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  • Stressed out and exhausted?
  • Taking care of everyone except yourself?
  • Making the world a better place, but worried you might burn out?

You support so many others; I would enjoy supporting you too. Often caregivers and changemakers are so busy meeting the needs of family and community, our own health suffers. Let’s work together to help you manage stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain, burnout, menstrual health, digestion, and trauma recovery. You’ll receive thorough, well-researched clinical care, with safe space, non-judgmental listening, and attention to your whole person.

Traditional Chinese medicine balances the whole person – your body, mind, emotions and spirit. I help you relax and sleep better, to feel calm and focused. When you nurture your own health, your work, relationships and creative projects will benefit. You’ll feel rejuvenated and have more than enough energy for the long haul.

“Free and Happy Wanderer”: Traditional herbs for depression and stagnation

2014-04-02 10.12.16Spring is Liver time, according to Chinese medicine. Time of the Wood element, which means sometimes we can get physically and mentally ‘stiffer’ at this time.

The Liver is often out of balance in modern times. If so, we can feel emotionally depressed, stuck, lacking in vision and creativity, or prone to anger, irritability and frustration. We may experience irregular digestion, moods, and menstrual cycles.

Click here for a very traditional way to make a very traditional formula from scratch, for exactly these problems.

Emotions and Your Body: A (mostly) Traditional Chinese Medicine view

Joyeuse1What, if anything, do our emotions have to do with our physical health?  In recent years, Western medical researchers have increasingly acknowledged the links between emotions and physical symptoms. Since I first studied cognitive neuroscience, the neurobiology of emotions has become a much hotter topic (thank goodness!)1

Western science is still in the early stages of understanding how our mind and body interact. Other healing traditions, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), draw from millennia of experience and systematic observation of emotional­/physical links.2

This article on emotional health draws from my experiences with:

  • the clinical practice of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine
  • meditation that trains the mind to notice extremely subtle energy throughout the body, and
  • various forms of therapy I’ve experienced myself

The topic of how emotions affect the physical body (and vice versa) is immense, so here are just a few ideas to start with:

YOUR ENERGY FLOW

In Chinese medicine, good health results from adequate and balanced energy (‘Qi’) flow. Illness results from imbalanced or inadequate energy, or blocked circulation. Much like physical blood, energy has to flow in the right directions and amounts throughout the body for it to function well.

Feeling an emotion = feeling a certain wave of energy in the body that has physical effects. Have you noticed this? With practice, you can sit quietly and watch the wave come and go. This emotion might feel like an intense buzz, another might pull your chest in tighter, and another might make you warm. So, emotions and a change of ‘physical’ Qi flow go hand-in-hand. Chinese medicine has observed this systematically since ancient times; the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, one of the earliest medical texts (~2500 years old), states that “anger makes Qi rise, joy slows down Qi, sadness dissolves Qi, fear makes Qi descend… shock scatters Qi… pensiveness knots Qi.”

The emotional wave doesn’t have to last long, but we generally hang on. According to Buddhist psychology, we aren’t in the habit of letting go of emotional experiences. If it was a pleasant wave of energy, we tend to hang on and enjoy it. If it was unpleasant, we tend to hang on and stew in anger, hurt, or sadness about it.  This happens by automatic habit, subconsciously replaying the situation in our mind, and reacting to our reactions. Without realizing it, we compound things – feeling angry that we’re hurt, sad that we’re angry, angry that we’re sad, etc. It’s even more difficult to let go when strong residual emotions are triggered.

IMBALANCE AND ILLNESS

Prolonged, repressed or extreme emotions can cause illness. In Chinese medicine, the major causes of imbalance and illness in adults are: environmental, food/lifestyle habits, trauma, and…emotions!

Let’s use an example:
Someone says “you’re totally selfish”, and I react with anger. Immediately my chest subtly tightens, shoulders tense up, breathing becomes shallow, and face feels warm. I may not realize this, but if I can’t face, process, and let go of this mental and physical reaction, if I keep replaying the event and re­generating the same anger, the built­-up tensions and imbalances may lead to health issues. For example, it may reduce energy flow within, say, my intestines (or other internal organs) and cause constipation and/or diarrhea (or other internal problems), eventually weakening my digestion and causing food sensitivities. We see these consequences every day in the clinic.

The above is just one example of many possible consequences of chronic emotional tension. Chronic pain, for example, could be another development. Some doctors believe that most chronic pain/ health problems are caused by held, repressed emotions in the unconscious.3 I believe the causes of chronic pain/illness are more complex – injuries, repetitive strain, environmental toxins, genetic issues, etc. all play a role… but agree that emotions can be a powerful factor, as Chinese medicine understands.

