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What We Learn From Trees


As I look out my window on this cold February day, I can’t help noticing the trees.  For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to trees.  When I was a child, I remember thinking of the trees on our family farm as my friends.  I would gently shake the lowest branches and pretend I was shaking someone’s hand.  When a warm, spring breeze would cause the branches to sway, I would imagine the tree was laughing with joy.  When climbing a tree, I would press my body against its strong trunk, ignoring the rough bristles of bark, and pretend that I was giving it a hug.

During the winter months, I often felt an even closer bond with the trees.  Once their soft, green leaves turned brown and tumbled to the ground, it felt that their soul was being revealed.  No longer hidden behind swaying bunches of green, the barren trunks told the story of their lives.  Deep black gashes from a lightning strike could now be seen.  Branches may have grown in one particular direction to avoid the worst of the winds.  If too many trees had grown too close together, you could see how they strained to avoid one another, with branches growing at odd, and sometimes tortured angles in an effort to receive sunlight in a competitive space.

I always felt a little sorry for trees which had grown in an imbalanced way, their trunks blown way to one side because they hadn’t the strength to withstand strong winds.  Now that I live in the city, I can see where branches have been lopped off to prevent entanglement with power lines, forcing the trees into painfully irregular shapes.  Yet, there are still some trees which are beautifully balanced, who have survived the many storms of their lives with apparent aplomb and grace.

I believe that there is much to admire in trees, particularly as we struggle to endure the cold winter months.  Even the most damaged of trees stands patient and stalwart in the cold.  Without any leaves, it may look dead right now, but there is still life beating through its core, just waiting for the sun to warm it.  The trees do not appear to complain about the cold, as I do.  In fact, they do not appear to complain about any of the hurts inflicted upon them.  When the damaging winds of winter arrive, they simply endure.  And when spring finally arrives, their leaves are eagerly unfurled in a grand display of joy and hope, once again covering up the scars beneath.

As I look out my window at the bleak winter day, it is this strength and resilience that I seek to emulate.   Just as the trees hold their energy in the core of their trunks, so we also hold our energy in the cores of our bodies:  our kidneys.   In Chinese medicine, we are reminded to keep our kidneys warm and well nourished, so that we will have the resilience to endure the winter.   Primarily, we do this by avoiding cold foods and drinks.  Now is not the time for cold milkshakes or other frozen treats.  Instinctively, we reach for warm teas, and hearty stews and soups, where the nutrients have seeped into a rich and nourishing broth.  Rather than eating raw salads, we should reach more frequently for cooked vegetables, like oven roasted onions, carrots and beets.  We steam our greens, or add them to our soups, and we eat more animal products, since they can provide a large amount of nutrients in a small package.

Spices like cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, while used sparingly during the warm summer months, can now be added to any dish we eat.  Their mildly heating flavours keep our organs brimming with warmth and energy, and help us to better assimilate our food.  Chai tea is a good drink in the winter because of the warming spices it contains.  Apple cider simmered in orange peels and cinnamon bark is another good winter beverage, since the warming orange peels help with digestion, and the cinnamon has not only been shown to help lower blood sugar levels, but also both warms and circulates our blood, according to Chinese medicine.

Nuts of all types are dense nutrients that warm your body and because of this, can be eaten more regularly during the winter months.   You should still beware of their tendency to congest the liver, but if you enjoy nuts, winter is the best time to eat them since your body could use the extra warmth they provide right now.   Walnuts in particular are said to warm your kidneys, and according to Chinese medicine, are also good for your brain.  It may be the abundant omega-3 oils in walnuts which provide this benefit.  While all nuts and seeds are high in omega-3 oils, walnuts are at the top of the list, behind only flax seeds and chia seeds in their abundance of this key nutrient.

Today, the lovely Linden tree in my front yard is dusted with a soft coating of snow.  The wind is barely perceptible, and you wouldn’t notice it at all except for the softly falling flakes of snow, which are not dropping downwards, but floating lazily off to the east.  The branches of my tree are held out wide beside its trunk, accepting the events of this day, as it accepts them on all others.   And as I gaze at it’s graceful, yet indomitable posture, I gather my own strength and courage.  I am ready to face the next few weeks of winter with the same poise and equanimity.

A Gift For You This Holiday Season


More than all other traditional holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the ones which compel us to forget about the problems in our everyday lives and to remember to be grateful and joyful.   Throughout each of our lives, there have been incidents which hurt us, or people who painfully deceived us, ignored us, or abused us in some way.  In many cases, these people are family members who we still see regularly and against whom we may still hold a grudge.  This can make family holiday gatherings a tense affair, to say the least!  But I would encourage you to take an opportunity, in this season of joy and gratitude, to remember some positive, happy memories of these people as well.  People are rarely completely bad, and although cousin Jim may annoy you tremendously in the present, you may recall that you spent many happy hours playing in the snow with him as a child.

We have a tendency to remember and to  focus our energy on all the negative events in our lives.  We may recall with complete clarity the day our Aunt Bethany accused us of being selfish and unreliable.  We may remember the exact expression on her face, what she was wearing, and who else was in the room, despite the fact that this happened more then ten years ago.  But do we also remember how she took care of us as a child when our mother was sick, playing endless games of Snakes and Ladders with us to keep us from feeling sad?  Or that she offered to help babysit our kids, without mention of any payment, when we couldn’t find a daycare provider in time for our first day of work?  Why is it that one negative memory can outweigh so many other positive ones?

