Health from a Multicultural Lens: Ancient Wisdom Provides Drug AlternativesJan 03, 2019 02:20PM ● By Gina Cronin
More often than not, when someone hears the word “medicine,” they think pharmaceuticals and over-the-counter drugs. However, medicine, when looked at through a global lens, encompasses quite a bit more than can be packed into a pill.
Whether we are looking toward the healing wisdom of ancient China or India, one thing appears to be consistent: balance. Ayurveda, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine all aim to bring harmony to the physical, spiritual and energetic systems of the body. Rather than single out a specific symptom in a specific area with a specific active ingredient, these therapies look toward the whole body with whole remedies.
These treatments are not intended to replace Western medicine, but rather supplement it. When constructing a well-rounded wellness plan, it’s wise to take advantage of both conventional and complementary medicine.
Acupuncture is at least 4,700 years old. The practice acknowledges that energy, or qi in Chinese, is the foundation of all movement. All the systems of our bodies—the nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, immune system and the other major systems—function based on energy. Energy can take many forms, including light, sound, heat, electric, magnetic or kinesthetic. All of these are present in the human body. Energy also carries information.
“In Chinese medicine, we work with various health issues on an energetic basis,” says Jampa Stewart, a board-certified acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner from Valley Spirit Wellness Center in Washington Depot. “Pain and other issues are generally caused by stagnant qi or blood.”
Qi flows through the body very similarly to blood in the circulatory system. There are 72 major energy meridians, and countless energy capillaries along the way. There are also 360 main junctures, known as acupoints, each with a specific function.
“At times, because the body is interconnected, the function might be quite remote from the point,” says Stewart. “For example, on the foot there are points for headache, on the wrist there are points for the lungs and heart, and on the ankle there are points for the kidneys.”
Once a proper diagnosis has been made, the correlating acupoints can be stimulated in a variety of ways: by pressure with acupressure; heat with moxibustion; energy transmission with qigong; or by painless, hair-thin needles with acupuncture. Through this stimulation, stagnant blood or qi can be released, restoring vitality, relieving pain and stiffness, and producing a state of relaxation and well-being.
Acupuncture has successfully treated a range of conditions, from headaches and arthritis to depression and thyroid issues. In fact, within six months of working with depressed patients in conjunction with their primary doctors, Stewart has been able to permanently wean them off antidepressants by way of acupuncture, herbs and meditation exercises.
“Just because the more popular medicine says there is no cure for something, it doesn’t mean that is necessarily the case. It just means Western medicine has no answer to that specific problem,” Stewart says. “I’ve seen stage 4 cancer patients completely cure themselves through diet, qigong exercises and meditation—and the same is true with heart disease patients. In some cases, it’s simply a matter of being open to something different.”
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Herbal remedies are another integral component to Chinese medicine. Chinese herbal medicine is considered one of the most sophisticated forms of herbal medicine in the world, in that there are very few conditions treated with just one herb. For each individual patient, a formula is created; typically each formula has at least four or more different herbs in it.
Traditionally, herbal formulas are all made with whole herbs, whether they are are raw, cooked, toasted or honey-roasted. They are mixed according to weight. Custom herbal formulas are available powdered, in tinctures or in capsules. The form is usually based on preference of the practitioner and/or the patient.
Rather than a particular active ingredient in a plant being isolated or synthesized—as is the case in Western pharmaceutical drugs—the whole herb is used in Chinese medicine. The reason for this is that nature provides a balanced remedy. The active compound is one aspect, but there are often other bioactive compounds in the plant that can help fight potential side effects, while aiding in better absorption. For example, you may take a vitamin C supplement, but without the accompanying bioflavonoids found in the whole form, the effects may not be the same.
“Western medicine is more physically and chemically oriented in its approach, whereas Eastern medicine is very energetically oriented,” says Stewart. “Western medicine, in its diagnosis and treatment, is more of a reductionist form of evaluation. This is why we end up with so many medical specialties, such as doctors who work exclusively on the foot, the heart, the lungs, the nervous system.”
