Chinese Medicine

My Swollen Lymph Nodes Were a Sign of So Much More

I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I was lying on a hospital bed, getting an ultrasound on the lymph nodes in my neck—swollen six times the normal amount—the cold gel shocking to my skin, my brain on overdrive whirring through all of the horrifying possibilities that could be revealed through this device. “It’s cancer,” I told myself. “I should just prepare for that.”

The room was dark and eerily quiet. My wife, Anne, was with me, and I could feel how nervous she was, yet trying to remain strong so we both didn’t lose it. As soon as the test was over, the technician left to go “talk to the doctor.” “What does that mean?” I remember saying to Anne. (Hint: That’s never good when they say that.) So I just laid there terrified. The technician came back and told me I was all set and that they would be calling me with the results—no indication was given as to whether I was ok or what was going on with my lymph nodes. I couldn’t even process the walk back to our car, and I barely made it to our vehicle when I just broke down. Anne and I held each other, crying, reassuring ourselves that everything happens for a reason and all will be ok.

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This was the final straw to a frustrating, scary moment in my life, but let’s rewind a bit. In May of 2015, I went in for an adjustment with my chiropractor. While she was feeling around in my neck, she noticed that the chain of lymph nodes on the right side of my neck was severely swollen. I noted how concerned she looked when she asked me how long it had been like this. “I have no idea,” I said admittedly. She immediately recommended that I get a blood test done to rule out anything major and I could feel her dancing around the word ‘cancer.’ Holy. Shit. What the hell was happening to me?

Before the swollen lymph nodes, I had been experiencing numerous things over the course of many years. I had daily aches and pain in my whole body, feeling more skeletal than muscular. I constantly felt like I was out of alignment, and frequented the chiropractor weekly, sometimes multiple times a week. Specifically, the problems were in my neck, shoulders, right knee, right big toe, and lower back. There had been times where I felt like I was having a heart condition. I felt like my breath was being somewhat constricted like I couldn’t take a full, deep breath. I had a few panic attacks. Feeling tired and brain fog were everyday occurrences for me. I lost weight, which was crippling to my confidence since I had always been “too thin” by most people’s standards. And on top of all of this, my mood and spirit were affected. I was feeling anxious, nervous, worried, and agitated.

The catalyst that triggered everything for me was when I contracted a virus a few months prior. My gums were extremely swollen and my entire mouth was covered in sores. They were everywhere—on my tongue, under my tongue, on the roof of my mouth, on the inside of my cheeks, on my throat—and were searingly painful. It hurt so badly that I could hardly eat or drink anything for days. The pain was so intense that it was all I could focus on. And on top of that, all of the tension it created in the muscles of my mouth, face, and jaw added fuel to the fire. After being told to "wait it out" by a doctor, Anne took action and went to our local apothecary to ask the pharmacist if there was anything that I could help relieve the pain so I could at least get some food down. They recommended that I try applying myrrh oil to the sores. I applied some and it burned like hell, but then, RELIEF! This was my saving grace while the virus ran its course. After suffering for about a week, the symptoms stopped, and I thought I was out of the woods. Emphasis on ‘thought.’

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I started noticing that after every meal, my tongue would burn with a searing pain. It wasn’t until a few days of this that I decided to look at my tongue in the mirror (hello, Captain Obvious!). I was shocked at what I saw. It looked like someone slashed my tongue with a knife all over the place, and there were burns on it as if a cigarette had been extinguished on the surface. This went on for a couple months, and I was completely dumbfounded on what to do. I was lost, directionless, and in pain. It was around this time that I went in for the chiropractic appointment I mentioned earlier, where my chiropractor noticed that my lymph nodes were swollen six times the normal size.

