It seems to be common sense that our happiness affects our health, and consequently our digestion. And language has many examples of relating mental and emotional states with our alimentary tract. A shock can hit us in the guts, considered thinking is chewing things over or ruminating, we have gut feelings, and Australians say that things or people give them the shits. But while mainstream doctors may see this, conventional medicine’s empirical paradigm doesn’t allow the recognition of phemomena that it can’t explain, so there was often a tendency to label illnesses without clear somatic causes as neurotic. (1)
With new understanding of how gut flora can affect both our digestion and mood, and that conversely poor mental/emotional states such as depression can change the composition of our gut flora and impact our digestion (2), there is starting to be a way that conventional medicine can allow discussion of the link between how we feel and how well we digest things. There are even starting to be scientific papers with titles like ‘Gut Feelings’.
Chinese medicine has always been able to recognise this connection because its model is not entirely materialistic. Each physiological system is associated with an aspect of the psyche, and with an emotion that interferes with the proper functioning of that physiological system. So the system that transforms our food into nutrients is affected by worry, and the system that tries to stop us from getting uptight about life’s stresses gets stuffed up by anger and frustration. Just like the links between emotions and physiological function through gut flora, it works both ways, so poor digestion can bring more worry, and failure to relax can lead to more anger and frustration. To make things worse, these two physiological systems are linked, so weak digestion can make us less able to relax, and internalising stress too much, getting angry and frustrated, affects our digestion.
There are some traditional combinations of medicinals that illustrate how Chinese Medicine has always seen the link between our happiness and our digestion.
Tong xie yao fang 痛瀉要方 (Important Formula for Painful Diarrhoea) was designed in 1481. It specifically addresses abdominal pain and rumbling, with urgent diarrhoea that can relieve the pain. This is a manifestation of weak digestion that has been disrupted by pent-up emotions. Not surprisingly it is the basis of many prescriptions for IBS with pre-dominant diarrhoea and it has been found that it could be superior to routine pharmacological treatment for this condition.iii
Conversely, anger, resentment, frustration, pent-up emotions, and not letting things go may manifest physically as impeded elimination. Liu mo yin 六磨湯 is a combination of medicinals that addresses constipation that results from us letting our emotions block us up quite literally. It uses herbs that gently move things through the digestive tract, but which also assist flow generally, in the sense that they relieve the general mental and physiological stagnation that is both the result of us not properly dealing with stress, and a contributing factor to our inability to do so.
More immediately the way we eat can help us digest better. We should be happy and relaxed, ideally with good company, and the Chinese even think it best to talk about how delicious the food is. Save the horror movies, the news and current affairs, political discussion and family arguments for after dinner.
Though for some years a link was made between personality type and cardiovascular disease, without there being a convincing explanation of how they could be linked. Of course this link was disputed by many.
- JA Bravo, M Julio-Pieper, P Forsythe, W Kunze, TG Dinan, J Bienenstock, JF Cryan. “Communication between gastrointestinal bacteria and the nervous system” Current Opinion in Pharmacology Volume 12, Issue 6, December 2012, Pages 667-672
- Yun-kai Dai, Dan-yan Li, Yun-zhan Zhang, Meng-xin Huang, Yi-le Zhou, Jin-tong Ye, Qi Wang, Ling Hu. ‘Efficacy and safety of Modified Tongxie Yaofang in diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome management: A meta-analysis of randomized, positive medicine-controlled trials.’ PLOS Published: February 6, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0192319
Heel pain is often from plantar fasciitis, a reactive condition of the tendons in the sole of the foot. This is characteristically most painful with the first few steps after getting out of bed, or after prolonged rest, and the pain reduces after walking around a bit. Pulling the toes up towards the top side of the foot and the shin, or pressing around the heel pad of the sole close to the back of the foot (over the bone known as the calcaneus) may reproduce the pain.
Acupuncture is a good treatment option for plantar fasciitis, and the treatment is helped by the use of herbal foot soaks and physical therapy.
What’s the difference between dry-needling and acupuncture? It depends who you ask. Someone who thinks they are different may say that acupuncture is part of the Chinese Medicine paradigm of diagnosis and treatment, and involves putting needles into traditional point locations arranged as channels; wheras dry-needling is part of a western paradigm of treating muscles and tendons. But it’s not that simple, and a closer look shows that what some people call dry-needling is really acupuncture.
