It’s cold season again. . .

As we move into the colder months we become vulnerable to colds. While it’s true what they say, “there’s no cure for the common cold,” Chinese medicine offers some help to prevent it in it’s early stages.

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In Chinese medicine, a cold is an invasion of wind, what we call an “outside pernicious influence,” or an “OPI.” We are more vulnerable to wind invasions when the weather is changing from one season to the next. Energetically season transitions are considered windy times. As we move from warm weather to cool our body’s energy must make the journey from the surface, where’s it’s helped us sweat and cool down all summer, to the core where it becomes a furnace to keep us warm in the winter. This transition makes us more vulnerable–think about the unexpectedly cold day early on in the season. You probably feel colder than you think you should because your qi is still at the surface, not stoking your furnace.

So, what can you do about these things that you don’t have any control over? Chinese medicine gives us a few helpful tools:

1. Wear a scarf. Wind enters your body through the neck (think about the stiff neck/headache you get at the onset of a cold). Keeping your neck covered can help keep that door shut to OPIs.

2. Dress for the weather, not for the time of year. Dressing warmly on an unexpected cold day early in the season can help you protect you as your qi makes that journey from the surface to the furnace.

3. Eat immune boosting Shiitake and Maitake mushrooms as frequently as possible. Fresh shiitake and maitake can be expensive and hard to come by, but dried mushrooms are always available and much more affordable. You can rehydrate dried mushrooms by soaking them in hot water, then using them as you would fresh mushrooms. Use the soaking liquid in soups and stews. Add dried mushrooms to home-made vegetable stock.

If you do feel like a cold is taking hold, catching it in the early stages can help you prevent it from becoming a problem.

1. As soon as you feel like you might be coming down with something, make yourself sweat. I prefer a passive sweat–sit in a sauna, take a hot bath or shower–but if you’re not feeling too tired, a gentle workout can be o.k. When you sweat, it forces the OPI out of your system. Also, heating up the body tells the immune system to turn on to do battle with invaders.

If you’re like me and have some home-made ginseng tincture at home, you can add some to you’re hot bath for an extra immune system boost. This is an extravagant use of an expensive herb, but if you have it, it’s a nice addition. You can also boil dried ginseng root to make a decoction and add that to your tub.

2. Make tea with fresh ginger root. Fresh ginger can help release the exterior and make you sweat. Slice about 1 inch of ginger root into roughly quarter-sized coins. Boil for 20 minutes in about 2 cups of water. Drink this tea with some honey. It should taste spicy and potent. If it doesn’t, add more ginger and a little more water and boil it again. You can get a really good sweat going by drinking this tea while you’re sitting in your hot bath.

3. Take Yin Qiao San or Gan Mao Ling. These are two of our most basic cold-fighting formulas, and are generally safe for you to take on your own. I feel that no one should self-medicate with herbs–you should _always_ consult a trained herbalist–but these two formulas are well tolerated and increasingly available at natural food stores. Yin Qiao can sometimes cause loose stool, depending on your constitution, but it shouldn’t be a huge problem, and is a trade off for keeping a cold at bay.

4. See your acupuncturist. If it’s early stages, we can help kick the cold out of your system. If it’s taken root and you’re sick, a treatment can help you feel better faster.

Public domain image of ginger root from here.

Preventing that next cold

Chinese medicine is powerful stuff, but we can’t say that we have that elusive “cure for the common cold.” We do, however, have some ideas about how to head it off at the pass.

In the Chinese medical model, a cold is an invasion of wind, which often brings either heat or cold and usually some dampness. Wind invasions first hit the body at a superficial level usually felt with a sore throat (a superficial aspect of your lung energy) and the skin, particularly at the nape of the neck (think about how achey you feel when you first start to get sick). Whether you have a wind-cold or a wind-heat seems to mostly depend on your constitution, but in my practice I mostly see wind-heat. Dampness often comes with a wind-cold or a wind-heat and physically manifests as phlegm. With wind cold, this phlegm is often white. Wind-heat phlegm is often yellow or green.

When you first start to feel like you might be coming down with something, the best thing you can do is to make yourself sweat. I prefer a passive sweat like a hot bath or a visit to a sauna. Two things happen when you sweat it out. One is that raising your body temperature helps turn the immune system on. The other is that a sweat expels wind from your body. Since external wind first lodges in your skin, opening the pores and sweating it out can expel that wind from your body.