Emotional memories can be held in the body and ‘re­triggered’. The above example may seem exaggerated, but what can happen is that a simple incident (like being called “selfish”) can actually trigger old emotions “held” in our body. It’s like our Qi system (think of it as our nervous system, in this situation) ‘remembers’ strong reactions from earlier life. Any stimulus that touches a similar ‘memory circuit’ can result in hugely amplified emotional reactions. This is how I believe triggers work, for those of you interested in trauma recovery. (More on trauma and triggers in a future article.)

MANAGING EMOTIONS

Affecting one’s emotions changes the Qi flow in the body.  By managing my emotions, I can also make changes in my physical Qi. So by thinking differently about the situation, letting go, confiding in a friend or counsellor, meditating, journalling, or talking things out respectfully, I can change my thoughts, emotions and the qualities of the energy flow I’m feeling.

For example, in the above situation, maybe I realize I misheard and she’d actually said “you’re totally selfless.” My anger fades, I let my breath out, my shoulders relax, my face cools down, and I might get a light feeling in my chest. Or maybe I talk things out with another friend, who reassures me that I’ve done the best I can and the offender just has their own misconceptions. I relax and feel calmer (as long as I can catch myself before going back into the ‘angry’ belief about being wronged).  If I can release my emotional tension often enough, I can avoid some of the longer­term health effects of a chronic Qi reaction pattern.

CHANGING YOUR ENERGY FLOW

Changing Qi flow also affects emotions. In Chinese medicine, cause and effect often go back and forth. That means physically manipulating Qi flow can change your emotional state. You can change your Qi flow countless ways, e.g. by: deep or conscious breathing, relaxation, yoga, exercise, food and drink, hanging out with others, taking a hot bath, getting acupuncture or a massage, etc.

For example, have you felt really angry and then gone for an intense workout, or an acupuncture treatment?  Were you ever anxious and then had a delicious meal?  Were you ever feel frustrated and tense, and then soaked in an epsom salt bath?

Once I was feeling wired, hyperactive and rushed on a long­-distance cycling trip. We’d done half of the 100 km for the day, and I was raring to finish as fast as possible. After a 15 minute massage, though, I was a completely different cyclist. I glided along serenely, gazing at ducks and flowers, drinking in the fresh air like it was my favourite summer cocktail.

Releasing body tensions can help release old, stuck emotions – as many who have experienced or given bodywork can attest to. Emotional releases during acupuncture, massage, body­-based meditation, dance and yoga, are fairly common. I’ve even had a number of people recall specific memories when massaging or needling certain areas of their bodies.

But if we don’t change our thoughts and beliefs, those tensions may recur – it’s like the tensions and physical symptoms are ‘branches’ and the thought patterns that are hurting us inside are the roots. This is why I believe bodywork is especially powerful for emotional healing, when done along with working on one’s thinking (through meditation, talk therapy, etc.). For resources on meditation and talk therapy in the Greater Toronto Area, check my More on the topic of ‘Emotions and the Body’ in future articles. Your feedback is 110% welcome, as this is a huge topic to explore!

For a free personal 20 minute consultation on how emotions may be affecting your symptoms, contact me today!

Like this article? Click here to receive free articles, resources and workshop/event announcements. My emails won’t be more often than once a month – I don’t have time to bombard you.

1. Daniel J. Siegel, The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009).
2. TCM Doctors Take on Emotions, http://www.china.org.cn/english/Life/173064.htm
3. Sarno, John E., MD, The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain (Warner Books, Inc., 1998).

Spring Health Tips and Recipes

Spring is a time of re­birth, cleansing, and renewal. In Chinese medicine, Spring is the time of the Wood element, or ‘Liver’ energy system (TCM ‘Liver’ is not the same as your physical liver organ).

The ‘Liver’ circulates energy (Qi) and blood around your body and is responsible for clear vision and direction in life, creativity, assertion, calm, and regular menstruation. A balanced Liver is pivotal to the maintenance of good health, and one of the most susceptible to emotional stress.

Taking care of it preventatively can help avoid or reduce many chronic imbalances. In the face of life’s challenges and injustices, it is common to experience “Liver Qi Stagnation”, which feels like:

Physically
•       body pains, stiffness and tension (especially neck, back and hips)
•       digestive problems, e.g. bloating, heartburn, reflux, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.
•       PMS (pre­menstrual syndrome), breast distention, painful/irregular periods
•       difficulty rising in the mornings
•       a “wiry” (tense-­feeling) pulse

Emotionally
•       feeling frustrated, irritable, angered, negative, or depressed (if we suppress our anger)
•       emotional ups and downs
•       difficulty expressing ourselves or addressing conflicts constructively
•       feeling stuck, uncreative, inflexible, or without a clear vision and purpose in life

A Quick Liver Stagnation Remedy

Liver Stagnation Recipe
If you experience many of the above signs, this recipe is great to quickly stimulate the Liver out of its stagnancy.

If you have heat signs (red face, red, dry eyes, splitting headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, dry constipation, etc.), replace the vinegar below with lemon or lime juice. This recipe is helpful in the short term but shouldn’t replace making longer-term dietary or lifestyle changes you want to make (for your Liver’s sake)

Ingredients
• 1 tsp unrefined vinegar (e.g. apple cider, brown rice, rice wine vinegar)
• 1 tsp raw honey
• 1 cup warm water

Keep a Happy Liver
The Liver is one of the most involved organs in emotional processing. How emotions affect our physical health and vice versa is an exciting area of research and exploration these days. Check out this article I wrote about emotions and your body.

So, how can we keep our ‘Liver’ (not the anatomical liver, by the way) systems happy this season?

• Laugh! Prioritize fun, relaxation, and enjoying the moment (meditation helps with this!)
• Find friends & safe spaces where we can assert and express ourselves (creatively too)
• Practice being thankful for what we have now, focusing less on what we are dissatisfied with
• Seek support/ways to let go of, move through, or find peace with old emotions. Remember that spring is a time of new beginnings, and the Liver gets stuck with holding old grudges.
• Yoga, tai chi, expressive movement, acupuncture, herbs and massage all move stuck Qi

Nutritionally, many people gravitate toward cleansing during the Spring. Speak to your TCM practitioner about what kind of cleanse would work best for your body type. Also ask about personalized herbal formulas that can help.

Eat Your Greens
ASPARAGUS
Green is the colour of the Liver and Spring (according to Chinese Five Element theory).

Enjoy plenty of young plants, greens, sprouts, mung beans, radishes, and lightly cooked foods. Use less fats, salts, processed foods, and strong spices in cooking. Honey­mint tea and herbs such as basil, rosemary, caraway, dill, bay leaf, fennel, chamomile, chrysanthemum, dandelion root, milk thistle seeds, peony root, lemon balm, peppermint, etc. are all helpful to balance the Liver.

AsparagusAsparagus is one of the first vegetables ready for harvest in the spring. See below for delicious seasonal recipes to help your Liver Qi flow:

1. Warm Asparagus Salad with Basil + Mint Pistou

2. No-Cream Pasta Primavera


Enjoy!
 For a personalized Chinese medicine assessment, nutritional and other recommendations, contact me.

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Beating the Winter Blahs

Pauline on winter walk, in non-matching outfit

Bundle up to get some winter sun outdoors, even if your colours clash!

Winter is the season of the “Kidney-Adrenal” energy system according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. The TCM Kidney-Adrenals (not the same as your physical kidneys, please note) are the foundation of all life energy the body. So winter is a time to focus inward, conserve energy, and nurture our long-term strength through rest, reflection and gentle exercise.

Maintain your spirits and energy by layering up to get fresh air and sunshine, keeping your lower back and legs warm at all times (leggings, long johns, leg warmers, body warmers, fuzzy slippers, hot water bottles, etc!), and sleeping earlier. Dressing properly to protect your body’s Qi is vital not only to preventing colds and flus, but to preventing and healing from other chronic health imbalances. 

Seasonal nutrition is another great way to take care of yourself. Chinese medicine dietary principles consider each individual’s balance, the season, the properties of the foods themselves and how we cook them. Come in for a personalized assessment and diet plan, or click here for more general info: 5 winter food tips, and some simple winter recipes!

Sometimes aches and pains are worse in the cold, so this year might be especially painful. Some types of low back pain, for example, can worsen in the winter. If low back pain is chronic, it is also often associated with the Kidney-Adrenal energetic system. Support your low back with qi gong exercise, gentle stretching and strengthening, rest, acupuncture, moxibustion and Chinese medicine. Click here for an article I wrote about low back pain.

I spent a wonderful 10 days over the holidays volunteering at the Ontario Vipassana Meditation Centre and highly recommend the experience. Check out my meditation resource sheet, or ask me for details.

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine are excellent for maintaining your energy and immune levels, minimize aches and pains, and balance yourself emotionally. In my clinic, I like to use a lot of moxibustion (mugwort) during winter acupuncture, as it deeply warms the acupuncture meridians and gives more energy to the body that way. You can use moxibustion on your own at home. If you’re not sure how to, or want to discuss what would benefit you the most, consider getting a custom consultation or treatment. I also offer a free 15 minute phone consultation for new patients.

Got your own ideas for surviving and thriving in the winter season?  Add them in the Comments below to share with others… thanks!

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5 Winter Food Tips

winter sceneNOTE: The info below is for general information only. It doesn’t replace a personalized assessment and a therapeutic food plan specific for your constitution (yin/yang, hot/cool, dry/moist, organ system balances, etc.).  A more personalized Chinese medicine therapeutic diet should take priority over these general seasonal suggestions, especially to address specific health concerns.

Click here for a few winter recipes!

1) How we eat is at least as important as what. Enjoyment and mindful eating (paying full attention to tastes, textures, smells, etc. while eating) is the single best ‘dietary’ change we can make. A keen ear for your body’s messages is more important than memorizing all the rules in a nutrition textbook. 

Relaxed eating is good from both the Chinese medicine and Western biomedicine point of view. When you’re stressed and in ‘sympathetic nervous system’ (i.e. ‘fight or flight’ mode), your body shifts blood circulation away from digestive functions. Stress reduces stomach acid levels, hampering digestion and absorption. In Chinese medicine, not only stress but any ‘pensiveness’ interferes with digestion (you digest ‘thoughts’ as well as the food). So, don’t stress about what you eat!  Nourish yourself with a kind, loving, accepting, and gentle attitude. Eat a slow meal while relaxing and enjoying the food – deliciousness and joy is important for nutrition too!  

2) Include the 5 flavours daily, but slightly more salty and bitter flavours in the winter.  The 5 flavours are: sweet, salty, sour, pungent (a.k.a. acrid/spicy), and bitter. The ‘sweet’ flavour means the ‘full sweet’ tastes of grains, vegetables, etc. (not ‘empty sweets’ of sugars, desserts, etc.), and this flavour should predominate in all seasons. In the winter, however, a slight increase in the salty and bitter flavours can benefit the Kidney-adrenals and the Heart (closely tied to our mental-emotional state). Some foods with bitter (and other) tastes include: kale, turnip, celery, asparagus, burdock root, carrot top, lettuce, watercress, parsley, endive, rye, oats, quinoa, chicory root, and many herbs. Salty foods include seaweeds, salt, millet, barley, miso, etc. 

3) Eat to minimize ‘Dampness. Dampness = fluid where it’s not supposed to be. This can manifest in phlegm/mucus problems, foggy thinking, edema, cysts, tumours, yeasts, low immunity, feeling heavy/sluggish/foggy (physically and mentally), etc. Dampness impairs your digestive ‘fire’ and overall warmth/energy; and it contributes to allergies, low immunity, and chronic illnesses.

Damp-causing foods include: dairy (especially cow), almost all sugars (including most fruit), wheat (sprouting helps), overly-salty food, meats and eggs, most fats and oils, yeasted breads, alcohol (i.e. liquid sugar), food that is hard to digest (raw, cold, inadequately chewed, etc.), and refined, processed, stale or rancid food (including most commercially shelled nuts and seeds, especially peanuts).

Eating excessive amounts, too quickly, overly complex meals, and late at night also contribute to Dampness, as do toxins, anxiety and worry.

4) Eat warmer and protect your digestive & life fire. In winter, it is best to cook foods longer, at lower temperatures, and using less water. These factors increase the meal’s warming qualities. Making your food “warmer” and easier to digest will preserve your ‘digestive fire’ and help you absorb more nutrients. 

Easier to digest = (1) at least slightly cooked or broken down, (2) in moderate amounts (“until 70% full”), in simple combinations (unless all cooked in the same pot like a stew or soup), (3) warm in temperature, and (4) well-chewed. 

If you have cold signs, eat warming foods such as oats, parsnips,  mustard greens, winter squash, butter, quinoa, walnuts, onion family, chicken, lamb, trout and salmon. Warming spices include dried ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek seeds, fennel. Food that is too ‘hot‘ actually releases warmth and cools you (e.g. chilies, hot peppers).