It may be helpful to know that there is a natural reason for this emphasis on the negative over the positive.   The negative experiences in our lives have always been the most instructive.  It is because we were bitten by that snake when we were young that we now know how to identify it, and warn others away if we see it again.  It is because we skidded on ice and broke our arm that we now know to walk carefully on the sidewalks in winter.   These negative experiences helped us to survive, and so we rightly emphasize them when we recall the events of our days and years.

Just as we have retained the memory of physical traumas to help us survive future accidents, our mind also emphasizes negative emotional experiences from the past to help us negotiate potential hurts in the future.  This is why we may perversely cling to the memory of the harsh words our parents spoke to us when we were young, yet forget how our father cried with joy and hugged us tightly when we graduated from university.   If we cling to these negative emotional memories, they can become scars on our minds, and each time we have a similar experience, we will re-trace those memories and make them stronger.   All this is done in an effort to protect us from future pain.   But by doing this, we have unwittingly taken a healthy survival mechanism that was meant to protect us, and used it to dwell on past mistakes and traumas, which make us less happy in the present.

In Chinese medicine, the heart is not just a physical organ, but has its own spirit as well, called the “shen”.  When you think of hurtful events from the past, and regularly become distressed, anxious, or depressed by them, the shen in your heart is said to be disturbed.  It is no longer light and free as it should be, but heavy and closed.  This closed feeling occurs because the tissues around your heart have begun to tighten in response to your emotions.  Since the beating of your heart ensures that blood pumps regularly throughout your body,  naturally, these tightened muscles and tissues in the area of your heart can restrict blood circulation.  Not only is this bad for your heart and your overall health, but it is emotionally painful.  People who have had enough negative emotional experiences in their lives know that in the depths of their despair, it really does feel like their heart is breaking.

This is why deep breathing and stretching exercises can be so beneficial for both your heart and your emotional health.  As you breath deeply and gently move and stretch your limbs, blood that may have become stuck in those strained tissues around your heart will begin to circulate again.  This  will not only relieve the pressure on your heart but will help you to feel more positively about your life again.  In yoga, poses which are known to help depression are those which open up the chest, such as back-bends.  But even if you don’t do a back-bend, simply by breathing deeply, and extending your arms widely beside your chest, you can open up your heart and improve circulation there.  You’d be amazed at how quickly this can lift your mood.

Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can often be stressful, as we feel forced to socialize with people who may have hurt us emotionally in the past.  When we allow these painful memories to close off our hearts, they can cause health problems too.  If you find yourself in this situation this Christmas, I would encourage you to use it as an opportunity for healing.  When you meet someone who has hurt you in the past, instead of re-tracing the negative emotions associated with them, try to focus on happier memories.  There are bound to be some in any relationship.  Try to remember small kindnesses shown to you as a child, as a teenager, and even in your life today.  As you continue to re-trace these happy memories instead of the negative ones, you will be strengthening positive thoughts, and your spirit will have a chance to grow in joy and love. That is a gift you can give to yourself this Christmas that will reap many positive benefits in the year ahead.


The Truth About Saturated Fat

There was a lot of tumult this past spring when a meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine stated that the amount of saturated fat in your diet makes no appreciable difference in coronary heart disease rates.  With a headline like this, it is understandable that people would become indignant over the juicy hamburgers, crisp slices of bacon, and delectably soft cheeses that they had diligently avoided eating over a period of forty years, on what was considered sound medical advice.   However, before you grab your coat and head over to the nearest burger joint, you should know that those headlines were very misleading.

The meta-analysis did not show that saturated fat is guiltless in coronary heart disease rates.  In fact, if you eat a lot of saturated fat, your chance of contracting heart disease will still go up.  It’s just that the researchers have discovered more bullets in the gun that is pointed at your heart.  In short, if you cut back on saturated fat, but increase your consumption of sugars and refined starches, your chance of contracting heart disease may actually go up, not down.  Sugars and refined starches are not a neutral pain relief party in heart health.

So, rather than using this study as an excuse to return to our favoured dietary habits of old, we should view it as a stepping stone to a new understanding:  there is never one single component of our diet that we can withhold and thereby gain true health.   We cannot simply remove saturated fat, or white sugar, or refined flour and then consider our diet to be more healthful.  Each of these foods can still be included in a healthy diet, as long as they are proportionally small.  The bulk of your diet should still be vegetables and fruits, which will be naturally rich in the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are known to reduce heart disease.

Excerpt:  “When we started cutting back on saturated fat, we started eating more refined starch and added sugar. We also know that excess intake of sugar, starch, and calories is associated with obesity, diabetes, and coronary disease. So if eating less saturated fat means eating more sugar, it would at best be a lateral move in terms of health- and probably worse than that. The study simply ignored this consideration”.



Learn to Love Change


Just like spring, fall is a season of change.  And yet, fall can create more apprehension in people than spring ever does.  I think it’s because in spring, you have the glorious warm and sunny months of summer to look forward to, while in autumn, you can’t ignore the fact that the icy claws of winter are steadily approaching.  There is also the fact that spring heralds the near-end of a long school year, the satisfactory completion of a grade, or the anticipation of a summer trip, whereas in fall, you know that there is nothing but work ahead of you, dotted only with  brief breaks for the often stress-filled family holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Whether you personally prefer spring or fall, change is the common denominator in both of these seasons, and there is no organism on earth which enjoys change.  A changing environment requires greater mental effort, as you attempt to understand the shifting variables around you, and it means a greater expenditure of physical energy as you attempt to modify that environment to make yourself comfortable again.   The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “The only constant in life is change”, and we are wise if we can internalize this thought and learn to embrace change rather than resist it.

