Understanding and Using Chinese Medicine

Welcome!  This blog is intended to help you learn about acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, and how to use it to take care of your own health. Many of us live with chronic pain or other health issues, or simply want to feel more balanced and vibrant. Chinese medicine offers an entirely different way of understanding health; it corrects underlying causes and not merely symptoms, and gives you ways to take care of your own health with simple adjustments to diet or lifestyle habits.

Chinese medicine and Western medicine can be an excellent complement to each other, since they have different strengths.  Western medicine, for example, is outstanding in acute and emergency situations, and very good at diagnosis and screening.  Chinese medicine excels at treating chronic conditions and promoting overall wellness and health.  It can be used alongside standard medical care, to support healing and reduce side effects; or, in many cases, it can provide an alternative treatment that may be more effective or more gentle.

The articles on this site are meant to give ideas of how acupuncture and herbal medicine can fit into your health care strategy.  There is some general information about acupuncture, and what to expect from treatment.  And, there are articles on many different health conditions and how they are viewed and treated from the standpoint of Chinese medicine.  I’ve included suggestions, such as diet, exercise, herbal teas, and acupressure, that you can use to take care of your own health.  Finally, for those in the Boston area, I’ve added news about local events and programs, as well as information about my own practice.

I am happy to answer questions, or to address topics you would like to learn more about; please feel free to leave comments and I will respond as soon as I can.  Thanks for visiting my site!


October 19, 2008 at 1:34 pm 2 comments

Acupuncture For Specific Fertility Issues

Acupuncture and herbs can be enormously helpful in a wide range of fertility challenges — from healthy individuals who want to increase their chances of getting pregnant to women facing a number of more serious diagnoses.  I’ve listed a few of the most common conditions I treat: please consult with your acupuncturist about your particular situation.

Unexplained Infertility: This is one of the most common things I see, and one of the most frustrating for the people going through it. The woman’s cycle appears normal, and all the (endless, grueling) testing comes out fine.

In these cases, there are usually imbalances that are relatively minor, but detectable by Chinese medical diagnosis. Treatment focuses on regulating these fine-tuned aspects of the cycle to maximize fertility, and success rates are quite high.

PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome): This is a complicated, tenacious condition that affects ovulation and also involves hormone imbalances, blood sugar changes, and weight gain.

One aspect of PCOS is that women sometimes don’t respond well to fertility drugs.  In these cases, acupuncture and herbs are often more effective in inducing ovulation and achieving a pregnancy.

It can take some time, but I have seen women heal completely from this condition with a combination of acupuncture, herbs, exercise and dietary changes. 

“Advanced Maternal Age”  Women often get told they are “too old” or that their eggs are of low quality due to age.  There are undeniably changes to our reproductive system as we get older.  Doctors tend to see these changes as fixed, and not workable.   Chinese medicine, however, does have some tools for increasing blood flow to the reproductive organs and improving their overall vitality and functioning, even when tests have shown high FSH levels or poor egg quality.

Male infertility:  this is a factor in more than half of fertility cases, and I always prefer to see both members of a couple that is trying to conceive, so that we’re maximizing fertility in every way possible.  In contrast to women’s fertility, the treatment of male infertility is usually quite straightforward, and involves strengthening certain aspects of the reproductive system.  In most cases, this is best done primarily with herbal medicine.

Recurrent Miscarriage: For women who are able to conceive, but have had trouble carrying to term, it can be beneficial to have a series of treatments before getting pregnant again.  Chinese medicine identifies several underlying patterns that can make miscarriage more likely.  Bringing the body back into balance can increase the chances of a successful pregnancy and birth.  Treatment during pregnancy is also advised, especially during the first trimester, to support the body in maintaining the pregnancy.

June 6, 2011 at 8:23 pm Leave a comment

Fertility, Stress, and Acupuncture

It’s a commonly accepted idea that it’s harder to get pregnant when you’re under stress. It does make sense — stress is not known for improving any area of our health.

And, since struggling with fertility is itself stressful — between the waiting, wondering what’s wrong, and dealing with medical appointments and procedures — this can really put people in a bind.

One day, not for the first time, I was listening to a patient talk about how she was trying to manage her stress, but she thought she wasn’t doing a very good job, and she knew this is probably why she wasn’t getting pregnant. And suddenly, it just hit me as all wrong.

I looked at this woman and thought: people get pregnant in war zones. People get pregnant in abusive relationships where they are terrified and stuck. People get pregnant when they’re homeless, or have no idea where their next meal is coming from.

It’s not about the stress. It might be completely unfair – everything about infertility is unfair – but it’s not just about the stress.

This is what I said to my patient. She just nodded.

So where does acupuncture fit into all of this?

Acupuncture has become famous for it use in infertility treatment, and with good reason: numerous studies support its effectiveness either alone, or in increasing the success rates of medical fertility treatments.

Acupuncture works differently than Western medical interventions. Medical treatments can actually make things happen, by forcing ovulation, directly fertilizing an egg outside the body, implanting an embryo in the uterus. It’s miraculous what these procedures can do, and a real blessing to many families that we have access to them.

Acupuncture works on a different level — by treating the whole person, figuring out what is out of balance or depleted, and bringing you, and your reproductive system, back to a more optimal state of health. The idea is to create the best possible conditions for conception to take place, with or without medical intervention. And the studies show that it really helps.

The bonus: supporting your health and balance also supports you in having a healthy pregnancy, and healthy birth, and a healthy baby. And a healthy, strong mother to take care of that baby. 🙂

The other bonus? Acupuncture is really good at relieving stress.



Study Finds Stress Does Not Affect Fertility Treatment

A study in the British Medical Journal found no correlation between stress levels and pregnancy rates for women undergoing fertility treatments.

The authors reviewed fourteen research studies with 3,583 women undergoing a cycle of fertility treatment. The women were assessed before fertility treatment for anxiety and stress. The authors then compared data for women who became pregnant and those who did not.

The results show that emotional distress was not associated with whether or not a woman became pregnant.

Professor Boivin, the lead researcher, states: “these findings should reassure women that emotional distress caused by fertility problems or other life events co-occurring with treatment will not compromise their chance of becoming pregnant”.

June 6, 2011 at 8:17 pm Leave a comment

Smoothing the Winter –> Spring Transition

Happy Spring, and Happy Daylight Savings Time! Turning the clocks ahead is one of the best events of the year, in my book — I just love the longer, lighter evenings and the promise that spring really is coming.

In that erratic, New England way, but it’s coming. As I write this, it’s April 1, the front yards in my neighborhood are practically carpeted with crocuses, and it’s snowing. Need I say more?

I’ve been feeling a bit erratic myself — both more energetic and a bit more impatient. Which makes sense, actually. From a Chinese medicine point of view, our bodies are little microcosms of the world around us. In early spring, energy that’s been dormant all winter starts to move, but hasn’t had a chance yet to burst forth.

It’s common for people to feel lighter and more optimistic this time of year, but it’s also common to feel really cranky or discouraged. (For all we know, the tulips are feeling the very same way as they wait to come out.) If this is happening for you, don’t worry, it’s just the change of seasons.

What to do?

Here are some suggestions for moving through the slower winter energy and into the exuberance of spring!

Do Some Spring Cleaning
. I’ve been having this crazy urge to de-clutter and organize. Suddenly it seems very important, and satisfying, to buy new storage bins and get everything in order, and ditch the stuff I’m not using. There’s a reason there’s an age-old tradition of spring cleaning — it moves all the energy that’s stuck in the clutter, and makes room for the movement and growth of spring. I highly recommend it, if the mood strikes.

Up Your Exercise. There’s more energy available this time of year, and it’s a good time to move from gentler exercise into something more vigorous. If you’re feeling tired or resistant, it’s more likely right now that it’s due to your energy being stuck, rather than depleted. Push yourself a little to do some aerobic movement — you’ll probably feel more energetic and happier.

Look For Where You’re Stuck. Often if our energy is low, there’s something in our lives or hearts that is blocking it. Take a minute to get quiet, and go inside and ask yourself, what’s getting in the way? Be willing to be surprised. Some things you might find: decisions or changes that need to be made; conversations you’re avoiding; people or activities you’re done with and need to let go.

And while you’re inside, ask yourself what kind of support or help you need to clear those things away. It’s usually not a small task to make changes like these, and you deserve some patience and assistance.

Eat Lighter: In the winter we crave, and need, heavier foods like proteins and starches. In the spring, these foods can literally clog our energy flow. Try adding more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and avoid dairy and fried foods. You’ll feel lighter and more energetic. Eating just a little bit less also helps keep things open and moving.

Do Something New, Different, Fun, or Funny: Having fun and laughing are, quite seriously, the very best things you can do to get energy moving. A new activity or new place does even more to get you out of a winter rut. Make this a strict appointment in your schedule, just like a medical appointment. You’ll get just as much out of it.

