Michael Phelps shows off his cupping marks. We Chinese medicine practitioners use cups to treat muscle tightness and pain, and pathogenic illness. It can be very effective alone, and can work even better when combined with acupuncture.
From our point of view the cups draw bad stuff out from deeper layers to the surface, whether it’s blood that has thickened because its flow has been restricted in a tight muscle, or external pathogenic factors that are associated with colds and flus. This explanatory model is common to traditional cupping practices throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa. A possible bio-medical explanation of how cupping helps with muscle tightness and pain is that it encourages phagocytosis to remove partially clotted blood. In his article “A Cupping Mark is not a Bruise”, cupping guru Bruce Bentley reports that a tissue sample taken from an athlete that had been cupped at the Australian Institute of Sport, was analysed as containing “old blood” (http://www.healthtraditions.com.au/uploads/212-cupping-proof.pdf).
I love doing cupping treatments. Not only do they work really well but they turn people into walking advertisements for Chinese Medicine. Not many of my patients expose their marks to as many people as Mr Phelps has though, nice one Michael.
Natural food is medicine. In herbal medicine food herbs are the ones that can be used for general well-being. Mountain yam is one.
Chinese medicine isn’t big on unnecessary supplementation. It doesn’t create superfoods that are held out to be universal panaceas, and then encourage indiscriminate consumption of them. Instead it is well known that people who naively take a lot of strong tonics such as ginseng, reishi mushroom, or horny goat weed often harm themselves and need professional treatment. However there are medicinals that are classed as food herbs because their effects are gentle, and these are traditionally consumed as part of a balanced diet. They are used moderately though, and just as some foods are not the best for some people, they are sometimes inappropriate additions to some peoples’ diets.
My favourite is mountain yam or shan yao. When I was living in Japan I used to cook fresh mountain yam with chicken or pork. It’s delicious so I was eating it before I knew it was a herbal medicinal. The school Judo coach advocated eating it for strength and stamina, and as it is a food rather than a medicinal supplement there is nothing wrong with his advice.
Shan yao improves digestion and respiration, and supplements the deep reserves of endurance or resilience. It strengthens the back and knees, and improves reproductive health. As it moistens as well as strengthens it is more balanced than some tonic medicinals that are warm and drying, and is thermally neutral so won’t upset those who tend to get a bit too hot or cold. It is particularly appropriate for those whose digestion or respiration is a bit weak and tend to have loose stools or chronic breathing difficulties. It also limits pathological fluid emissions such as excessive sweating or urination. So while it is a healthy addition to most people’s diets, it is not appropriate for those who have something that they need to sweat out so people with colds, acute respiratory conditions, or excessive urination because of heat or infection shouldn’t eat too much of it.
The dried yam can be rehydrated and added to soups or stews. Sometimes I just grind it up and cook it with rice. Next weekend I’ll head out to the Footscray markets to see if I can find some fresh shan yao.
When I first started studying Chinese Medicine a weight-training Chiropractic student asked me about the effect of tribulus terrestis supplements on testosterone production. While I knew that it had been claimed to increase levels of endogenous testosterone, and that it was said that Eastern European strength athletes were dedicated users, I had to tell him that the scientific literature didn’t support such a claim, and that its Chinese Medicine properties did not suggest that it would have that kind of biological effect.
While I no longer have access to the academic databases that I had at University, a quick google scholar search suggests that there is still not the kind of evidence that is demanded of a biological agent’s effectiveness:
Some years before I had asked an experienced Chinese doctor, the redoubtable Phillip Chu, about using tribulus as a supplement. He had a way of asking, “Why?” that suggested the question was foolish, and told me to trust the nutitrion of healthy foods. I’ll discuss this a bit more some other time.
However I was recently told that a major pharmaceutical company was planning to market a tribulus extract to improve male sexual function and fertility. Again I do not have good academic search capabilities these days, but I did find a review that concluded that evidence is emerging that tribulus may have aphrodisiac effects without affecting testosterone levels, but couldn’t find meta-analysis of effects on indicators of reproductive health such as sperm counts and motility. Presumably the pharmaceutical company has conducted its own trials to support its marketing.