Aside from the typical changes in fall that we all know are coming, such as the changing colour of leaves, and the gradual dropping of temperature, I have had to adjust to some personal changes in my  life this fall.  My older son has begun learning to drive – a stress-inducing event if ever there was one – and he has also started classes at the local college.  I have quietly observed these changes on my horizon for years, and yet physically adjusting to them over the past few weeks has still been distracting and unnerving at times.  Just as it can be unnerving to suddenly notice the growing profusion of grey hair at your temples, or the proliferation of wrinkles under your eyes.   Age is another predictable change which creates emotional potholes for us to navigate around and through.

Just as the superficial parts of our bodies change with age, our internal organs are changing too, which is why diabetes, cancer, and memory problems become more likely as we travel down our life’s path.  But although Western medicine views these health problems in static terms – you either have diabetes or you don’t – Chinese medicine takes a more subtle and shifting view which is more in tune with the world around us.  While a Western medical doctor might tell you that you have diabetes, in Chinese medicine, you may be given the diagnosis of yin deficiency, or spleen weakness.  A “deficiency” or a “weakness” implies that correction is still possible, but a definitive diagnosis of diabetes from a Western doctor is stated as an unchanging fact.  This is not to say that all cases of diabetes can be reversed, just that Chinese medicine is more nimble and better able to register subtle changes in your body, much like our skin can register the gentle shifts of weather in spring and fall, and encourage us to either put on a coat or take it off.

For example, if you ate a couple of large slices of pepperoni pizza the night before, the large dose of white flour and high-fat cheese may very well have slightly weakened your spleen over the course of the night.  A well-trained Chinese doctor would probably be able to detect this by taking your pulse and might advise you to take some herbs to strengthen your spleen for the next few days to counteract these effects.  Even if a Western doctor were to take a blood sample or check your blood pressure on both days, it is unlikely that he would notice any difference, and he certainly wouldn’t give you much advice other than to try to avoid eating high-fat food in the future.

Many people approach Chinese medicine from the Western state of mind and assume that a diagnosis given to them by a Chinese doctor three years ago, will still naturally apply to them today.  But a Chinese doctor knows that many things can change over the course of a few years and would prefer to take your pulse again.   This is why you shouldn’t assume that the Chinese herbs given to you last month will still work equally effectively now, or be puzzled if they produce side effects that they didn’t before.  Even if the herbs were appropriate for your condition in the past, if you have been taking them consistently, then it is very  likely that your body has changed slightly since then.   If you continue to take the same herbs even after your condition has changed, then you could push your body out of balance.

For example, a condition such as  “liver congestion” is not a life-long sentence.  You can have a bit of congestion in your liver, successfully purge it, and then be fine for months or even years.   Continual use of liver purging herbs is not necessary and may eventually cause your spleen or kidneys to weaken.   In the same way, if your spleen is weak and you continue to take spleen strengthening herbs for months or even years without a break, you will more likely than not develop some liver congestion.  Some people may find these changes confusing or a cause for panic.  It can seem like you are in a never-ending series of crises, with first one organ weakening and then another, if you don’t change your herbal formula as your body shifts. But it is merely like a change in the weather.  If it is hot and humid out, you shouldn’t keep piling on winter jackets.  Likewise, if your liver is congested, you shouldn’t continue to take heavy spleen-strengthening or blood-strengthening herbs.

The key, of course, is to learn the signs of our bodies just as we have learned to notice the changes in the sky.  A white sky means rain is coming, and a grey sky usually signals a thunderstorm; the darker the sky, the more powerful the storm.   In the same way, a white tongue coating with toothmarks on the sides  indicates that your spleen is weak.  A thickened tongue coating, with hints of yellow means that not only is your spleen weak, but you now have a damp-heat condition as well.  These are different situations requiring different treatments.

Your body shifts and changes just like the days and seasons of our outside world.  Even if you don’t take any herbs, your diet and your mood can also cause organ distress, or create a space for healing.   This is why you needn’t assume that a diagnosis in Chinese medicine defines you, just like you should never assume that the weather in London, England is always rainy.  As my family and I noticed on a recent trip there, it seems you can best describe the weather as changeable.  The weather you see in the morning can be completely different from the weather in which you drive home.   To quote Heraclitus again:   “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.”   We should keep this in mind as we attempt to heal our changeable bodies and navigate our changeable lives.



Riding the Roller Coaster of Fear

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Fear is among the most powerful of emotions.  When any one of us feels fear, we are hard pressed to stand our ground.  We flinch, we cringe, we shy away, or we flat out run.   When I search through the memories of my life, the times when I felt afraid seem the most potent.  As the chemical of fear coursed through my veins, each tiny detail of the event has been seared into my memory.   I remember so clearly what I was thinking at the time, what room I was in, the time of day, as well as the agony I felt as I made the difficult choices necessary to get out of that situation.  Interestingly, I don’t remember all of the people around me.  When you are afraid, the world closes in on you, your peripheral vision shuts off, and you are only aware of the people right in front of you, as your heart beats strongly in your chest.

