What Herb Do You Use For. . .?

Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green

“I want to get some herbs for my headaches. What do you suggest?” When I am in the health food store buying groceries, I hear customers aiming these kinds of questions at the staff. The staff usually does not answer them, because they are not legally allowed to diagnose or treat health conditions.

I don’t answer such questions, either, even though I have an acupuncture license and herbal treatment falls within my scope of practice. I am an herbalist who uses Chinese herbs, and we don’t prescribe herbs that way. Here’s a short primer on using Chinese herbs.

1. Chinese herbs are prescribed by syndrome, not symptom. We see the body as a complex grouping of activities, and see illness as a hiccup in the organization of those activities. We have names for the system breakdowns that cause problems. Sometimes a body runs too hot, or too cold, or doesn’t handle food or humidity or stress well. Sometimes energy gets stuck in one place, or because of overwork or poor sleep there is not enough energy. We use herbs, as well as acupuncture, meditation techniques, and other tools, to restore balance in the system. For headaches, some are caused by fatigue, some by frustration and stress. Still others are caused by becoming overheated, or because of old trauma or hormone shifts. Each of these causes might need completely different herbal treatment. To give someone the wrong herbs could aggravate the system breakdown and make the headaches worse instead of better.

Chinese herbs are primarily used in formulas. When patients ask me for herbs, they usually expect me to give them one name, like a TV talk show doctor might. Feverfew for headaches! St John’s wort for depression! Black cohash for hot flashes! But Chinese herbalism has developed over thousands of years. Herbalists have learned that using just one herb for a person is not the most effective way to treat the whole person. I have treated many people who have not had good results with the one herb treatment. The one herb they chose may not have addressed their syndrome properly, or it may have aggravated another condition, or it may simply have not been strong enough on its own. 

In a Chinese herbal formula, some herbs are for the underlying syndrome causing the symptoms that are uncomfortable. Some ingredients help with digesting the overall formula. Others are added to minimize the chance of any side effects. Still others are used to strengthen general health to prevent the problem from happening again once it is resolved.When I look at a bottle of herbs from a health food store or a multi-level company that sells herbs, even if they are in a formula, almost all the herbs are for the same symptom. There is rarely an attempt to make the formula address the whole body (except when the company uses a Chinese medicine formula–but even then, they market it as being used for a symptom, not the underlying cause). We consider putting every herb that treats a given symptom into one formula as overkill in most cases. 

Chinese herbs are ideally custom prescribed for the individual. Sometimes companies sell a “one size fits all” formula because the people creating the formulas are not trained herbalists; often it is because they are mass marketing a formula to the general public, and know the average person with a headache doesn’t know what causes it. Chinese medicine has fallen into this trap, too. Go into most Asian markets, and you’ll find formulas for fertility, for PMS, or for headache. These formulas may be frequently used formulas developed over hundreds or years or more, and may work for the majority of the people who try them.  But they are still not aimed at the the exact syndrome affecting the individual buying them. The ideal way to purchase Chinese herbs is from an herbalist trained in Chinese medicine. We will talk with you about all your health problems, and make you a formula that will begin the process of re-balancing all of your systems. 

If you only treat the one symptom that is bothering you the most, it is like taking someone spinning 5 plates and only keeping one balanced. While even a master herbalist cannot always treat every problem at once, we can usually trace a common cause for most of the problems and treat that first. As that system failure is fixed, more than one symptom will begin to improve. If you have headaches, you may find that not only do they get better, but your sleep improves too. Or your digestion is better. Or you catch fewer colds. Treating the underlying cause of health problems has the effect of improving how you feel overall. 

Holistic medicine in general takes the long view. We don’t treat you just so you feel better next week, but have side effects from treatment that will cause you problems in a few years. We look to your future, and correct as many of the system faults as possible, so that your health continues to improve over the long term. Not every problem can be cured, but with good health practices and herbs that balance your body rather than simply try to mask a symptom, we can help you to feel better overll.
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Autumn: Grieving, Sorting, Letting Go

Autumn is my favorite season. I love the color in the leaves, the chill in the air, and the natural instinct to burrow in and nest. But I always find myself going broody and a little melancholy just as the summer heat gets that tiny tinge of coolness. For years, I chalked it up to the memories of school starting, year after year, in my childhood–the end of the freedom of summer, and for me the anxiety and discomfort of being an introvert thrown into a more social climate. 