5) Be Kind to your Kidneys. Eat dried foods, small dark beans (adzuki, black beans, etc.), seaweeds, steamed winter greens, millet, barley, legumes, goji berries, and black/blue foods, which are good for the Kidney-Adrenals.  Avoid toxins in food and water, intoxicants and environmentally, sleep early, don’t overwork, keep your low back, legs and feet warm, and make sure to get plenty of rest. Check out these basic Qi Gong exercises to support the Kidney-Adrenals!

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Simple Winter Recipes

Winter Warming Breakfast Cereal

Winter Warming Breakfast Cereal

This quick breakfast can warm you from the inside out, strengthen the foundation of your body’s energy, and having you ready to face the cold weather outside!

Chinese Medicine agrees with the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. 7:00 to 9:00 am is the time of the day when energy concentrates in our Stomach. Our Yang (active, warming) energy is growing at that time in the morning, and we need good fuel to support the rest of the day. Here’s some basic steps to make a quick, nutritious hot cereal to support your Kidney-Adrenal system and to warm the body.

Optional prep: 

  • Soak 10-15 goji berries for 5-15 minutes, if desired (to remove red dye on many of the commercially available berries). Discard the soak water and rinse again. I find if I use organic berries they don’t seem to have much colour come off. Recently popularized in Western nutrition, Goji berries (a.k.a. wolfberries) have long been used in Chinese medicine to support the Kidney-adrenal system, longevity, vitality, and the eyes in particular.
  • Also optional: in a pan, dry-fry almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and/or unsweetened coconut flakes until lightly toasted to use as toppings (don’t do all these all at once as they take different amounts of time to toast well). You can toast a larger quantity at once and keep in the fridge, ready to go in the morning.)

Main recipe:

  1. Put 1 cup of water in a pot on to boil
  2. While boiling, add the goji berries.
  3. Measure 1/3 cup of steel cut oats and add to the water (while or after boiling), with a pinch of sea salt or seaweed (e.g. dulse, ground wakame – excellent for minerals and to support the Kidney-Adrenals… don’t add too much if you don’t want the fishy sea taste!)
  4. When water boils, turn down to a simmer
  5. Add 5-10 raisins or other small dried fruit pieces
  6. Add dried and ground warming spices: cinnamon (Ceylon cinnamon best if you can find it), dried ginger (change to fresh if you’re coming down with a cold), nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, etc.
  7. Cut up an apple (or half an apple, depending how large it is). If you are really trying to minimize Dampness (mucus, Candida, etc.) in the body, berries may be better.
  8. Depending on the cut of the oatmeal, it will cook in approx 5-12 minutes
  9. Add apple (and coconut, if using) to the pot 2 minutes before you take it off the stove
  10. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds (yellow sesame is okay too, but black is even better for the Kidney-Adrenals), almonds, pumpkin seeds, etc. to taste.
  11. If desired, can add almond or rice milk, and/or sweetener (honey, maple syrup, unsugared jam, etc.)

Variations

  • Dry-toast the actual oats, or toast with a bit of coconut oil, before adding the water to boil – this adds a really hardy, delicious flavour, and increases the warmth of the grain from a Chinese medicine point of view.
  • Vary the grains (I like whole grain kamut, quinoa, millet, rice cereal, etc.)
  • Vary the toppings and the flavours (e.g. banana is nice if you don’t have too much Dampness, i.e. excessive mucus symptoms – ask your practitioner. Pear is moistening if you have a dry throat or cough, etc.)

Cooked Pressed Winter Salad
From Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods.

  • Use one or more leafy greens: kale, bok choy, chard, watercress, cabbage, or parsley.
  • Plunge whole leaves into scalding water and cook 2-3 minutes.
    • Method 1: Roll leaves in a bamboo mat and press out excess water.
    • Method 2: Place leaves on a plate. Cover with a flat dish. Put a weight on top. Let stand 30 minutes. Pour off water.
  • Chop finely.
  • Add miso, toasted nuts or seeds, or salad dressing.

2014-01-22 17.37.15Roasted Brussel Sprouts

Did you know brussel sprouts can be absolutely delicious? They’re a perfect winter green, hardy and hearty, and I’ve surprised many people by making them delicious and desirable.

As members of the Brassica family (including broccoli, kale, turnip, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.), in Chinese medicine’s view, they help move Liver Qi Stagnation – this means they have a mild effect on improving and unblocking energy circulation. Qi Stagnation is a very common factor in imbalances, pains, and chronic illness. The National Cancer Institute in the US recommends Brassica vegetables for its anti-cancer, antioxidant properties.