Some people become addicted to the heightened sensations they feel when they are afraid and chase after them.  These are the people who climb mountains, jump out of airplanes, and tie bungee cords to tall bridges.   I am not one of those people.  Although I am afraid of a number of things, dizzying heights are a featured part of most of them.  A friend of mine shares my fear of heights.  Visiting the Grand Canyon with her husband and son a number of years ago, she couldn’t bring herself to walk toward the edge.  Her husband and son walked eagerly to the edge of the canyon to better see the spectacular view, while she clung to the cliffs behind her, terrified.  A concerned observer asked her if she was alright, and tried to coax her away from the wall.  “You don’t understand,” my friend told her.  “Everything that I love in this world is right now standing at the lip of that canyon, and I’m terrified of losing it!”.   Our fears can take many forms.

When we feel fear, our adrenal-corticol system dumps as many as thirty different hormones into our bloodstream in an attempt to handle the perceived threat.  These hormones cause our heart rate and blood pressure to increase, our pupils to dilate, and our muscles to tense.  Understandably, this large output of hormones is stressful for our adrenal glands and if they are frequently called upon to release them, your adrenal glands will weaken.  Due to the stresses of modern-day life, many people are in a constant state of anxiety, if not outright fear.  Adrenal gland burnout is becoming increasingly common.  According to Chinese medicine, the adrenal glands are considered to be a part of proper kidney functioning.  Since each of your adrenal glands sit atop each kidney, if your adrenal glands weaken, your kidneys will tend to weaken as well.  In addition to the exhaustion and poor stamina seen with people who have weakened adrenals, there can also be symptoms like increased frequency of urination and lower back pain, which are more commonly associated with weakened kidneys.

One way to protect our kidneys and adrenals anti fungal from becoming weakened is to avoid feeling fear as much as possible.  Although it would be impossible to eradicate fear from our lives, we can try to simplify our lives so as to remove unnecessary stresses and anxieties.  We can decide not to accept the promotion that will dramatically increase our responsibilities and lengthen our days.  We can choose not to drive ourselves through congested traffic and take public transportation, or carpool instead.   We can try to minimize the time we spend with people we find stressful.

Those people who are born with weaker kidneys will have to take stronger precautions than those who are stronger.  Naturally, daily stresses and fears will take a greater toll on people who are already inclined towards kidney weakness.  If your parents or grandparents had a lot of kidney problems, or if frequent urination, incontinence, or poor stamina runs through your family, then you should take greater precautions against stress.  In Chinese medicine, it is known that while fear can weaken the kidneys, having weak kidneys inclines us to be more fearful when others are not.  Aside from using herbs like those in our Kidney Tea to gradually strengthen your kidneys and adrenal glands, you can also perform soothing exercises to calm your body and mind.  Yoga and meditation are wonderful ways to slow down your sympathetic nervous system and engage the more calming para-sympathetic nervous system.  Just like learning to play the piano or the clarinet, with practice, you can also become more skilful in activating your para-sympathetic nervous system, and this can extend your life.

While only a small percentage of us actually enjoy jumping out of airplanes, there is a more common way to feel the exhilerating effects of fear, and you can find it at your local amusement park.  Every year, my two sons try to coax me on to one of the new, extremely high roller coasters at Canada’s Wonderland, Toronto’s amusement park.  One year, against my better judgement, I gave in to them.  As the roller coaster climbed the crest of a series of high hills, I clutched the bar in front of my seat with a death grip.  A panic set in, and my heart beat so quickly that I had to close my eyes and breathe deeply to calm myself, trying to ignore the sensations that my body was experiencing.

Later, as I described to my husband the fear that was coursing through my body, he wondered why I couldn’t just relax and allow myself to feel like Superman, flying through the sky without a care.  I found it an interesting way to re-frame the problem.  Rather than picturing myself careening through the air in a death-box, I could choose to imagine that I was flying freely and expertly, without danger.  For those of us who feel fear frequently, it would be a good exercise to try to re-frame all of our fears this way,  imagining ourselves as super-beings with all the strengths and abilities required to survive the incident with ease.  Even so, I don’t think I’ll be riding that roller coaster again!



Cultivating Fire


My father-in-law has always had a very clear idea about what he wanted in his life, and has striven hard to achieve it.   As a result, he accomplished much and was well rewarded for it, giving him the means to live out a rich and satisfying retirement.  But while this might lead others to recline on their front porch and enjoy their remaining years in idle pleasure, he hasn’t rested on his laurels now that he has retired.  As is common with men of ambition, he still has goals and plans, and he wakes every day with a sense of purpose.

He has lived fastidiously all his life, watching his diet, and exercising regularly.  As a result, he is in exceptional health for a man of his age.  But in spite of all these efforts, something happened this spring which threatened to derail all his unfinished plans.  He unexpectedly developed a staph infection in his blood, more commonly known as septicemia, which almost killed him.

These kinds of near-death experiences tend to bring a new sense of clarity to life, and this has certainly happened with my father-in-law since then.  But what I found most interesting during his illness, was how strongly he tried to retain power over his life.  In the same way that he skillfully extracted his desires from the world around him when he was younger, he quickly created a plan to draw life out of his rather miserable month-long stay in hospital.  Enlisting the help of many family members, he obtained the food he desired, collected his preferred articles of hygiene, and through repeated visits, eventually accumulated enough components from his home office that he was able to mostly conduct his affairs at the hospital just as he did at home.  He had a table to use as a desk, pens and paper, and plenty of books to keep his brain working.  And rather than rest in his hospital bed, he would sit at his makeshift desk, read, and make notes to himself.