While those memories may be a part of my “autumn blues,” I now know there is a much more powerful reason I have these feelings, and why so many share them. In Chinese medicine, each season is associated with an element, which also relates to different parts of physical and emotional health. Autumn deals with the Metal Element, which is represented in the body by the Lung and Large Intestine systems. These systems deal with your immune system and breathing. But they also have an emotional component. They deal with the process of grief, of knowing what to keep and let go, and have a place in affecting how we organize our lives and set our boundaries.

Just as the leaves shed their leaves and begin to hunker down for the winter, drawing their nutrients inward, so we humans feel an urge to turn inward as the weather cools. Autumn is commonly a time for introspection and review. We look over our year, our relationships, and our homes, deciding what works well, and what does not, and letting go of those things that no longer serve us. We pack away our summer clothes, pull out the comforting shield of our sweaters and blankets, and review our yearly plans. And many of us, for reasons we cannot quite understand, feel the need to pull out old hurts, old problems, or old memories, figuratively running our fingers over our life scars.

This behavior is perfectly natural, and can be beneficial. When we suffer a loss–whether it’s a loved one, an injury, a financial setback, or just a vision of ourselves we fail to live up to–we need time to process the change in our circumstances. We grieve a death, or a breakup, or a new reality after illness, and move one. But as a year or two or ten goes by, sometimes we find there are still issues to process. We reach the age of a parent when they died, we find a new romance, or find our health deteriorates further–or, sometimes more frighteningly, improves, bringing new opportunities but also new responsibility. We have grown and changed, and now we need to revisit that old hurt. Is there something new to learn from our old experience? Is there some new way to let go of a limiting belief or behavior? If we do not revisit our story, we may never know.

Of course, everyone has a friend who is stuck in time. They pick a moment of their life, either for its joy or pain, and refuse to leave it. They dress too young, or continue to make teenage choices into adulthood, because growing up threatens the safety they feel in their perceived youth. Or they keep a room or wall or life revolving around a loved one who has left, or died, unable to accept a new opportunity because they cannot let go of the past. For these people, the natural need to grieve and release has gotten bogged down. Sometimes they obsess on the grieving process; other times they avoid it, distracting themselves with work or vacations or play. If they let their mind go blank they risk the pain of memories welling up, so they choose distraction after distraction to avoid discomfort. For either approach, getting help to grieve properly is important. A mature friend or counselor can help stuck grievers go through the process of sorting memories or circumstances and deciding how life has changed around them, and also how to make changes so they can move on to the next stage of life.

Autumn is still my favorite season, even tinged with grief as it can sometimes be. The other side of grief is nostalgia–a happy memory of earlier times that can be a firm foundation from which to launch an amazing life.

Be Who You Are: Moving Past Trauma

Photo Credit: Teresa Y Green

Like many people, I’ve had traumas in my life. The specific type of trauma is not important for this post, and I lived through them, worked through the pain, and came out the other side a strong woman. But it left scars, and one of the scars was not knowing who I was–knowing my personality instead of my shields.

I sometimes think I’m a walking feeling. It’s not that I cannot think logically, I just feel first, then think about it. I have fought this part of my personality for most of my life. Feeling is dangerous in a traumatic situation. It leaves you vulnerable to pain, both yours and that of the people around you. Feelings make it hard to rationally analyze a physically or emotionally dangerous situation and get yourself to safety. Feelings make you react, when you need to be in charge of your actions.

But feelings also inform all the good things in life. The joy of love, of friendship, or something beautiful–you cannot analyze the way it feels to have a loved one take your hand and get the most out of it. At least I cannot. Even hard feelings, like anger and sadness, have a good place. Anger fuels action, and directed properly, it leads to appropriate self-defense. Sadness allows you to sift through events and relationships, and know what to keep and what to release.

