Category Archives: Herbal Medicine

Chinese Medicine is Physical Medicine (Not Energy Medicine)

I must admit, when I first learned about this magical, invisible “Qi” I was intrigued and excited. And then I was told that this Qi travels throughout the human body inside invisible energy meridians… I was hooked, how amazing! These concepts were so interesting to my Western mind.  It sounded like a fairy-dust magic exists and that there is a long history of medicine to back it up. Well, sorry to disappoint the Western masses, but it turns out the energy & fairy-dust ideas are based on mistranslations from a French diplomat in the early 1900’s.  In this article I will explain how Chinese Medicine is a purely physical medicine; A system based on blood flow, organ function and the health of the nervous system.  In this article I will also explain how this misunderstanding occurred and why it still persists today.

Most of this misunderstanding around Chinese Medicine being “energy medicine” started with a well-meaning French diplomat named George Soulié de Morant in the early 1900’s (his books on the topic were published in 1934 & 1939). George lived in China for many years and wrote a series of amazing books chronicling what he saw, including later works on Chinese Medicine. Unfortunately, George had no training in medicine and additionally he had no training in the ancient Chinese character system (called Seal Script) in which the classics were written.  Because of George’s lack of education related to Chinese Medicine, his writings on “Qi” and the “meridian” system were fundamentally inaccurate.  In addition, because there was not a great deal of interest in Chinese Medicine in Europe at the time (1940’s) there were no other experts around with opposing viewpoints.

Paul Unschuld is probably the best known and most educated translators of ancient Chinese medicine texts.  He famously wrote:

“…It should be noted that the interpretation of qi 氣 as “energy”, so widespread in TCM literature today, lacks any historical basis.”

In summary, Qi does not mean “energy” and is almost always incorrectly translated.  This mistranslation leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese Medicine and how it works.

So then, what is the meaning of Qi as used in Chinese Medicine?  While there are over 10 definitions of Qi in English-Chinese dictionaries, we mostly use 2 of the definitions in Chinese Medicine:

1.) Qi = “Vital Air”, meaning the vital part of the air we breathe.  What is the vital part of the air we breathe?  Well Oxygen, of course.  If we have reduced Qi (oxygen) then clearly physical health will suffer.

2.) Qi = “The Function” of something.  For example, the function of the Kidney organ is called “Kidney Qi” and the function of the Stomach organ is called “Stomach Qi”.  This meaning hints at perhaps the greatest gift of Chinese Medicine: a treatment method that can improve the function of the organ system.  This is a complete system designed to improve health and vitality, and is fundamentally not interested in suppressing symptoms.  The core treatment methods of Chinese Medicine are targeted at improving blood flow and thereby the function of the organ system (Heart, Stomach, Kidney, etc).

Qi is not the only concept that is often misunderstood in Western translations.  The term “Meridian” is also problematic.  In fact the most accurate term for the longitudinal pathways described in Chinese Medicine is “vessel”, not “meridian”. Meridian, as it is used in Chinese medicine, is a concept invented by inaccurate translations from the French in the 1940’s.  The vessel system described in classic TCM texts is a physical system that carries blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body.  Sounds exactly like blood vessels, huh?  In modern anatomical terms, the vessel system of Chinese Medicine would simply be the vascular system.  The vessel system in TCM is a network arteries which branch down to capillaries and then return to the heart as veins.  Part of the confusion in understanding the “meridian” concept is that some aspects of the nervous system included in the descriptions of these vessels.  This is due to the fact that the ancient Chinese physicians didn’t quite understand the nervous system as a separate entity and therefore mixed the functions of the vascular system together with the nervous system.

It should be noted that this inaccuracy doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of Chinese Medicine, it simply makes it a bit more difficult to explain its effect in Western terminology.  For a physiological explanation of acupuncture, here is an article on how acupuncture works.  Chinese Herbal Medicine is more obviously a physical medicine system, meaning that drinking an extract of physical herbs will most likely produce a physical effect, not an energetic one.  Here is a more detailed explanation of how Chinese Herbal Medicine works.