Have a Seasonal Acupuncture Tune-Up. I highly recommend this, especially if you’re having a hard time with irritability, muscle tension, or erratic energy levels. The winter to spring transition can be the roughest of the year (because of that “stuck” dynamic) and an acupuncture treatment can help get your energy moving and bring you more in tune with the changing season. Let me know if you’d like some help with this.

April 1, 2011 at 4:58 am Leave a comment

Get Ahead of Your Allergies

Anyone who has seasonal allergies knows: if spring is coming, so is pollen season.

If you’re looking for an alternative this year to the usual round of antihistamines, inhalers, and other drug therapies, Chinese medicine is a very effective way to get allergy relief. And right now — before allergy season really kicks in — is the best time to get started.

Chinese medicine, like Western medicine, sees allergies as an imbalance in the immune system. Western medicine describes this as an over-reaction to a minor irritant. Chinese medicine sees it as a weakness of the Wei Qi (pronounced “way chee”) — the protective layer at the surface of the body that keeps out foreign substances. If this layer is weak, irritants can get in too deep, triggering a full-blown immune response.

Acupuncture and herbal treatment of allergies works on three levels: first, strengthening this external layer directly; second, nourishing the deeper energy in the body that fuels this protective mechanism; and third, calming the inflammatory response and relieving the immediate symptoms.

Most of my allergy patients have been delighted with the results they get from a combination of acupuncture and herbs. They report much less severe allergy symptoms, increased ability to be outdoors and enjoy spring, and they enjoy being free of their medications and side effects.

A number of scientific studies confirm that acupuncture helps allergy sufferers. One 2008 study looked at more than 5,000 patients and concluded that acupuncture provides “clinically relevant and persistent benefits”, even months after treatment has concluded. (American Journal of Epidemiology. November, 2008).

For Self-care tips for allergy season click here.

March 29, 2011 at 9:28 am Leave a comment

It’s not so much WHAT you eat…

A number of years ago I took a nutrition class taught by a macrobiotic counselor. He told us a story about two women who were so excited about their results with macrobiotics that they gave gift certificates to their husbands, whom they were sure would feel so much better if they just ate better.

These guys were hard-working McDonalds and Taco Bell kind of guys. They were not going to touch steamed pumpkin, barley and hijiki seaweed with a ten foot pole. So the counselor told them this: Eat whatever you usually eat. Just do two things. First, eat at the same times every day. Second, when you’re eating, sit down and just eat, nothing else.

Two weeks later they came back raving about how good they felt. Their energy was great, they were sleeping well, their digestion had improved, and they were both in great moods.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it does kind of speak to the mystery of how we can make a good effort to eat healthier foods, and still not feel that much better (or still not lose weight). There’s so much more to eating than just what we eat.

Chinese dietary therapy does have a lot to say about what we should eat — based on body type, season, and any symptoms or imbalances in the body. Interestingly, though, it has even more to say about when and how we eat (see the next post for more on this).

On a physiological level, the logic behind this is pretty simple. All the energy we use to function comes directly from food. If the digestive system is tense and contracted when we’re eating, or overloaded with too much food, or doesn’t get a steady supply of nutrients, the process doesn’t go so well and we don’t feel good.

I think it’s so much more than that, though. Often, the way we feed ourselves reflects (and affects) the way we nourish ourselves in other ways. If we act like feeding our bodies isn’t worthy of time or effort or enjoyment, it’s quite possible we’re doing the same thing with other needs — like rest, creativity, love, intimacy, or celebration.

It’s so easy — believe me I know it’s easy — to give this stuff short shrift. We’re under a lot of pressure out there. But making the space to eat in a way that is really relaxing and nourishing can be a way in — a way to practice allowing ourselves to be human in other ways too.

And that is even better for our health and balance than a big plate of steamed kale. 🙂

February 22, 2011 at 10:26 am Leave a comment

Suggestions for Eating Well from Chinese Medicine

Classical Chinese medical texts talk a lot about food — and more about eating habits than about what you actually eat. The idea is that your body can process and use food much better when it is relaxed and not strained. And there’s a lot to that (see the previous article for more on this!)

For optimal health, Chinese medicine warns against (are you ready?): eating standing up, eating on the run, eating in a hurry, eating while reading or studying, eating while working, going back to work right after eating, eating on an erratic schedule, eating late at night, and eating while upset or stressed.

Are you kidding? That’s most of how we eat.

And the truth is, these rules were developed in an agrarian society where everyone worked close to home and did the same thing every day. No one had jobs or appointments to get to, or errands to run. It was entirely possible back then to sit down for three relaxed meals every day. Very few of us have a life like that now.

Still, a little movement in that direction can make a surprisingly big impact on our health and quality of life. Here are my top picks to try out:

1. Choose regular mealtimes and stick with them if you can. It’s amazing how well this regulates digestion and energy. It also gives your body the message that food comes in regularly, and it doesn’t have to hoard or store calories for later. Bonus: it’s incredibly psychologically grounding to have at least one part of your schedule more regular and predictable.

2. Pay attention when you’re eating. I know. It’s really tempting to multi-task while eating. But, you know, food is actually one of our great pleasures in life — it seems a shame to always distract ourselves from it. Try sitting down and just eating. No walking around, no reading, no watching TV, no talking on the phone (it’s okay to talk to the person you’re with, though). You might feel a little restless, like you should be doing something. You might get bored, or feel lonely if you’re eating alone. This one can actually be very challenging, but it’s worth it. You’ll enjoy your meals more, eat less, and feel more satisfied.

3. Have a meal of celebration once a week. Eating is best when it’s social and fun. These are the times we are really relaxed, enjoying our food, and being nourished in about a dozen different ways. It doesn’t have to be a big deal (multi-course dinner parties are totally optional). Just eat something you really like with people you really like, and dedicate the time entirely to eating, relaxing, and talking. It’s good for the heart as well as the body, and it elevates eating to a place above chore status. Believe me, it will make your whole week feel a little bit different.

These practices work well for regulating digestive problems and for losing weight; and also for less obvious things like mood, energy, mental focus, and sleep. If you try any of this, let me know how it goes!

February 22, 2011 at 10:25 am 2 comments

Dealing with the Darker Months: Wisdom from Chinese Medicine

When I was in college, I did a 6-month off-campus study program in India. Being so far south, the hot season was can’t-move hot, and during the “cold” season you might need a light sweater in the evening.

Living near the equator also meant that the length of the days didn’t change much at all from season to season. The sun rose at 6:30 AM and set at 6:30 PM, year-round. Of course, it took several months for me to notice this, but I was amazed how disorienting it was to be without the usual (for me) rhythm of long, luxurious summer days where it’s light until 9:00, and deep winter nights that begin in the midafternoon.

While I do love the seasons I grew up with, I’ll have to admit they can make it difficult to regulate energy and mood throughout the year. Sometime in October I start wanting to go to bed at 6:30. Usually that passes, but it remains harder for most of us to find the active energy and enthusiasm that seems so available in the lighter summer months.

Chinese medical texts recommend surrendering to these seasonal changes. Winter is a more “yin” time of year, marked by stillness, quiet, and more internal pursuits. It’s natural to sleep more, go out less, and attend to our home and personal lives. This time balances out the “yang” of summer, where we tend to be more active and engaged.

Still, it’s important to take care of our energy level and our spirits during this time of year. Slowing down is okay; exhaustion and unhappiness are not. Winter is an ideal time to focus on our own physical and mental health. Yet there are so many things that distract us from self-care: all the things we need to get done, first off, and then a culture that values productivity more than it values people. But the truth is we offer to the world what we have within ourselves, and so we need to care for that. Try making your well-being a priority this winter.

Here are my Top Four Ways to Thrive in the Winter:

1. Get as much light as you can. Early in the day is best, because it helps reset your internal clock. Going out for a walk early in the day can make a huge difference in your mood and energy. Another alternative is to use a light box. This is especially helpful if you suspect you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (see sidebar). For more information on light therapy, go to www.cet.org
2. Schedule active time. You’re less likely to go out for a spontaneous bike ride after dinner, so it’s helpful to make standing plans to go out, exercise and/or see friends. A dance class, a regular date with a gym buddy, a midwinter party, a weekly or monthly dinner date, or tickets to concerts or plays, will all help you combat cabin fever.
3. Find enjoyable quiet activities. We are actually supposed to be more contemplative, creative, and inner-focused at this time of year, so make the most of it. Often in the summer we’re too busy or restless to devote ourselves to meditation, knitting, reading books, journaling, cooking, or art, all of which can be deeply satisfying activities for those lower-energy days.
4. Reach out for support. If you’re feeling low, it can be hard to find the energy to let others know and to ask for help. Whether it’s low-level winter blues or full-on debilitating depression, you deserve support. Let your family and friends know if you’re struggling. And be open to finding professional help as well. Therapy, support groups, bodywork, and Chinese medicine can all relieve depression and help you manage difficult times.

January 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm Leave a comment

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