I had the blood test taken, and in the meantime, I scheduled a visit with my General Practitioner. My test results came back negative, and after examining me for about two minutes, my GP ordered that I have an ultrasound done on my neck. I was so scared when he told me that—the flat line of his mouth, his head shaking in concern, forever etched in my brain. We covered the ultrasound already, but what I didn’t tell you is that I had to wait a week to get my results back from my GP. A WEEK! Now, I’m not even going to get into all of the thoughts that popped into my head over the course of that week, but let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

I showed up to the follow-up appointment with my doctor to review the results and he simply stated, “the results came back normal.” A huge wave of relief washed over me, but then confusion set in. The doctor continued to tell me in a short tone that he didn’t know what was causing the problem, that it very well may just resolve itself, but that he would recommend I get a biopsy on it. A new emotion bubbled up inside of me: anger. Why was this man telling me to get a biopsy when he knew it wouldn’t help and knew both my blood tests and ultrasound came back normal? Why would he order a super expensive procedure to have done when I am self-employed and barely have enough to cover a joke of a health insurance plan? And then it hit me. He was passing me off! He didn’t want to be liable for me. He didn’t know what to do for me, and therefore, was done with me. I was furious.

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On my drive home, I told myself that I was going to get to the bottom of this. Mainstream Western medicine failed me. There were all of these things signaling that something was wrong with me. My body was screaming, “Hey man, I need help here! Listen to me!” It was at this time that I decided to try different healing modalities. My first step was seeing a massage therapist who specializes in lymphatic massages. These sessions were incredibly powerful, but after three, even he saw that I needed more help than he could offer. My next step? I would give a Chinese herbalist that I had heard about a try.

In July of 2015, I walked into the shop/office located in Chicago’s Chinatown, and it felt like stepping into another world. Workers were busily divvying up concoctions for various patients; the scent of herbs and tea lingered in the air. During my appointment, the herbalist, Dr. Lisa, examined my tongue, pulses (“There’s more than one?”), my complexion, my posture, and so much more I was not aware of. Right off the bat, she told me foods that I needed to avoid, and also showed me foods to eat more of or add in. Everything she was addressing had to do with food and diet, and I ate it all up (pun intended). I left with an eating plan and a week’s worth of herbs and I felt so empowered. I felt like I finally won some control back over my health! I didn’t understand any of the concepts or reasonings behind her treatments at the time, but I continued to see Dr. Lisa for months. It was difficult to stay disciplined on such a strict, temporary diet.

At times, it made me feel isolated and alone. It was extremely difficult to deal with, and I felt like I lost a part of myself. I felt my sickness changing me. I wanted to bow out of every social situation in order to avoid having to talk about what I was going through or be the "problem one" of the group who had to specify exact requirements when ordering dinner. Anne was a huge help to me during this, always encouraging me and finding new recipes that fit the bill. After implementing Chinese food therapy and herbs for a while, my lymph nodes improved. However, I finally got to a point where my progress plateaued.

Six months later, I decided to also see an acupuncturist. I had acupuncture done once before, but nothing quite like this. After explaining everything that I was experiencing, the doctor went to work placing needles at various points on my body that seemed completely unconnected. He also performed cupping on my back and noticed that my body was toxic, apparent by the deep purple bruising that lasted for weeks. I had acupuncture done religiously for months, each appointment bringing about new discoveries. My acupuncturist pointed me to different foods, teas, and books to learn from. Anne and I couldn’t get enough! We found ourselves researching and learning all about Chinese medicine, specifically how food and diet play such a crucial role in overall health. One of the books the acupuncturist referred me to was Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition by Paul Pitchford. I dove in deep, reading for hours on end, and over the course of a few weeks I came to a section that addressed the danger of root canals.

(Left, January 2016) Severe bruising that lasted for weeks after my first cupping treatment.  (Right, May 2016) Minimal bruising from cupping that cleared in a day after months of detoxing.

(Left, January 2016) Severe bruising that lasted for weeks after my first cupping treatment.

(Right, May 2016) Minimal bruising from cupping that cleared in a day after months of detoxing.

This was a light bulb moment for me because I had a root canal performed on a molar three years prior, and my symptoms really intensified after that procedure. My mind was blown that it could be having such an affect on my overall health and this realization helped me start to connect the dots about a lot of things in my overall health that I had been experiencing for years. I decided to have my root canal tooth pulled out completely. I needed to get that toxic piece out of my body. The moment it was extracted, I felt lighter and more positive, almost like a weight had been lifted off me, and I knew immediately that it was absolutely the right decision. I listened to my gut and it did not fail me! After my root canal was removed, symptoms that I had been experiencing for years started to clear up—things that I never would have associated with a tooth. The constant pain in my right big toe was gone, the pain in my right knee greatly subsided, and the pain and occasional numbness in my right hand resolved. (Fun fact: my swollen lymph nodes and the root canal tooth were also on my right side! Coincidence? I think not.)

I continued to receive acupuncture appointments to help my body detox from years of toxicity and to aid in healing the root canal procedure. Slowly but surely I improved. I didn’t have an instant, “I feel better moment,” rather a slow realization that I was starting to not notice pain or certain symptoms anymore. My lymph nodes were still inflamed at this time, but they were down significantly, from six times the normal size to only twice the size.

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Four months later, my chiropractor was offering a new test to patients that tested blood, hair, and urine for metal toxicity. She felt like I would be a great candidate for it since my lymph nodes were still problematic. I decided to give it a shot, and low and behold, I had extremely toxic levels of various heavy metals. (we’re talking things like copper and mercury, not AC/DC ;) Their office put me on a supplement protocol, which I followed for 7 months. I was doing Chinese food therapy and acupuncture in conjunction with the supplement regimen, and my levels improved drastically! My lymph nodes FINALLY resolved, most of my pain was gone, my attitude improved, my confidence grew, and I had far less flare up with my tongue cuts and sores. I had even gotten to the point where I could start weight lifting to regain my strength.

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There was just one more thing. My tongue was still bothering me on more occasions than I would have liked. I decided at this point to switch to an acupuncturist that Anne was seeing who mentioned that she could help. After just a couple treatments with her and through taking prescribed Chinese herbal formulas, my tongue was noticeably improved. Now, I hardly ever have a flare up! I do want to let you know that I’m not completely healed though because I think it’s important—I’ve learned that I was sick for a long period of my life, and it takes time to recover from that. But I am healthier, happier, and more in control of my health than I have ever been in my life.

In hindsight, I now know that this all happened for a reason. My story is what ignited a new passion for me—to help guide others on their health journey by advocating for Chinese medicine.

I understand what it’s like to struggle with a health problem.

I understand how scary and frustrating it is to not have answers or anyone to listen to you.

I understand how lonely it can be.

I understand how it feels to be neglected by the Western medicine machine.

I get it.

This is why I do what I do, why I am here to listen, and why I want to help you. Because I was there too.

Be Wise,

Steve

 

Eczema: Discovering the Root Cause

I was recently approached by Jenny Leak Miller from Pool Mom to share some advice for babies suffering from eczema especially during bath time. Specialists often recommend limiting or reducing the amount of time spent in baths or the pool because water can aggravate eczema prone skin. But time in the water is important for kids to learn to feel comfortable, especially in babyhood. Jenny wondered, is it possible to treat eczema so that it doesn’t interfere (as much) with important time spent in the water? What should parents consider about a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to eczema?

My immediate thought, it’s an internal issue. Water is not the cause of eczema––it may be exacerbating the problem but there’s a much deeper issue here.

I wanted to share what I wrote for Pool Mom because eczema is such a common aggravation; it doesn’t matter if you are an infant or an adult, this information still applies and I’d love for as many people to have it!

I’d like to begin by thanking Jenny for asking me to share some thoughts about how Eczema is thought about differently in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Chinese medicine views any skin disorder as the result of an imbalance within the body that affects overall health. It is believed that internal organ* disharmony of the Spleen, Lungs, Stomach, Heart, as well as Blood, combined with external pathogenic factors like wind and heat can cause eczema.