Generally, you wash and cut the brussel sprouts in half, season them, and roast for about 25 minutes on 375F, turning once or twice for even roasting. Check on them: you’ll want them tender and still somewhat bright green, not overcooked and dull-looking. Here are my favourite ways of seasoning (do this before cooking):

  • coconut oil or butter, plus garlic (in whole cloves, or diced and mixed in), salt and pepper (generously)
  • toss with a splash of balsamic vinegar and then toss again with olive oil (or coconut oil, but I prefer olive oil with the balsamic), then salt and pepper
  • toss with red onion slivers, olive oil, salt and pepper for the first 20 minutes. Then 5 minutes before done, add a drizzle of maple syrup and some chopped walnuts. Yum!

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Eat your greens! Easy, super-healthy dressing

Not to brag, but I often get compliments on my salad dressings! :) I use it on all veggies, not just raw, cold salads, which aren’t so ideal in the cold winter months (according to Chinese medicine we should eat ‘warmer’ food during the winter, and less cold/raw food).

saladdressingHaving a delicious dressing in the fridge makes eating veggies easy. Steam, stir-fry, water-saute, bake, or press and roll leafy green or other vegetables. Drizzle with dressing and eat!  By drizzling an uncooked dressing, you avoid heating any oils, which is better for your Liver (in Chinese medicine), digestion and skin.

I don’t usually follow a recipe. Here’s a template you can adapt to whatever ingredients you have or feel like:

  1. Put some oil in a small jar. I usually use extra virgin olive oil as the base, but any good quality unheated/ unrefined, unsaturated oil is good (for more info on oils, read “Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill” by Udo Erasmus). I might add a bit of flax or hemp oil for the Omega benefits. If I’m going for sesame kind of taste, I might add a bit of roasted sesame oil.
  2. Add something acidic: I like to squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice, or use raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar which has many health benefits. Sometimes I use a bit of balsamic as well, for the taste. I put about the same amount of acid as oil, but you can vary this according to taste.
  3. Add a tiny bit of sweetener: A very small amount of raw honey, maple syrup, green stevia or any sweetener helped round out the taste of the dressing
  4. Add salt, pepper, and garlic: To taste, but be generous. Remember the flavour can be very strong because it’ll be drizzled over, and diluted by, the many vegetables you’ll be eating with the dressing! Garlic can be raw (crushed and finely minced), which has many health (and taste) benefits, or dried.
  5. Add tasty bits (optional): For example, a squirt of dijon mustard, a chopped sundried tomato, dried or fresh dill weed, yogurt (start with less oil), and/or diced avocado (start with a bit less oil).
  6. Shake jar and enjoy! Depending on the ingredients you can probably keep it in the fridge for a week (if you have something like yogourt) or much longer if it’s just dried herbs, oil and vinegar.

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Low back pain – the Chinese medicine view

low_back_painWhenever there’s back pain, there is some kind of disordered flow of “Qi” (energy) and “Blood” in the channels in the lower back region. The channels may be in spasm, or may not be adequated “nourished” with Qi and blood. This can happen for a few different reasons:

First, traumatic injury to the low back region, of course, can also directly interfere with blood circulation in the region. It often causes a type of pain we call “blood stagnation” pain – often sharp, stabbing or fixed, and the low back may feel tender to touch (as opposed to feeling great when someone’s putting pressure to massage it). Blood stagnation type pain may include acute strains, spasms, or pain from a herniated disk (if pain is sharp). Acupuncture and associated techniques (blood-letting, cupping) can be very effective in moving stagnant Blood.

Second, Chinese medicine is unlike Western medicine in including environmental factors in its analysis. For example, “Cold” or “Dampness” in the environment can easily lodge into the channels of the low back. This may happen after lying on damp ground, walking around in cold or damp weather without adequate layers, wading in the water, or being exposed to the wind soon after sweating profusely (e.g. after exercise). If the pain is worse with cold or damp weather, or if the back feels cold or heavy, we know these climatic factors are part of the clinical picture, and may use moxa (an herb that often gets burned over acupuncture points), a heat lamp or pad, or warming herbs to help improve low back energy circulation. More rarely, Dampness can also combined with or generate “Heat” which would cause a more burning, heavy pain, and may be accompanied by thirst and/or dry stool or constipation. In either case it is important to eat appropriately to eliminate the Cold, Dampness or Heat.