Magnolia buds are out in Melbourne. We use them for the nasal congestion of colds,sinusitis, and hayfever. The hairs can be a little irritating though so the buds are put in cloth bags when we brew tea from them.
The drawing is from “Famous Flowers of China”
Go for complete diets not cherry picked ‘superfoods’, and whole foods rather than supplements.
As I mentioned before, when I used to ask the redoubtable Phillip Chu about various supplements he would reply, ‘Why? Trust your food!”
Chinese medicine prefers balanced diets with a range of healthy foods to over-emphasis on ‘superfoods’ and obsessive consumption of them, and it’s not particularly fond of extracted supplements.
But what about all those ginseng, royal jelly, and reishi mushroom pills in the Chinese pharmacy?’ you ask. While, just because someone wants to sell it to you doesn’t mean taking it is a good idea. The confusing and complicated story of soy and konbu supplements could be illuminating here.
You could write scientific papers about this but let’s try to keep it simple.
People noticed that the Japanese tend to be healthier than a lot of Westerners, and had a lower incidence of certain cancers such as breast cancer, but that the incidences of these in Japanese living in the West were higher. This made people think that diet could be a factor, and the higher consumption of soy products by Japanese was obvious. This led to recognition that soy products contain compounds called phytoestrogens that bind to cells in the same way that oestrogen does.The next thing you know there are pills and supplements containing these phytoestrogens with a number of claimed health benefits.
This is where it gets complicated: it is not clear whether the pytoestrogens stimulate the same responses as oestrogen does, or whether they reduce or regulate the effects of oestrogen in the body; and that this differs in various parts of the body, in people of different ages, and even between people with different lifelong or even intergenerational consumption of soy products.This is important because some cancers are affected by oestrogen, so would be encouraged if phytoestrogens acted like oestrogen, but weakened or prevented if they blocked the action of oestrogen.It is also possible that because they act like a hormone, but but are different from oestrogen, phytoestrogens could change the behaviour of cells in the body in unknown ways that oestrogen doesn’t. A further possible complication is that while soy products contain a number of phytoestrogens that could have slightly different actions and moderate or regulate the effects of each individual phytoestrogen, supplements generally contain one or two.
Even though Japanese women are less likely to get breast cancer than Westerners, it is was discovered that Western women who took soy supplements had increased levels of a hormone, IGF-1, that is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. It turns out that consuming seaweed, as Japanese people also do, moderates the effect of soy on IGF-1 levels. 
Others have suggested that consuming soy may affect thyroid function, but this is unlikely if the dietary intake of iodine is sufficient, and seaweed which is an excellent source of iodine is recommended for those who consume soy products. 
It’s a mutually balancing relationship. Which is fortunate because konbu supplements with a range of claimed health benefits are popular – konbu is the Japanese word for kelp, a seaweed. Consuming too much seaweed can increase iodine levels so much that the thyroid becomes overactive and affects health. That this can happen has even been covered by the media. But in Japan where people consume a lot of seaweed, they do not tend to have excessive iodine levels, and it’s because of the soy consumption. It seems that consuming soy can moderate the uptake of iodine from seaweed. Just as some possible adverse effects of eating too much soy are balanced by seaweed, the effects of eating to much seaweed are balanced by soy.
The Japanese have a variety of ways of using seaweed. Dried flakes of seaweed are sprinkled on rice, or made into a seasoning mix with sesame seed, dried tuna flakes, and salt as in furikake, or chopped and dressed as a seaweed salad. Sushi is wrapped in sheets of dried seaweed called nori, and this can also be shredded and added to rice. Then there’s the seaweed stock usually made from konbu, dashi, which is the base of miso soup and can be used to add savoury yumminess or umami to just about anything.
Some people prefer to use Japanese grown seaweeds as they think Chinese seaweeds are grown in more polluted waters.
Dashi is usually made with bonito flakes or katsuobushi, and these add a wonderful smokiness to the stock, but headless dried anchovies that are available from Chinese grocers are an easy and cheap alternative. I once made a dashi using the anchovies in oil that were in the fridge.
