By Susan Tretakis, Coral Springs, Florida – I admit it – it was a riveting smack to the head which threw me WAY back into my past.
As many of you know, I grew up in a time of huge televisions, a time when the networks were just introducing colorized shows, stereo “cabinets” and tethered telephone lines. I can even remember “telephone party lines” but even at my advanced age, I am usually comfortable in bridging the gaps (which, lately, tend to grow in dog years) between the “then” and the “now”. But last week I sat on my patio, dressed in my original Woodstock tee shirt, which was now nearing its 50th birthday, texting with my acupuncturist who was not yet born when I bartered for this same tee shirt with a still damp hand-made tie dyed scarf, the only link – or so I thought – to my past was that I was once again, whining.
Whining about my headache, my congested chest, a constantly dripping nose, a nagging cough and my aching sinuses. (In my defense, he asked.)
Apparently, a lifelong habit of whining does not disappear as technology marches forward.
As so many my age have remarked, we have reached a point in our lives where we now think the very same things that we once ridiculed our parents for thinking. Some of us often say things out loud – laughingly astonished to hear our parents’ words coming out of our mouths.
So, when my acupuncturist calmly responded to my “What should I take/do?” text with the same words my mother used to say to me back in the early 50’s and throughout 60’s, I sat back and stared at his response.
“It’s the weather.”
And while he wrote further on what I could do in terms of which foods to eat and teas to drink, I kept coming back to his first line: “It’s the weather.”
I am no longer 10 years old; I have moved on from PS 138 in Queens and have gone onto graduate and post-graduate schools and trained in the sciences. I had boxed up my mother’s words and placed them on a shelf in the same mental closet with her other words of advice – such as not wearing white after Labor Day, ones shoes should match their purse, etc., etc. All sweet, motherly memories, all so not true.
Or so I thought.
I knew the impact of climate change on both local and regional levels. I have studied the research that documents multiple direct effects, such as the effects of hurricanes and heat waves that cause various illnesses and possibly death. As a trained mental health care provider I was well aware how the weather provides many metaphors for how one is feeling; phrases I am certain we have all used in conversation within the past week: moods can brighten or darken, dispositions can be sunny, a relationship can be stormy, and a memory lapse can be a brain fog.
Indeed, weather provides a rich word-source to describe our moods, but can the weather influence it?
Could my mother, who if she lived, would be reaching her 100th birthday and my acupuncturist, who is currently less than half her age, both be correct?
Worse, could I, a self-professed TCM wannabee, be so clueless?
Apparently, it was time to stop whining and beginning researching.
In the last three years, I have moved from my conventional medical thinking to realize that Traditional Chinese Medicine is an extremely powerful tool for healthcare today. TCM is a holistic approach that considers the laws of nature, the environment around us as well as the natural physical response of the nervous system to help create a functional balance in the body. TCM practitioners, such as my acupuncturist, believe that individuals are an entire body that respond to the environment around them. In TCM, when practitioners or literature refer to “the body”, they are not only referring to our organs and systems but also as the home of the mind and spirit.
Practitioners of TCM believe that our bodies respond to the environment around us. I have written before about how the expression of Yin and Yang translate to an understanding that seemingly opposite or contrary forces have an interconnected, complementary and interdependent relationship. According to Chinese philosophy, people get sick when their elements are out of balance. This balance is controlled by the relationship of Yin and Yang within a person’s system. Daily weather, be it extreme or simply day-to-day fluctuations, affects our bodies in slight and not-so-slight ways.
Varying weather can cause a person to have an imbalanced yin and yang, which affects their Qi, or life force. Understanding how we individually – physically and emotionally – react to dry air, humidity, temperature changes of 10 or more so degrees within a single day, sudden thunder storms and even time changes are key to understanding out individual health care, self-care needs.
I know there are days when everyone feels “off” – or to use another weather metaphor – “under the weather”. Be it sinus, a congested chest, a nagging cough, a headache, a stuffy nose or any combination of symptoms, we westerners are famous for running toward the over the counter pharmacy. We tend to want the symptom(s) to just stop; we want to go on with our day and many of us have no choice but to power through.
Those of you who have been on this TCM journey with me realize that TCM study is much like peeling an onion. There are so many layers, so much to learn on almost a daily basis. In fact, because TCM believes so strongly that everything in the universe is interconnected, it is a simple step to see how changes to the universe, like the weather, can impact humans. TCM scholars have identified what is referred to as “Six Pathogenic Factors” or “Six Pernicious Influences”:
- Wind is a Yang pathogenic factor and causes symptoms that wander and change.
- Cold is a Yin pathogenic factor and causes sudden onset of symptoms of chilliness, headache, and body aches. Cold can damage Yang energy.
- Damp is a Yin pathogenic factor that causes sluggishness, lethargy, sticky discharges.
- Heat is a Yang pathogenic factor. Heat and Fire are usually interchangeable terms. Heat symptoms include fever, inflammation, constipation, and dry skin.
- Summer Heat is a Yang pathogenic factor. It depletes Qi and Body Fluids, which can cause dehydration and exhaustion.
- Dryness is a Yang pathogenic factor. Dryness is closely related to Fire/Heat but involves more drying of bodily fluids. Symptoms include dry eyes, dry nose, dry mouth, and dry cough.
I prefer to leave the nuances of my diagnosis to my TCM practitioner. For myself, and for my daily self-care, I simplify this to be that I am “either on fire” or “taking cold”. I need to keep it simple so I can make informed choices about the foods I eat; call me stubborn, I just prefer to go to my kitchen rather than the pharmacy.
To simplify, if the body has too much heat there is an excessive amount of Yang, also known as “hot” or masculine energy. Many of these symptoms are inflammatory in nature and make the body run “hot” without actually raising body temperature. The literature suggests that foods and herbs that can cool and boost the Yin are recommended. Too much heat can be generated from eating certain meats and spicy foods. Symptoms include dry skin, chapped lips, stomach disorders, mouth irritations and other inflammations within the body. Recommended foods include green tea, watermelon, pears, cucumbers and grapefruit.
On the other hand, when there is too much Yin, feminine energy in a body, symptoms are very similar to those of the flu or common cold. Symptoms includes stiffness, aching joints, fatigue, runny nose, congestion and poor circulation. Recommended foods and spices include ginger, chicken broth, garlic and vegetables.
It’s important to remember that diagnosing an illness is not an either/or proposition. For example, a common cold can be either caused by inner hot and cold deficiencies; depending on the symptoms, treatments – including recommended herbs – will vary for each symptom. This, for me, is the major beauty of TCM; every individual is different, every disharmony is different and treatment varies not only from individual to individual, but for each symptom within an individual.
It all makes such sense to me now. As a practicing psychologist, I was fully aware how emotions can easily be internal causes for “dis-harmony”. I pride myself on seeing and helping people as individuals. Over the years, I treated many adolescents and adults for “symptoms” – illnesses – related to anger, sadness, grief, fear, over-thinking and fright – hoping that I could assist them with counter-acting the negative with the positive discovery of both internal and external happiness and joy.
I just never took that giant, TCM-inspired step from cataloging and identifying internal “dis-harmonies” to recognize the external causes.
Apparently, I should have listened to my mother.
- Dr. Landon Agoado, Care Wellness Center