woman seated outside practicing meditation for healthy lifestyle


Breaking away from unhealthy American ways

My professor of acupuncture was new to the United States, having only recently left China. As he worked on a patient chart one day, he paused and with a big sigh asked, "Why does everyone here have this pattern?"

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the word "pattern" is used instead of "diagnosis." This is because while conventional Western medicine works to whittle an illness down to a single cause, TCM instead looks at the whole body-mind ecosystem and attempts to find a pattern to what is happening. A treatment plan is created to reflect this overall pattern and restore balance and health throughout the whole ecosystem.

My professor had noticed that Americans appeared in our clinic with one predominant pattern: Liver-Spleen disharmony. This didn't necessarily mean there was anything structurally wrong with patients' livers and spleens. The issue was in the functions that the Chinese medical system attributes to those organs. Patients with Liver-Spleen disharmony might express concerns such as headaches, high stress, digestive difficulties, menstrual pain, irritability, fibromyalgia or a host of other symptoms.

I continue to see this pattern more frequently than any other pattern in my current patients. So what is it about living in the United States that makes Liver-Spleen disharmony so common? In my experience, this pattern is about four things:

  • Stress:  According to TCM, the liver is in charge of the free flow of Qi. Qi is energy that moves through your body along channels. When you are healthy, the Qi moves freely. When you are in pain, sick or emotionally upset, the Qi can become stuck, and you may express this stagnation by clenching your jaw, stopping breathing or tensing your shoulders.
  • Emotions: In TCM, we believe that emotions come and go like water in a stream. If we let them come and express them, everything should be fine. However, sometimes we deny or "stuff" emotions, such as anger, sadness, grief or jealousy.
  • Exercise: If we aren't physically moving, Qi is less likely to move.
  • Food: In TCM, the spleen is largely attributed with the transformation of food into energy. Some foods, such as soup and lightly cooked vegetables, are easy to transform. Other foods, such as dairy, sugars, raw or cold foods, and fried foods, are difficult to transform.

Does any of that look familiar? I would offer that the "American way" often encourages stress, overworking, emotion-stuffing, screen-watching, and food-as-stomach-filler. Even when we try to avoid these things, it is easy to feel pulled in a number of directions in our daily lives and usually our self-care is the first to go.

So what do we do? TCM offers solutions such as acupuncture and Chinese herbs. But improvements from those therapies will only be sustained if lifestyle changes are made, too.

  • Meditate or find another way to manage your stress. Biofeedback and Mindfulness Training offer excellent approaches to handling stress.
  • Feel. Know that your feelings are right, and they are temporary. If you feel you need help processing your emotions, please consider seeing a therapist to help you.
  • Move. It doesn't have to be high-intensity interval training. Any time you move your body in a vigorous way that you enjoy, that is good.
  • Savor. Experience and enjoy your food. Experiment. Slow down. Smell it. Taste it. Eat only enough to feel 70 percent full.

Good luck—together we can work to change the American pattern to one of balance and harmony.


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