Once my father-in-law finally returned home, he was required to carry an IV bag with him for a couple of months so that he could continue to receive the intravenous antibiotics he needed to get well.  Any of us would find this tiresome after awhile, but what really bothered my father-in-law was the constraint this placed on his ability to take a daily morning shower.  Because neither his IV line in his arm, nor the IV bag itself could get wet, it seemed that daily showers would no longer be possible, which vexed him considerably.  I suggested that he take a bath instead, as then he could safely keep both his arm and the IV bag out of the water, but this change in routine was completely unacceptable to him.

Over the next few weeks, I was amazed at the number of different ways in which he tried to get around this new constraint.  Initially, he tried wrapping his IV bag in plastic, but he could never get it completely water-tight.  He tried washing his hair with only one hand so that the IV line in his left arm wouldn’t get wet.  Both of these efforts failed no matter the adjustments he made.  Eventually, he came upon a plan to disconnect his IV line temporarily each morning, with my help, so that he could shower without its encumbrance.  But his IV line frequently became clogged without a continuous drip through it, and the nurses at the clinic who flushed his line each day began to complain.  He eventually found a way to hang his IV bag outside the shower door, while also protecting his left arm from the water.  But throughout this endless drama, I wondered why he couldn’t just accept defeat and take a bath for a couple of months.  Sure, it was a little annoying if you preferred to take a shower, but certainly better than what I saw as a futile battle against the inevitable.

But here was the essential difference between my father-in-law and myself:  even as a sick man, he could still summon the energy to maintain this fight, whereas I would have buckled quickly under the unremitting difficulty of the situation.  I believe it is this deep resource of energy which has fueled all of my father-in-law’s  ambitions over the years and to a large extent, explains why he has been so successful.  Yes, he is also intelligent and has a strong work ethic, but I would maintain that without the energy to do so, he wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far.

On a recent visit to the Humber Arboretum, a nature preserve near where I live, a guide took us through a heavily wooded area and pointed out some animal prints in the still soft mud of the spring.   “What animal do you think made these prints?” she asked us.  “Coyote?” a man called out.  “A fox?” called another.  She smiled knowingly and shook her head.  “No.  A coyote or a fox would never make paw prints like these,” she assured us.  The prints were quite evenly spaced; you could clearly see that the animal had four separate paws.   “A coyote or a fox would never waste his energy like this,” she said.  She pointed out how you could see each of the animal’s four feet.  “A coyote or other wild animal has to conserve their energy because they never know when they may eat again.  As a result, they will place all four paws down at once, at almost the same spot.  That way, that they can efficiently leap farther, using less energy, than if their feet were separated”.  As I listened to her, I realized that it was true:  when you see wild animal prints, you typically see only two paw prints, which look as if they have just brushed the earth before leaving off again.  “These prints were probably left by someone’s Labrador retriever,” she laughed.  “You see how he’s inefficiently moving his paws all over the place?  birth control These prints could only have come from an animal who doesn’t need to worry about his next meal”.

All living things need to conserve their energy, because the latent energy within us is so precious, and because new energy can be difficult to create.   Just as trees store energy for growth deep in their trunks in the form of sap, we humans also store our energy deep within ourselves.   In Chinese medicine, our energy is said to be stored in one of our most vital organs:  our kidneys, whose functioning would also include that of our adrenal glands.  This makes our kidneys very important for maintaining the will to live.  In Chinese medicine, this stored energy in our kidneys is referred to as the “Gate of Vitality”, or “Ming Men Fire”.  Our kidneys and adrenals are like the coals at the bottom of the fire, which are always glowing and hot to the touch.  The heat that our kidneys and adrenals generate spreads upwards throughout our bodies and gives us strength and energy.  When this hot glow of coals wanes and cools, we become weaker and closer to death.  And so, if we want to have a long and fruitful life, with enough energy to accomplish our goals, we should be sure to take good care of our kidneys and adrenals.

Much of the strength of our kidneys is genetic.  In Chinese medicine, a large portion of our kidney strength is referred to as “Pre-Heaven Essence”, which means that whatever kidney strength we have was gifted to us by our parents before we were born.  If our parents had weak kidneys and adrenals, then this weakness will be passed down to us, and there is really nothing that we can do to change this genetic inheritance.

Those people who are gifted with strong kidneys and adrenals at birth can easily find energy for all their daily ambitions.  Without thinking much about it, they can swing from chore to chore and accomplish much throughout the day.  With this seemingly endless supply of energy at their fingertips, they can make grand plans with confidence and rarely worry about their ability to carry them out to completion.  People thus blessed tend to have a strong will, like my father-in-law.  They will fight any battle important enough to them, knowing that they have plenty of reserved energy to sustain them.

Those born with weakened kidneys and adrenals live a different life, and sadly, are often criticized in a Western culture that prizes vitality over other equally valuable qualities.  For, often through a poor genetic inheritance over which they have no control, these people are more prone to tiredness, listlessness, and a lack of confidence over their ability to complete the assignments before them.   These people may be equally intelligent, and may also understand the importance of hard work, but simply don’t have the stamina to achieve their goals.  In short, they have a lack of will power.  They may have the will to achieve their goals, but not the power to do so, and over the course of their lives, they can eventually become resigned to the fact that many of their goals will never be met.

If you have weakened kidneys or adrenal glands and are now despairing of ever obtaining that store of energy that others have in such abundance, there is much that you can do to improve your situation.  You may never have the energy to waste that some others do, but you can preserve what you have, and even kindle some more, with careful effort.

