There is no short answer to that question because that’s what three years of acupuncture school and my ongoing study are all about. But it might help to know a little bit about how we look at disease in Chinese medicine. It’s nothing like you might expect, and understanding it will help you keep healthy.
We don’t have “germs” in Chinese medicine. We look at disease more as a disturbance in your personal environment. Since Western medicine developed on the battlefield, they use a military model of medicine. Find the enemy and kill him. The enemy might be germs, a tumor, an infection, an addiction, whatever. They treat everything like an emergency, because on the battlefield, it is.
This doesn’t work particularly well for chronic conditions for several reasons, one being that the Western medical model is completely missing huge pieces of the human puzzle. Sick people are not cars.
Asian medicine sees people as complete ecosystems that experience disturbances that throw the whole system out of balance. It is a mirror of processes that occur in the natural world. The goal is to restore balance instead of attack an imaginary enemy.
The beauty of using metaphors of nature to describe health problems is that you can design treatments and predict outcomes based on what you observe in the natural world, and they work. Poetic descriptions of disease like “wind heat” evoke pictures of wind blowing through the trees, the heat carrying it upward. Wind heat diseases generally happen from the neck up and can cause dizziness, dry, red eyes, thirst, sore throat, flushed face and stuffy nose. The lungs are usually involved.
Since, as we see in nature, heat generates wind, the treatment goal for wind heat is to cool the heat, which will bring the wind back down.
There are specific acupuncture points that are known to cool heat, and some very effective cooling herbs that you can use, too. We would choose herbs that specifically cool the Lung meridian in this case. If you cool another organ that should stay warm with the wrong herbs, you can cause trouble. Chinese herbs are very complicated.
So my job is to know which of the 14 acupuncture meridians, or channels, are out of balance, how they affect all the other channels. I need to know which points cool, which ones are warming, which drain dampness, which tonify qi or blood, and which ones perform numerous other functions. Then I need to know which combinations of points are effective for which patterns of disharmony.
I base all this on my diagnosis. I use traditional pulse diagnosis. When I take your pulse, I am reading 6 pulses on each wrist, one for each of your main meridians. So you have a Lung pulse, a Liver pulse, a Spleen pulse, and so on. I am looking for any of scores of qualities in each pulse. A truly excellent pulse taker can tell you EXACTLY what is going on in there, what foods you like to eat, what your mood is, and more.
I also use abdominal diagnosis. When I poke around on your belly, I am looking for temperature differences, painful spots, reactive points, meridian patterns, bumps, texture, and several other things. Bellies are very autobiographical.
I also use the meridian imaging computer system for a “second opinion” diagnosis. People like to see a picture of what I am talking about, and that gives them a graph to look at.
I am also observing your facial colors, tongue, voice, gait, clothing choices, odors, mood, and numerous other factors from them minute you come in to the room, so sometimes I don’t need to check the other diagnostics.
I am especially interested in your symptoms. In some cases, a western diagnosis is helpful, but usually not, because they are often either a guess, simply a description of the symptoms, or wrong. It’s often tough for me to get people to tell me their symptoms because they get so attached to the diagnosis. I think that after you struggle with an illness for several years, a diagnosis – any diagnosis, wrong or right – feels like an achievement.
After all that, I have the information I need to choose which points I will use, so I rifle through my mental point files for a treatment that will encourage your body to return to balance.
It helps to be able to think in patterns in Chinese medicine. In fact, it’s required. The entire body is an integrated system. Western medicine is a dis-integration system. If they can see you have a broken leg, they can fix it and that’s the end of it. If you later develop liver problems, they will not be able to see how it might be related.
Your acupuncturist, however, will know that the Liver meridian starts at the inside of the big toe, goes up the inside of the leg, dives in to your liver, and ends right below the nipple. Trauma anywhere along a meridian can cause a problem anywhere else along the meridian, and it may not even manifest for several years.
Just like clear cutting a forest traumatizes an ecosystem, amputations like hysterectomies nearly always result in eventual complications of a huge variety because several meridians travel through that lower abdominal region. Chronic shoulder pain is a common one.
Just remember that your neck bone is, in fact connected to your foot bone. ©
If you go out, wrap up well. Cover your head and especially the back of your neck. If your lungs are already weak from a history of asthma, bronchitis, or pneumonia, ten degree air is too cold for you to breathe. Cover your nose and mouth.
Acupuncture is the Cadillac of preventive medical treatments. If you are at the mercy of cold and flu season, you need to come in for regular acupuncture treatments to strengthen your lungs, boost your immunity, and tune up your digestion so you will assimilate nutrients better.
This is a great season to put your own “retreat” program together. Acupuncture plus massage, chiropractic, meditation, yoga, or any other restorative treatments will put you back together to be ready, healthy, and able for next summer.
If you can’t relax, a cold is winter’s way of forcing you to dial it down and honor the quietude of the season. Here are eight tips to make you more comfortable while you enjoy your forced “vacation”:
- Avoid cold food and dairy. They call it a COLD for a reason. No ice cream or cold pop. In fact, miso soup with ginger, scallions and a dash of sake is a great, secret Japanese cold remedy. Keep it light and warm, and go easy on the protein. Lots of veggie soup and tea. I drink lots of warm water when I’m sick.
- If you don’t feel like eating, DON’T EAT. You are not an Ethiopian, for crying out loud. Most of us Americans have enough spare “fuel” on board to keep us alive for a month or so. Your body probably wants to use the energy it would be spending on digestion for healing instead. So you lose a few pounds. Bonus.
- Do NOT wash your hair and go outside with your head uncovered, even if you just dried it. It can take an hour or more for your pores to close back up after you wash your hair, and that leaves you open to colds and pneumonia.
- The next trick is not for sissies. Very frequent sinus rinsing is an excellent way to show your cold who’s boss. The catch is that if you have a cold, you have a nose infection. Rinsing your sinuses with a nose infection can make you want to cry and bang your head into the wall. I know, because I do it often. You will need either a neti pot or a sinus rinse squeeze bottle. I prefer the squeeze bottle, which I bought at a drug store, because I have a deviated septum, and even on a good day, I am not getting water to run freely through the left side of my nose. If I have a cold, ain’t no way. My two “favorite” sinus rinse solutions are either 2 drops of iodine plus one drop of grapefruit seed extract, OR a teeny tiny pinch of clay. I don’t bother with the salt because I don’t think it’s that great of an antimicrobial. Either way, the first squirt will about put you on the floor, and I am not kidding. The good news is that it gets easier after the first couple of rinses if you do it often. A “full rinse” (one whole bottle) in the morning and at bedtime, and a “short rinse” (half a bottle) every couple of hours is VERY effective.
- Two words – mustard plaster. If something takes hold in your lungs, there is almost nothing as effective as a mustard plaster at routing it out. These things are serious, though, as in, you can burn yourself with a mustard plaster if you don’t know what you are doing. Mix 1/4 cup dried mustard powder with 2 cups of flour. Add enough warm water to make a thick paste. Smear it on half of a hand towel, then fold the other half of the towel over it so the plaster is sandwiched inside. Lay it on your chest. Do not heat this thing up – it heats up on its own. If it starts to get hot, put a layer of t-shirt fabric under it. Keep it on for 20-30 minutes. It washes out of the towel easily. Youtube for more details.
- Gentle movement like yoga or stretching to pump your lymph is a really good idea if you are sick. It will force the germs through your natural sanitation systems and speed up your healing. Rebounding on a mini trampoline also clears your lymph system. Some people advocate exercising hard to overheat your body and kill off the viruses. I have no experience with that, and I exercise pretty hard most days anyway. When I get sick, I need to rest more, not push harder.
- Research from all points medical and scientific is showing that your mind is the most powerful doctor on the planet. In other words, nearly all medicine works through “placebo” – that pesky mind-body connection that gets in the way of good, hard facts. You can use this power (it is, after all, your own natural healing power) in infinite ways to heal your cold. You don’t even need an expert. The easiest place to start is to send healing light energy beams into your lungs, nose, and top of your head. Imagining whatever color, experience, feeling and smell you know would heal you and make you feel good, condense it into a light beam, and shine it into your whole body through those points. The possibilities are endless.
- It’s truly amazing how much better you feel after a really good laugh. There are all sorts of biochemical reasons for this, but laughter is the best medicine (right after prevention). Here’s a chance to use your computer or TV to help you heal, rather than to stress you out. Poke around Youtube to find what will tickle your funny bone. I have some books that can still make me laugh until it hurts. Make it your mission to hunt down some really great humor while you are sick. Way more fun than taking that nasty cough syrup. †