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Fall Health: A Chinese Medicine Perspective

As the sun descends lower and lower and the weather starts to cool, we enter fall, the season of harvest. Just as our physical work over the past few months results in an abundance of fresh produce, what we have channeled our intentions and mental energy into comes to fruition as well. Like trees dropping their leaves, fall is an excellent time for us to complete projects and emotionally let things go. As the plants die back to their roots in preparation for winter's long rest, we also begin the process of energy conservation and consolidation. We naturally begin to reduce outdoor activities and turn inward, spending more time at home doing contemplative activities like reading and writing. The Autumnal Equinox falls this year on Monday, September 23rd.

Fall Leaves
Equinox = Balance: how can you create more balance in your life?
Organ = Lung: strengthen your lungs with some cardio or deep breathing exercises.
Phase = Gathering: follow nature’s lead by consolidating your energy and scaling back.
Climate = Dry: hydrate and humidify to maintain the protective coating in your lungs.
Color = White: build your seasonal immunity with white herbs like astragalus and garlic.
Quality = Harvest: celebrate peak harvest bounty at one of our many farmers markets.
Taste = Pungent: eat pungent foods like hot peppers to open the lungs and sinuses.
Sense = Smell: savor the aromas of leaves and the last flowers of summer.
Emotion = Grief: just as the trees let go of their leaves, this is the time for us to shed tears.
Element = Metal: the nature of metal is to create structure and conduct energy.

History of Ginkgo, Chinese Medicinal Herb

There are many reasons why ginkgo is a popular symbol. Ginkgo trees are not only beautiful, they are an important medicinal plant with a fascinating story. The ginkgo is considered to be a living fossil and is the only remaining representative of the Ginkgoales order, which had 19 original varieties. Fossils from these plants date back 270 million years, putting the ginkgoes on the planet before the dinosaurs. At one time they were common and widespread throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. If you look closely at a ginkgo leaf you will notice how the veins are all the same in width, beginning at the stem and fanning out, and there are at most two lobes. This is quite different and simplified compared to the leaves of more modern tree species, like maples, which have multiple lobes and a central vein that branches out into smaller and smaller veins. Like redwoods, ginkgoes have very long life spans, with some individuals estimated to be more than 3,000 years old.

Ginkgoes were first discovered by Europeans in the 17th century in Japan by the German botanist Englebert Kaempfer. Up until then the plant was considered to be extinct by many, as it was known mostly through fossil records. The tree, however, had survived in Asia in Buddhists monasteries and Shinto shrines, where they had been revered and cultivated since around 1100 AD. These monasteries and shrines acted as ancient nature preserves, offering protection for the trees and conserving the natural landscape around them. Ginkgo is thought to originate in eastern China in the Xuangcheng province, spreading first to Japan, around the same time that Zen Buddhism was introduced there.

Ginkgo Leaves

Ginkgo is used as a medicinal plant in both eastern and western herbal traditions. In the west the leaves are taken to enhance blood circulation and oxygenate the heart. They are also known to increase the supply of oxygen to the brain, making them applicable for conditions marked by memory loss, such as Alzheimer's. They are anti-oxidant, reduce blood pressure, and inhibit clotting. They are also used for tinnitus, vertigo, hearing loss, impotence, and Raynaud's disease. In the east the seed is favored over the leaf. It is prescribe for chronic coughs with wheezing and copious sputum. It is also taken for vaginal discharge and cloudy urine. The seeds are first mentioned in Chinese herbals published a long time ago, way back in the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368).

Today ginkgoes are widely cultivated and propagated in both the east and the west, primarily as ornamental landscape trees. They are very hardy and are not easily susceptible to environmental pollutants so they thrive in places where the air quality is poor, such as in New York City, where they line the streets of Greenwich Village. There are even some ginkgoes in Japan that survived the 1945 atomic blast at Hiroshima in an area where all other life was obliterated. All are all still alive today, located in temples or public gardens. Because of this the Japanese consider the ginkgo tree to be a powerful symbol of hope. Though the seeds of the ginkgo are edible and considered a delicacy in Asia, they are covered in a fleshy coating which some consider to be untidy for landscaping. Because of this, the seedless male tree is preferred to the female as an ornamental. This, unfortunately, has made it difficult for the tree to propagate itself naturally, and ginkgoes are still considered to be an endangered plant. Still, for a tree that was almost extinct not too long ago, the ginkgo is doing quite well.