*It’s important to note that in TCM “organs” are not the same as the specific organs as we know them in Western culture. In Chinese medicine “organs” are thought of a combination of systems that perform specific tasks in our bodies.

In Chinese medicine, there are many different types of eczema, and the characteristics of the skin are clues to the imbalance that is happening inside of the body. For example:

  • Invasion of Wind: Skin disorders are characterized by their sudden appearance and itching
  • Accumulation of Dampness: Skin becomes puffy, bloated, or weepy
  • Too much Heat in the Blood: Skin has a burning sensation, is red, dry, or swollen.

Different combinations of these internal pathogens (Wind, Dampness, Heat) produce different forms of eczema. For example, if the skin is weeping and hot, the cause is likely to be Damp-Heat.

In both infants and children, the most common type of eczema is caused by Damp-Heat, a result of having a weak Spleen and Stomach. Now you may be wondering, how is it possible at such a young age to have an imbalance of organ function? And the answer––food! Chinese medicine holds food as a major culprit for internal balances of our bodies.

It can begin with the mom when she eats too many fatty, spicy, fried or sweet foods, or overindulges in fish/seafood. These eating habits will contribute to the mom developing a weak Spleen. This may occur before pregnancy, or it can develop during pregnancy as well as while breastfeeding. When the mom’s Spleen is weak it does not produce enough energy (Qi) and that insufficient energy is passed along to the baby, causing the baby’s Spleen function to become impaired at a young age.

What does this mean for the baby? A week Spleen cannot take the food and fluids that are consumed and transform them into usable energy. Instead, Dampness and Heat combine (called Damp-Heat), and together they start to accumulate internally. Dampness and Heat are unhealthy forms of energy that are capable of causing disease if not treated properly and balanced out. When there is too much Damp-Heat for the baby’s body to handle, in this case, it eventually gets pushed outward and gets trapped in the skin––causing eczema lesions.

It’s important to note that the child’s eating habits will also play an important role in eczema developing and how quickly.  Certain food can provoke this skin disorder such as:

  1. Too much sugar, starch, or dairy products: Refined carbohydrate foods and dairy are classified in TCM as Dampness generating food in the body, which may present as weepy/oozing or blistering skin.

  2. Hot spicy food: Spicy foods can cause more dryness due to its nature and ability to consume fluids, resulting in too much Heat internally. Fluids are the body’s source of energy that nourishes and moisten the skin.

  3. Too many fatty or greasy foods: Fatty and greasy food inhibits the body to produce enough Spleen and Stomach energy (Qi), resulting in weakened Spleen and Stomach functions.

Remember––the baby started off with a weakened Spleen due to insufficient energy from its mom. If the child consumes too much dairy, sweet or spicy foods, this diet continues to weaken the Spleen further, resulting in more Dampness and Heat which causes more eczema outbreaks. Yikes, it’s a vicious circle!

This internal development of Wind, Heat, and/or Dampness is one direct way eczema can develop, but it isn’t the only way. Like Western medicine, Chinese medicine also recognizes airborne/respiratory allergies––dust mites, mold, seasonal pollens, animal dander, etc.––as possible causes for eczema and are considered during a treatment consultation. TCM treats eczema with acupuncture and herbal medicine, but it also believes food therapy is a very important preventative measure for eczema outbreaks and part of the treatment process during its recurrent stages.

What is food therapy? Food therapy is the process of reducing or eliminating some foods while increasing the intake of others.