There is something interesting to this from a Chinese Medicine perspective. While there are popular patent medicines sold to improve male reproductive health that have effects that could correspond to boosting androgen levels, most Western males who consult a Chinese Medicine practitioner to improve their reproductive health are treated with medicinals and acupuncture protocols that cool, calm, moisten, and move stagnation and blockages associated with emotional constraint.
Tribulus, or 白蒺藜 (bai ji li) is a medicinal that moves stagnation and blockages associated with emotional constraint, it also has a calming effect that relieves sensations like blood rushing to the head with anger. So is this where I conclude that Chinese Medicine always knew that tribulus was good for male reproductive health? Well, no. Interestingly, despite it having properties that would make it appropriate it is not often used for this, as it is not part of the more standard combinations of medicinals that cool, calm, moisten, and move. However the famous doctor Qin Bo-Wei did incorporate it in his standard formula for moving stagnation.
Where does this leave us. Reductionist medicine is beginning to establish that tribulus’ reputation as an aphrodisiac may be merited. A pharmaceutical company will market a tribulus extract supplement to improve male reproductive health that would seem to be based more on its reputation than the available evidence. The Chinese Medicine properties of tribulus make it appropriate for helping many Western males but while it could be used other medicinals with similar properties are prescribed more often.
Perhaps there’s a cultural aspect that could make things a little clearer. The medicinals that are traditionally used in China to enhance male sexual function are tonics that have effects that could be seen to correspond to the manifestations of higher androgen levels. But these are inappropriate for most westerners and even for a number of modern Chinese for whom treatments containing medicinals with similar properties to tribulus are better. The aphrodisiac reputation of tribulus is part of the Indian herbal tradition, and could have been transported to the west. In the modern west increased sexual performance is associated with higher androgen levels so it was thought that tribulus must boost testosterone production, but now it appears that isn’t how it works. Maybe it’s by a biological action analogous to moving, unblocking, and easing emotional constraint that tribulus has it’s aphrodisiac effects on westerners and that Chinese Medicine told you so all along.
Quite a few people are now eating healthy by adopting a raw food diet. This can be a positive step for many people as it leads them to eat more fruit and vegetables, less processed starches, and less meat. However we Chinese Medicine folk have some reservations about the value of eating only raw food. We aren’t fond of extremes, and think that a balanced diet with moderate amounts of all foods is healthy for most people. Chinese Medicine also views digestion as being something like cooking, and cooking as being a form of pre-digestion. We’re big on soups and stocks, seasonal foods, and small quantities of rich, flavoursome meats and sweets.
It may be that more nutrients can be measured in a raw carrot than a cooked one, but measured nutrients are not always available in a form that humans can digest and use. A lot of nutrients can be measured in grass, but they’re not bioavailable to humans. Cows will be healthy eating it but not us. Nor are we ‘designed’ to eat raw foods – humans have been cooking their food for at least 2.1 million years and were quite different to us back then. Technically they weren’t even the same species. The picture is of our earliest cooking forebearers.
Some people do feel better eating more raw foods. Most of them should balance the cool nature of uncooked food by using plenty of warming spices, and drinking chai, black tea or pu-erh instead of green tea. A small amount of warming alcohol now and then would help. Fresh juices are nutrient packed but more healthy with some ginger or cardamon, some sour or bitter flavour with the sweetness. A cup of juice is easier to process than half a litre of juice, which would tend to overwhelm the digestion with its sweetness and damp. The main thing is self-awareness and being in tune with oneself. Someone who eats a lot of raw food and feels cold all the time, or has pains that are improved by warmth, who finds that food tastes bland, or has loose stools, or copious urine, should reconsider a choice that they have made on the basis of outside information, and eat a bit more cooked food.
Could a raw food diet be balanced out by daily hot yoga? Maybe that’s like asking if a speedball is going to be healthier than its components.
