When Marie came to see me, she was a recent law student graduate ambitiously studying for her bar exam. She was 27, a single mother, and on first glance appeared in good health. But for many years she had suffered with severe stomach pain. For pain relief she used strong prescription drugs, a method which was not always effective.
Marie explained that, for years, she had been maintaining an intense study schedule that involved staying up late to learn her craft. From an Oriental medical perspective, excessive concentration can weaken the spleen, which is part of the digestive system and converts food essences into Qi (pronounced “chee”) or vital life energy.
Marie’s pain was especially intense when she was hungry and the hunger was accompanied by irritability. She also satiated a keen thirst with iced beverages and lots of coffee, particularly lattes, which are made with espresso.
Upon initial examination, I found Marie’s pulse to be wiry, which indicated to me that she had Heat in the Stomach and Liver. Oriental medicine diagnoses the body climatically; so, heat, cold, wind, dampness, and dryness are viewed as possible pathogenic factors. The nature of Heat is to accelerate metabolic activity, activate circulation, and dilate blood vessels. In Oriental medicine, it is not necessary to have a fever recorded on a thermometer to verify the existence of excess Heat in the body. Hot conditions are often associated with thirst, dryness, constipation, agitation or difficult urination.
After examining Marie’s tongue, pulse, tender acu-points, and health history, I determined that she had what Oriental medical practitioners call Wood attacking Earth. This is a term used in the Five Element Theory, a system used by Oriental medical practitioners for diagnosis and treatment. In it, each element represents an evolutionary stage of transformation – fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. And each element corresponds to the five organ networks -the Heart, Spleen, Lung, Kidney, and Liver. Each of these elements and their corresponding organs must be in proper balance in our bodies for optimal health.
In Oriental medicine we look at how the organs are working with each other. For instance, the job of the Liver is to smoothly spread Qi to the other organs like a distributor. It is also is in charge of the smooth flow of emotions. When the Liver is out of balance it can become “hot” and send energy upward in the body. The heat affects the mind, creating irritability and anger, and dries up fluids to cause thirst. Excess Liver energy can also overact on the stomach, causing pain in that area.
Each element has psychological and emotional correspondences. The Wood element corresponds to the Liver organ and to the emotions of anger and frustration. The Wood element also is our drive, initiative, and decision-making abilities. The Earth element corresponds to the Stomach and Spleen and associated with the emotion of worry. The Earth element also corresponds to our capacity to formulate ideas and focus attention, as well as our body’s ability to change food into energy.
To address Marie’s condition, I administered acupuncture to smooth out her excess liver energy, nourish her body fluids, strengthen her spleen, and calm her mind. The first treatment had amazing results. Marie felt very calm and refreshed. Her stomach pain was completely gone.
But acupuncture is just one of many tools of this ancient system of health care. Next, we needed to address her lifestyle. I prescribed a Chinese herbal combination based on her tongue and pulse diagnoses. This combination sedated the rising heat from her liver and smoothed out her liver energy. The herbs also strengthened her spleen, and calmed her Shen (Chinese for Mind/Spirit).
Next, we talked about diet. I suggested that it might be a good idea for Marie to drink green tea instead of coffee. I told her of coffee’s ill effects on the body, and that coffee is an energetically cold substance, creating conflict with the spleen, which likes warming foods. Coffee also depletes the kidney yin and yang, so although it gives us a temporary boost in energy, we are eventually draining our energetic resources. Women in particular would do well to avoid coffee. Oriental medicine teaches that coffee can cause energetic accumulations in the breast and pelvic areas, and can negatively affect women’s reproductive organs. Green tea, conversely, strengthens the spleen and enlivens the mind. It also contains natural caffeine that does not cause jitters. Finally, Marie and I talked about avoiding iced beverages because they weaken the spleen.
Ultimately, excess liver energy is due to mental and emotional causes. The stress of studying and preparing for a very demanding and expensive exam was tremendous for Marie. It reminded me of when I was preparing for the national acupuncture exam. So, to address this part of the puzzle, I taught Marie Qi Gong meditation. This empowered Marie to personally strengthen her own internal organs and enjoy serenity. The liver enjoys periods of activity balanced with periods of introspection.
Marie’s treatment in my clinic ended after a series of acupuncture treatments. In the end, not only did Marie’s stomach pain disappear, but so did her irritability. She no longer had to depend on prescription drugs to kill the pain. I am happy to say that Marie passed her bar exam with flying colors and now is a very successful lawyer, without stomach pain.
Acupuncture and Oriental medicine works on all levels simultaneously – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. When we can balance these aspects of ourselves, we can approach our lives and our challenges from a thoughtful, still place.