Finally, if the back pain is chronic, dull, and had a gradual onset it’s likely due to a gradual decline of energy in the “Kidney-adrenal” system. The Kidney-adrenals can be weak due to: aging, prolonged stress or emotional trauma, prolonged illnesses, inadequate rest, excessive ejaculation, multiple childbirths or pregnancies, constitution (genetic / congenital factors), or chronic taxation of the digestive system (through irregular eating, or excessive eating of difficult to digest foods such as dairy, sweets, wheat, cold and raw foods.) Acupuncture, herbs, dietary / lifestyle changes, and regular Qi gong practice can all improve the strength of this system. You can download my handout on the Winter season, which includes some information, recipes and Qi Gong exercise, to support the Kidney-adrenal system.

I usually use a combination of acupuncture points to (a) treat the root imbalance causing the back pain, (b) help Qi and Blood flow in the the affected channels – using local points (i.e. on the back itself) and distal points (usually on the arms or legs), (c) address trigger points in muscles that commonly refer pain to the lower back (e.g. the iliopsoas, paraspinals, quadratus lumborum, gluteals, etc.). This multi-pronged approach is generally quite successful to manage the pain. Length and frequency of treatments dependent on the type of back pain present and how chronic it has been. Feel free to contact me for a free 15 minute phone consultation at 416-890-7770.

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Happy & Productive: Getting Things Done, including Self-Care

ImageHow do you stay relaxed and productive at the same time? How does your to-do list get checked off, without your body and mind getting crossed off?

In wellness workshops and in the acupuncture clinic, addressing stress and anxiety is unavoidable. Chinese medicine has a 2000+ year understanding of the effects of stress on our bodies. As biomedical research now shows, stress is a major factor in a number of chronic and long-term illnesses.

What are small steps we can take toward clarity, focus and efficiency – while staying relaxed, cheerful and loving in the meantime? How do we self-structure our days (especially for students, self-employed, etc.)?  I put these questions out to my network, and added their tips to my own ideas here – thanks for all the input!

1) Heart-mind check-in: “I have reduced long “to do” lists that I used to find overwhelming (and triggered all kinds of self-hate, shame, disappointment) into a 3 item “ta da” list.” - Nrinder Nann (see Comments on this post)

Are you managing time, emotions, or both? These are two major sides to “stress management”. Often responsibilities feel much weightier because of underlying fears – e.g. that we’ll fail, be a “bad” partner, parent or employee, or lose approval of family and friends. Guilt, shame, or self-criticism can become serious energy drains, and we may cope with procrastination/distraction cycles, or over-control of ourself and others. It’s always good to be check in with ourselves, and see how our emotions are driving our work or vice versa. (See the comments on this post for some insights!) Ideas:

  • Mentally “firing” everyone from having to like me – that’s my job, no one else’s!
  • Journalling about my stressors.
  • Renaming my “to-do” list: “Ideas of stuff I could do.”
  • Replacing “should” with “could.”
  • Enlisting in counselling or coaching support.

2) Slow down to get faster. “Ironically my way of dealing with stress and a long To Do list is to slow down and be in the moment. I prioritize better, am more efficient plus happier” – Zainab Amadahy, swallowsongs.com (Comments)

Time is such a weird phenomenon. By being more present with each breath, thought, or action (and thinking less about the past/future), time passes more slowly (it’s true – many meditators and spiritual seekers can attest to this!). With practice, thoughts can get clearer, decisions faster, and work more efficient. Ideas:

  • Set a timer to go off regularly throughout the day – stop, focus on breathing or your senses, and just enjoy the moment.
  • Go outside with no phone for a 5 minute fresh air break, and look at birds and plants, or walk ‘mindfully’ (i.e. only paying attention to your body walking).
  • Grow a meditation habit: go to a course or start with 5 minutes a day (see my Resources page for meditation resources in Toronto).

3) Get clear on life priorities. Heard the story about the rocks in the jar? Recognize what is truly important to you (e.g. close relationships, community, health and well-being, spiritual practice, etc.) and make sure they get a spot in your schedule first. (note: most ‘rock in the jar’ versions I’ve read) put jobs as a medium-sized rock, not the biggest… Ideas:

  • Take 5 minutes a week to block off upcoming times in your schedule (e.g. quality time with loved ones, regular meals, exercise, walking in the ravine, getting a treatment or counselling, sex, movies, winding down before bed, etc.)
  • Honour self-care dates for your mind & body like you’d honour a date with a precious loved one (because aren’t you precious? Ok… self-love, that’s a whole other blog post! :)
  • This article helps analyze how we’re dividing our time, pro-actively and reactively (suggested by my wonderful sis Amy!) 

