Grace (I’ve changed her name to protect patient confidentiality) came for acupuncture treatment a few weeks ago because she was anxious and couldn’t sleep. When she was 12 years old she underwent a shockingly painful and hugely traumatic medical procedure. It wasn’t a necessary operation in that it didn’t save her life or make her more comfortable but it was required for all girls in her culture, to make her marriageable and clean. It was an operation that has had long term physical and emotional consequences for her.
Grace told me she is now 33 years old and she hasn’t slept through the night since. In fact she woke up every hour. Understandably she was generally exhausted, anxious and depressed. She relied on medications to keep the physical pain and the emotional turmoil manageable but nothing was allowing her to sleep well.
As usual for the first acupuncture appointment we sat and chatted about her medical history, her life then and now, her hopes and fears, her understanding of what Five Element Acupuncture (5EA) could do for her and how we might achieve that.
I then did what I do with all patients. I looked at her tongue, I took her pulses in both wrists, I lightly palpate around her belly button and I lightly pressed certain acupuncture points called Mu points. All the time we chatted and Grace gave me feedback on how things felt as I lightly palpated her acupuncture points and channels. I started to get to know her and how her body and Qi were working and she got to know me and how I worked in the treatment room.
I’ve probably met dozens of women who have undergone the various procedures encompassed by FGM (female genital mutilation) after all I was a family lawer in the West Midlands for many years and I’ve treated many other Muslim women with 5EA. But I’ve never met a patient who has so obviously suffered so devestatingly from the consequences and at first I was unsure what to do and what should we tackle first.
But in the end I did what I always try to do, I ask myself what my patient’s priorities are for improvements in the quality of their lives over the timescale they identify and then treat what I see.
There is much research about how to treat sleep disorders with acupuncture. You can read about a recent example in Sleep Medicine Volume 37, September 2017, Pages 193-200. Although I always take on board the most up to date research, I consider each person I treat individually and then I decide what treatment is best just for them. In Grace’s case we kept it simple.
And these first few simple 5EA treatments have made such a difference. After the first treatment Grace reported sleeping through the night for the first time since she was 12 years old. After a few more treatments anxiety, muscle tension, niggly aches and pains, stomach and period pains have all reduced and Grace says she feels ‘relieved’ and ‘unblocked’ in her body and her mind.
Nothing will reverse the trauma Grace has experienced but she is now sleeping through the night for the first time since she was 12 years old, She has amazingly healthy genes (from a Chinese medicine perspective she has strong Jing), her mother is 85 and her Gran 104 years young. Living a good, long life as healthily as possible both physically and mentally is a priority for her. Hopefully her acupuncture treatments and her newly acquired sleep pattern have helped with that.
Anyone who knows me will know how fond I am of my morning green smoothie. So how happy was I when I came across a little bar in Fagada in the mountains of Gran Canaria where I could have a green smoothie with a view.
In Chinese medicine (CM) food and eating really is seen as medicine which can improve your life. This view on food can seem a bit complicated at first but once you have the hang of it it's pretty straight forward and eminently adaptable.
In CM food is a big, big subject but in a nutshell to have good digestion and make the most of the food we eat we need to consider 3 general area. Obviously there's the what of eating, familiar to anyone who's ever been on any sort of calorie controlled diet. But CM also concentrated on when of eating and how of eating too and those two issues can have a big impact on how well you digest your food.
So what's in my green smoothie?
At home in England I follow a versions of this
1 large handful of spinach or kale
Half a yellow or red pepper
Piece of cucumber (thumb length)
4 or 5 sprigs of fresh parsley or coriander
1 desert spoon of chia seeds
I teaspoon of wheatgrass/ barley grass powder
Juice of half a lemon
Fresh ginger (1/2 my thumb size)
Chop up the ingredients and place in a Nutribullet. Whizz till smooth.
Feel free to experiment. I try not to eat much sugar so I often don't add fruit to my smoothies. It's an acquired taste and if you like things sweet you could add apple, dried dates or agarve to yummie things up a bit. This green concoction will gives lots of the vitamins and minerals that are needed each day and all in one hit (vitamin Bs, A, C, E, K, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, chromium).
Energetically (and CM is all about how the food effects the energy in your body) a green smoothie is quite cooling to the gut. Great on a hot day in Gran Canaria but not so good for a cold damp morning in the British Isles. The ginger in this smoothie is warming but a good general rule in the UK is to eat all your chilled food and drinks at room temperature. I often put all the ingredients together the night before and store it in the fridge ready for a quick whizz when I get up but I still try to leave it at room temperature for a while so it's not such a shock to my digestion. This gives my digestion a head start at extracting all those lovely nutrients.
The protein in the chia seeds helps keep me going for a while which brings me onto the second issue of when to eat.
CM has always worked on the basis that your body organs are more active at certain times of the day (and Western Medicine has now caught up with that....see my previous blog on Sleep). The digestive organs including your Stomach and Spleen work best in the morning between 7am and 11am so it really is best, as the old saying goes, to breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen and eat dinner like a pauper. Not easy I know but maybe a good reason to have a second nutritional breakfast later in the morning, eat a good lunch and just a light dinner if you can.
And the final issue in CM is the how of eating. This is virtually never addressed in the West although I do remember being told by my Grandma to chew each mouthful 50 times before I swallowed......at 5 years old that seemed like a very sad waste of time when there was fun to be had away from the table.
But we should try to follow a few simple bits of CM advice
- eat slowly and stop when you're still a bit hungry and not totally pogged. It takes time for your head to catch up with your tum and for you to know you're had enough)
- chew as my Gran said (mixing the food with saliva is the first stage of how your body digests)
- don't eat whilst distracted, upset or angry. Your body needs to do one thing at a time, digesting is hard work and if you're studying, screaming at the kids or frustrated by your toddler's eating issues your stomach won't do its job properly.
- for similar reasons don't finish eating and immediately rush off to your next task. Sit for a time to digest.
- if you can, eat with others and eat mindfully. Good company and good food is precious enough to be savoured. Being sociable and enjoying each and every mouthful really does, as the song says, make the medicine go down in the most delightful way.
So this brings me back to today's smoothie. As I sat contemplating the view I decided that I should include the where of eating too. Eating with a wonderful view has become the norm this holiday and it really has made very simple Canarian food soothing for the digestion and the soul.
I'm sitting on the balcony listening to and watching dawn rise over the SanLucia valley in Gran Canaria. What a pleasure. But I was awake early so am having that modern worry that I've not had 'enough sleep'.
So I'm pleased that Western science has caught up with Chinese medicine and it's only taken a couple of thousand years. Nobel prize scientists have just discovered that not only do we are whole beings work on a circadian rhythm but that our very cells have inbuilt clocks. Apparently in the past decade, scientists have shown that clock genes are active in almost every cell type in the body. The activity of blood, liver, kidney and lung cells in a petri dish all rise and fall on a roughly 24-hour cycle. Scientists have also found that the activity of around half our genes appear to be under circadian control, following undulating on-off cycles.
From the 2nd century BCE a book called 'The Yellow Emperors Inner Classic' was giving advice about how important regular sleep is (and regular other things such as eating and working) in accordance with the cycles of the days and seasons, was to a long and healthy life.
In the 17th century Li Yu in a book called 'Collected Works of an Old Man with a Bamboo Hat' (what a fab title) says sleep can regenerate energy, improve health, invigorate the digestion and strengthen the bones and muscles. In fact regularity is the secret of health.
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine has always recognised the importance of the time time of day for the functioning of the organs which is why you will always get advice from your acupuncturist about when it's best for you to eat, sleep, work, rest and play.
I'm just concerned that sometimes I'm not that good at following the century old advice. But today, when I think about it, my body has told me that I've had enough sleep and I'm actually waking up in accordance with the natural rhythms of the day. The cacophony of cockle doodle doing seems to suggest that anyway.
Gaynor Hollis is a Classical Five Element Acupuncturist with a thriving practice in Birmingham. She is interested in all things healthy and life style related not just Chinese and Japanese acupuncture.