Firstly, to preserve what you have, you should take better care of yourself.  Don’t overwork yourself, especially without proper meals.  If you must work hard, ensure that the food you eat is also nutritious, with enough protein to maintain your tissues, and plenty of fruits and vegetables to provide you with anti-oxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fibre.  If you deplete your body with overwork, while also failing to restore the nutrients which you have used, your body will be forced to dip into its reserves, which will weaken your kidneys with time.  Ensure that you get proper rest so that your body can regenerate itself.  And avoid chilling this source of “fire” in our bodies with the excessive intake of cold drinks, or other cold foods such as bananas and citrus fruits.

Apart from avoiding unnecessary depletion, you can also help to beef up your energy reserves by  taking herbs to strengthen your kidneys and adrenals.  The herbs known to strengthen your kidneys are some of the best known and most treasured herbs in the Chinese herbal pharmacy.  Prepared rehmannia root, fleeceflower root (also known as he shou wu), shizandra berries, and dodder seeds are all good herbs to help rejuvenate your kidneys.  In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha and asparagus root (also known as shatavari) are used for the same purpose.  While these herbs will help to nourish and calm stressed adrenals and gently strengthen your kidneys, other stimulating herbs can also be used to re-kindle latent kidney energy.   These more stimulating herbs, used to stimulate “kidney yang” would include eucommia bark, horny goat weed, or morinda root.  These herbs will replenish your inner “fire”, helping to restore the energy needed to achieve your goals.

Those of us with weakened kidneys and adrenals may never have the same abundance of energy as those who were birthed with it, but if we can effectively prevent its depletion and faithfully restore what we can, we can still have very productive lives.  In fact, someone who carefully protects their kidneys can often have more energy at the end of their life than someone who carelessly depleted it without thought while they were young.  We might not all have the boundless willpower of my father-in-law, but with enough care, we can maintain that fiery glow in our core, and allow it to smoulder and radiate a generous amount of heat well into our advanced years.

New Studies Show That Icing Your Injury May Do More Harm Than Good

Chinese medicine theory has long disagreed with the notion of icing injuries.  According to Chinese medicine, the way to stop pain and improve healing is to stimulate blood circulation through the injured area by keeping it warm.  This can be best achieved through gentle movement of the strained area, not by restricting movement and applying cold.  Applying ice or a cold topamax compress may decrease swelling in the short term, but it will stop the movement of blood and make pain worse in the long run.

Excerpt:  “Topical cooling (icing)?.?.?.?seems not to improve but, rather, delay recovery from eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage,” according to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The Importance of Qi: How to Maintain your Enthusiasm for Life as you Age


My parents live 400 km away from me, so we only see each other several times each year. During my parents’ last stay at my home, my father asked me a rather unusual question. He asked me if I believed in reincarnation. My father has not habitually meditated on these types of spiritual questions in the past, and the fact that he was doing so now was a bit unsettling. My father turned 80 years old this past March, and he has obviously been spending some time reflecting on his life, as is normal for anyone of advanced years. A Methodist by upbringing, my father has never been known to give credence to the more wacky tenets of other faiths, so I was a little surprised that he brought up the subject at all. However, it was his next question which really made me sad. “If reincarnation is real,” he asked, “at your death, would you prefer to be given another life, or would you prefer to simply vanish into oblivion?”. Perplexed, I answered, “Don’t you have to choose life? How can you prefer oblivion to life?”. Shaking his head dismissively, as if I could not possibly understand, he stated firmly that he would prefer oblivion.

To properly sympathize with my father’s answer, you have to understand that he has been in almost constant pain for as long as I’ve known him. When I was a young girl, he fractured several vertebrae in his lower back by improperly lifting heavy objects on our farm, such as hay bales or heavy bags of cattle feed. When I was seven, he had surgery to fuse his vertebrae together again, but the pain didn’t go away. In fact, the pain may have even become worse. And thus began the constant quest for pain relief that would last him for much of the rest of his life. He took all different kinds of pain relievers, both over-the-counter, and prescriptions from his doctor. He tried alternative therapies, including magnets and various herbal remedies. He had a back brace for a time, but this didn’t seem to help either. After dealing with ever-present, debilitating pain for four decades, you can understand why he might choose oblivion over life. And yet, I still found his sentiments to be profoundly distressing. If reincarnation were real and he were to get a new life, then the new body of whatever species he might become would most likely not have chronic pain. It seemed that my father had completely given up hope, not just in his own life, but in Life itself.

It is probably not uncommon for elderly people to express sentiments similar to these. The so-called “Golden Years” are often years filled with pain, reduced mobility, and loss of ability. If we haven’t yet learned to deal with loss in our younger years, we are sure to learn it before we die. And accompanying this deluge of losses, in both our own capabilities and in the people we’ve loved along the way, is the emotional weight of having to come to terms with it. These are the years when a long-held spiritual practice can sustain you, and the lack of one can break you.

Yet not all elderly people suffer with this level of pessimism and weariness. Granted, not all lives are alike, and some people are forced to endure more than others. But I believe there is something more at work here than a simple flagging of emotions. In Chinese medicine, the mind and body are known to be intertwined and inseparable. Whatever emotions are going through your mind have a physical cause, and in the case of age, this cause is most likely to be a loss of qi. In Chinese medicine, qi is said to be the vital energy that courses through all living things, including your physical body. It is this vital energy which causes you to wake up with a smile on your face and bound out of your bed, eager to face the day. The amount of qi that you have determines how many tasks you are able to complete each day, as well as how strong your immune system is, and how well you are able to digest your food. It necessarily affects every choice that you make each day, since your choices are bound by what you can actually do. And if your level of qi is low, and you know that you will not be able to enact many, or even any of your desires, then you are sure to greet the day with more resignation than enthusiasm.