Black lentils. I just had to mention to the shop assistant that because they were black they would nourish the Kidney system. She asked if I knew about red beans. “Aduki beans”, I said. “Yes,” she replied, “They treat the liver”. I’ve learned not to directly contradict friendly people who are onside with Chinese Medicine, so I merely mentioned that aduki beans clear toxic heat from the system. But rather than treating the liver, aduki beans or chi xiao dou treat the Heart and Small Intestine systems – because they are red.
But back to the black lentils. I cook them in bone broth, mainly because it makes them delicious, but it doesn’t hurt that it compounds its nourishment of the Kidney system. This helps with bone health, lower back and knee strength, endurance, sexual, reproductive, and urinary function, and the kind of will that shows as a commitment to seeing things through.
They won’t want to eat the lentils, but the Paleo diet disciples are big on the bone broth. Buy your marrow bones from your local butcher before he finds out that some people are willing to pay good money for them.
Do not disturb the yang [qi].
Go to rest early and rise late.
you must wait for the sun to shine.
Let the mind enter a state as if hidden,
as if shut in
as if you had secret intentions;
as if you already had made gains.
Avoid cold and seek warmth and
do not [allow sweat] to flow away through the skin.
This would cause the qi to be carried away quickly.
This is correspondence with the qi of winter and
it is the Way of nourishing storage.
Opposing it harms the kidneys.
In spring this causes limpness with receding [qi],
there is little to support generation.
– Huang di Nei Jing Su Wen trans. Paul Unschuald
South Asian paintings of winter usually show snow. This photograph of winter rain in Toronto is more appropriate for the southern Australian winter.
Chinese literature discusses cold, dry winters. Melbourne’s winter months are the coldest of the year, but are relatively mild and quite wet, with extended rain periods.
Despite this difference with the cosmic flow of yin and yang in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese Medicine can still guide us on how to stay healthy in winter.
As the Su Wen outlines above, we should stay indoors and avoid the cold. Most of us will welcome the advice that we shouldn’t get out of bed until the sun comes up. Winter is a time to reserve and store and some have interpreted the rather cryptic third stanza above as applying this to sexual activity, but the ninth century commentator and editor Wang Bing commented ‘All this to say one does not wish to go out needlessly lest one is struck by cold’ (Unschuld p. 49). Those that like to snuggle up with a good friend in winter would prefer this interpretation.
We should avoid exercising outdoors after dusk. Young people with exuberant yang may get away with evening footy training and the like, but they should avoid wearing cold, sweaty clothing when they are not active, and should take a hot shower or bath as soon after training as they can.
Winter is the time to eat warming, flavoursome foods and to nourish the shen organ-meridian system linked to the kidneys. Wong’s ‘Four Seasons’ suggests: anchovies, bay leafs, capers, chestnuts, chicken, coriander, dill, fennel, leek, mussels, mutton, nutmeg, pine nuts, rosemary, spring onions, prawns, sweet potatoes, and walnuts. Trout and salmon are warm-natured fish. Eat stews, soups and curries, particularly of flavoursome foods with plentiful qi such as mutton or brisket. Stocks and soups from long simmering of bones are great. As well as eating warming foods we should moderate our consumption of cooling foods. Winter is not the best time to eat a lot of raw foods, salads, sushi or icecream, tofu should be cooked or even fried.
Winter is also time when it’s thought to be healthy to enjoy a little alcohol. Chinese will drink rice wine that has had warming herbs steeped in it, but regular wine is warm enough to help us through winter. Wong says that it ‘enlivens the spleen, warms the digestive system, expels wind and cold, promotes circulation of the qi and blood, improves appetite and dispels fatigue.’ But alcohol would kindle any fire in the body, and red wine seems particularly unhelpful to people who overheat at night. The alcohol in beer is warming, but beer can bring dampness. Dark beers warm the yang more than light ones, and some beers are brewed with orange peel, cardomon, and other spices that can warm the digestive system and reduce dampness.