750ml room temperature water
15g konbu – about 12cm square
2 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked for 10 minutes
9g katsuobushi – a handful or so
Wipe the konbu with a damp cloth. Put it and the shitake mushrooms in water and heat until it is just starting to steam. Take it off the heat and rest for 1 hour, then take out the konbu. Heat again until it just starts bubbling, turn off the heat and drop the katsuobushi in and steep it for 5 minutes. Strain off the stock.
This can be make without the rest but the umami flavour will not be as developed. If using headless anchovies use a big handful and they can be simmered for a few minutes after the konbu is taken out.
You can off course, make miso soup from your dashi stock, and put some tofu in it.
- Rietjens I, Louisse J, and Beekmann K. The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens British Journal of Pharmacology 2017;174 1263-1280.
- Teas J, Irhimeh MR, Druker S, Hurley TG, Hébert JR, Savarese TM, Kurzer MS. Serum IGF-1 concentrations change with soy and seaweed supplements in healthy postmenopausal American women. Nutr Cancer. 2011;63(5):743-8.
- Messina M, Redmond G. Effects of soy protein and soybean isoflavones on thyroid function in healthy adults and hypothyroid patients: a review of the relevant literature.Thyroid. 2006 Mar;16(3):249-58.
- Munehiro Yoshida, Ayumi Mukama, Ryota Hosomi, Kenji Fukunaga. Soybean Meal Reduces Tissue Iodine Concentration in Rats Administered Kombu Biomedical Research on Trace Elements 2017;28(1) 28-34
There’s an albizzia tree in my neighbourhood. We use the flowers and bark to loosen up mental and emotional blockage, and the physical conditions that can occur with them. The flowers work more on the emotions and lift mood, the bark acts more on the physical conditions that come from getting hung up about things.
The flowers are gorgeous on the tree, but they go an earthy brown colour when they dry.
Hung up. Does anyone say that these days?
This one is superconcentrated and brewed longer.
While it’s very strong I’m bit disappointed at how little Goo I got, and will not make it this way again. Get it while it lasts.
The blurb: ‘Relieves pain, reduces swelling, and aids recovery. For muscle and tendon pain and fatigue, chronic aching joints, and recalcitrant injuries.’
For the inner city audience, the font is ‘Seven Monkey Fury’. Funny huh.
Sometimes ‘old-fashioned remedies’ make more sense, like using a topical treatment for localised infection.
Recently I went to a GP because I had a blind cyst in my ear lobe. Naively I expected that he would lance it, but he said they didn’t do that kind of thing anymore and gave me a prescription for an antibiotic. Don’t get me wrong, antibiotics are an indispensable weapon in the fight against potentially fatal disease, but most people are now aware of both the personal and population wide consequences of unnecessary antibiotic use. And it seems like the nuclear option to use a systemic anti-bacterial to treat a small local area of infection.
I applied a poultice of ground herbs called San Huang Xi Ji and after three days the cyst was gone.
The next time I went to a GP it was because I thought I had an ingrown toenail, and expected to get a referral to a podiatrist. But because the tissue next to the toenail was inflamed an antibiotic was again prescribed. San Huang Xi Ji was not the ideal poultice to use, but I had some ground up so that’s what I went with. Four days of application overnight relieved the inflammation.
The picture isn’t of my ear, and nobody wants to see my toenail.
As if to order, The Guardian is running an article on anti-biotic resistance this weekend, it seems to be a major concern of England’s chief medical officer.
You can learn cupping and scraping. Join me at the CERES Van Raay Centre to find out how to use these methods to keep yourself, your friends, and family well. We Chinese Medicine practitioners are experts at treating a range of conditions with these methods, but historically they are folk medicine practices used by regular folk. So this workshop is intended to teach people who are not health professionals how to treat pain, stiffness, common colds, and fevers.
Come dressed so that you can expose your shoulders and upper back.
Short notice for this one but I have to hone my presentation skills before I jet off to teach the idle rich at luxury resorts.
- When: Saturday October 21, 9am til 12pm.
- Where: CERES Environment Park, Van Raay Meeting Room 3.
- Price: $50
A journalist recently asked me for some explanations of people’s expectations of Chinese Medicine. She had been commissioned to write an article for the LUX* Resort group, and she probably hope for some pithy quotes that she could tie together in a brief wrapup. If only explaining Chinese Medicine were that easy.
The journalist asked me because I’m going there, I’m on their page.