salads and drinking cold smoothies. for starters. These are foods that are beneficial in summer time; they are refreshing and help cool the body. But in the autumn months, taking in these foods will dampen the digestive fire and create feelings of cold. It's also important to counteract the dryness of wind and indoor heating by eating foods that promote and astringe body fluids. Foods with sour flavors (olives, pickles, leeks, vinegar, cheese, yogurt, citrus, apples) and moistening qualities (spinach, barley, mushrooms, nuts, eggs, dairy products, milk, honey) are emphasized now.
Incorporating strength training into daily life can make a difference in how bone is built and maintained. People who are sedentary, either because of work or by choice, will start losing muscle mass as early as age 25. Strength exercises and routines can combat this loss and help with movement and balance. Avoiding injury is key!!!
If you are recovering from an injury involving soft tissue damage, or when muscle imbalances occur, strength training is not recommended. Best to let the injury heal fully before launching into a rigorous exercise or strength training program. When there is a muscle imbalance (usually one side of the body has muscles that are overdeveloped/hypertonic), retraining of muscles, not a general strengthening, should be considered. Strength training will only tighten muscles that are already in a shortened and tight position.
Kids/teens: activities, not workouts, will help establish a preference for physical movement and develop muscles.
Late teens/20s: Mix high impact workouts with lower-impact activities for a varied routine that won’t over strain joints, ligaments or muscles.
30s and 40s: Maintain muscular strength and bone density without pushing hard in competitive sports and risking injury (healing takes longer). Incorporate workouts for balance and mobility, such as yoga, pilates or gyrotnics.
Late 40s/50s: Strength training 2-3 times/week, interval training, and stretching.
60+: body-weight or light resistance strength workouts, low impact aerobics.
(Source: "Strength for Life," Spring 2015 Natural Choices Magazine)
A very basic but fundamental concept of Chinese medicine is the relationship between Yin and Yang, two opposing but complementary forces of the universe. Nature (including us humans) express this relationship. Day (yang) becomes night (yin), seasons change, and the cycle (and circle) continues throughout our lifetimes. There is a point at which something has reached ultimate yin or yang, and then it transforms into something else -- its opposite.
The only thing that's constant is change, yet we try desperately to hold on to what we know and love and feel comfortable with. Every moment we are being transformed by what we experience on a physical, mental and emotional level. We go back and forth between states of yin and yang, darkness and light, illness and health, peace and suffering.
The goal of Chinese medicine is to balance the disharmony that is taking place within a patient's body or mind and to bring about change and healing. A patient may experience a profound transformation during a 40-minute treatment, or it may take several months to experience subtle shifts. It is a process that is very different for every patient, and it may take more than one acupuncture session or a single course of herbs.
Transformation occurs all the time over the course of a life time. It never stops. Transformation is at the core of a Chinese medical practitioner's strategy. Which is why Chinese medicine can work for many conditions, at any stage of life.