At the first signs of having caught a cold simmer two slices of ginger with three spring onion stalks for twenty minutes and drink the broth.
A warming nourishing dish from Wong that doesn’t use meat:
stir-fried daikon radish with carrot:
Stir-fry finely diced daikon radish with carrot until al dente and slightly browned. Add a handful of chopped shallots and cook for another minute. Add soy sauce and black pepper to taste.
Wong says that the carrot supports digestion and the radish clears damp that hinders digestion.
I’ve been treating a few rib injuries lately. Wayne copped one in the ribs sparring. He treated it himself with herbal plaster and Yunnan Bai Yao for a few days, then started taking the herbs I prescribed for him. After six days he was pain free. A week later he was in the ring and, hopefully, not dropping his guard too much for being worried about body shots.
Treatment was based on a Shaolin remedy for rib injuries from a punch:
cu ru xiang, cu mo yao, dang gui, cu zi ran tong, hong hua, chi shao, su mu, yu jin, xue jie, gan cao.
The original instructions for this remedy required adding infant’s urine to the mix, I didn’t have any on hand so I added more medicinals to course qi, remove blood stasis, and repair tendons and bones. The medicine was a very ‘funky’ brew, perhaps the urine would have made it taste better.
Arthur had a BJJ training partner fall into his ribs with his knees. His injury was probably worse than Wayne’s and took longer to heal. At first I got him to use san huang san on his ribs and to take a similar herbal prescription to Wayne’s. Later I added du zhong to improve the formula’s action of strengthening tendons and bones. This is du zhong, the bark of Eucommia trees, it even looks like ribs with sinewy tissue between them.
Blows to the ribs may fracture the bone, tear or strain the rib cartilage, strain or tear the intercostal muscles. GP’s could get X-rays taken to find out if the bone is fractured, but it makes no difference to treatment as there is nothing they could do to help the injury heal anyway. My first rib injury came from someone driving into them when I was on the side of a maul playing rugby. My GP second-row partner told me that aspirin was the best pain killer for rib injuries, and that he had some local in the car when we played the following week just in case the excitement of playing wasn’t enough to dull the pain. Since then I’ve re-injured them boxing, falling off a bicycle riding down a sand-dune track at Rottnest in the dark, and practising judo. One judo competition I sprung them twisting and lifting to get someone off me in ground work and couldn’t complete the competition. Unfortunately I had always used ice straight after the injuries, and didn’t know how Chinese Medicine could help the injuries repair so that they wouldn’t recur.
Sat on the cliff today,
sat so long the mist burned off.
Like a road the stream was, clear at its mouth,
a long time searching from a green crag top.
White clouds cast clear shadows in the silence,
light of the moon still floats, lingering.
No dust, no dirt on me,
How could this heart hold grief?
I re-read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums recently, and didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I did when I was in my 20’s. But I wondered about the Japhy Ryder character and through the magic of the intermcweb learned about Gary Snyder. Beloved by the Beats, who were a bit urban and cissy, for his backcountry real man ways he also taught them about Zen. After stints as a Zen monk, and dropping out into deep ecology primitivism he ended up with a cosy middle-class life as a university professor.
Anyway, he was a poet and one of his first publications was a translation of the Cold Mountain Poems by the mythical Han Shan. I wanted to read his translation but found someone else’s first and read that. Han Shan and his sidekick Shih-te were the original hobo poets. They dropped out, lived in the mountains, and graffitied poems on rocks and walls. The poems are about being with nature and away from the entanglements of corrupted life.
The point. This is the Daoist ideal of harmonious existence with the pure world, and while there are Buddhist, Confucian, and even Communist elements to Chinese Medicine its core is this ideal existence as the paradigm of healthy life. But it’s cold in those mountains and hifi won’t work so the Moxa Punk isn’t going to tell you to abandon your modern life to be healthy. Even Gary Snyder ended up in cardigans and hush puppies.
Small steps, little changes, harmonious treatment. Dao for now. Pow.
Just found some translation by Gary Snyder, here: