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Acupuncture for Restless Leg Syndrome

Acupuncture for Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is a condition that can disrupt a person’s sleep leading to anything from frustration to exhaustion.

Symptoms of an unpleasant sensation in the legs drive a person to move the legs to temporarily relieve the discomfort.  This feeling can be experienced as ‘pins and needles,’ a deep itch, pulling, aching, or burning.  While the symptoms can occur with extended periods of sitting, they typically occur in the evening or at night.

RLS can be thought of as a hybrid condition of movement disorder and parasomnia.  A parasomnia is a sleep disturbance that may occur at the start of sleep, during sleep or during arousal from sleep, but does not include sleep apnea.

Western Medicine View

Western medical research posits that RLS may be due to iron and/or folate deficiency or an imbalance of the neurotransmitter dopamine which, among other things, affects muscle movement.  The syndrome may be hereditary as it has been found to run in families.  While RLs can occur at any age, it is more common in people over 40.  Women tend to be affected more frequently than men.

Interestingly, pregnancy can induce or worsen symptoms of RLS.  This typically occurs in the third trimester.  Luckily, symptoms usually dissipate by about a month after delivery.

While not usually related to serious health issues, RLS may be associated with peripheral neuropathy and diabetes, kidney failure, or spinal cord conditions.  In these cases, it is important to treat the underlying condition to optimize one’s health and thereby address RLS.  In addition, a doctor may review a patient’s medications and supplements to understand if the symptoms are perhaps an unwanted side effect.

Western medical treatment may involve medications of varying types from muscle relaxers to those that increase the level of dopamine in the brain to iron or folate supplementation.

Traditional Chinese Medicine View

If the above efforts do not provide enough relief, a combination of acupuncture, moxibustion, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) nutrition can be helpful.  In RLS, as in any condition, symptoms are seen as a manifestation of imbalance and a thorough intake will uncover the individual’s particular pattern of imbalance.  TCM recognizes various ‘Pathogenic Factors’ as pushing a person’s system out of its desired healthy state.  In the case of RLS, several Pathogenic Factors may be implicated and ‘Wind’ is a very important one.  It acts as wind does in nature, generating movement small and large – think of the branches of a sapling gently swaying in a spring breeze to the destruction wreaked by a tornado.  While Wind has other attributes in TCM, the important feature in this instance is its ability to generate movement.  If Wind is indeed present, it can be dealt with in several ways.

Acupuncture and Moxibustion

Acupuncture encourages the body to rely on its innate ability to heal itself.  It is a safe method of treatment that can be used in conjunction with other modalities, including Western Medicine.  Acupuncture points are chosen depending on the pattern of imbalance that is identified.  There are some specific points that can help ‘extinguish Wind’.  There are even some acupuncture points on the body that have Wind as part of their names, signifying their relationship to this Pathogenic Factor.

Moxibustion, a local heating treatment, involves the burning of a herb product near specific acupuncture points on the body.   It provides a gentle warming sensation and can be very soothing.   One of its many functions is to reduce Wind.

TCM Nutrition

According to TCM nutrition, there are certain foods which should be avoided if Wind is indeed affecting a person’s health.  They are eggs, crab and buckwheat.  Buckwheat is also called kasha and may be used as whole-grain porridge or ground into a flour for baking.  Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour or a combination of wheat and buckwheat flours.  If you eat gluten-free baked goods, check the label for buckwheat flour.

There are also foods which counteract Wind.  They are categorized here as Cool to Cold, Neutral, and Warm to Hot, reflecting the influence the food has on a person.  People who tend to feel warmer than others, who find the heat of summer very taxing, and who prefer cool drinks should choose from the Neutral and Cool to Cold foods.  Those who tend to feel colder than others (especially their hands and feet), who find winter especially uncomfortable and who prefer warm drinks should choose the Neutral and Warm to Hot foods.

Cool to Cold Foods:  banana, barley, celery, eggplant, peppermint, water chestnut

Neutral Foods:  bass, black sesame seeds, black soybean, coconut, cold-pressed flaxseed oil, perch, pineapple, sage, sunflower seeds

Warm to Hot Foods:  anise, basil, caraway, cayenne, cherry, cinnamon, fennel, garlic, ginger, green onion, oats, pine nuts, rosemary, shrimp, thyme, turmeric

Lifestyle and Dietary Changes

Finally, both Western Medicine and TCM agree that certain lifestyle and dietary adjustments can help manage the symptoms of RLS.

Establish and maintain good sleep hygiene to optimize rest.   Include stretching and massaging the legs in a warm bath before bed.  Get regular moderate exercise (e.g. walking, yin yoga or TaiJi) earlier in the day.

Better sleep can be had by removing caffeine from the diet.  This is best done by tapering off gradually rather than stopping abruptly.  Reducing or eliminating alcohol and tobacco products can also improve the chances for a good night’s sleep.


Dharmananda, S. (2005, February).  Restless Legs Syndrome and Chinese Medicine.  Retrieved from

Farrell, Y. (2019).   A Spirit at Rest, day 2 notes [PowerPoint Slides].  Retrieved from

Kastner, J. (2009).  Chinese Nutrition Therapy:  Dietetics in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) (2nd ed.).  Stuttgart:  Thieme.

Pitchford, P. (2002).  Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA:  North Atlantic Books.

Restless Legs Syndrome (n.d.).  Retrieved from restless-legs-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20377168

Spring Has Sprung…and So Have Your Allergies

Spring Has Sprung…and So Have Your Allergies

Sonam Patel, R.Ac, B.Sc

It’s that wonderful time of year again here in Toronto, where the sun is finally peeking out from behind the clouds and the temperature is on the rise. However, for a number of us this can also be the return of something unwanted – the dreaded allergy season. During the spring season, tree pollen is in the air as things start to turn green outside, and mold spores are also airborne as the snow quickly melts away and leaves the ground damp. An increase in dust mites can be seen as we begin to dig out umbrellas and raincoats, disturbing the dust that accumulated over the winter. These are the major contributors to springtime allergies, later followed by other types of pollen including grass (late spring/summer) and ragweed (late summer/autumn). Typically, pollen levels peak in the morning, so symptoms can be worst when waking up.

This can come as a first-time occurrence for many and due to a number of symptoms being the same as that of a common cold it can easily be misinterpreted as just being “under the weather”.

Common symptoms of seasonal allergies can include:

  • Nasal congestion (leading to headaches, difficulty breathing, etc.)
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy eyes, ears, mouth (palate), nose
  • Red/watery/puffy eyes
  • Rashes or hives

If you notice these issues have been affecting you for an extended period of time and are impacting your sleep, concentration, and daily activities, this is likely an indication that you are dealing with allergies. When you come into contact with an “allergen” (such as pollen) that you are allergic to, this will cause your body’s immune system to kick into high gear thinking that the allergen is dangerous to you. Cells send out inflammatory mediators called histamines into the bloodstream in order to push out these foreign objects through sneezing, runny nose, etc. This protective mechanism is meant to protect you from harm, but unfortunately manifests in inconvenient ways.

The first line of defense that most people turn to is an over-the-counter antihistamine and/or decongestant. These provide short term relief from symptoms. Antihistamines work by inhibiting cell receptors to prevent the release of histamines, and some even have sedative effects to help combat sleeping issues as a result of symptoms. Decongestants cause the blood vessels in the mucous membrane of your nose to constrict, thus stopping runny nose and helping clear the airway (Sperber & Flaws, 2016). The downside? Well for starters, you may experience extremely dry mouth, nose and eyes, and if you have a drowsy formula then you must refrain from operating any motorized vehicles for a certain time period. Other more serious side effects include hypotension, vertigo, urinary retention and tachycardia. This happens when the antihistamines start to block other receptors than just the histamine-releasing ones. An additional problem with repeatedly taking the same medication is that your body can start to build a resistance to it, and the intended effects will no longer be produced.

Tips on how to reduce severity of allergy symptoms:

  • Spring cleaning: Give your home a top to bottom clean in order to eliminate any accumulated dust and debris
  • Shower after spending time outdoors: Washing away any pollen that may have floated onto your hair, skin, or clothing will help you to have a better night’s sleep
  • Get lots of rest: If your body is tired this can make your immune system more vulnerable and not at it’s optimal level to fight off attacks
  • Keep calm & de-stress: Stress is a major contributor to many conditions we can be affected by, as it not only impacts us mentally but physically as well
  • Exercise: Getting up and moving will help your body to function better by circulating blood, improving breathing and sleep, and increasing energy
  • Acupuncture: Having regular acupuncture treatments can not only help with reducing the short term symptoms of allergies, but also with preventing future attacks by regulating immune function and correcting imbalances in your body

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Lung organ system is most under attack with allergy and immunity issues. This does not simply mean the physical lungs themselves, but rather a whole system connected to other parts of the body by channels, blood, and energy (Qi). The theory surrounding this system say that it governs the skin, opening and closing function of pores, helps facilitate respiration, and opens into the nose. This all makes sense when you think back to how allergens come into contact with the surface of your body, and the histamine response causes hives, sneezing, nasal congestion, and more.

With acupuncture, our goal as a preventative measure to allergies would be to strengthen and balance your body by improving blood circulation and correcting underlying disharmonies. During acute attacks of allergies, acupuncture can be used therapeutically to manage the symptoms that are currently being presented, while still addressing those underlying patterns. Acupuncture points are carefully chosen across the whole body, according to their location and function. Studies have shown that acupuncture can improve symptoms of persistent allergic rhinitis (Mcdonald, et al., 2016). Not only this, it will indirectly help in other areas of your health by regulating stress, sleep and other functions. Acupuncture is a safe option to treat seasonal allergies, as it does not produce harmful side effects and can improve your quality of life if you are dealing with this condition chronically (Feng, et al., 2015).

Sperber, G., & Flaws, B. (2016). Integrative pharmacology: Combining modern pharmacology with integrative medicine(Second ed.). Boulder, CO: Blue Poppy Press, a division of Blue Poppy Enterprises.

Mcdonald, J. L., Smith, P. K., Smith, C. A., Xue, C. C., Golianu, B., & Cripps, A. W. (2016). Effect of acupuncture on house dust mite specific IgE, substance P, and symptoms in persistent allergic rhinitis. Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology,116(6), 497-505. doi:10.1016/j.anai.2016.04.002

Feng, S., Han, M., Fan, Y., Yang, G., Liao, Z., Liao, W., & Li, H. (2015). Acupuncture for the Treatment of Allergic Rhinitis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Rhinology & Allergy,29(1), 57-62. doi:10.2500/ajra.2015.29.4116

Sonam Patel, R.Ac, B.Sc is a Registered Acupuncturist at the Pacific Wellness Institute.  She is available for acupuncture treatments.  Please call 416-929-6958 to inquire about the appointment.

Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment of systemic factors causing varicose veins and spider veins

Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment of systemic factors causing varicose veins and spider veins

Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a safe and effective approach to treating and preventing spider veins and varicose veins, based on a clinical framework tested and refined over millennia of use.

by Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP

Western biomedicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine largely agree on why varicose veins form. Western medicine sees varicose veins developing as a result of weakened one-way valves in veins. All blood vessel traffic is one-way only, and both arteries and veins have many one-way valves along their length. These valves are supposed to prevent blood from flowing backwards, especially where gravity is working against blood flow. One area of the body where gravity regularly helps blood enter — and hampers blood leaving — is your legs. This is why varicose veins develop most often in the legs, and more rarely in other parts of the body.

When we walk, the repeated contraction and relaxation of leg muscles creates a kind of pumping action, which combines with the one-way valves in veins to move the blood in our legs back up towards the heart.  When we are lying down, the blood in our legs isn’t fighting gravity to make its way back to the heart. But sitting still for extended periods, for example during a long flight, can invite blood to pool in the legs — and standing for long periods is even worse. For those who do a lot of sitting or standing over time, the persistent pressure of pooling blood can stretch out the walls of leg veins and damage their valves, causing varicose veins.

Once this damage has taken place, the affected veins don’t usually recover. Specific leg exercises can help prevent Deep Vein Thrombosis on long flights, while a quick online search yields a number of exercises that can be done while performing sitting or standing work, to help prevent varicose veins. Sclerotherapy can often safely destroy small veins, and large ones can sometimes be replaced with grafts, but sclerotherapy is painful and grafting is a significant surgical procedure; both risk scarring, and neither addresses the underlying causes of weak blood vessels — so the problem is likely to recur.

This is where Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has something special to offer: Diagnosis and treatment of the systemic factors which promote the development of varicose and spider veins.

TCM agrees with Western biomedicine that poor blood circulation is a primary cause of varicose veins; this is called blood stasis in TCM. Both approaches agree that appropriate exercise is crucial to blood circulation, and that smoking is bad for blood vessels. But TCM goes beyond Western biomedicine in identifying another key factor in varicosity, a key factor besides smoking which governs the strength and elasticity of the blood vessels themselves. TCM calls this factor Spleen qi.

So what is Spleen qi, and how does it affect blood vessels? Is there something besides exercises, or quitting smoking, which people suffering from varicose veins can do that will improve their outcomes?

Yes — they can strengthen their digestive systems.

Treating blood vessels as an extension of the digestive system isn’t as strange as it may sound. Consider some of the structural and functional similarities between the digestive tract and blood vessels: Both are long tubes, made of smooth muscle. From the esophagus to colon, the digestive tract relaxes just in front of the bolus, and contracts behind it to move material through; this is called peristalsis. Similarly, the blood vessel relaxes just in front of the pulse, and contracts just behind it, moving the blood through.

Functionally, the digestive system produces nutrients and discharges wastes; the nutrients reach all the cells of the body via the circulatory system, which also carries metabolic wastes away from cells so they can be excreted.

Viewed in these terms, the digestive and circulatory systems are clearly co-extensive; that is, each finishes what the other starts. Not to mention that one source of Vitamin K, an important blood-clotting factor, is its production by friendly flora in the gut.

None of this is intended to prove anything; rather, it is intended to help minds make the imaginative leap, from one way of seeing to another, very different way of seeing. It suggests that, far from being separate and distinct physiologic systems, circulation and digestion have a common structure and purpose.

This common structure and purpose are represented in TCM by the Spleen organ. The Spleen in TCM is NOT identical to the spleen in Western biomedicine, so we cannot expect a TCM diagnosis to have an exact counterpart in the form of a Western biomedical diagnosis. In TCM, the Spleen is tasked with breaking down food and drink, and creating nutrients out of the resultant raw materials. Usually, we think of this as the stomach’s job, but in TCM the Stomach is primarily responsible for holding the food while the Spleen works on it, then descending it in a timely fashion.

What does this have to do with blood vessels?

According to TCM, the Spleen produces Blood, the Spleen governs muscle (including smooth muscle), and Spleen qi holds Blood in the vessels. Therefore, weak Spleen qi can cause some types of bleeding disorders (such as heavy menses, or easy bruising), as well as weakened blood vessels, which cause both varicose and spider veins in TCM. If the Spleen qi is weak, there will also be poor absorption, so the Spleen will not be able to make enough Blood. This can result in various types of deficiency, including anemias.

Once there is not enough Blood, the circulation will be compromised. In other words, Spleen qi deficiency is often a factor in poor blood circulation, which is a factor in varicosity and spider veins. Blood circulation is effectively a hydraulic pressure system, and it can’t work properly where there isn’t enough hydraulic fluid. This isn’t about blood volume so much as it is about the concentration of blood cells: for example, drinking fluids will help your blood volume return to normal a few hours after donating blood — but it will be weeks before you have fully made up the blood cells you donated.

TCM tells us that we need enough Blood before it can circulate properly and that Spleen qi is responsible not only for making Blood but also for keeping it inside the vessels and regulating the smooth muscle composting vessel walls. This is good news! It means that by strengthening digestion, by choosing to eat some things and avoiding others, we can normalize Blood circulation and strengthen Blood vessels.

Which foods strengthen Spleen qi? And which ones weaken Spleen qi?

In general, regular eating habits, and a diet comprising a wide variety of unprocessed foods, will strengthen Spleen qi. This is hardly controversial;  what may be more difficult to grasp are the foods and drinks that are seen as weakening Spleen qi.

Concentrated sugars are not just ‘empty calories’ that displace more nutritious foods: Too much sugar actively weakens digestive capacity, according to TCM. So far so good, right? Okay, how about this: Salads can damage digestion. Yes, I just said that. According to TCM, raw and cold foods are not only more difficult to digest, but they are also capable of weakening digestion. So an occasional salad may be okay for some people, but others should eat only cooked food. And eating a raw carrot cold from the fridge is not such a good idea for anyone.

This idea that raw foods are cold-natured, and that cold food can damage digestion, is not as easy to get on board with. But it’s an important idea within TCM, and it’s one of the reasons TCM can offer viable alternatives to biomedical diagnosis and treatment — because we start with an alternative way of looking at things. Which brings us to dairy…

Dairy products are considered cold-natured, but they are also Damp. Damp by its nature is heavy, and cold sinks; therefore dairy foods place a particular burden on Spleen qi, weakening both digestive capacity AND the ability to hold blood in the vessels. So for people affected by weak digestion, poor blood circulation, any type of ptosis or prolapse, some types of bleeding, or easy bruising, or varicose or spider veins, dairy in any form is particularly bad. Cold dairy is even worse, and sweetened frozen yogurt or ice cream is truly your Spleen’s worst nightmare — and your Blood vessels’ worst enemy.

Changing the way you eat can be difficult, and even time-consuming; try starting with one small and relatively simple thing, such as skipping ice cubes in drinks, or substituting soups for salads and smoothies, or cutting out ice cream. One important aspect of digestive health is regular eating habits, especially not skipping breakfast. Establishing good eating habits may not be easy, but the hope of a specific benefit, rather than a vague idea that it’s good for you, can help you stay focused.

What about acupuncture? Can treatment using needles and moxibustion help prevent and heal weakened blood vessels?

Yes! Acupuncture treatment can not only strengthen Spleen qi, but there are also acupoints whose actions specifically target blood vessels. Your acupuncturist can provide a highly specific and personalized treatment that works synergistically with the more general systemic benefits of dietary changes. For more severe or long-standing cases, consider adding customized herbal formulas.

Dietary therapy is very important to help prevent and treat varicose veins and spider veins. But by itself, dietary therapy would take much longer to show results. The same is true of acupuncture alone. If the diet is not addressed, acupuncture will take much longer to work, and the benefits will start to wear off once acupuncture is discontinued. For more rapid improvement (usually visible within weeks), and lasting results, dietary changes and acupuncture are both necessary

Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP provides acupuncture services at Pacific Wellness and is available for appointments four days a week.  If you would like to explore how acupuncture could help your health concerns please call us at 416-929-6958.  Acupuncture treatments are covered by most employee benefits.

Are You a Good Boss to Your Body?

Are You a Good Boss to Your Body?

By:  Saima Anto, R.Ac, RTCMP

The mind-body connection is increasingly acknowledged as vital to health and well-being.

In fact, the mind-body connection is so powerful that its measured effects can be bigger than the measured effects of many prescription drugs. This is why studies of the effectiveness of medications have to be designed so that the power of the mind-body connection is controlled for. Whether you want to maintain your current excellent health or are looking to make some changes to see improvements, examining your relationship with your body is always a good idea.

There are a lot of ways to approach the broad and complex subject of the mind-body connection; let’s keep it simple by looking at it in terms of work. Work is something we can all relate to because it’s a fundamental aspect of our individual and collective lives. Whether we feel like it or not, we go to work and do our jobs— and we expect the same from our bodies.

Are you a good boss to your body?

Like you, your body is doing the best job it can with the resources it has. Working for a good boss not only encourages staff to perform well, but to grow and develop at their jobs. On the other hand, a bad boss will result in subpar performance, and make workers tired, discouraged, and confused. So if you have been feeling like your body is letting you down, or springing unpleasant surprises on you, it’s a good time to open up the lines of communication and check-in with your body, to make sure you’re holding up your end.

To support your body in working well, it helps to avoid some common mistakes. One of the top three causes of workplace stress and dissatisfaction is micro-management. Bad bosses interfere in the work process, sapping employees’ motivation and sense of competence. Take a moment to consider all the things your body does that don’t rely on your direct supervision. How hard would you have to work to stay alive, if every bodily process required your conscious control? In other words, your body has a mind of its own, and it’s a lot smarter than you are. So make sure you are listening to your body and meeting its needs before you start issuing orders or making demands.

Bad bosses withhold acknowledgment from their employees or even steal their hard work and ideas. So, make sure your body knows you appreciate how good it is at its job, and how hard it works!

Bad bosses expect you to produce results even when they won’t give you the resources and tools you need to get the job done — and then they blame you for ‘failing’.

Don’t do this to your body.
If your body is always last on your list of priorities, it isn’t going to have the resources to give you what you want. Not that we can always choose our priorities; sometimes you just aren’t in a position to give your body enough sleep, adequate exercise, or regular healthy meals. In that case, be reasonable about what you can expect under such conditions.

Listening to your body is one thing — understanding what your body is saying is a whole other matter. What if you are trying to be a good boss, but you just can’t figure out what exactly your body is asking for? You may know you need to get more sleep, for example, but what does it mean when your body doesn’t fall asleep easily at a reasonable bedtime? Or wakes up and can’t fall back asleep? You may know the importance of regular meals, especially breakfast, but what if you’re not hungry in the mornings? Maybe you’ve got a system all worked out for managing your busy life while still looking after your own needs — but lately, it doesn’t seem to be working as well as it used to.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been listening to the human body for thousands of years, and it’s gotten very good at not only understanding the language of the body but communicating effectively with the body to promote recovery and wellness.

This is because Traditional Chinese Medicine is holistic — that is, TCM has always recognized and worked with the power of the mind-body connection. Acupuncture is very good at helping your body use the resources it has more effectively, and the concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine can help you understand what your body is asking for when it develops symptoms. No pill or treatment can take the place of meeting your body’s needs, but the experience of acupuncture can help you learn to listen with more understanding, and respond more effectively when your body is speaking.

Saima Anto, M.A., R.AC, R.TCMP is a Registered Acupuncturist and Registered Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner at the Pacific Wellness Institute.  She is available for acupuncture treatments on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  Please call 416-929-6958 to inquire about the appointment.

Stress and your Liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Stress and your Liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Stress is all but universal — not many people can say that they don’t have any stress. Usually it’s a matter of degree: How much stress are you experiencing right now?

by Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP

Maybe you’re only somewhat stressed, so you’d shrug and say ‘Just the usual’. Maybe there’s performance stress involved in getting an important project delivered on time. Or maybe feeling stress tells us that something needs to change. These kinds of stress aren’t necessarily bad. We can feel energized and excited about possibilities, even create new possibilities in our work and personal lives. Short-term loss of sleep and lack of attention to diet or exercise usually don’t leave a lasting mark. Some forms of pressure can help bring out the best in us, and managing these kinds of stress can be relatively straightforward.

Or circumstances could combine to create significant ongoing stress, at work or in private life — even both at the same time. There is such a thing as toxic stress: the kind that just wears you down and eats you alive, rather than alerting you to a problem or bringing out the best in you. This form of stress can not only erode your sense of well-being and purpose, it can ultimately cause serious harm to your bodily health.

What does stress do to our bodies?

The physiology of stress in Western biomedicine is complex. Most people may experience stress; few can describe precisely what it’s doing to their bodies in biomedical terms, although you’re probably thinking ‘Don’t I recall something about cortisol being the stress hormone’? Similarly, most people have encountered the concept of the fight-or-flight response; it’s not always possible to fight stressors, or run away from them, but we still experience the surge of adrenaline that’s supposed to help the body respond to sudden physical threat, and the diversion of circulation from digestive, reproductive, and other routine maintenance to muscles. We may all be a little fuzzy on the biomechanics, but people dealing with IBS are well aware that stress can trigger or worsen their symptoms, and those experiencing fertility issues know that stress and anxiety can impair reproduction.

We might not be able to fill in all the blanks, but it’s easy to recognize the effects of stress as we experience them: Sleep, appetite, energy levels, circulation, digestion, reproduction, and mood are all vulnerable to ups and downs when we’re stressed. If stress is bad enough, and goes on long enough, we can gain or lose weight, become angry or depressed, develop insomnia, irregular menses or other fertility issues, take up smoking or drinking, and feel exhausted — all of which can compound the original stressor(s). If you’ve been severely stressed for a while, you might be wondering whether you have adrenal fatigue, or are developing an ulcer.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), stress affects your Liver. This Liver is, and is not, the same as your Western biomedical liver. It’s the same organ in your body, but what it is, and what it does, are seen in such different terms by Traditional Chinese Medicine that we can’t always draw one-to-one correspondences between the two sets of concepts.

Traditional Chinese Medicine’s ideas about the Liver are good at explaining what stress does to our bodies in terms that relate to our experience, and TCM therapies, such as acupuncture and herbal formulas, are excellent at relieving stress, and helping the body resist its effects.

The Liver does many things, but one of its major functions is to regulate all the energy traffic in your body. Yes, just like an air-traffic controller, being your Liver is a high-stress job. What happens when you get stressed, then? The short answer is, you get an energy traffic jam in your Liver. This in turn readily explains many of the common immediate and long-term effects of stress.

Why do we feel tired when we’re stressed, but refreshed by moderate exercise (like taking a brief walk)? Why does stress make us hungrier, or lose our appetite, or grind or clench our teeth? Why does stress make it harder to get a good night’s sleep? How does stress derail normal reproductive functions? And what about cleanses?

You’re tired because your energy isn’t available — it’s stuck in traffic and can’t get to work. But a quick stroll later, your mind is working again, you don’t feel so tired, and your hands and feet have warmed up. This is because moderate exercise is enough to break up the energy traffic jam, so now the energy is circulating to warm your hands and feet, refresh your mind, and support your activities.

Appetite and digestion are often affected by stress. This is because the Liver shares the thoracic cavity with the Spleen and Stomach. So when the trapped energy builds up in the Liver, it wants to vent — and the Spleen and Stomach are close neighbours and easy targets. When the trapped energy attacks, the digestive process can be slowed or interrupted (accompanied by bloating or constipation, or loss of appetite), or it can cause irritation that moves everything through too quickly (bloating, frequent bowel movements or even loose stools or diarrhea). Some people experience reflux, nausea, or even vomiting with stress, because the Liver’s attack has made the Stomach energy reverse its usual downward course. If the Liver is aggressive and persistent in its attacks, ulcers can form. With ongoing stress, the digestive functions weaken, resulting in lower energy levels, ‘brain fog’, impaired focus or memory, and/or weight loss or gain.

Sometimes the trapped Liver energy vents into a meridian, or energy channel. When this happens, the rogue energy travels up the channel into the jaw, and expresses in grinding or clenching motions. These repeated movements can make neck and jaw muscles ache, cause wear on the temporo-mandibular joint (TMJ), damage teeth, and cause headaches.

What about sleep? The Liver also shares the thoracic cavity with the Heart, which is located higher than the Liver inside the chest. When trapped energy persists long enough to build up heat, the heat rises and agitates the Heart. This is most likely to be noticed in the small hours, when we wake up between 1 and 3 a.m., and have trouble falling back asleep because our thoughts are racing.

Besides anxiety and restlessness, the heat buildup due to stuck energy can cause us to feel frustration, irritability, or anger. Feelings like frustration or anger can be a source of stress (nursing a grudge will definitely cause stuck energy), but they can also be caused by stuck energy. If your moods vary with your cycle, your TCM provider will want to work on regulating your Liver.

Irregular menses are definitively caused by stuck energy, according to TCM. This is because, when energy gets stuck, blood can’t circulate freely. Briefly put, stress affects reproduction because reproductive organs need a sufficient and consistent supply of energy and blood to maintain normal function. Continual interruption of the smooth flow of energy and blood makes it difficult for the body to carry out the complex routines involved in monthly cycles, from triggering timely ovulation to building up, and then shedding, a healthy uterine lining.

So what does TCM think about liver cleanses?

It’s a huge topic, but a few brief points can be offered here. The Western view assigns the liver responsibility for detoxifying the body. TCM doesn’t. This is one area where there isn’t a point-to-point correspondence between TCM and biomedicine. So  ‘toxins’ aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when TCM practitioners think about the Liver.

Taking something gentle, like milk thistle or chamomile, will probably not do you any harm. But much of what people attribute to toxins is actually due to the hypofunction of other organ systems, so it may not do much good either. Gentle therapies won’t transform you overnight, or correct more severe imbalances. And please don’t use anything drastic — dumping stored toxins into your system all at once sounds like a bad idea because it is a bad idea. If you’re going to diagnose and treat yourself, a good rule is: First, do no harm.

So what does Traditional Chinese Medicine think we should do about stress?

For milder forms of stress, nothing beats moderate exercise. A heavy workout schedule will likely overtax your physical resources if you are under prolonged or severe stress, so don’t overdo it. Simple dietary modifications can also make a big difference. For example, rich, greasy or oily foods are hard for your body to break down, so they can easily jam your energy traffic. Sometimes snacking on ice cream, chocolate, potato chips, or pizza may be just what you need to stay sane, but maybe not when you have a difficult meeting scheduled for the next day and need to keep your temper.

Irregular eating weakens digestion, and weak digestions have trouble making enough blood and energy to support routine maintenance. So try to prioritize regular meals if you’re under stress. And rule number one of regular eating habits is, Always eat breakfast! If you’re not hungry in the mornings, try ‘priming’ your digestive system with a small snack first. A few mouthfuls of soup can give a weakened digestive system the energy it needs to get down to business after fasting all night.

As for drinking, spirits can overheat the Liver, as can excessive drinking; but moderate drinking (one drink a day) can relax the Liver and smooth energy flow. And for those times you can’t fit in a quick walk, squeezing a wedge of lemon into a glass of water will help your Liver traffic keep moving.

When it comes to coping with stress, every little bit helps. For more severe forms of stress, however, moderate exercise, eating breakfast, and drinking lemon water can only do so much. Fortunately, acupuncture, herbal therapies, or both together, are all excellent at breaking up the trapped energy caused by stress, clearing out the heat buildup caused by trapped energy, and restoring normal blood circulation to organs slowly starving from the effects of chronic fight-or-flight activation. For some people, the original stress is over, but their nervous systems have forgotten how to switch out of high gear. Acupuncture can help your body remember what ‘normal’ looks like. If the stress is severe and ongoing, it will come back after treatment — but regular acupuncture can help your body withstand the worst of its long-term effects.

Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP provides acupuncture services at Pacific Wellness and is available for appointments four days a week.  If you would like to explore how acupuncture could help your health concerns please call us at 416-929-6958.  Acupuncture treatments are covered by most employee benefits.

Acupuncture for Issues with Insomnia, Anxiety and Attention

Acupuncture for Issues with Insomnia, Anxiety and Attention

By Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP

Fall is coming, and with it, the beginning of a new school year. Whether anticipated with fresh hopes or attended by memories, our thoughts turn to learning:

Reading books and articles, composing essays — and sleepless nights preparing for tests and exams. So this is a good time to note that issues with insomnia, memory and cognition, anxiety and performance stress, are not restricted to students!

Most of us would benefit from better sleep, and as we leave our student days behind, the complexity of our lives (and potential sources of anxiety) tends to increase, rather than decrease. And we often dismiss absentmindedness or forgetfulness as something we just have to put up with, as the price of getting older.

But you don’t have to put up with insomnia, anxiety, ‘brain fog’, restlessness, or poor memory/concentration. Acupuncture can help manage all of these symptoms, while steadily and gently correcting their underlying systemic causes.

Anxiety, insomnia, palpitations and even panic attacks are all related to the traditional concept of the Heart in Chinese Medicine. The cognitive functions (such as memory, focus, and concentration), which Western science assigns to the brain and nervous system, also belong to your Heart system according to Chinese Medicine. This means we can address a lot of seemingly unrelated symptoms with a single coherent and comprehensive treatment plan, informed by over two millennia of cumulative clinical experience.

Treating anxiety with Acupuncture

Acupuncture treatments are customized for each patient; we don’t offer one-size-fits-all ‘solutions’. Someone with a pale complexion, who typically experiences milder anxiety, difficulty falling asleep, busy dreams, palpitations, easy startlement, and poor memory, would be treated very differently than someone with a flushed face, more severe anxiety and insomnia, restless dreams, palpitations, thirst, and (possibly) mouth or tongue sores. Both patients have insomnia, anxiety, palpitations, and poor memory, but the causes are quite different — and the treatment approach must also be different.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognizes and treats many types of anxiety, from mild to severe. Absent-mindedness, indecisiveness, timidity, or even just a vague sense of lacking direction, can all be part of a straightforward clinical picture, with a clear diagnosis and treatment plan. But even severe anxiety, agitation, confusion, restless and manic behavior can be successfully managed with acupuncture based on Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Treating ‘brain fog’, poor memory and difficulty concentrating with Acupuncture

If you are experiencing poor memory, insomnia, and palpitations, your practitioner may ask you seemingly unrelated questions: Do you also experience tinnitus? Loose stools and scanty periods? Any backache? Headaches? Prickling, numbness or tingling sensation anywhere? Do you find you feel restless?

If you have trouble concentrating, do you also have loose stools and a sense of fatigue? Or a tendency to constipation? Is there any dizziness? Does your head feel heavy, or empty? Are you easily startled? Do you feel listless or apathetic, and somehow ‘dull’? Is there a tendency to irritability?

Exploring these kinds of questions enables your provider to differentiate between the various causes of poor memory and other cognitive-functional issues. That way, we can treat the root cause of the problem, instead of just managing an apparent mish-mash of symptoms.

Treating hyperactivity with Acupuncture

Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes at least six common types of hyperactivity, each caused by a different systemic imbalance. Hyperactivity, poor concentration, and insomnia can be accompanied by numbness and tingling, dizziness, blurred vision, and dry eyes, irritability, and tendency to thinness. Clearly, such a case requires a different approach than if the hyperactive patient instead experiences the tendency to gain weight, speech impairment, lassitude and fatigue, and loose stools, for example.

Whatever the mix of symptoms you experience, and whether they are severe or mild, your acupuncturist can pinpoint the specific systemic imbalances causing them, and explain what to expect from a course of treatment based on a plan tailored to your needs.

Saima Anto, R.Ac, R.TCMP provides acupuncture services at Pacific Wellness and is available for appointments four days a week.  If you would like to explore how acupuncture could help your health concerns please call us at 416-929-6958.  Acupuncture treatments are covered by most employee benefits.