So how does one get more qi? According to Chinese medicine, the organs which are most responsible for the manufacturing of qi in our bodies are our spleen and our lungs. Our lungs draw qi into our bodies from the air that we inhale, and then release waste in the form of carbon dioxide when we exhale. This beautiful cycle of renewal is repeated endlessly from the first breath we draw when we are born until the day that we die. “Breath is life!”, a friend of mine once said to me as she struggled to breathe while attached to an oxygen tank. She was in the final stages of cancer. She knew what we often hair loss forget: the oxygen from the air that we breathe nourishes and animates our entire bodies. Some of us may feel low in energy simply because we don’t take deep enough breaths throughout the day. Sitting hunched over our computers, our back becomes more curved and our chest can gradually become depressed, which prevents our lungs from filling up with enough air to give us the oxygen we need. Some people have reported improved health just by doing yogic deep breathing exercises, where we gently fill our lungs to capacity to maximize the amount of oxygen we receive and then exhaling fully to release as much carbon dioxide as possible. Exercises like qi gong or tai chi, and the Y-Dan exercises that we promote on our website, can also heal because of the increased amount of oxygen our bodies receive when we do them.

Our spleen is also important for the manufacturing of qi in our bodies. In Chinese medicine, the functions of the “spleen” include those of both the spleen and the pancreas in Western medicine. The pancreas produces enzymes for the proper digestion of our food, and if our spleen/pancreas is weak, then fewer enzymes will be produced, and therefore fewer nutrients will be available to our bodies. It is these nutrients will be used to create blood, muscle. tendon, and bone. Without them, we would soon become weak and malnourished. In Western medicine, the spleen is the organ which creates white blood cells to protect us from infection, so a properly functioning spleen is also important for maintaining our immunity against the bacteria and viruses which saturate our environment.

In Chinese medicine, there is a popular saying, “It is not what you eat, but what you assimilate that matters”, and this is why the spleen/pancreas is considered to be such an important organ. For the most wholesome food in the world cannot provide health and energy to your body if your spleen/pancreas is too weak to assimilate it properly. Hence the emphasis that Chinese medicine places on proper diet and the importance of avoiding foods which could potentially weaken your spleen/pancreas. Aside from ensuring that you eat a balanced and nutritious diet, high in whole grains and lightly cooked, fresh vegetables, Chinese medicine exhorts you to avoid foods which are known to weaken spleen functioning, such as white flour, white sugar, cold drinks, raw vegetables, citrus fruits, tomatoes, and bananas.

While maintaining the strength of our lungs and our spleen will ensure that we continue to receive good quality qi from our environment, we can still suffer from poor energy if our qi becomes stuck. For qi is not a static thing like the ground on which we walk. It is more like a body of water, that is constantly trickling or rippling or forming waves of all sizes. Qi is movement as well as substance, and if we focus only on the substance, our lives can become as stagnant as a swamp. While elderly people can suffer more from a lack of qi, as their lungs and spleen deteriorate in ability and they are no longer able to gather the qi that they need from their environment, young and middle-aged people tend to suffer more from sluggish qi.

According to Chinese medicine, it is the liver which is said to spread our qi, ensuring that it is evenly distributed throughout our bodies. If the bile ducts of our liver become congested, then qi will have difficulty moving and can become sluggish or stagnant. This happens particularly when we have been under a lot of stress, or when we eat a lot of stagnating foods, such as deep fried foods, or high fat dairy products, but it is also heavily influenced by our emotions. Anger, frustration, bitterness, and a lack of forgiveness are all sticky feelings that cause our liver to tighten and prevent movement. Every bitterly painful memory or feeling of resentment from our past can create a blockage which prevents the free flow of qi throughout our bodies, and this can shrink our potential and even shorten our lives. This is why forgiveness of yourself and of others can be one of the most important steps that you take to regain your health.

My father isn’t always as pessimistic as he was on that particular day, but when his level of pain is bad, he finds it difficult to generate any optimism. He has used some tinctures for his liver in the past, and has also tried to do daily stretching exercises, but I think it is difficult for people of his generation to develop a regular exercise routine when they stayed fit by doing physical labour, or to follow dietary advice which runs counter to what their parents fed them as they were growing up. Rather than repeatedly lecture my father, I try to be a good example of what he could do differently. As I do my regular yoga practice, I don’t hide the smile that comes to my face as I slowly raise my arms above my head and breathe in deeply. Morning sun salutations are my favourite way to build and move the qi in my body, and as my father watches, he says “Good for you!”. Maybe one day he’ll join me.

Will A Diet High In Protein Shorten Your Life?

A new study[1] confirms past research which indicates that a diet high in protein, particularly in middle age, will increase mortality.  This study dovetails with the conclusions of the EPIC study [2] in Europe which found that you should limit your meat consumption to 40 grams (roughly 1.5 ounces) per day.

Excerpt:  “In a study Hu authored, people who ate a serving of red meat every day had a 13 percent increased risk of mortality, compared with those who ate little meat. By comparison, people who swapped out red meat for alternative sources of protein cut their risk of premature death. Choosing chicken and other poultry decreased the risk by 14 percent, fish decreased the risk by 7 percent and legumes decreased the risk by 10 percent”.