In order to get the most out of food therapy, it is important to determine which internal pathogen is more predominant: Damp or Heat.  More weepy or oozing lesions indicate more Dampness.  When Heat predominates, there may be more redness, but there will also be more itching and dryness. Chubbier babies who tend to sweat more tend to be prone to a Damp condition.  Their eczema will likely have more oozing and the lesions will form yellow crusts when they dry.  Thinner or weaker babies have a tendency to develop the drier type of eczema where Heat is more predominant. This type of eczema will have drier lesions with flaky crusts that look like they have white or gray “bran-like” scales on top. The skin might crack or get bloody scabs if scratching is intense. In infants who are dependent on formula or in children who eat a lot of sugary foods, milk, and dairy products, fatty or greasy foods, there will also be an underlying weakness of Spleen and Stomach function. The TCM pattern of Damp-Heat accounts for most cases of acute eczema regardless of the age of the patient.

However, the TCM pattern of Heat in the Blood is also a possibility during the childhood phase as well as the adolescent/adult phase. Though some Damp-Heat may also be present, this pattern presents as the drier type of eczema, with more redness and even more intense itching.

Once you have distinguished what type of eczema is presenting itself, it’s time to utilize food therapy.

AVOID or drastically reduce foods that may cause Dampness in the body. Foods such as:

  • Dairy (including milk, cheese, yogurt)
  • Rich meats (e.g. beef, lamb, sausage, etc.)
  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Fried or greasy foods
  • Saturated fat and sugar
  • Concentrated juices (especially orange & tomato)
  • Tofu and other soy products
  • Chocolate

From the TCM perspective, excess consumption of any or all of these foods weaken the energy of the Spleen and encourage the development of Dampness and Damp-Heat.

Now you may be wondering, what SHOULD my child be eating?

If the type of eczema is aligning with Damp-Heat these foods that are Cooling or known to relieve Dampness (which are often bitter and/or aromatic foods) can help counteract this type of condition. Examples:

  • Aduki beans
  • Alfalfa
  • Anise
  • Barley
  • Bitter Melon
  • Bok Choy
  • Cabbage
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Daikon radish
  • Grapefruit
  • Green Tea
  • Kiwi
  • Lemon
  • Mung bean
  • Oregano
  • Papaya
  • Parsley
  • Rye
  • Seaweed
  • Summer squash
  • Watermelon
  • Watercress
  • Winter Melon (Wax Gourd)
  • Zucchini

If eczema is aligning more with the drier (Heat) conditions these Cooling foods may prove helpful:

  • Amaranth
  • Banana
  • Barley
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chrysanthemum
  • Daikon Radish
  • Fig
  • Green Tea
  • Lemon/Lime
  • Mulberry
  • Mung Bean
  • Napa cabbage
  • Peach
  • Pear
  • Peppermint
  • Pomegranate
  • Radish
  • Seaweed (Kelp)
  • Spinach
  • Strawberry
  • Watercress

Remember, food therapy is a very important preventative measure for eczema outbreaks and part of the treatment process during its recurrent stages. It’s not the only option, however. TCM is most effective when using food, herbs, and/or acupuncture in combination. Consider a consultation with a TCM specialist. There are thousands of Chinese herbs used for medicinal purposes and it takes a certain degree of knowledge and experience to prescribe the optimal combination of herbs that would address the conditions of a particular patient.

While it may seem overwhelming or difficult at first, the effort will be worth it. This low impact intervention therapeutically addresses sensitive skin conditions without the side effects associated with Western treatments.

Be Wise,

Anne


My Experience of Treating Frequent Urination with Chinese Medicine

“I have a tiny bladder…” That’s the excuse I used to give for why I would need to go to the bathroom every hour. I’m not kidding when I say that I know where every bathroom is in the stores we frequent. And I’ll never forget the time I went to the bathroom at home before starting the hour and 25 minute drive to my parent’s house, barely making it the 45 minutes to the rest stop, and THEN proceeding to run into their house and immediately heading to the bathroom. The abnormal frequency I would need to urinate was driving.me.crazy.