The degree to which I neglected my feeling side in my youth came to me recently when I read a poem. When I was younger, I had a hard time with poetry, especially the best poetry, which layers visceral images to create a feeling. I loved complete sentences. I liked Emerson over Whitman. I disliked songs with lyrics that didn’t make a coherent story. When I got married, my husband introduced me to poetry with feeling–disjointed phrases that teased my subconscious, that spoke in whirling scenes instead of paragraphs, that I felt in my body instead of dissecting in my mind. 

It took a few years, but gradually I integrated the two. Embracing my feeling side along with my thinking side has made me a more whole person. I do not have to second-guess my reactions as often, because I am not approaching life while hiding half of myself. 

Part of acknowledging your whole self is learning to be honest. When you live through trauma, especially as a child, or for a long time, you learn to hide the scary parts of life from yourself and others. You learn to be ashamed of your circumstances. So you lie–if not in word, then in deed. You pretend things that bother you really don’t; you let people believe you are in control of life when you aren’t, and you deny vulnerability at every turn.

The energy you spend lying keeps you from seeing the truth. Most things that bother or irritate you are not the big deals you make them in your mind–and the ones that are completely unacceptable are usually easy to solve once you get past the initial terror of upsetting someone. When you spend a lifetime pretending to be in control, you never see that no one is completely in control of life–by its nature, life is uncontrollable. We all learn on the job, so to speak–some people are just able to walk an unknown path with confidence, others have to learn confidence by tiptoeing into new things. And it is only in our vulnerability that we really grow and live. Acknowledging you have something to lose makes life precious–pretending you are impervious to harm locks you away from everything that gives life wonder and awe and fun.

In Chinese medicine, we talk about “pathogens” that sometimes get caught inside of the body and can’t escape. Illnesses like malaria, strep throat, and shingles are sometimes described as “an evil” that gets into your body, and then your body clamps down to protect itself, and the evil cannot get out. So you may recover, but the symptoms recur, over and over. You may never fully expel the pathogen, but you can learn to build your system, deal with physical and emotional things that stress you, and get appropriate help from the outside in the forms of herbs and acupuncture, you can greatly improve. The same is true for recovery from trauma. Few people completely lose every effect of a traumatic event. But if you reach out to professionals and others who have walked the same path, learn to use proper self-care, and address the things weighing you down in life, you can get better. 

Chinese Medicine and Your Emotions

Photo by Teresa Y Green
Emotional or mental problems affect many people.  Even mild symptoms can lower your enjoyment of life, and severe symptoms can be debilitating. 
Acupuncture together with other components of Chinese Medicine can help.
Diagnosis and Treatment: Different From “Western” Medicine

Many patients are surprised to find that Chinese medicine’s diagnostic process is very different from what they find at their doctor’s office.  Two people with the same “western” diagnosis, such as clinical depression, may have completely different Chinese medicine diagnoses.

To make the right diagnosis for you, your acupuncturist will ask questions during the interview that may seem to have nothing to do with your emotions.  Questions about digestion, your reaction to stress, and your sleep give information that will help her to give you the correct treatment.

While many people think of acupuncture for treatment, a complete treatment usually uses acupuncture, herbal, and dietary treatments.   Using all of the resources of Chinese medicine brings quicker and longer lasting results.
Some Possible Diagnoses