The Enduring Promise of Spring


“Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast.

Even though winter still lingers for a few weeks more, in March we always begin to dream of spring. At least that’s what happens in cold and snowy Canada where I live. The occasional days of comparative warmth, the slightly longer days, the warm sun suddenly peaking out from behind the clouds, these things always bring an impromptu smile to my lips. And more than that, my heart begins to yearn, to positively ache, for spring. After persevering through this particularly difficult winter, my heart yearns even more than it usually does.

Spring has been relentless in its teasing this year. The periods of thaw have been fewer and farther between. When they do occur, it is only for a day or two, and then winter comes back to reclaim its territory with a vengeance. Temperatures have remained stubbornly low for protracted periods, and there hasn’t been this much snowfall in Toronto for close to twenty years. Spring seems to be hanging back in the sidelines, shyly delaying its entrance. But even as I impatiently wait for spring to finally gather enough courage to hit the stage, I am encouraged by the fact that spring will indeed come. That is a promise. The snows will melt. The trees will bud once again. The sun will smile on us, and the grass will begin to grow.

Having lived through these seasonal cycles for generations upon generations, our bodies respond to these weather cycles too. As winter’s cold begins to turn away from us, we no longer feel the need to eat hearty stews and heavy, starchy meals. Just as the snow begins to melt, our bodies also begin to thaw. And as our bodies thaw, they desire movement, just as a frozen river gradually gives way to the burbling of a steadily growing, trickling stream.

The organ in our body which is most responsible for movement is the liver, which is why spring is known as peak liver time. According to Chinese medicine, the liver is the organ which spreads qi, or energy, throughout our bodies. If there is still too much accumulation from the winter, too much heavy foods from the cold winter days, then it will be as if our livers are still frozen. There is too much accumulation there for qi to move properly, which is why spring is an excellent time to do some liver and gallbladder cleansing. We need to soften the accumulations that have gathered in our liver during those cold, winter months and release them so that energy can dance its way through our bodies again, making us hum with life.

The main herb in our Chinese Bitters tincture, Chinese gentian, is known for its ability to soften hardened congestion in the ducts of your liver and begin to release it, making new openings in your liver for energy to flow. After retaining a lot of congested bile in your liver for many months or even years, people can begin to feel heavy and sluggish, their brain can start to feel dull, they can begin to feel pain in their right side, and have digestive difficulties like bloating, gas, or constipation. And they can also have a tendency to become irritable or angry easily.

When our customers begin to use our Chinese Bitters tincture, they are often surprised at how much better they feel. They feel lighter and happier, their pain begins to go away, their thinking is clearer, their digestion and elimination has improved, and they have more energy and enthusiasm for life. One of our customers told us that after cleansing her liver with our Chinese Bitters tincture and doing some liver and gallbladder flushing, she felt as if she could skip for joy.

In these ways, we can see that internal stagnation doesn’t just show itself solely in our physical symptoms. Because our minds and bodies are so intricately connected, our mental condition is influenced by liver congestion as well. Depression, anger, irritability, and frustration are stagnant emotions. In each of these emotions, our minds are rebelling against a seeming inability of our body, or our life circumstances, to move and change. In the case of frustration, we believe that an action can be taken to resolve our problems, but we just can’t seem to figure out what it is.

With anger and irritability, we may know, or at least think we know what action needs to be taken, but for some reason or other, we are blocked from acting on it. And with depression, we begin to feel that there is no longer any action that can possibly change our lives. In all these cases, it can be downright shocking to discover that a little bit of liver and gallbladder cleansing can suddenly make our personal situations seem more manageable. Suddenly, we are able to let go of these stale feelings and see new possibilities in our lives that were veiled from us before.

While we have, so far, spoken only of stagnation in the liver, stagnation can develop in the gallbladder as well. Whenever bile flow in the liver has been sluggish for some time, bile will not be able to flow well into the gallbladder either, and gallstones can tend to form out of this stagnant bile easily. This is why liver and gallbladder cleansing is always combined. Because your liver and gallbladder work so closely together, your liver will never be completely healthy as long as there are still gallstones in your gallbladder. And as long as there are any blockages to bile flow in either your liver or your gallbladder, the flow of energy throughout your body can be impeded, and the above-mentioned physical and emotional problems can result.

If you are interested in doing some spring cleaning of your internal organs this season, liver and gallbladder cleansing is the best place to start. Complete instructions for how to do a liver and gallbladder flush are outlined in the gallbladder flushing section of our website. For best results, we would recommend the use of our Liver/Gallbladder Flush 4-Pack as preparation beforehand, as the herbs in these tinctures will help to soften any hardness in your liver or gallbladder area so that it can be released and these organs can begin to “breathe” freely again.

There are often times in our lives where we feel as if our hearts have become as cold and frozen as the winter. When something of importance was taken from us, or when dreams we once had have died, we can spend months or even years in periods of heart-wrenching pain. Eventually, this pain can give way to a barrenness, a desolation of spirit, which in some ways is even worse. But just as the seasons in the world outside us inevitably change, so too does our inward situation. In little spurts, now and again, there is a thawing, and green shoots of growth will suddenly appear. A new relationship begins, an old friendship is rekindled, or a new interest is formed, and our lives begin to green up again. Spring reminds us that no matter what situation we are in, no matter how stubborn or intractable our problems, new life will be breathed into us in time. This is a promise. The enduring promise of spring.