After graduating from acupuncture school, I spent 4 months in China, mostly studying acupuncture and herbal medicine in TCM Hospitals.  There I saw first-hand that Chinese doctors don’t consider their medicine system an “energy medicine”.  At the time, I was fresh out of acupuncture school so I tried at-length to engage my Chinese teachers in a discussion in the finer points of energy.  However these Chinese doctors were oddly disinterested in the conversation…  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now realize that they were trying their best not to shatter the “energy model” I had just learned in 3 years for Chinese Medicine school.

This experience in China hints at the interesting part of the story… Why does this energy model persist, even though it is neither supported by the classic texts or by basic intellectual reasoning.  The answer here seems to be that the Chinese medical community are happy to play lip-service to the energy idea in exchange for control of the medicine itself.  As long as this energy model persists then they can continue to claim Chinese Medicine as their domain.  Once the Chinese doctors admit that they practice a highly effective therapy that works on the same principles as Western medicine then they risk losing control.

With all this being said, I am a supporter of Energy Medicine and I have personally seen benefits of energetic treatments in my past.  Energy Medicine, in all its forms, has helped so many people and can be powerful and transformitive.  Some examples of Energy Medicine practices include: Reiki, Healing Touch and Crystal Healing.  So I would like to be clear that I am not in any way opposed to energy medicine, instead I am writing this post to clarify the mechanism by which Chinese Medicine works.  The mechanisms of Chinese medicine are physical and include: increased blood flow, improved oxygen transport, better nutrient delivery and improved nervous system function.

Digestive Problems (including IBS) may be caused by Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)

digestive-holistic-acupunctureMost people know that acute digestive problems (like food poisoning) can be caused by “bad bacteria”.  However, what many people don’t know is that chronic digestive symptoms can also be caused by bacteria. In fact, it is estimated that over half of the cases of “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” (IBS) are caused by bacterial overgrowth condition called SIBO. Multiple studies of IBS patients has shown that eliminating the bacterial overgrowth leads to a 75% or greater reduction in IBS symptoms.  Some experts even say that SIBO may be the root cause for up to 80% of IBS cases.

Common digestive symptoms caused by bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) include:

Gas, bloating (increasing through the day), abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, anemia, steatorrhea, rosacea, undigested food in the stool, and possibly GERD (esophageal reflux with belching). * One especially telling symptom combination of SIBO is: unremitting bloating with a tendency to diarrhea.


SIBO is short for Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. This condition occurs when large numbers of bacteria have colonized the small intestine.  Normally, a variety of bacteria are present in the large intestine, but not in the small intestine.  Some bacteria would normally pass through the small intestine, but they should not colonize or stay for very long in this part of the digestive tract.

Why does SIBO occur?

digestive-healthSometimes SIBO can be caused by low stomach acid. Stomach acid is protective in the digestive tract and our main defense against bacterial invasion from food. This means that people on stomach acid blocking medications are actually more likely to develop SIBO.  Another common cause of SIBO is acute food poisoning (called gastroenteritis) that is never completely cleared.  Often times an episode of food poisoning will mostly resolve but the person’s digestion will never be quite the same for months or years afterwards.   This history is a sign that some of the initial bacterial infection still remains and needs to be addressed to fully repair the small intestine.

Testing Options:

Lab tests should be used to confirm the diagnosis of SIBO.  The best test to make an accurate diagnosis is the Lactulose Breath Test (LBT).  For this test, the hydrogen and methane gas  produced by bacteria is measured over time.  Hydrogen and methane are gas are only produced by bacteria, not by humans, so the amount expelled over time will give an indication of bacterial growth.

Treatment Options:

The good news is that SIBO can be treated effectively with both natural anti-bacterial herbs or with prescription antibiotics.  Treatment can last between 2 weeks and 2 months, depending on the severity of the case.  Generally, treatments work best when antibacterial supplements are combined with dietary changes.

>> Learn more: Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth

Pain Relief – Food as Medicine

With so many Americans in chronic pain, it only makes sense to consider foods that are helpful in reducing inflammation and pain.  Below is a list wholesome pain-relieving foods that are also delicious:

Knee Pain1. Cherries – studies have found that tart cherry extract is 10 times more effective than aspirin at relieving inflammation. Only two tablespoons of concentrated juice need to be taken each day daily for effective results. Sweet cherries have also been found to be effective.

2. Berries – A variety of anti-oxidants and anti-pain compounds are found in berries like blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and strawberries

3. Celery and Celery Seeds – The book “Green Pharmacy”, lists more than 20 anti-inflammatory compounds in celery and celery seeds, including a substance called apigenin, which is powerful in its anti-inflammatory action. Celery seeds can be added to soups, stews or as a salt substitute in many recipes.

4. Ginger – Ginger has been shown to reduce pain-causing prostaglandin levels in the body and has been widely used in India to treat pain and inflammation. Multiple studies by Indian researchers found that ginger is an effective treatment for muscular pain. The recommended dosage of ginger is between 500 and 1,000 milligrams per day.

5. Turmeric – Turmeric (curcuma longa) the common orange/yellow spice has been shown to be a more effective anti-inflammatory than steroid medications when dealing with acute inflammation. Its main therapeutic ingredient is curcumin. Research shows that curcumin suppresses pain through a similar mechanism as drugs like COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors (without the harmful side effects).  Dose a standardized extract with 1500 mg of curcumin content per day.

6. Omega-3s Fatty Acids – Many fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and herring contain Omega-3 oils.  These oils convert in the body into hormone-like substances that decrease inflammation and pain. According to the National Institute of Health, fish oil is a potent anti-inflammatory agent. Fish oil acts directly on the immune system by suppressing 40 to 55 percent of the release of cytokines, compounds known to destroy joints. Many other studies also demonstrate that eating moderate amounts of fish or taking fish oil reduces pain and inflammation, particularly for arthritis sufferers.

If you are looking for additional help reducing pain, here are a few options:*

  • Proteolytic Enzymes
  • Vitamin D if your blood levels are low
  • Boswellia (Frankincense)
  • MSM, Glucosamine & Chondroitin
  • White Willow Bark (for short-term use)

* Discuss taking any supplements with your doctor before making any changes.

Healthy Hair Starters

While strands of hair are actually just life-less protein fibers, the hair follicles under your skin are very much alive. Hair follicles need a supply of nutrients like other parts of the body.  Some of these nutrients critical hair nutrients include: protein, carbohydrates, EFAs (fatty acids), vitamins B6 and B12, biotin, and iron.

Stress, illnesses and hormone imbalances can also affect your hair in a negative way, which is why some women do tend to lose their hair in times of high stress. Female hormones (progesterone and estrogen) promote thick, healthy hair, while male hormones can cause hair loss or thinning hair.  So, if you needed yet another reason to eat better and stress less, keep in mind that your hair health is affected by what goes in your body, too.

Herbs and Spices With Real Health Benefits

Not only do herbs and spices give a blast of flavor to bland foods, they can also provide many health benefits as well. Try adding one (or more) to your recipes:

  1. Black pepper can boost immune health. Almost any dish will benefit from a sprinkle of pepper.
  2. Cinnamon may help lower your blood sugar. Try adding to tea, fruit or sweet potatoes.
  3. Ginger can help soothe the stomach, reduce cholesterol, diminish blood clots, and reduce inflammation, among other things. Fresh ginger is best – add to stir-fries or chicken for a punch of flavor.
  4. Oregano features 42 times more antioxidants than apples and is easy to add to most Italian dishes.
  5. Parsley is often overlooked as a garnish, but it can help with fresh breath, as well as protect the prostate. It can be added to rice, salads or main dishes.
  6. Rosemary may help boost immunity. Add it to meats, sweet drinks or steamed vegetables.
  7. Saffron features compounds than may decrease depression and anxiety, and also might help you snack less. Soup and seafood are delicious with added saffron.
  8. Thyme has been used as an antiseptic, but can also have anti-inflammatory compounds. Savory dishes are best with a little thyme added.
  9. Turmeric has curcumin which can help your cardiovascular, mental and muscle health. Yellow mustard or curry with turmeric are good ways to add a little extra.

5 Heart-Healthy Foods

Add these heart-healthy foods to your diet to improve your cardiovascular health.

  1. Salmon: Eating fatty fish like salmon twice a week provides your body with omega-3 fats, which can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduce plaque build-up and arrhythmias.
  2. Olive Oil: Replacing butter with olive oil, and using it in moderation, can help lower your cholesterol levels.
  3. Nuts: Instead of red meat in your recipes, try nuts. They are a lean source of protein and the unsaturated fat can help reduce cholesterol.
  4. Berries: Not only do berries have a high polyphenol content, which can lower blood pressure and increase your “good” HDL cholesterol, they also contain anthocyanins that can protect against high blood pressure.
  5. Oatmeal: This simple breakfast staple contains soluble fiber, which reduces your body’s absorption of “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Three Teas for the Belly

Suffering from common stomach ailments? These three teas are easy ways to ease some of your discomfort.

Peppermint is a fresh tasting tea that older children won’t mind drinking. Peppermint improves the flow of bile so that food may pass through your digestive system quickly, and it calms your stomach muscles. It may help with digestion, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea and gas. Avoid peppermint if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, however.

Ginger contains chemicals that stimulate the production of saliva, bile and other gastric secretions to aid your digestion. Ginger may calm an upset stomach, nausea, and motion sickness.

Chamomile helps relax muscle contractions in your intestinal tract, and is used to help ease stomach cramps, diarrhea, indigestion, and gas.

Foods for High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or  hypertension, is estimated to be responsible for 7+ million deaths every year worldwide.  According to research, Western-style dietary habits are the number one reason for essential hypertension. Think about it: People living in rural areas of China, Brazil, and Africa show no signs of  hypertension, even with advanced age. There are foods that can help this condition and then there are foods that should absolutely be avoided. Read on to find the foods that improve your blood pressure! 

Top 3 Foods to Choose:
You should eat a balanced array of fresh wholesome fruits and vegetables of all colors every day. The foods below will bring your blood pressure extra benefits.

Fish – Of all animal products, fish is the healthiest, owing to its high protein and low fat content. The omega-3 fatty acids in fish, along with other nutrients, protect blood vessels from plaque, reduce inflammation, and prevent high blood pressure. Flaxseeds, like fish, are full of omega-3 fatty acids that protect your blood vessels from plaque.

Celery juice – A time-tested Chinese remedy for high blood pressure is celery juice, which can be made with a blender or a juicer. Two to three 8 oz glasses a day for a month can help prevent high blood pressure or restore it to normal levels. In addition, celery is known to prevent gout and other arthritic conditions. Studies have found that this stalk is packed with over a dozen anti-inflammatory agents, including apigenin, a cox2-inhibiting compound similar to some anti-inflammatory drugs. Who knew celery was more than just a garnish?

Olive oil – Olive oil, long a staple of the Mediterranean diet, has been shown to have beneficial effects on blood lipids and may also lower blood pressure. According to a recent study, “Olive oil intake is inversely associated with both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.” Translation: consuming more olive oil is linked with lowered blood pressure. Use olive oil for cooking and on salads.

Top 3 Foods to Avoid – And What to Choose Instead

In general, for healthy blood pressure cut back on salt, caffeine, white flour, alcohol, deep-fried food, nicotine, preservatives, sugars, and artificial flavoring and coloring. Specifically, here are the main offenders to avoid:

Salt – Sodium has long been implicated in chronic ailments such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. Additionally, recent studies have shown that increased salt intake is proportional to an increase in cancers of the stomach, esophagus, and bladder.

Swap for: Herbs and spices – Your best choices are fennel, garlic, ginger, oregano, black pepper, basil and tarragon, all of which possess active ingredients that are beneficial for hypertension. Vinegar is another flavorful option.

Coffee – For people who don’t consume caffeine on a regular basis, caffeine can cause a temporary but sharp rise in blood pressure. Exactly what causes this spike in blood pressure is uncertain. Some researchers have suggested that caffeine narrows blood vessels by blocking the effects of adenosine, a hormone that helps keep them widened. Caffeine may also stimulate the adrenal gland to release more cortisol and adrenaline, which causes your blood pressure to increase.

Swap for: Green tea – Scientific studies point to green tea as a food that can help reverse some of the risk factors associated with heart disease, including high blood pressure and abnormal blood clotting. Much of the research on green tea has been conducted in Japan, where men and women drink a high daily intake of green tea, and also have one of the lowest incidences of heart disease in the world.

Refined Sugar – The average American consumes nearly 240 pounds of sugar per year. Most of the excess sugar ends up being stored as fat in your body, resulting in weight gain and elevating your risk of heart disease and cancer. Sugar makes blood pressure rise, especially in people who are overweight.

Swap for: Honey – Honey contains vitamins and minerals that are lacking in refined table sugar, making it much healthier for you. Instead of refined sweets, go for the natural delicious flavors of fresh fruits and berries.

Turn to nature for support of optimum blood pressure and heart functions. High blood pressure is a condition with serious consequences; don’t stop taking any prescribed medications and work with your physician before making drastic changes to your diet.

Natural Prevention for Colds and Flu

If it’s not cold & flu season, so why are there so many people getting sick lately?  There seems to be a potent little virus “going around”, so it is best to be prepared.  Here are some obvious and some not-so-obvious tips on the topic:

The Obvious:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.  Be especially sure that you wash your hands before touching your eyes or face.
  • Get plenty of sleep and a moderate amount of exercise to keep your immune system up.
  • Eat your fruits and veggies and keep dietary intake of refined sugar low.  Keep in mind that refined carbohydrates (like breads) act in the same way as white sugar in your body.  When blood sugar goes up in an uncontrolled manner your immune system does not function as effectively.

The Less Obvious:

  • Don’t share drinks with others.  Even during healthy times, people carry a whole host of viruses with them.  This is completely normal as most of these latent viruses are not causing illness, meaning the body has developed immunity from their effects.  In the US, our social standard is that friends and family are automatically “safe” to share drinks with; This is only true, however, if your friends and family have identical immune systems and antibodies as you do.
  • Even in the summer, you may be hit by some chilly air.  A blast of cold air could come in the form of air conditioning or a evening temperature drop.  In either case, when body temperature drops immune response drops as well.  Consider carrying a light jacket or scarf with you if you think there’s a chance of a cold blast coming your way.
  • Incorporate some form of “active relaxation” into your daily life.  This could be a yoga or meditation practice or just taking some time to breath and listen (watching TV doesn’t count as “active relaxation”!).

Chinese Medicine Help:

If you feel like you are starting to get sick, it is always best to act quickly.  A hot tea made with fresh ginger, mint and honey is a good start.  In addition, you may consult your herbalist to get an herbal formula that is best for you based on your current symptoms.  There are a variety of herbal formulas available for colds and flu, so it is important to select the best one for each specific case.

Lastly, If you get hit by every cold & flu bug that comes around, this may indicate a lowered immune system.  If adhering to the tips given above does not seem to change the pattern then you may benefit from an herbal and/or acupuncture approach.  There are a variety of natural herbs and time-tested herbal formulas that are effective to keep the immune system functioning at optimal levels.  Acupuncture also improves immune response if done regularly.