4) Say No!  Essential to make #3 work. Often our bodies are stuck in a stress response, and we feel like every decision/demand is life or death… when most aren’t. This is especially true for those of us who have been through some kind of trauma. Ideas:

  • Practice saying “no” on a regular basis, and realizing that was okay.
  • Be okay with backing out, downgrading to a maybe, while communicating clearly as soon as you realize you’re overcommitted.
  • Forgive yourself – and others when they do this to you.
  • Google Search “personal boundaries.”

5) PLAY (with planning)!  Everyone has their own planning style. Do you know what works for you these days? (NOTE: and what works for the person you’re dating – it’s often a bit different, no?). Lots of people had suggestions for scheduling and planning, and you’ll find some of them in the comments (feel free to add more!). Try adopting a playful, experimental, and flexible attitude toward time management and self-care (rather than being rigid and hard on ourselves…).

(Personally, I love planning – helps me shift from being reactive to proactive, to prioritize and commit realistically. But after many “Type A personality” (i.e. go go go) years, I made a conscious shift and discovered I also love NON-planning! Open-ended time allows for spontaneity and ‘going with the flow’, such a delightful way to experience each present moment – if you have INTENTIONS for the day/month (see #7 below), you can still get things done, just in a more relaxed and creative way, and… isn’t that the point?). Ideas:

  • colour-coding calendars to see work-life and self-care “balance” at a glance
  • phone alarm reminders
  • my new temporary obsession – to-do list management software
  • I like severely limiting the amount of time I give myself for a task; it counters my perfectionist/’tunneling’ tendencies, forces me to focus, and let’s me tick something off, and move on, knowing I did the best I could, given the time available.

6) (Get support to) tackle the “hard” stuff.  Some tasks are daunting (like this article was for me)! But if they are truly important for our long-term priorities and intentions, how can we actually get to doing them? Many have mentioned breaking them down into subtasks or steps. Ideas: 

  • Njeri Damali Campbell suggested this creative idea around “micro-movements” - breaking a bigger project into tiny steps that can be done in 5 minutes, and scheduling those 5 minute blocks into the day.
  • Tackle a hard task first thing in the day, when the mind is fresher.
  • Alternate hard and easy tasks.
  • GET SUPPORT!!!! A study partner, gym buddy, meditation friend, tutor, counsellor or coach can do WONDERS!

7) Set intentions, not inflexible goals. An intention means setting a target for our efforts, but also acknowledging we can’t control everything (other people, unexpected changes, etc.). You can set result-oriented intentions (e.g. “I intend to get to my laundry today” or process-oriented intentions “I intend to take regular breaks today, to keep my mind fresh and relaxed.”) When I’m more clear what my intention in doing something is, steps fall into place easily and I’m less prone to getting caught up in the details and derailments. Ideas:

  • Set a process-oriented or even “emotional perspective” intention at the start of the day (e.g. “today I will focus on being of service to others, and not on how I look to them,” or “today I will focus on gratitude” or “today I will encourage and praise myself for whatever I get done, no matter how much left I didn’t get done.”) 
  • Reminding myself of such intentions throughout the day keeps me aware of the bigger picture, and less caught up in the daily wins and frustrations.
  • Short- and long-term intentions can be shared with friends for further accountability and support

8) Cultivate unconditional friendliness toward self. “A lot of self-shame about laziness and procrastinating also come up for me, so I make sure I give love to those parts of me.” – Charm Torres (Comments)

The best definition I ever heard of “self-care” was “learning to treat our body and mind as we would a dear friend” – meaning, with compassion, support and acceptance, not with harsh criticism. Don’t make “self-care commitments” another thing to beat ourselves up about. We’ve all been through a lot and are just doing our best to live, be happy and do good. Ideas for questions to ponder:

  • Can I separate myself self-worth from validation and achievement from others? 
  • Have I subconsciously bought into the dominant (capitalist) culture that only values human life by “productivity” and economic “usefulness” (and devalues the work of love, care, connecting, and creativity)? 
  • What’s my worst fear if I “fail” or don’t finish this? 
  • In pursuing this goal/success, am I really pursuing approval from others, and ultimately… love?

“Don’t worry if you don’t get all the things done on one day. Most of the times the list is way too long anyway and often unexpected tasks come along (calls, emails, meetings). Rather celebrate the achievement of finishing the tasks you have completed properly and knowing that you have given your best.” – Sarah Lei (Comments)

In sum – play with these ideas, see what works for you, share your experiences, and get support!  Ultimately, accept uncertainty, embrace paradox, seize the day and let go. You did your best :)

These are just some ideas, and this document is a work in progress. Feedback and more ideas welcome – please comment below!

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