Chinese Food Therapy for Winter

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Winter solitude-
in a world of one color
the sound of the wind.
-Matsuo Basho

Brrrr. It’s chilly outside! Well, maybe it’s not chilly YET...but the crisp scent of snow will soon fill our noses, while the wind whistles it’s wintry tune.

As the seasons change

And so, with the change of season come a gradual change to our daily routine. We begin to bundle up when going outside, drink warm beverages more often, and maybe even follow the example set by the sun and go to bed earlier! As our outer environment slows down and becomes quiet, we humans naturally move into a period of hibernation and quiet activity. We take refuge in our warm homes and enjoy quiet seasonal celebrations with our friends and family.

So what does this have to do with Chinese medicine? Chinese medicine is one of many traditional healing systems which encourage us to observe our natural external environment in order to find the answers we need for inner health. Human beings are part of and subject to the same cycles that occur in nature- birth, growth, maturation, decline and death/hibernation. Every single one of us will follow this path at our own pace. It is what connects all of us to each other, and each of us to mother earth.

Winter is coming

This cycle is evident not only in our life span, but also yearly with the change of each season. We are currently moving into the winter season; the time when our natural surroundings decline and go into hibernation in order to strengthen themselves for the upcoming burst of energy they will need in the spring. Winter is a time of slow and steady work happening right under our feet as the earth’s energy moves deep underground to nourish and renew itself.  In this way winter can be likened to sleep; a time during the yearly cycle to renew oneself by resting. In order to be healthy, humans and animals should follow earth’s example and utilize winter time as a time to replenish ourselves through rest and practices that repair/renew our bodies and minds.

According to Chinese dietary principles, there are particular foods and ways of eating which are most helpful during these colder days. To get a sense of this, let’s do a contrasting exercise.  What we might naturally be hungry for on a hot, sweaty day during the summer? Mmmm...watermelon! Hot days call for us to eat watery foods to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweat. Watermelon is one such food. It physically cools us down and help us to rehydrate. No wonder it tastes so good during summer picnics!

But our nutritional needs are very different during the winter. Watermelon doesn’t seem that appealing when it’s cold outside. Slow-cooked, warming food and drink like soup flavored with ginger, garlic and black pepper or a mug of sweet and spicy chai are what we crave when it’s chilly, and these are healthy choices that feed our bodies well during the cold months.

Warming the digestive fire

If we picture our digestive system as a steady fire that warms and breaks down our food, then it is important to note that this digestive fire functions at different levels according to the time of year. Summer is the height of our digestive fire and many of us enjoy and have no issue digesting plenty of raw, fresh foods at this time of year. We can eat salads and watermelon with abandon because our higher level of digestive fire will “cook” our food internally, meaning it will process food into the nutrition our bodies need.

But if we tried to eat similarly during the winter? Well, our tummies would not be very happy! Winter is when our digestive fire is operating at it’s lowest level. Our digestive systems need food which is already broken down and easily made into nutrition for our body. Cooking our food efficiently breaks it down before it enters our body, and our digestive fire is not taxed beyond its seasonal ability. Thus, we need to make sure the bulk of our food is eaten warm and well cooked when it is cold outside

I like to think of this as similar to pulling your sweaters and long pants out of storage for the winter, while packing away your tank tops and shorts; we change our wardrobe to match the season, so why wouldn’t we change the foods we eat and how they are prepared?

Want to learn more?

Interested in how to select and enjoy foods for the winter? Each practitioner at Constellation Acupuncture and Healing Arts is trained in helping you to eat seasonally and utilize food as medicine. If you’d like to dive deep into Chinese food therapeutics schedule a 60 minute Food Therapy session.  We’d love to meet with you and talk more!

*The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
*Heads up! This post may contain some affiliate links. If you buy something through one of those links you won't pay a single cent more, but we'll get a small commission that helps keep the content flowing. P.S. We only recommend products we use in our own daily life!

 

How I healed my sinus infection without antibiotics

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This post was originally written for my personal blog a few years back, but has been so incredibly popular with folks trying to manage their own chronic sinus troubles naturally that I wanted to share it here with you.

My story

Last weekend Minneapolis had a heat wave and while everyone else was riding bikes and grilling outside, I was laid up in bed with some very angry sinus pain. Not fun. But that was a week ago, and now this weekend is almost here, and I'm feeling great and ready to get back on the saddle (literally and figuratively).

A few patients this week asked me if I took antibiotics to get over my sinus woes, and were surprised when I told them I didn't. Their next question was always: "How?"

Before we start, please take note that I don't shun all uses of antibiotics - I just believe that they are both over-prescribed and over-consumed in our current pharmaceutical based medical system. This over-consumption is already leading to strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria - otherwise known as superbugs. This is leading us to a time and place where antibiotics won't be nearly as effective when they are truly needed.

So, how did I do it?

A little history

First off, I have a long and painful history with sinus infections. I had more of them (and took antibiotics for more of them) than I have fingers (and maybe even toes)  before the age of 25. My doctor even ordered a head CT during an especially nasty bout. So, this would be a good time to explain that the term sinus infection is really misleading. The Oxford Journal reported that generally less than 2% of sinus infections are complicated by a true bacterial infection. The actual medical term is acute rhinosinusitis, which actually means acute inflammation of the nose and sinuses. And this inflammation can be caused by just about anything: a cold, allergies, or irritation. The inflammation makes it difficult for mucus to drain properly, which leaves us with lots of congestion and a painfully full sensation in our heads.

So, because of my long sinusitis history, I have a pretty good idea of when my sinuses are angry and inflamed - my head feels like a brick, I can't blow my nose, and I get a pounding feeling behind my eye each time I take a step. Fun times, right?!

Well, after attending a bonfire at a friends house and being in the line of smoke all evening, I woke up the next morning with excessive sinus congestion and post nasal drip (when mucus runs down the back of your throat). I knew what it meant and where it was leading, so I took action immediately!

The treatment

Here are the list of things that I do immediately when I come down with a case of sinusitis. This routine usually clear everything up for me within five or so days. If your sinus symptoms are lasting longer than 7-10 days, there is a larger chance that it could be due to bacteria and a visit to your physician might be in order.

Rest, lots of it. It sucks being sick. You miss out on fun shows or bike rides or gorgeous sunny March days. I get it. But our bodies do most of their healing work while we're sleeping, so sleep I did.

Drink clear fluids. I ate Phở at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, drank lots of herbal tea (this one is my fave), and kept drinking good old fashioned water.  This step is the most important. Clear fluids are needed to help thin out the mucus as much as possible so that it can drain out of the small, inflamed passageway. The more you drink, the thinner your mucus will become, which will make you better, faster. Stay away from milk products and sugary beverages though. The dairy will thicken your mucus and the sugary beverages will increase the inflammation. I also start taking shots of fire cider to help thin out the mucus even more.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Most people are familiar with the fact that acupuncture is great for chronic pain, but did you know that it works great for colds, the flu, and sinus pain too? At the first sign of congestion, I started taking some Chinese herbs and made an appointment for myself.

*Please only take Chinese herbs that have been prescribed to you by a board certified Chinese herbalist. They are powerful healing tools that can produce amazing effects when used correctly, but can also create further complication when the wrong herbs are self-prescribed. Also, only a board certified herbalist will be able to check any possible interactions with your prescription medications. OK, rant over!

Whole food supplements. I prefer 100% food based supplements over super-dosing with isolated vitamins that we're grown in a lab. So, for those who are wondering, here's what I took:

Standard Process Congaplex. This is my supplement of choice whenever I feel a virus coming on. Its a mix of carrots, alfalfa, mushrooms, echinacea, and calcium lactate to provide the nutrients bodies need during inflammatory states. But the kicker is the addition of animal glandulars such as thymus (the home of white blood cells) to help kick start our own white blood cell production. BOOM!

Green Pastures Fermented Cod Liver Oil and Butter Blend. I apologize if you just threw-up a bit in your mouth after reading that, but listen to me when I tell you that it really isn't bad tasting. I know that when I'm sick I need an extra dose of vitamins A and D to help soothe my irritated mucus membranes and boost my immune system. And I know the best and most natural way to do that is with this blend of healthy fats. So down the hatch it goes. (I prefer the cinnamon tingle flavor by the way.)

Herb Pharm's Goldenseal and Usnea. Years before I became a Chinese herbalist, I fell in love with traditional western herbalism. I had (and still have, much to my fiance's dismay) shelves and shelves of tincture bottles in our kitchen, all filled with the powerful magic of plants. (Sorry, is this getting too woo woo for you?) I was fairly certain that my sinusitis wasn't a bacterial infection, but just to be safe, I decided to incorporate these two traditional herbs into the mix for their bitter taste and strong anti-microbial properties. Usnea has even been shown to be effective against penicillin resistant gram positive bacteria (fellow science nerds out there will be super into that fact).

Two over the counter drugs: Mucinex and Advil. What? An acupuncturist is taking OTC meds? Yep! Here's my take on pharmaceuticals. They're not all evil (though some of them might actually be Satan's spawn), and sometimes they're necessary, but for my body, I prefer not to take anything long term. I believe there's a time and a place for everything, and if a few days of Advil and Mucinex get me healthier, faster - keeping me away from a round of Amoxicillin - then so be it. Why did I choose these two specifically? Mucinex helps thin out the mucus clogging my sinuses (remember we talked about the importance of thinning out that mucus earlier?) and Advil helps reduce the inflammation that was narrowing the sinus passages.

*Please note that not everyone reacts well to over the counter medicines and my experience is mine alone. While Advil and Mucinex are both considered safe by the FDA, each has their own list of side-effects. Please do your due diligence before starting any new over the counter drugs.

Other tips and tricks

I made a batch of my daikon & honey cough syrup to add to the herbal tea I kept downing. Also, since it's delicious, it helped mask the incredibly bitter taste of the goldenseal tincture.


I used Simpler's sinus blend essential oil in a diffuser (this is the one I have at home) and even placed a drop or two in my nostril when I was super stuffed up. This blend of eucalyptus, rosemary, and inula essential oils always opens my nose up immediately and I love the smell.

According to Chinese medicine, excessive mucus in the head is due to an abundance of dampness and phlegm. The best foods to eat when trying to transform damp phlegm are warm, aromatic foods and spices. Think onions, garlic, ginger, and black pepper. Also try to avoid dairy products (we talked about that earlier) and raw fruits and veggies. Those might sound super healthy, but if you don't have the strongest digestion in the world you body might not be able to break down those cold foods very well, which can result in even more dampness.

Many of you are probably wondering where my neti-pot was this whole time. Well, in the first two days I did use it a bit and I felt it was helping. Then, the mucus just stopped moving. Once that happens I never try to force it with the nasal flush. Because in my experience, it always makes my situation worse. I prefer to use it as a preventative measure during allergy season, as opposed to using it as a treatment method. But everyone is different and I know tons of people that swear by it. So if you're someone who loves it? Then that's awesome.

And lastly, the most important thing you need to heal your sinus pain...patience. Healing the body takes time. It's important to give your body the time it needs to let your immune system get to work. So often people freak out at the first sign of sinus pain or green snot and rush to request antibiotics. I simply chose not to do that because I knew I had other options - and I'm glad I did.

**The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

***Heads up! This post may contain some affiliate links. If you buy something through one of those links you won't pay a single cent more, but we'll get a small commission that helps keep the content flowing. P.S. We only recommend products we use in our own daily life - duh!

Natural face care: Recipe for Oatmeal Cleansing Grains

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My skin and I have had a long journey together. In my teens and early twenties, I experienced severe acne that left me self-conscious, uncomfortable, and seeking solutions in years of antibiotics, harsh topical treatments, and various skin cleansing systems. The results were temporary, the expense was great, and the side effects were pretty gnarly. Eventually, I gave that approach up, and figured I was destined to a life of irritable skin.

Then, about 10 years ago, years of chronic health issues culminated into a pretty severe health crisis. In response, I changed my diet, altered my lifestyle, got proper support from a team of awesome healthcare providers, and switched over to natural, non-toxic products for my body and home. As my overall health improved and the severity of my other symptoms reduced, I noticed a continuous improvement in my skin. What a delightful side effect! The link between addressing the root causes of illness and achieving whole-self health became incredibly clear to me. 

These days, my skin is better than I ever expected it could be (and so is my health). Sure, I still have the scars from years of acne, and occasionally get breakouts. Combination skin like mine can be tricky to manage -- it's oily in some areas, dry in others, and generally sensitive. I am happy with and grateful for the skin I'm in.

While I certainly have my favorite products (hydrosol, homemade oils and serums for cleansing and moisturizing, these oatmeal cleansing grains, good old-fashioned water), you know what the most important part of my skin care regimen is? Choosing the foods I eat wisely, drinking plenty of water, getting sleep, being active in ways that feel good for my body, and managing stress. When any of these things falter, I notice more breakouts and a more dull complexion! As my grandma Lorraine said, "No amount of make-up can cover a poor night's sleep."

Wise words, grandma. 

This mixture of oats, green clay, and herbs is one of the staples of my skincare regimen. It leaves my skin feeling moisturized, smooth, and fresh, I think it works equally well as a gentle facial cleanser and exfoliant or as a mask. I love using this mask as part of my DIY "spa night" routine, which is an important part of my self-care. There's nothing quite like relaxing in a warm epsom salt bath with an oatmeal-herb face mask to melt away stress!

Want to know more about the ingredients and what they do? Here's the breakdown.

Oatmeal

Oats have long been treasured as a gentle way to support the skin! Oats have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and itch-relieving effects. When finely ground, they form a soft, gentle cleanser and exfoliant that naturally moisturizes and leaves skin smooth and fresh. Oats are most beneficial for dry or sensitive skin types, but oily and sensitive skin types (me, me!) can benefit from oats too -- especially when combined with green clay.  I love this article that outlines more benefits of oats for the skin. Hint:  I always buy gluten-free oats to ensure my oats are free from wheat and other gluten contaminants. As a person with a wheat allergy and gluten sensitivity, buying gluten-free oats keeps me safe from unwanted allergic reactions! I like Bob's Red Mill GF Oatmeal and Trader Joe's GF Oatmeal.

Green Clay

Clays are wonderful. They can gently exfoliate, draw out oils, toxins, and impurities, and impart important minerals to the skin. There are many types of clay used in skincare, but in this recipe, I use green clay, which is more widely available. Green clays can be found at most food co-op or natural grocery stores in the health and beauty department, and are also available online.

Lavender

Each tiny purple flower contains high levels of volatile oils, flavanoids, tannins, and coumarins. Lavender has a wide variety of actions and applications, but it is the antiseptic, antibacterial, skin soothing, blood flow stimulating actions that make it particularly good for a blend like this. 

Sage

Sage is a more recent addition to this blend, and now that I've started adding it, I'm hooked! Sage is aromatic and lovely, and has strong antiseptic and antimicrobial actions. Research also shows that it contains rosmarinic acid, which has anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, sage is strongly astringent, and has a drying effect that I notice works well on my often oily (yet sensitive) skin. If you are prone to dry skin, however, adding sage to the cleansing grains may not be the right fit for you.

Oatmeal Cleansing Grains

Ingredients

1 1/4 cups rolled oatmeal - or - 1 cup of oat flour
2 tablespoons green clay
2 tablespoons lavender flowers
2 tablespoons whole sage leaves, crushed (optional, most appropriate for oily skin)
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until ingredients are ground into a fine powder, pausing to stir mixture to ensure it is evenly blended. If you are using rolled oatmeal instead of flour, this process will obviously take longer! Store in a jar with a tight lid, and keep away from moisture.

Use instructions

To use as a cleansing scrub: mix 1-2 teaspoons of cleansing grains with water in the palm of your hand or in a small bowl, and mix with your finger or a spoon to form a paste. Apply to moist skin and rub gently in small circles. Rise with warm water, and pat face dry. Follow with moisturizer of your choice. Also works well on neck, chest, shoulders, and back.

To use as a mask: mix 1 tablespoon of powder with water in a small bowl to form a paste, and spread evenly over skin, rubbing gently in small circles. Let sit for 5-10 minutes, until mask has become firm. Rinse with warm water, steaming skin with a warm, damp washcloth to help remove mask as necessary. Pat face dry, and follow with moisturizer of your choice. Also works well on neck, chest, shoulders, and back. 

Note: if you use oat flour as opposed to grinding rolled oats, the cleansing grains will have a finer, smoother consistency. Cleansing grains made with oat flour form a much more firm mask once dried, and typically require a bit more steaming and rinsing to wash clean! 

 

Sources: 

Chevallier, Andrew. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. London: Dorling Kindersley, Limited, 1996.

Dr Surbhi, MD Skin.Dermatocare. "10 Benefits of Using Oats for Skin - Know from a Dermatologist (Dermatocare's Natural Beauty Tips)". Accessed March 3, 2016. http://www.dermatocare.com/blog/10-benefits-of-using-Oats-for-skin:-know-from-a-Dermatologist

*The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

 

*Heads up! This post may contain some affiliate links. If you buy something through one of those links you won't pay a single cent more, but we'll get a small commission that helps keep the content flowing. P.S. We only recommend products we use in our own daily life!

Treating back pain: an acupuncturist's approach

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Back pain is one of the most common reasons that people seek out complementary therapies like acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic. Thankfully, acupuncture can help big time! Research shows that acupuncture helps relieve many types of pain, especially back pain. Acupuncture may even be more effective for acute low back pain than NSAID medications like Ibuprofen

But how does acupuncture work for back pain? Or, more accurately, how does Chinese medicine work?

Relief is not as simple as putting needles where it hurts. There are numerous causes of back pain according to Chinese medicine. We call the pain the “branch” symptom, and your deeper state of overall health the “root” of the symptom. For lasting pain relief, we must treat both the branch and the root. All pain is due to a blockage of Qi, or energy, flow - which means that things like oxygen exchange and blood flow may not be as they should be. In the early stages of pain this is usually due to tense, inflamed or strained muscles. In later stages, deeper structures like nerves, vertebral discs, or the vertebrae themselves, may be involved. Following is a peek inside the way my Chinese medicine mind works when it comes to treating back pain. 

To promote circulation, induce muscle vacillations (little twitches which help the muscles relax) and stimulate tissue repair, I use various needling techniques near the site of pain. These techniques depend on which muscle groups are involved and how much disc space there is between the vertebrae. I also look for visual clues such as scars or varicosities (enlarged, twisted veins at the skin surface), which indicate places of impaired circulation. It’s also important to assess the overall quality of the soft tissue. For example, how elastic and hydrated, warm or cold it might be, both at the sight of the pain and beyond, especially in the legs and ankles. This is often where the cause of what we call channel obstruction - a type of pain syndrome - begins. 

In addition to acupuncture, I may also use other modalities to help promote circulation and reduce pain and tension. Acupuncture combines beautifully with tui na (Chinese medical massage), cupping therapy, gua sha (a type of skin friction), and moxibustion, a practice of burning the herb mugwort over the skin's surface. We Chinese medicine practitioners have a lot of tools on our toolbox.

Chinese medicine relates the entire length of the back side, literally from head to toe, to two primary channels. Helping people understand the connection between body parts they’ve been conditioned to sense as separate from each other, and how to care for these related body parts to take stress off the back, is often very helpful. Being conscious of this broad connection while walking and breathing can help relax chronically tense muscles while strengthening forgotten ones.

Symptoms are just part of the story - we want to find the cause.

In addition to addressing the local area of pain, we Chinese medicine practitioners are obsessed with figuring out the underlying cause of your pain pattern. For instance, maybe you always get a low back/sciatic flare up in the spring. The seasonal timing of this flare is no coincidence in Chinese medicine. We know that the channel associated with sciatic pain holds the body’s energetic potential for change, transition, and transformation, which is what spring is all about. We may diagnose and treat stagnation in this channel, but we will also work on warming, nourishing and supporting the other systems in your body that provide the push you need to get the deeply recessed energy of winter awakened and flowing throughout your whole body.

Or maybe you’re a person who always gets low back pain before, during or after your period. The timing of your back pain in relation to your menstrual flow is very important, as it tells us whether your energy, as it relates to your blood, is more full and stuck or more depleted and stuck. This will also relate to your emotional state around your period, which we can help keep in balance, even if we’re focusing primarily on your back pain.

Your emotions play a role too!

Lastly, there’s another very common but complex cause of back pain: emotional stress. Most people tell me that when they feel stressed their neck and upper back muscles tense up. But did you know there’s another set of muscles in the groin closely linked to the “fight or flight” stress response that can also tense up? The muscle pair known as the iliopsoas connects the 12th rib to the hip bone from top to bottom and front to back. One theory suggests that during times of high stress, which might unconsciously threaten our sense of safety, the ilopsoas goes into chronic spasm in an effort to return us to a more protected, fetal-like position. This tilts the pelvis, causing low back pain.

I suspect involvement of the iliopsoas when low back pain is one-sided, or worse when lying down or going from sitting to standing. In this case, acupuncture can not only treat the structural causes of back pain, but also the apparent (or unapparent) emotional factors as we help regulate the nervous system. 

I know, you’re still wondering, “But how does the needle work?”

That’s what everyone wants to know. Basically, each acupoint is a tiny gateway that allows us to access and modulate the two most basic life forces — expansion and contraction. Everything is effected by those forces via unseen energy networks, soft tissues, and peripheral nerves. By helping your body regulate these forces, acupuncture helps you experience a decrease in symptoms and improved wellbeing! 

That’s all I’ve got for now. If you want to know more, come in for a treatment!

Are you ready to use acupuncture to reduce pain and promote healing?

*The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.

*Heads up! This post may contain some affiliate links. If you buy something through one of those links you won't pay a single cent more, but we'll get a small commission that helps keep the content flowing. P.S. We only recommend products we use in our own daily life!