In Chinese medicine, the body is viewed more holistically; everything is seen as being interconnected and interdependent. The idea is to bring the body’s systems back into balance and to recognize the interactions of various systems of the body with each other. It relies on the body’s ability to make its own medicine.
Ayurvedic wisdom from India stems back thousands of years ago to the Vedas. The Vedas are made up of four books, and a sub-branch of one is Ayurveda, which translates from Sanskrit to the “knowledge of life.” Ayurvedic doctors use food, supplements, colon cleansing, pranayama (breathing exercises) and yoga to create pure circulation in the body. Ayurveda looks deeply at the philosophy of food as medicine.
“In this ancient practice, we look at the patient’s tongue and pulse to determine body type, detect toxicities and imbalances, and create personalized treatment plans from there,” says Neeru Kaushik, ND, of the Institute for Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Therapies in Fairfield.
According to Ayurveda, there are three main body types, or doshas, that compose the shape, form and function of an individual. The presence and proportion of these three doshas are central to an individual’s unique response to everyday stimuli. “The doshas are made from the five elements: space, air, fire, water and earth,” says Kaushik.
The first dosha is called vata. It is a combination of space and air, and controls the external and internal moment, which is essentially all external movement (walking, talking, blinking) and internal movement (circulatory, respiratory, nervous, and digestive system).
The second dosha is pitta, which is a combination of fire and water. “Water and fire are the strongest sources of energy in the universe,” says Kaushik. When combined, they control metabolism, all hormones, all enzymes and all chemical reactions. All actions in the body are controlled by pitta.
Third is kapha, which is water and earth. It is the structure and material of the body, which controls bones, ligaments, tissues and fat. What a person looks like structurally comes from kapha.
“Each of us has all three: structure, chemical reaction and moment. Depending upon which is the highest and second highest in majority, that’s how we know what is our body type,” Kaushik says. The three doshas can bring both good and bad. Someone who is primarily vata will have great circulation, but may deal with dry skin and hair, wrinkles, or faster heartbeat and nerve function. Someone with pitta may have a ton of energy, but the high heat in the body may cause constipation, inflammation, issues with the glands and hair loss. Finally, those with kapha may have a solid physical body, but be prone to weight gain and sluggishness.
After determining the body type, whether vata-pitta or kapha-vata, or whatever combination it may be, an Ayurvedic doctor can suggest foods, supplements, activities and other treatments that can bring all three doshas into balance.
“For example, if somebody has high kapha, with symptoms like sluggishness, chest congestion and a stuffy nose, I would choose foods and herbs that bring down kapha or increase pita, such as ginger tea, black pepper, cinnamon and cloves. I would also suggest that they reduce or eliminate foods like cake, cheese and ice cream,” says Kaushik.
Another therapy in Ayurveda is called panchakarma, which translates from Sanskrit to “five actions” or “five treatments.” This is a deep purification therapy that relieves the body of toxins, and includes massage; stream of herbal oil to the forehead; herbal steam bath; herbal enemas; and rejuvenation of the eyes and nasal passage.
“Culture is a collection of people who live in circumstances that become their way of living,” says Kaushik. “Oftentimes, in the west, people start becoming fragile after 40 or 50 years; they believe that’s just how it is. But when you look to other cultures that have optimum diet and health built into the foundation, people soar into their 80s and 90s with nearly no health issues.”
More and more, people are realizing that they can reclaim their health without drugs through practices like Ayurveda, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.
Valley Spirit Wellness Center is located at 6 Green Hill Road, Washington Depot. For more information, visit ValleySpiritCoop.com.
Institute for Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Therapies is located at 805 Kings Highway East, Fairfield. For more information, visit AyurvedicInstituteCT.com.
Gina Cronin is a writer for Natural Awakenings Magazine. Connect with her at GinaImagines.com.