In addition to having that hot bath/sauna, making a tea with fresh ginger can help make you sweat, too. Boil a few slices of fresh ginger for about 20 minutes to make a potent, spicy brew. Add some honey and sip (best is sipping this while you’re in your hot bath!).

If your cold has progressed beyond the early stages and into a yellow phlegm stage, skip the ginger tea and sip mint tea. Mint is cooling and can help expel wind-heat and mildly relieve some sinus congestion.

Sweating it out is best right at the very beginning of your symptoms. If you don’t catch it early enough, the wind can go deeper and be more difficult to dislodge.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs also can expel wind invasions, but only if you get a treatment in the early stages. If your cold progresses beyond the early stages, acupuncture and herbs will reduce your suffering and shorten the duration of your cold.

Of course, the true first line of defense is a healthy immune system. If you feel like you catch every cold that comes around, having regular acupuncture and certain herbal formulas can strengthen your immune system and help keep you well.

Read more about Chinese medicine here and here.

Plants better than pills?

I just read this cool article by Dr. Andrew Weil on why whole plant-based medicine works better than pharmaceuticals.

Herbalists understand that when we use a particular herb, the benefit to the patient doesn’t come from just one chemical in that herb, it comes from the entire plant. In Chinese herbal medicine we combine several herbs into one formula to create a synergistic effect between all of the different compounds in each herb. Some work to moderate harsher elements in other herbs and some work to enhance the overall effects of the formula.

We certainly shouldn’t do away with pharmaceuticals, but herbs are a good choice for many different conditions. If we can help solve someone’s health problems with a more gentle, plant-based approach, why not give that a try?

Chickpea soup with saffron and almonds

As the weather gets cooler, I’m enjoying being in the kitchen again. I love summer so much that I don’t want to spend any time at all inside in the kitchen. When it starts to turn cool (and wet), being in a warm kitchen seems like the most reasonable thing to do.

I’ve been making a lot of soup lately. I’ve been experimenting with making stock, and then using it to create two different soups. This give me leftovers for nice lunches and dinners for the rest of the week.

In the fall and winter it’s especially important to eat warming, cooked foods. Chinese medicine teaches us that when it’s cold out, you should skip raw foods because they cool the body and put the digestive fires out (when it’s cold outside, you need warming inside). Soups are the perfect replacement for the salads of summer–nutritious and hydrating for the dryness that comes with cold air and indoor heating.

I just recently tried Mark Bittman’s recipe for Chickpea Soup with Saffron and Almonds from his book, How to cook everything vegetarian. I followed his recipe almost exactly, and made my own stock. If you don’t have time to make stock, just use whatever stock you like. I often use Imagine Foods No Chicken Stock when I don’t have time to make my own.

The inclusion of coarsly chopped almonds gives this soup and interesting texture. I mashed a few chickpeas to thicken the soup, but left it very brothy overall. Bittman says to mash the chickpeas to whatever consistency you prefer–there’s no wrong way.

Basic stock

1 large onion, with (clean) skin, cut into large chunks
2 medium carrots, cut into quaters
2 stalks celery, cut into quarters
3-6 Whole garlic cloves, with skin on, gently crushed with side of knife
Olive oil, for sauteeing
Stems from dried mushrooms (I used Maitake/Hen of the Woods), optional
2 bay leaves
1 Tsp dried thyme (or several branches of fresh)
6-8 cups of water

Sautee onion in olive oil until it starts to soften a bit (about 5 minutes). Add the carrots, celery and garlic saute until the veggies are slighty browned.

Add bay leaves and thyme and sautee briefly.

Add water and optional mushroom stems, bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for at least 30 minutes, but longer if you have time.

Chickpea soup with saffron and almonds

3/4-1 cp roasted almonds (best with skinned)
2 cups cooked chickpeas (2 cans, or cook 1/2 pound dried)
1 large onion, chopped
1 tsp minced garlic
Olive oil, for sauteeing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp crumbled saffron, or more, if you like
6 cups vegetable stock or water or combo
1/4 cp chopped parsley

1. Coarsely chop the almonds. Set aside.
2. Heat olive oil in large soup pot. Sautee onions and garlic with a large pinch of salt and ground black pepper. Cook until onions start to brown, stirring occasionally throughout. Stir in almonds and saffron.
3. Add stock or water and chickpeas. Mash chickpeas to desired consistency with a potato masher or back of a spoon. Gently heat, stirring occasionally until hot. Taste, and adjust seasoning.
4. Serve garnished with parsley.

