Many of us take our health for granted until we develop a problem. If it’s a serious problem, it usually means there has been some significant damage to our health already. To address the problem, we turn to our doctors, expensive medications, surgery, or even hospitalization. When we let the situation deteriorate to this degree, it’s challenging to bring the body back into a state of balance. However, if we pay even moderate attention to our health by taking some advisory preventative steps, we can avoid many serious problems altogether. This is the approach of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
TCM is a natural healing system that has been used in China for thousands of years and is gaining more acceptance in the West.
It includes various forms of herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, exercise, and dietary therapy. Although TCM can be effective when we already have a health problem or disease, it strongly encourages us not to wait until we have a health issue before taking action. The main emphasis and strengths of TCM are twofold: (1) overall management of our health and (2) prevention. If we do not take preventive steps, even the strongest of us can become ill.
What is prevention? Prevention means not only taking steps to manage our health but to bring small imbalances back into balance before they manifest as health problems. It means averting the danger before it arises. In those situations where we need to undergo surgery or other medical treatments, TCM can help to prevent the problem from arising again so we don't have to keep going back to the hospital. It can show us how to stay healthy for as long as possible. Let's take an example of a common health condition and how we can take steps to try to prevent it - hypothyroidism.
Hypothyroidism- a spleen energy deficiency Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone. In TCM, hypothyroidism is considered a spleen energy deficiency. The spleen in TCM is related to the thyroid gland. Many more women than men tend to have this problem, which can eventually lead to hypothyroidism. For example, after a woman has had a baby, she can easily develop a spleen energy deficiency which often manifests as anemia, since many women do not know how to eat correctly to ensure a full recovery. TCM physicians can usually predict many years in advance when someone will likely end up with hypothyroidism. There are a number of signs that point to this. Early warning signs of future hypothyroidism
- Slow pulse or slow deep pulse, weak pulse, or a slow and week pulse
- Sleeping eight hours or more at night but still feeling tired in the morning
- Very low body temperature
- Low blood pressure when young
- Slow bowel movement, loose bowels or constipation
- Blood sugar tends to easily drop too low
- Usually either over weight or skinny
- Slow digestion
- White spots on the skin of the forearm or lower leg
In Western medicine these early warning signs indicate a "slow metabolism.” TCM is adept at detecting the underlying condition well in advance of acute symptoms. Once we see the predisposing signs, we can prescribe acupuncture, although often only a few sessions are needed. We then recommend herbs that the patient can take as needed when the spleen meridian energy drops too low. The thyroid hormone is regulated as needed by taking the herbs. The herbs are designed to tonify (bring energy to) the thyroid and to prevent the thyroid hormone from dropping too low. Since the patient takes the herbs only when they need them and not on the days they have little stress or no noticeable symptoms, no further imbalance is created.
How can the patient tell when their spleen meridian energy drops too low?
- They feel frustrated or angry.
- They have low energy.
- They keep bumping into things (since energy is low they cannot gage the distance accurately).
- They feel sensitivity or pain on the sides and top of the head when combing hair.
- Their memory gets worse - e.g. they don't remember where they put their phone or keys (this can happen even when young)
- Their vision gets blurry.
- Food sits in their stomach too long.
- They crave sugar.
The more often these symptoms occur, the more additional symptoms can appear such as acid reflux, constipation, or loose bowels—and the closer the person gets to hypothyroidism. However, the herbs are designed to fix this problem within one or two weeks. If these symptoms are ignored, and the spleen energy becomes even more deficient, within a year the patient may become allergic to some foods. If they continue to do nothing, they are likely to become allergic to more and more foods. After about three years they can become allergic to as many as ten foods.
In TCM the spleen is related to digestion. If the digestion is weak and foods are not being digested well then the patient can develop these allergies. One of my patients became allergic to everything but cucumber and lettuce. Now with Chinese Medicine and the herbs, she can eat most foods again.
Another problem arises if the imbalances remain long term. After about ten years a person can develop a blood sugar imbalance. When the blood sugar level is imbalanced, the person can feel hungry, frustrated, low energy and can crave sugar. They can also experience sweating and blurry vision and have a tendency to be sedentary. However, in TCM we educate people in prevention and
- How to manage a spleen energy deficiency through diet and exercise?
- This usually works very well. How to manage a spleen energy deficiency through diet
- Reduce raw foods
- Reduce cold foods including ice cream and iced drinks
- Eat more cooked foods
- Eat foods that tonify spleen qi (i.e., bring energy to). These foods include brown rice rather than white rice, yellow vegetables, ginger, cinnamon, mustard, pepper, Jalapeno (not too much), cilantro, arugula, garlic, and spicy, pungent foods.
If you have a spleen energy deficiency, these foods will help strengthen your spleen energy and support the thyroid gland. How to manage a spleen deficiency through exercise
If you have a spleen energy deficiency, not all forms of exercise are good for you. For example, walking is not that helpful. Why? According to TCM, a spleen energy deficiency is caused by stress and a busy mind. When the mind is too busy, it can “hurt” the spleen and stomach—like overworking an engine. People who do a lot of mental work or who have a "busy mind" often find they cannot turn their brain off, not even at night. When they walk for exercise, they still tend to think about their job and their worries.
As a result, TCM recommends other types of exercise for these people, such as tennis, swimming, racket ball, football, soccer, yoga, tai chi, and Fit-150® (an exercise program specifically designed to help with the issue of metabolism). These exercises have people focus on movement or on the game and not on their worries or work. People have a greater chance of turning off their minds and correcting the habit of a chronically "busy mind."
According to TCM, other excessive emotions can hurt other organs. For instance, too much anger can hurt the liver and gall bladder. Excessive fear can hurt the kidneys and bladder. Too much sadness or grief can hurt the lungs and colon, and too much excitement can hurt the heart.
The general theory and philosophy of Traditional Chinese Medicine emphasizes prevention and overall management of health. Again, by paying even moderate attention to proper diet and exercise, we can help prevent conditions such as a spleen energy deficiency from becoming hypothyroidism.
Don’t wait until you get a lab report telling you your thyroid is too low and then have to take medication for the rest of your life. It is much easier on your body to follow the guidelines here for proper diet and exercise to avoid these problems. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure!
Published with permission of the Austin MD Magazine, February, 2014.