When I was in graduate school, we spent a couple of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) Theory classes learning about body/mind imbalances that are often influenced by the “energetics” of a particular season. I distinctly remember approaching this section of class with careful skepticism; the information seemed too dependent on folk medicine, a term that I was still trying to understand. The concept of folk medicine piqued my interest, but also filled my brain with questions.
At that point, I was still struggling to figure out my approach to medicine. In my earliest years of graduate school, I was hell-bent on a particular way of understanding the body. I’d been raised in a culture in which Western biomedicine and the scientific method reigned supreme. Everything about TCM, Daoism, and the concept of “slow medicine” (similar to the Slow Food movement) called strongly to me, yet all the information I learned was critiqued, quietly but obsessively.
Much of the information I absorbed in my early grad school years was relegated to what I considered the gray area. I’d carefully process the information, then place it in storage. In the future, I told myself, I’d incorporate this information into my practice only if it could be proven useful. My internship in the clinic would answer some questions, I believed. In the meantime, I’d focus heavily on the parts of TCM that seemed less abstract and more practical – like learning how to stop a headache in its tracks with accurate point location and correct needle technique.
Spring Weather and Your Health: Headaches, Insomnia, and Tempers, Oh My!
Fast forward a decade. I’ve been an acupuncturist in a community clinic for 5 years, and I’ve seen/needled over 10,000 people. I feel confident saying that if there are any “patterns” that show up in the health of my patient population that seem connected to seasonal changes – well, I’m in a good position to notice them!
And I’m only ever-so-slightly embarrassed to report that there is some serious legitimacy to this “folk medicine” that I learned in school (I say this knowing that it drips with the irony and presumptuousness of my younger years in school…in other words, I’ve been SPANKED by TCM, about a zillion times by now!). Actually, the term “folk medicine” deserves its own lengthy blog post.
Nevertheless, seasonal changes can/probably do affect the health of my patients, as well as my own. That being said, for most of us, Spring is the absolute worst!
The worst? Well, the worst in that this season is related to the wood element, and the liver. It’s the season of sudden, extreme shifts. You know, like spring weather…
So what are the common complaints that we see worsen (or arrive) in the spring? Insomnia, neck and shoulder pain, migraines/headaches, skin issues, anxiety, and irritability. If you already deal with one of these health issues – does it get worse in the spring?
I’d get into more detail, but a couple of people have already expertly written about this season and its accompanying health imbalances. They’ve also written about what to do about them!
Okay, maybe not all of us. But let’s start by pointing out the obvious. Coffee contains caffeine and caffeine is a drug. Though some of us like to imagine “drugs” as the stuff the neighbors do while we steam broccolini and knit wool hats for the grandkids, well, it just ain’t true. Caffeine is a powerful psychoactive drug consumed by 90 percent of adults living in North America. In other words, the majority of us begin our day wrapping our lips around a steaming mug of drug.
I personally LOVE coffee, especially with a bit of sugar and a hearty splash of REAL, full-fat cream and of course when its high quality similar to what Iron and Fire produce. Occasionally, I have a big fight with coffee, and we break up in order to reestablish healthy boundaries; but the truth is, coffee is my eternal love and I never stray too far. Green tea is calming and lighthearted and looks great in a chawan, but it just doesn’t give me the warm, earthy, kick-in-the-pants that coffee does. Because no one loves me like my coffee. My coffee understands me, and though it might be overly loud sometimes, in our quieter moments we share a deep, intimate understanding. Are you getting uncomfortable? Let me tell you more.
Though I normally don’t consume more than a 8-10 ounces a day, I do drink a strong cup of french-pressed coffee in the morning to help shake off the desire to stay in bed until 10 am. I’m sure many of you can agree with me on this one – it can be difficult (read: impossible) to start your day without a’cuppajoe.
According to wikipedia, the word coffee entered English language after a series of mutations of the Arabic word qahhwat al-bun, which means wine of the bean. Perfect, isn’t it? Wine of the bean. The coffee bean actually comes from a bright red berry that is plucked from an evergreen shrub (usually Coffea arabica, sometimes Coffea robusta). The berry is dried and the seeds are extracted. Those seeds (the coffee beans) are roasted to varying degrees (explaining the difference in taste according to roast).
A very strong cuppa’ joe can contain up to 300 mg of caffeine (average range, depending on how it’s brewed, is 80-170 mg of caffeine). For comparison, a cup of black tea, depending on how long it’s steeped, will have about 30-60 mg of caffeine. Curious about how much caffeine you’re consuming? Check this out.
La Vino de la Beano
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, coffee is a powerful medicine and should be used as such. Even a small amount (a single cup, even half a cup for some) can dredge stagnant liver qi. When the liver qi is constrained, the body/spirit will also feel constrained (i.e. tense and/or depressed). Substances that move liver qi will usually result in a temporary but strong sense of mental and physical relief (the sludge has been moved through the pipes and now everything feels better). This is why people love coffee so much – it’s very effective at moving “stuck” liver qi. It’s also why we become addicted to it.
So, I Drink 12 Cups of Coffee A Day? IS THIS OKAY?
Caffeine is clearly the most prevalently used stimulant in the world. Coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa, many soft drinks, diet pills, aspirin, various analgesics used for migraine headache and vascular pain, and even some herbal preparations contain either caffeine or very closely related substances. Examples of such caffeine-like substances are theobromine in chocolate and cocoa and theophylline in tea. When caffeine and similar compounds are taken in excess, any of several symptoms usually result: anxiety and nervousness, insomnia or light sleep patterns, various types of heart disease, stomach and intestinal maladies, and moodiness. When consumed regularly, as little as two cups of coffee can initiate these symptoms. Children who exhibit hyperactivity are often victims of diets rich in chocolate and cola drinks. – Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods
So, no, if you are interested in a healthy relationship with coffee, you probably don’t want to be drinking 12 cups of coffee a day. And by the way, Paul Pitchford’s Healing With Whole Foods is considered the “bible” of nutrition (if you’re interested in learning about the Traditional Chinese Medicine approach to food). It’s hundreds of pages of densely-packed information about one of our best medicines – FOOD!
So, here’s the problem with coffee. Like I mentioned above, coffee is strong medicine, and should be used as such. We tend to overdo it with coffee since we, culturally-speaking, tend to be so stagnant (in theory, alcohol and cigarettes are also potent qi-movers, which can help explain some of the addiction issues that surround those substances as well). Some of us do a lot of sitting at our computers, a lot of being “polite,” and a lot of stuffing down of emotions. And we don’t sleep or exercise enough. And sometimes we don’t have enough opportunity to laugh and love. At the end of the day, that makes for some tense shoulders, some unpredictable digestion, and a good dose of irritability. So, it makes sense that we crave substances that move qi, which is, understandably, stuck.
But here’s the downside of coffee. While it can effectively release ‘stuck’ liver qi, it does not necessarily regulate it. Some people, if overusing coffee, will feel mild to extreme negative effects – for instance, since coffee’s moving effect is so much more potent than it’s tonifying effect, those with a weak spleen or a blood deficiency may feel agitated after coffee, or experience gastrointestinal distress. When consumed over a long period of time, coffee can damage the blood (this could manifest as heart palpitations, anxiety, dizziness, “adrenal fatigue”). Excessive amounts of coffee can also agitate the liver and create ‘wind’ (manifesting as shakes/tremors) and exacerbate issues of “counterflow” (including complaints like acid reflux/GERD, belching, nausea, gastritis, insomnia, and panic attacks).
So, Should I Drink 2 Cups of Coffee a Day?
So, what to do with this wonderful bean that tempts all the sensory organs of your face? (It blends sooooooo well with chocolate, too).
In the case of coffee, which should be thought of as a medicinal plant, emphasis should be on how well the plant matches the needs of the individual. If the two of your aren’t well-matched, well, it’s like an unending bad date. Consider giving it up or substituting with green/black tea. If you’re not well-matched but you love coffee too much to leave it, get creative. Consider ways in which you can make it a more balanced beverage (see below). If you try to do this and coffee just can’t meet your needs…well, I’m sorry to say but it’s time to pack up and leave (and take the dog, since the dog loves you best and you’re the one who takes care of it anyway).
But what does the research on coffee say, you ask? For a interesting, concise overview of research on coffee, see here (you can listen to the podcast or read the transcript). If you don’t feel like listening, here’s the summary: coffee is associated with numerous health benefits in the scientific literature. However, it’s best when coffee consumption does not interfere with HPA axis function (the relationships and signals that exist between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenals). In other words, it shouldn’t be used to compensate for the fact that you’re run down, overworked, or over-stressed.
All of this, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, is right in line with the TCM theory of how coffee can work to your advantage…or not.
Practical Suggestions From Your Friendly, Coffee-Loving Acupuncturist
1.) Use coffee as medicine. Many Americans use massive mugs/cups and drink coffee all day. Don’t do that.
2.) Experiment with green tea. Camellia sinensis is pretty awesome. Period. It’s a potent source of antioxidants and it contains a unique amino acid called l-theanine, which is associated with “alert relaxation” making the buzz quite different from the coffee buzz. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, green tea is cooling, as opposed to warming (if you’ve forgotten, coffee is warming). It’s said to brighten the eyes, open the meridians, improve digestion, and drain dampness. If coffee leaves you agitated in any way, try green tea instead.
Oh. And if you like green tea, check out matcha. It’s wonderful.
3.) Add organic virgin coconut oil or grass-fed butter to your coffee. In some circles, this is known as “Bulletproof Coffee.” This mix is more appropriate for those who eat more plants than meat, and who tend to be more ‘cold’ than ‘warm.’ By adding butter/coconut oil to your coffee, you can ‘soften’ the extreme release of liver energy. Many people report that drinking their coffee in this way gives them much more extended energy throughout the day, sans jitters. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, coconut oil is warm, sweet, strengthening, and can quell ‘wind.’ Butter/ghee is warm, yin-tonifying, and ever so slightly blood-moving.
Start by adding 1 tsp. of coconut oil and/or 1 tsp. of grass-fed butter to your coffee. Blend it to emulsify the fats (a small immersion blender is helpful). Some people add up to 1 tbsp of coconut oil or butter to their coffee. I feel like 1 tsp. of each is enough, but that’s me.
4.) If you’re blood deficient, experiment with adding Si Wu Tang to your coffee. Si Wu Tang (a blood-tonifying formula) tastes pretty good, and mixes decently with coffee (depending how committed you are to a specific taste). For example, let’s say your period just ended. You’re feeling tired, stressed, and kind of anxious. You really want a warm mug of coffee, but you wonder if it will make you feel worse. Well, try adding Si Wu Tang granules to your coffee! The herbs in this formula not only tonify blood, but help ‘soften’ and regulate the liver. If you’re interested, granules are available at Wildwood Community Acupuncture.
Well, that’s a wrap! May you find your sweet spot with this beverage, and if not, may you find your sweet spot with another.
Since we know that the liver qi is easily constrained, here are 5 suggestions to help you keep it flowing freely. If you have absolutely no clue about what I’m talking about, read this.
1. Know that anger and frustration aren’t inherently bad, but if they’re hanging around like sullen clouds over the sun, perhaps it’s time to take action. Since the liver is the organ in charge of pushing us forward to recognize our potential, perhaps your body/spirit is speaking to you, and trying to let you know that you’ve stepped from the path that brings you the most fulfillment and joy. In other words, maybe it’s time to leave a relationship, change jobs, go back to school, or take more time to care for yourself.* Most of the time, there’s good reason why we’re feeling frustrated or angry. That being said – there is never any good reason to project this anger onto other people, verbally or physically. That’s called abuse.
*I feel like it is important to recognize that in some circumstances, mobility isn’t easy, or even possible. Extreme poverty, marginalized populations, and a lack of resources are often involved. See this blog post if you live in Maine and need some extra help.
2. Spring is the best time to clear our your living space, as well as your liver. It’s still winter, but as no Game of Thrones
character ever said…spring is coming! Spring is the time when all that green stuff begins pushing up from the ground. Go outside and take a big sniff of air and get some sun on your face!
A deep clean can also do wonders for a stagnant living space. Establishing rituals to welcome spring can help prepare your body and mind for this new season’s energy, and as you might already know – the energy of spring can be large and in charge (see below).
3. Prepare your body for spring. Like the branches of of a tree, healthy liver qi moves in an upward and outward manner. The advent of spring comes with a surge of similar energy that can flood the body with qi and blood that can exacerbate some preexisting health issues. During the spring, if you have a flare up of insomnia, painful periods, nightmares, migraines, digestive upset, or anxiety, your liver is likely involved. Come in and get some acupuncture for quick, effective relief.
4. Stretch your body, wander, and sing. The liver is associated with the tendons and ligaments in the body, as well as the flexibility of the joints. It’s the organ in charge of being able to move your body smoothly and gracefully. Stretching the body is a physical tonic for the liver. A long, good-paced amble around town is also a great way to move qi that’s been constrained. I affectionately call these “urban hikes” and they are the bomb for changing a bad attitude!
As for singing – how do you feel when the sun comes (and stays) out after a long, cold winter. I certainly do a lot of singing on my way to work – as soon as I’m alone in my car, I sing the heck out of some song whether or not I know the lyrics. Belt out some Janis Joplin in the shower. Whistle. Do a round of Do Re Mi with your dorky co-workers. Making music with your mouth can move stagnant qi, since it involves controlled breath work and diaphragmatic control.
5. Nourish the liver with food. The liver has a profound influence on digestion. Bloating, IBS, acid reflux – many GI issues involve the liver, especially if those issues are worsened by stress or intense emotion. Carrot is a simple, sweet food that can be an effective remedy for digestive stagnation since it gently circulates qi and blood. Here is two (relatively) simple recipes for times when you realize that you have more in common with the Incredible Hulk than you’d like to admit. Roasted Carrot and Cashew Soup might be one of my favorite soups of all time, and this salad is one of my favorites of all time. And of course, do your best to incorporate all spring greens.
Also, check out my post on Roasted Dandelion Root Mocha. Another tasty liver-lovin’ recipe that you can make at home to help that sexy I’m-going-to-crawl-out-of-my-skin feeling, or that peaceful I’ll-rear-end-that-muther-flapper-if-he-cuts-me-off-again feeling.
And don’t forgot to come in and get poked! Spring is a busy time in the community acupuncture, and as you relax in a comfy chair to take a nap, you might feel better when you realize that a whole room of people are also experiencing the roller coaster ride that is the unpredictable energetics of spring.
Important things first. When I did an image search for the word “viscera” to find a picture for this post, the overwhelming result was this:
What I was actually looking for was this:
In Traditional Chinese medicine, the 5 viscera (Wu Zang) include the heart, the spleen, the lungs, the kidneys, and the liver. When we talk about these organs in the context of TCM, we are talking about a wide and interrelated set of functions that include the physical organ as well as the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects associated with that organ. We are NOT referring to your organs from a Western medical perspective. In other words, if we talk about treating congestion in your liver, we are not implying that there is anything physiologically wrong with your liver that would show up in a lab.
So, next time you overhear your acupuncturist say “Okay, Joffrey Baratheon, we’re going to work on clearing fire from your liver, you sinister rat!”
you will know that “liver fire” is a term used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and that we are not implying that there is an actual flame coming from the organ that sits in the right upper quadrant of Joffrey’s abdominal cavity.
Though the TCM perspective of the body differs in many ways from the Western perspective, the two systems actually complement each other quite nicely – even some of the functions associated with particular organs sometimes overlap within the two systems. Here’s how I explain the differences and similarities between Eastern/Western medicine to my patients – olive oil and balsamic vinegar surely hold their own space in your kitchen cabinet, right? But mix them together you’ve got a simple vinaigrette! If life is like a box of chocolates….then whole health is like making a tasty vinaigrette!
Over the next month I’ll post all kinds of amazing information about your guts! We will review the 5 viscera, and I’ll explain how these major organs experience imbalance. I’ll answer the most common questions I hear in the clinic, like “What are signs of imbalance?” and “How did this organ become imbalanced?” I’ll share all kinds of creative ways to restore balance when you feel outta whack (before you even have to see your doc, or your acupuncturist). And of course, I promise to go on some ridiculous tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject since we must always keep things interesting and helpful, but never overly serious.
The goal of the next month of posts is simple – I want to help you understand your body so you can be proactive about nurturing yourself into a state of balance that feels good to you. It’s the best kind of healing, really, when your spirit and your earthsuit make nice and work together so you can better ride the big surf without falling from your board.