There are many different diagnoses related to emotions.  Here are a few different diagnoses, with the primary symptoms associated with each:
  • Qi Stagnation:  Crying or depression, especially with restlessness,  becoming easily frustrated, irritability, wandering pain, alternating diarrhea and constipation, irregular menses, and any symptom that is worse with stress.
  • Blood stagnation:  Severe emotional distress, usually rage, accompanied by severe, stabbing pain in a fixed location.  Also menstrual problems, purple color on the nails or tongue, and symptoms that improve with exercise.
  • Phlegm misting the mind:  Irrational thoughts, extreme paranoia, hallucination, can be accompanied by either mania and rage or terror, or apathy and withdrawal.
  • Liver Yang Rising/Liver Fire: Anger or rage accompanied with red face, irritability, dizziness, and headache, worse with stress.
  • Dampness / Phlegm Stagnation: Depression marked by apathy; difficulty concentrating; foggy, unclear, or irrational thinking; dizziness; feeling achy and sore, often with tender points; a heavy feeling in the limbs; fatigue; chest congestion or diarrhea.
  • Heart Fire: Rage, red face, red tongue, insomnia, restlessness, mania.
  • Qi deficiency: Depression or anxiety worse when tired, lack of interest in life, soft voice, gas and bloating, low energy.
  • Blood Deficiency: Apathy, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, dream-disturbed sleep, difficulty thinking or concentrating, poor vision, low energy, dizziness,  dull pain, worse when fatigued, muscle spasms, numbness and tingling, pale skin, dry skin, nails, or hair;, scanty menses or missing periods.
  • Heart or Gallbladder deficiency:  Difficulty making decisions, apathy, anxiety, insomnia, shortness of breath.
  • Yin Deficiency:  Irritability or anxiety, worse in the afternoon and evening, accompanied by night sweats, hot flashes, any symptom worse in the afternoon or evening.
  • Yang Deficiency: Extremely low energy, listlessness, apathy; difficulty staying warm; edema, frequent urination and diarrhea; dull pain improved by warmth, especially in the back, knee, or foot, worse when tired; urinary or sexual dysfunction.

Quick Tips to Balance Emotions

Here are some ideas to improve your emotional equilibrium today: 
  • Make a moderate exercise program and stick with it.  Consider tai chi, qi gong, yoga, or other gentle qi exercises with fluid movements or gentle stretching.
  • Work on experiencing your emotions as they occur.  Set aside time each day to review your feelings and write about them, share them with a friend, or take action to make your life better.
  • Keep a food diary, and note if you experience emotional episodes after eating certain foods.  Some people find specific foods that trigger depression, anxiety, or apathy.
  • Take steps to lower your stress level.  Any health problem worsens with high stress levels.

Of course, if you are experiencing symptoms that severely interfere with your day-to-day life, please seek professional psychiatric help.  Once your condition is stabilized, you can discuss adding Chinese medicine to your treatment strategy with your doctor or therapist.

The Emergency Attitude Adjustment


I have been tearful. A few projects have not been going as planned, and so today, frustrated one time too many by an annoying bump in the road, I cried–runny nose, crinkled up face, whiny voice, smeared makeup–the whole package of female-dom that has had it.

There was a time when I spent much of my life in this state. The feeling that life had shortchanged me in some way dominated my thoughts. A pretty day or happy surprise might buoy me up for a day, or a week, but my overriding thought was that I needed to have, do, or be more than I was.

Years of life, of therapy, of reading, of praying, and of emulating those who seemed to have more keys to happiness  has helped me see there is no virtue in constant criticism–of myself or others. I try to consciously fill my mind with uplifting thoughts, words, and images to minimize the influence of old thought patterns bent on tearing me down.

Yet sometimes, I’m snot-nosed in the bathroom, crying that it just isn’t fair.

So I have developed The Emergency Attitude Adjustment. As soon as I realize I have let hopelessness, discouragement, or doubt overtake me, I turn to these steps to return to the road to positivity. Since we all have moments like these, I offer these points to pull yourself out of a well of unhappiness or self-pity:

  1. Cultivate thankfulness. It is hard to complain when you are thankful. Today, when I came to myself, I expressed gratitude for everything. “Thank you for the blue sky. Thank you for the warm weather. Thank you for letting me see that adorable little boy and his perfect little shoes. Thank you for birds, and their songs. Thank you for my husband. Thank you that our problems are hassles, not emergencies.” If you have a faith, as I do as a Christian, thank God; if not, just be grateful for what you have. Just a few minutes of looking for things to appreciate and my problems seemed smaller and less overwhelming. The changes that gratitude causes in brain chemistry alone is a great benefit as well.
  2. Go over what is working. Today I was focused only on the problems in our life. When my husband tried to (gently) point out the good things we had, I tore them apart, too–because they weren’t as good as I wanted them to be. A little later, I re-evaluated my downer thoughts, and realized we have made a fair bit of progress in our life. My health has improved because I have made firm changes in my eating habits and exercise; my business has improved to the point that I now must organize myself better to get in all of my responsibilities in a day; and I have plans to get several irritating blocks to my productivity solved. I haven’t solved them yet: I have more chaos in my life than I would like, and I haven’t seen all the fruits of my improved health choices. But rather than letting that continue to discourage me, I chose to see the progress implied in the new patterns of mess. And I felt better.
  3. Choose happiness. Several years ago, I made the radical decision to be happy. For some reason, I had grown up thinking that happiness was wrong. That if you weren’t worried about something or dissatisfied with  yourself in some way, you were being smug, or lazy, or prideful–something bad, at any rate. Studying the benefits of relaxation while learning more about Chinese medicine led me to a powerful conclusion: happiness is a choice. I can control what I think. If a problem shows up, I can worry about it, complain about it, or look for the opportunity in it. Developing this skill has been a long process, but now I usually only slip for a day or two, and then climb back on my Happiness Wagon.
  4. Reach out to others. When I let darkness and gloom surround me, I only want to be around people so I can complain to them. Surprisingly, this approach limits the number of people who want to be in my circle of friends. Now, I try to share something positive with others, especially when I feel down myself. If I feel discouraged, it helps if I think of someone else who may be discouraged and send them a card, or call them. If I am worried, I look to reassure someone else. At first, I may seem a little awkward trying to reach out, because it is a new action. If I am ham-fisted, I apologize and try again. Most people appreciate anyone who tries to help them, especially when they can tell the helpful person is out of their own comfort zone.
  5. Be honest with yourself. All this positivity is not meant to be a Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky approach to life. Denying that you feel angry, hurt, confused, or discouraged and stuffing those emotions down while you force a smile is neither healthy or helpful. This lesson has been a hard one for me, since I could not see how to give thanks through my tears. I have noticed in the past couple of years that when I start my ascent from despair with an honest statement–“I am discouraged now; I am angry; I wish this had gone better”– that I get to an honest feeling of peace much more quickly. 

I hope you find these steps as helpful as I have found them. Try them the next time you find yourself discouraged!

Life’s About Flow

Photo by Teresa Y Green

Flow. Some people call it the Zone, finding your groove, or moving forward. That wonderful, timeless feeling when you are in the middle of something and it’s going well. In Chinese medicine, we call it the free movement of Qi.

When you are in a state of Flow, you are content. You are not worried about tomorrow, you’re excited about today. You are in the moment, enjoying the immediacy of life because you are doing what you were meant to do.

There is plenty to read about reaching a state of flow, but the masters of flow are the creators of Chinese medicine. With qigong, acupuncture, herbal medicine and lifestyle tips, Chinese medicine has specialized in cultivating the feel of flow for thousands of years.

To have better FLOW, here are a few simple tips:

  • Move around. You don’t have to run marathons or have six-pack abs to get the benefits of exercise. Movement facilitates qi movement, whether it’s dancing to the radio or taking a long walk. Qi movement helps stress, lessens pain, and balances your entire body. Take the stairs, park a little farther away, and wiggle in the car while you sing to your favorite song.
  • Don’t squash emotions. In Chinese medicine, emotional upheaval is one of the causes of most illnesses. Having strong emotions you don’t process in some way will wreck your hormones, hurt your immune system, and rob you of sleep–which can contribute to anything from heart disease to obesity. If you find yourself often feeling sad, angry, or numb, you probably have something going on emotionally. Talk to a minister or therapist, write about it in a journal, or call your least crazy friend. Dealing with emotions as they come up will make your life calmer, and give you room to better enjoy the pleasant emotions of happiness, anticipation, and love.
  • Go outside. Nature is a. . .well. . .naturally healing place. Hearing birds sing, feeling the breeze on your face, and the ground under your feet reminds you that the world around you goes on whether your boss is mad at you or not. Looking at the stars can remind you that most of your problems are small. And looking at clouds connects you to your childhood sense of wonder.

Flow is my thing, and is a continual lifestyle challenge and goal. I can help you find more flow in your life. By looking at the whole picture–a holistic view–we can put the pieces of family, work, health, fun, home and hearth and everything in between together. If you feel like your life is out of balance or if you feel stuck, I can help. When you need other expertise, I have talented friends and colleagues for you to work with and learn from. If you have changes you’d like to make, give me a call or drop an email. I am eager to help.