Aside from a Masters degree in that ancient Chinese medicine, Elizabeth also has a post-graduate certificate in Chinese herbal medicine – both from the Maryland University of Integrative Health, formerly known as the Tai Sophia Institute. She also studied nutrition at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
This seemingly diverse list brings me to an important point Elizabeth wants to make about food and wellness: Chinese medicine is made up of multiple components. Acupuncture is one piece, but food and nutritional therapy play an equally significant role.
“I’ve always been interested in cooking and food, and it always seemed to me that should be a connection there,” Elizabeth tells me.” Once I got involved in Chinese medicine, it became much more apparent, as that become a major part of what we do with our patients.”
Elizabeth has kept my Qi in line for nearly two years. At my first acupuncture appointment at Elizabeth’s office, Centerpoint Healing, the intake included questions about appetite, diet and digestion. She asks patients how much of their food is home-cooked and how often they eat out or consume processed, prepackaged foods. That’s even if, like me, they’ve come just hoping Elizabeth can help them with back pain.
What she’s looking for with those diet questions are deficiencies that could be presenting as those symptoms. For example, for a barely middle-aged patient with nagging low back pain, who also reports being tired all the time … Elizabeth immediately thinks, “kidney Qi deficiency” (read more about Qi here.) One way to boost kidney Qi, according to Chinese medicine, is through diet: Eat well-cooked foods and balanced meals with a variety of animal protein, lots of vegetables and some fruit.
“For someone with this kind of deficiency, I would probably recommend a bone broth,” she says, taken daily, pretty much forever.
People used to use bones to make stock for soup or consommé, but few do that anymore. And funny thing, says Elizabeth – the answer for building strong bones isn’t dairy, it’s bone broth. That’s what’s going to strengthen that deficiency, and will also help those with osteoporosis or even bone fractures, she says. For chronic conditions, including low back pain and osteoporosis, it should be taken every day to support health, much like a multi-vitamin. If your issue is a fracture or sprain, a shorter course of six weeks is appropriate. That said, Elizabeth adds that it’s something everyone can do to improve overall health.
Then there’s women’s health, specifically fertility. “A lot of times, people will come to us with what is called ‘unexplained infertility,’” Elizabeth says. “It’s usually women — we don’t usually see the male partner, but sometimes we do. The doctor can’t find any reason why hormonally or structurally that this couple can’t conceive.
She starts by looking at Qi and blood, which is likely deficient in cases of infertility. From a western perspective, blood deficiency immediately conjures an iron deficiency, or anemia. It’s different with Chinese medicine, where blood is a very special substance.
“It is more than just the “red stuff in the rubber tubing” as my teacher says. Blood is the substance flowing through veins and arteries, and travels with Qi through the body. It also carries our consciousness and memory. Fertility depends upon the Qi and Blood (capital B) being abundant and flowing properly.”
The treatment is a diet aimed at beefing up Qi and blood. That could mean adding meat to the diet, or, for vegetarians, foods that are red, dark purple and black. Other good options include red beans, beets, black beans, black sesame seeds and blackberries.
Notice the color of these foods? Dark colors – like blood.
“Chinese medicine operates on the law of signatures. We use something that looks like the condition we are trying to treat,” explains Elizabeth. “When treating a skin condition, the herbal remedy will have leaf or bark of a plant in it. That’s the surface of the plant; we’re treating the surface of a person.”
This methodology is not for just physical maladies – it works for emotional issues, as well. For those who are anxious (energy up in the head, with the mind racing and worrying a lot), Elizabeth recommends root vegetables. The Qi of these plants are rooted in earth, and thus grounding. Mmm … sweet potatoes. I crave those when I am stressed, and as it turns out, for good reason.
What about when someone is just plain angry, with no situational cause – just uncontrolled rage? Liver Qi stagnation, Elizabeth says. If the Qi is stuck, she notes, the patient is probably eating a lot of sugar. That moves Qi in the moment, but makes matters worse in the long run. This person is also probably having lots of digestive issues. Think about it: grabbing food on the go because you don’t have time to sit and eat, or eating at your desk while on deadline, or conflict at the family dinner table – the emotions (and particularly stress) effect digestion.
Elizabeth’s first suggestion would be a breathing exercise: big breath in, exhaled with a loud, exaggerated sigh. She also suggests eating a lot of fresh spring greens, like baby kale or dandelion. She says to steam or lightly cook them, as Chinese medicine isn’t big on a lot of raw foods (don’t tell her about our post on raw food later this week!) Another option would be adopting some mindful eating practices. “Meaning no reading, no TV … no arguments with people around the table,” she says. Above all else, avoid sugar, alcohol and spicy foods (small tear from me on that last one!)
In Chinese medicine, each of the seasons has a flavor or taste associated with it. Spring is sour — drink water with lemon in it. Color is also a factor, so as trees start to bloom, think spring greens – those more delicate than the heavy kale and collards of the fall. It’s best cooked, but wilted into a warming soup is also perfect.
Eating poorly long-term does more damage than we can imagine, says Elizabeth. “In my opinion, and based on my study of Chinese medicine, the foundation of our health comes from our diet. When we are born, we are born with what is called our inherited constitution — that’s what comes with our parents. That’s the Qi that we are born with.”
She says to think of it like a savings and a checking account. The savings is where all the Qi you are born with is banked. The goal, Elizabeth says, is to keep that savings account untouched until you get into older age — when you need to dip into it. You want to live off your checking account, where you deposit Qi through the food you eat and air you breathe. She recommends eating healthy, getting outside and, again, doing deep breathing exercises.
“If you’re not eating a good diet and you’re leading the stressful life of a modern person in an industrialized society – which we’re all doing – you’re probably dipping into your reserves. You’re dipping into that savings account,” she explains.
Signs that your savings account is low would be exhaustion or chronic illness, Elizabeth adds. “You don’t want to get to that point. You want to be eating a healthy diet, you know, most of the time. You can’t do it all of the time. Most of the time.”