The ginkgo is an important symbol for many reasons. First, it is an amazingly ancient tree. Surely there is an inherent wisdom in a plant that has survived for 270 million years. Second, this is a tree of great beauty. Who hasn't appreciated the ginkgo in the fall, with its beautiful golden leaves? Third, the ginkgo is a powerful medicinal plant. It has been used in many healing traditions and over many centuries. Even today in America it is one of the top ten herbal supplements. And finally, the ginkgo is an example of how humans can consciously choose to help save a rare and endangered plant. This began almost 1,000 years ago with the Chinese Buddhist monks and continues today all over the world where this plant is appreciated and revered.


Summer Health: A Chinese Medicine Perspective

As the summer solstice approaches the sun gets higher and higher in the sky and the weather gets hotter and drier. Stimulated by the abundant solar energy we become more physically active, travel more, and require less sleep so we stay up later. This is the season of the fire element, the most yang of all the elements. Fire is the energy that makes us warm-blooded creatures and gives us emotional warmth, joy, and enthusiasm. Fire also fuels growth and maturation, especially for the plants, with the yang sunshine stimulating the plants to grow tall and the fruits and vegetables to ripen. The Summer Solstice falls this year on Friday, June 21st.

Four Seasons
Element = Fire: soak up the sunshine, make time for lots of outdoor activities.
Organ = Heart: work your cardiovascular system with some vigorous exercise.
Direction = Up: the sun rises up higher, we stay up later, more solar energy means we need less sleep.
Climate = Heat: replenish cooling yin with water and electrolytes to avoid overheating.
Color = Red: eat fresh, red fruits like strawberries, raspberries, and watermelon to stay cool.
Quality = Ripening: cultivate your garden, fruits and vegetables start to ripen.
Taste = Bitter: cool your core temperature with green tea and raw salads.
Sense = Taste: savor the fresh foods of the summer harvest, taste the chi.
Emotion = Joy: go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather, do something spontaneous and fun!

Carbohydrates and Dampness

One of the major categories of imbalance in Chinese medicine is Dampness. Dampness is a type of accumulation that bogs us down, making us feel tired, heavy, unmotivated, and physically weak. It can affect our thought processes, causing fuzzy thinking, absentmindedness, and poor memory, especially short-term memory. Other common signs of Dampness include loose stools, achy muscles, post-nasal drip, oily skin and hair, and candida imbalances. Weight gain is common, as are other types of accumulations like phlegm, lypomas, swelling, nodules, cysts, and cellulite. Some western medical examples of conditions that could be categorized as Dampness include chronic sinus congestion, hypothyroidism, and fibromyalgia syndrome.

In Chinese medicine Dampness usually occurs when our digestive organs are unable to burn the food we eat cleanly and efficiently, resulting in the accumulation of thick, residual fluids in different areas of the body. Sometimes this happens because we have low digestive fire, perhaps due to genetics or medications like antibiotics. In other cases it has more to do with diet, especially the over consumption of Dampness-producing foods, many of which are staples of the American diet. In either case, dietary changes can often be very helpful.

Damp Foods

Of the three major categories of nutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates), carbohydrates are the most relevant foods to look at when there is Dampness, especially the simple and refined carbohydrates. By their very nature these foods tend to be dense and sticky, making them harder to process, gunking up our system and requiring more digestive energy to burn. Too much of these Damp foods, especially over a long period of time, can even smother our digestive fire, lowering our metabolic rate. Think of foods like oatmeal, dough, bananas, icing, pie, jam, pastries, and mashed potatoes and you begin to get the general idea. Below are the major categories of foods that contribute to Dampness:

Dairy: high in lactose, the simple sugar that makes dairy naturally sweet
Refined Grains: foods made with white flour like bread, pasta, and crackers (gluten is also Damp)
Sugar: white sugar and other sweeteners and the foods that contain high amounts of them
Juices: very high in simple sugars, especially when concentrated
Starchy Vegetables: starch easily breaks down into simple carbohydrates
Alcohol: alcohol is a liquid sugar and yeast is a Damp pathogen
Here are three other categories of foods that can also contribute to Dampness when eaten in excess:
Raw and Cold Foods: when consumed in excess these can deplete our digestive fire making it harder for us to digest Damp foods. In Chinese medicine "cold" refers to foods that are not just temperature-cold, like ice cream, but also energetically-cold, like tofu
Rich Foods: eggs, deep fried (bonus points for french fries), fatty meats like bacon and pepperoni, foods high in saturated fats like cheese, butter and palm oil, rich fruits like banana and avocado, fatty sauces like gravy, and peanut butter
Salt: excess salt causes the body to retain fluids and is often hidden in sauces and other Damp foods
One way to eliminate Dampness is to stop putting it into the body by reducing the consumption of Damp foods as listed above. The other way is help the body eliminate it by increasing the consumption of non-starchy vegetables and foods and herbs that dry Dampness like the following:
Bitter: leafy greens, vegetables like rutabega, bitter herbs like parsley and oregano
diuretic: vegetables like asparagus, artichoke, and celery, beans, especially aduki and mung beans, fruits like watermelon
aromatic: especially herbs that are hot and drying by nature like cayenne pepper, cinnamon, and white pepper
Chinese herbal formulas: like liu jun zi wan, which strengthens the digestive fire and dries dampness

A Shifting Inventory of Herbal Formulas

Every few years I tweek my herbal pharmacy, adding and subtracting formulas as my practice and patient base shift and change. I just completed my latest re-evaluation this morning and thought you might find it interesting to know what categories of herbal formulas are more popular. There are four different ones in particular that really stick out.

The largest category of formulas that I carry by far are the tonics, formulas that do things like replenish, nourish, support, and strengthen. This actually comes as no surprise for three reasons. First, tonics reflect one of the most unique and important ideas that Chinese medicine has to offer: that vital substances, tissues, organs, or systems that are depleted or under-functioning can healed, that deep imbalances can actually be corrected. Second, many individuals specifically seek out Chinese medicine for more chronic conditions, which tend to be marked by depletion or functional issues, just the type of imbalances that tonic formulas are designed to treat. Tonics are excellent at slowing or even reversing these conditions, healing them at the root instead of indefinitely managing their superficial symptoms. Third, tonics are very effective when used preventively, helping your body function optimally, slowing the aging process and making you more resilient to stress and disease. These are the true longevity formulas of ancient Chinese medicine.

Chinese Herbal Formulas

Another popular category is formulas that release the exterior. These formulas help us eliminate what are referred to in Chinese medicine as “exterior pathogens,” i.e. air born disease-causing agents, like pollen and viruses. Their chief action is to induce a sweat, helping your body release the pathogens out to the exterior. These formulas have many other beneficial actions, like clearing heat to reduce fevers and inflamed throats, and transforming phlegm, helping your body process out congestion. If taken at the first sign of an infection, before a virus has had time to burrow deeper into tissues and organs, these formulas can even be effective at reducing the length and severity of colds. Additionally, there are formulas in this category that you can take when you are exposed to someone who is sick that will help prevent you from catching what they have. I always take some of these when I treat a patient who is contagious and I've only been out sick two times in twelve years.

There are two other categories of note: harmonizing formulas and those that calm the shen. Harmonizing formulas often treat the liver. In Chinese medicine, since the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of chi all over the body, when it is out of balance it can easily throw other systems out of balance. For example, because the liver plays such an important role in digestion, when it is out of balance it can cause symptoms like bloating and indigestion. Calm shen formulas, on the other hand, help calm the mind and the emotions. They are especially effective for anxiety but can help with other emotional states like stress and worry. Because they are so calming, these formulas are even useful for treating certain types of insomnia, helping people settle down better so they can fall asleep more easily and sleep deeply through the night.

"Dr. Hyton is a rare gem in holistic medicine. She is thoroughly educated and experienced in the ancient traditions and completely current in recent innovations. She exudes confidence from many years of experience and cares for each of her patients as if they are a treasured family member. You will immediately feel welcome and at home in her care. I trust Dr. Hyton completely and count myself lucky to have her knowledge and skill as a health resource!" ~David Phillips
Dr. Nancy Hyton
Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
By Appointment M to F, 9:30 to 6:00
26 Fairfax Avenue, West Asheville, NC 28806
Text or Call (828) 606-6791
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