Om Trinity Fall Ecstatic Chant Festival

I’m excited to announce that my office group will have a table at the Om Trinity Chant Festival on Saturday, 10/23, at the Somerville Armory. David Newman, Donna Delory and Girish will perform for hundreds of yoga and chant devotees.

We will have a table at the back of the auditorium, and we’ll be offering free chair massage and ear acupuncture demonstrations. We’re going to have a raffle for our services, and $10 coupons for acupuncture and massage appointments.

If you’re at the festival, please stop by to say hello!

Holiday fun and an antioxidant blueberry facial mask

I gave myself last weekend off–with July 4 on Sunday, I knew my practice would be slow, so I decided to take Friday and Sunday off. I love being active in the city, so I planned to do a different fun thing for each day.

I did a few hours of paperwork in my office in Davis Square on Friday, which was O.K. because I spent the afternoon biking the Minute Man Bike trail from Somerville to Lexington.

It was a beautiful day, and I hung out for a spell in Lexington.

Saturday’s activity was a walk from Central Square, up Main Street and over the Longfellow bridge into Boston.

My destination was Boston harbor.

Sunday morning was yoga with David at South Boston Yoga. It was super sweaty! We sweat more and more easily in the summer because our body’s energy (or “qi”) is up at the surface so it can open and close the pores and keep us cool. Which is what sweating is–your body keeping you cool.

Since I had spent so much time outside, I decided to give myself an soothing blueberry antioxidant mask to repair my skin from all the sun exposure. Here’s my recipe. The quantities are approximate–the goal is to have a smooth and creamy mask with a medium-thick consistency. It should be easily spreadable but not runny.


You should always patch test any home made beauty products before you smear them all over your face.

Antioxidant blueberry facial mask

1/4 cup blueberries
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 tsp honey
a few drops of Vitamin E (optional)
1-2 tbsp cosmetic clay of your choice (I used Betonite clay).

Combine first three ingredients in a blender and blend well. Pour blueberry/yogurt mixture into a bowl, and stir in clay a little at a time until desired consistency is reached.

To use: Spread thin layer of mask onto clean skin. Relax for 5-10 minutes. Rinse.

Leaky Gut Syndrome

Nancy (not her real name) came to see me for acupuncture to treat her lupus symptoms of chronic neck and upper back pain. She had a host of other issues, too–anxiety, poor sleep, low energy, intermittent joint pain–but the neck and upper back were the worst.

When someone has pain, Chinese medicine believes that there is usually an element of stagnation present–blood stagnation, dampness causing stagnation, maybe cold causing stagnation–and we do a treatment to move that stagnation, and strengthen the patients qi so that their bodies can keep battling stagnation off of the treatment table.

When I agreed to work with Nancy, I encouraged her (actually, I practically begged her, at almost every visit) to get tested for Celiac disease and food allergies. I have seen in my clinical practice that a condition called “leaky gut syndrome” can be the cause of autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Leaky gut syndrome can occur when someone has an overgrowth of candida, or if they are consuming food that their body can’t tolerate. Overuse of oral antibiotics can be a factor, too, since they destroy all of the “good” bacteria in the intestines, leaving them weak and inflamed. The small intestine becomes porous and toxins leak out into the body, stimulating an autoimmune response.

Western medicine has not gotten on board with the idea that a leaky gut could have anything to do with autoimmune disease. I can’t say that it’s the only cause, but I’ve seen it in a few patients.

Nancy finally had to get allergy testing after two severe allergic reactions that sent her to the emergency room for anaphylactic shock. Her first test showed that she was allergic to at least 90 different things. No wonder she was so sick!

Food intolerances are not a part of Chinese medicine, but digestive health is believed to be one of the most important keys to well-being. People with digestive problems often have dampness, which can lead to pain. So, while we don’t have traditional explanations for a problem like leaky gut syndrome (at least not that I’ve encountered), it fits into our medical theory that problems with the intestines can make problems in the rest of the body.

To avoid another experience with anaphylactic shock, Nancy needs further testing to check for other allergenic foods. Her doctor has her eating the foods that she seems least allergic too until they can get more test results. Unfortunately for Nancy, it’s only 2 items–dairy and eggs.

It’s a difficult and depressing situation for her, and she’s hungry and getting tired of eating only eggs and dairy products. But, her pain is already starting to recede. For the first time in years, her neck is not in excruciating pain all the time. I expect that as her body detoxes (and as she is able to incorporate other foods into her diet), she will feel better than she ever has.

Jake Fratkin, and acupuncturist and naturopath in Boulder, has a great article about leaky gut syndrome. You can also go to his website here.

Dr. Andrew Weil has a brief posting here.

Rice Porridge for a happy tummy

Congee or Jook is a special rice porridge eaten throughout Asia when someone is sick or feels the need to eat simple foods to cleanse the system. Traditionally, it is made of white rice cooked slowly in a large quantity of water, i.e. 1 cup of rice cooked in 3-8 cups of water for however long it takes to become a thick porridge. It is extremely bland and very gentle on the system.

I often make congee with whole grains, and then I add other things for flavor. For breakfast, I might add some dried fruit and nuts, and maybe a spoonful of agave nectar or honey. For lunch I like to add some sesame oil, soy sauce, cooked edamame, spinach, and if my tummy feels up to it, some chopped green onions. If you have the time, it’s nice to soak the grains to help make them easier to digest. I like to use brown rice, and often add other grains like quinoa or millet. If you are not avoiding gluten, whole barley and wheat berries are nice, too, but they work best when you soak them ahead of time, and add the maximum amount of water when you cook them. Whole oats, or even steel-cut oats are a nice addition, too.

Whole grain congee is not tradional, but I think that when you soak the grains, and cook them for a long time, they can be gentle to your system, and more nutritious than traditional white rice congee.

Maki at JustHungry.com give a recipe for a new year’s congee that includes 7 greens. You can read her posting here. The recipe is below:

Recipe: Nanakusagayu using local greens

Makes 4 servings

Since this is such a simple dish, make sure to use the best quality ingredients you can. The quality of the rice in particular is important, as is the rinsing and drying process. Use fresh greens and a salt that really tastes good.

* 1 cup white medium grain or Japanese style rice (see Looking at Rice).
* Mixed dark leafy greens
* 8 cups water
* Sea salt, to taste

Rinse the rice with several changes of water (see How to wash rice) until the water runs clear. Drain the rice into a colander, and leave for at least 30 minutes to dry.

Wash the greens. If you are using any slightly bitter or tough greens like kale, collard greens, daikon radish leaves (not sprouts), turnip greens, puntarelle or cabbage, blanch them briefly in boiling water, drain and refresh under cold running water. Tender greens can be used as-is. Chop up all the greens. You should end up with about 1/4 cup of cooked greens or 1 cups of raw greens, or a mix of both.

Put the rice and the water in a heavy bottomed pan (traditionally you might use a donabe or earthenware pot, but I just use a cast iron enameled pot). Bring up to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer.

Cook, while stir up the rice from the bottom of the pan occasionally as it cooks, so that it doesn’t burn or stick, for about 40 minutes, until the rice porridge is creamy, like a loose risotto. Add 1 tsp. salt and stir. Just before serving, add the prepped greens and stir in well. Serve piping hot, with additional salt on the side that people can add to taste to their bowls.

Congee cooks up nicely in a crock pot–just set it up before bed and you’ll have a nice porridge in the morning. I make mine on the stove and reheat it as needed (though Maki doesn’t recommend this. I find it works just fine for me).

NewYork Herb Pharmacy

We visited Chinatown on our last trip to NYC because I wanted to visit a Chinese herb pharmacy. We found this rather large, well-organized pharmacy, and were drawn in by the big barrells of ginseng that they had on display. The rest of the shop was filled with hundreds of different patent formulas (Chinese herbs prepared in pill form), as well as raw herbs that one of their pharmacists could use to fill a prescription.

Army Acupuncture

Ear Acupuncture Chart

Ear Acupuncture Chart

According to this article at the Chinese Medicine Times, the military is using acupuncture (primarily ear acupuncture) to relieve pain in wounded soldiers.  They’ve found that it helps reduce the amount of pain medication they need to administer, reducing that hazy sensation pain meds can produce.  By reducing the pain level overall, the body is better able to heal itself, so recovery is faster.

I’m pretty excited that the military is using acupuncture–perhaps this will lead to more wide-spread acceptance of acupuncture, and more insurance coverage across the country.

Here’s a link to the article: http://www.chinesemedicinetimes.com/forum/showthread.php?p=1224#post1224