Herbs, acupuncture, and me
During my doctorate of naturopathic medicine at Bastyr in 2003, I volunteered at a homeless shelter. At that time, I felt a strong need to address acute pain. Naturopathic medicine is the science of delayed gratification and works better as you apply longer term. However, working with people in need with pain, I desired faster treatment options. To address this need, while I was working part-time as a newly licensed naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles in 2005, I enrolled in a master programme in Eastern Medicine. I truly enjoyed the study and finished the program with Summa Cum Laude.
Herbal medicine is very natural to me as I grew up with it. Mother was a traditional herbalist in Korea, grandmother was a midwife, and great-grandmother was a nurse! They all used herbs to treat multiple ailments for a family of five, from seasonal immune decoction to herbal paste for treating sprained ankles. In my practice, family passed-down herbal recipes and my gained academic knowledge of herbal medicine have proved again and again in tonifying the body and substituting for pharmaceutical drugs. In tandem, acupuncture serves a good modality to address pain and provides sacred room for deeper understanding of my patients.
Fear of needles?
Acupuncture treatments are reported to be relaxing by most of my patients. The procedure involves inserting needles in acupuncture points anywhere in the body. Compared to commonly used needles for blood draw, acupuncture needles are 4 times thinner (0.8 mm vs. 0.2 mm). So if you can bear blood draw, no problem! Even patients with needle phobia are often surprised to find out that acupuncture insertion is very tolerable. In my practice of acupuncture, I take great consideration on “arriving Qi - sensation of distension, numbness or soreness with needle insertion.” Traditionally, it is described as a vital sensation of the effectiveness of the treatment and the practitioner should manipulate the needle to achieve this sensation. Interestingly, in a research done in University of Vermont, they proved this traditional teaching is right. It has shown that manipulation of the needle creates more effect than non-manipulated needles in brain scan.
Modern herbal prescriptions vary in form from granule, tablet, capsule and pillet. Capsules and tablets are easy and convenient to take. Granules are dissolved in warm water to make tea. Traditionally, herbal formulas were cooked slowly and served as a tea known as decoction. This decoction is thought to be the most effective form, despite additional difficulty in preparation. How about taste? <I am biased as I was grown up with them and think they are delicious!> It depends on the specific herbs used in the formula, some can be quite intensely flavored. Some patients really enjoy their taste, most patients abide and few patients reject.
Concerns about side effects are most relevant especially when a patient is taking other medications. It is important to consult with practitioners who are knowledgeable in both pharmaceutical and herbal medicine. Some medical professionals warn patients about kidney failure or liver damage from herbs but in reality, cases of herb-related kidney failure or liver damage are rare, not even 1/100th of similar incidents related to pharmaceutical use. This is because pharmaceutical drugs are single constituents that are designed with targeted actions. Herbal formulas are combinations of different herbs that are designed to work together to enhance desirable actions and reduce side effects of one another. Please don’t get me wrong. There are some cases better suited to pharmaceuticals than herbs, or where the two types of treatment can work together very well.
It was summer of 2007 when I had read an old textbook of eastern medicine, Yellow Inner Classic. As described in the book, during vaginal delivery, a fetus swallows a “life ball” as it passes through the birth canal. That life-ball provides the fundamentals for nutritive energy for one’s gut health. I was puzzled by the mysterious term “life ball” but couldn’t find a definitive answer and took it as a poetic expression of birth. In 2014, I came across a study that compared the health status by birth methods; vaginal vs C-section. Babies born via vaginal birth were metabolically healthier than C-section babies; far less occurrences of obesity and diabetes. The researchers speculated the difference was due to exposure to healthy vaginal microbes during birth contributed to further health for babies and later additional studies confirmed it. My question for the thousand-year old textbook was answered; Life-ball was the mother’s healthy microbiome!
For thousands of years, acupuncture and herbal medicine have played a major role in the medical system in northeast Asian countries. There are several old medical literature reporting doctors in history saving human lives from fatal conditions, enhancing body function and revitalizing weakened bodies by practicing acupuncture and herbal medicine.
Thousand year old medicine works and science will catch up.