Did you know that a healthy person should feel the need to urinate four to six times per day, and either just once or not at all during the night? If urinary frequency exceeds ten times during the daytime, or more than twice at night, it may be considered pathological. I did a tally and realized I was going at least twelve times a day and for sure once a night, maybe twice if I drank a lot before bed. “I’m too young for this,” I remember telling myself. I’m an active person, and it was really starting to cramp my style. I know I’m not alone in this; I’ve joked with many friends over the years about having “a tiny bladder.”

What I AM excited to share is that this year I decided to get serious about fixing the problem. I started seeing an acupuncturist/herbalist in April 2017 and over the course of the last three and a half months, she has successfully helped me get down to going seven times a day! I can’t express how free I feel; it truly is a relief (pun intended) that I have dreamed about for years. So many things we think we have to live with can be addressed using a combination of food therapy, acupuncture, and herbs. My body has been telling me for years that something was out of balance, and I finally listened!

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So what did I do? I began with removing caffeine (a known urination instigator ) for seven days. My acupuncturist said if it didn’t make a difference (which it didn’t) then there was something more “structural” happening on the interior.

In TCM there is Yin & Yang. To be in balance, we strive to have close to equal parts of both. In today’s “go-go-go” lifestyle we use a lot of Yang energy which burns up Yin. My acupuncturist likened it to candle wax (Yin) & a flame (Yang). If you keep burning the candle, all the wax gets used up. But you NEED that wax! In our body, Yin is important for interior functions and building new tissue. It is both lubricant and fuel. In my case it would help hold the bladder up and keep it strong. She noted through light abdominal massages that the tissue around my bladder was dry, hard, and weak–it wasn’t performing properly because the moisture was gone.

Rebuilding Yin is a slow process, but extremely important. When Yin is deficient, we need to avoid foods which stimulate us to use up energy we don’t really have, like stimulants and the more heating and drying pungent spices that release energy from our body (e.g., peppers, cinnamon, garlic, onion, etc.) We need to eat Yin-promoting foods which combine deep and subtle nourishment with moistening and often cooling qualities. Yin foods travel deeply into the body replenishing our core and soothing our overworked system. They include many deeply nutritious foods: creatures/plants from the seabed, nuts, seeds and beans, and many cooling fruits. Since building Yin is a slow process, it was important to treat me with more than food. In addition to acupuncture to help strengthen me internally, my herbalist also prescribed certain herbal formulas to help build Yin. While I am a huge proponent for treating as much as I can with food therapy, I truly believe I wouldn’t have had the success I have had thus far without seeing an acupuncturist/herbalist.

Be wise,

Anne

Qi: Wtf is it?

So you may have heard me or someone else use the word ‘Qi’ before and thought to yourself, wtf is Qi? First things first, it’s pronounced ‘Chee.’ Go ahead, say it out loud. :)

Qi can be difficult to translate from Chinese Medicine, but it’s often understood in Western culture as our inner energy level; it is the energy essential for life. Its main characteristic is motion–the activity of life. All functions of the body and mind are manifestations of Qi. Basically, Qi is a mixture of energies derived from the food we eat and the air we breathe, plus an element inherited from our parents which we are born with. All of these “ingredients” combine and are transformed in a variety of ways to make Qi that circulates in the body.

Listen up because this is important! Your health depends on a sufficient, balanced, and uninterrupted flow of Qi. Qi circulates through the body along a continuous circuit of pathways known as meridians. These meridians flow along the surface of the body (protecting you from the external factors that might result in illness) and through the internal organs (which is essential in the process of nourishing all the tissues of the body). When you are healthy, you have an abundance of Qi flowing smoothly through the meridians and into and out of the organs, allowing your body to function in harmony and balance.

Qi is what allows Yin-Yang balance to be maintained in the body. According to Chinese medicine, illnesses take hold when the flow of Qi is disturbed, unbalanced, or blocked. To restore health, Chinese medical practitioners seek to free and realign the flow of Qi through acupuncture, herbs, food, or all three combined.

Be wise,

Anne