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Acupuncture 101: An Overview of Acupuncture Theory and Styles

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What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient form of healthcare that originated in China at least 2,500 years ago. It has been practiced throughout the Asian world for many centuries. Acupuncture has been accepted into the Western mainstream culture since the 1970’s and is currently soaring in popularity throughout many parts of the Western hemisphere. Through the use of extremely fine needles, acupuncture works by manipulating the flow of Qi in the body, which is the life force or energy force that is present in all living things. Acupuncture theory suggests that there are 12 main meridians through which Qi flows. These meridians correspond to the major internal organs of the body. For instance, there is a liver meridian, a heart meridian, and so on. In each of these meridians, the Qi can become stagnant or deficient. StagnantQi means that there is a blockage or excess of energy, which can cause a variety of symptoms including pain, inflammation, headaches, high blood pressure, depression, and menstrual imbalances. Deficient Qi means that there isn’t enough functional energy within a given organ to perform its necessary duties. For instance, chronic diarrhea and fatigue can easily be caused by deficient Qi of the spleen.

Acupuncture therapy typically involves inserting needles into several acupoints, which are specific locations on the meridians where Qi is said to gather. By manipulating the flow of Qi on a given meridian, stagnant Qi can be dispersed and deficient Qi can be tonified. As a result, the symptoms that correspond to these underlying energetic imbalances should naturally improve. There are 365 acupoints on the 12 meridians, along with numerous ‘extra points’ that are located throughout the body. There are also microsystems such as the ear, eye, nose, and hand. Some acupuncturists will only use these specific areas regardless of the nature of the patient’s complaints.

From a Western biomedical perspective, acupuncture has been proven to release the neurotransmitter serotonin and beta-endorphins, opiate-like substances made by the brain. Serotonin balance is essential for emotional and mental health and has been linked to healthy eating patterns, sleeping patterns, and the degree of pain in the body. Beta-endorphins are analgesic and anti-inflammatory and are responsible for the ‘runner’s high’, which is why acupuncture can induce similar sensations.

Does acupuncture hurt? What if I don’t want needles?
Acupuncture should be a relatively pain-free experience. There are times where the initial insertion will be felt by the patient, but there is never an occasion where the patient should be in pain through the duration of the treatment. Acupuncture can cause dull achiness, heaviness, tingling, heat, and increased sensation around the area needled. Almost always, these sensations are accompanied by a deep quality of relaxation and tranquility. Acupuncture should be a relaxing experience. In fact, this is one of its therapeutic benefits. I have had many patients who felt so relaxed after treatment that they had to drink some water and ‘get their bearings’ before they were permitted to leave my office. This deep relaxation tends to stay with the patient longer through successive treatments. I look for this as a measurable sign of progress. If the patient seriously objects to needles, there are many alternatives that I can employ. I will use acupressure, energy work, nutrition, herbal medicine, etc. as back-up options. These therapies are often sufficiently powerful to replace the acupuncture. Many patients feel an initial apprehension, but are shocked by how little they feel upon needle insertion.

What should I look for in an acupuncturist?
Unfortunately there are many acupuncturists who only practice on a part-time basis and treat Chinese medicine like a hobby. You should seek out the services of someone who has extensive experience in treating your condition and your practitioner should have a deep commitment to continued education and practice. I have been practicing full-time, seeing 25-50 patients weekly since 2001 and am a teacher and seminar leader within the profession of Oriental medicine. I have also trained extensively under several internationally renowned acupuncturists.

What does a treatment plan entail?
Most patients that come to me for chronic health problems plan on committing to treatment once a week for 4-6 treatments. At this time, we will assess for progress and discuss where to go from there. Within that period of time, I expect that their symptoms are showing signs of definite improvement and that their general health is markedly better. If someone has extremely chronic and severe symptoms, it is not uncommon for me to see them weekly for 10 visits. I encourage the body to heal over a period of time, as excessively rapid progress can put the body into a state of shock. If something has accumulated over a period of years, it is only natural that it will take some time to unravel the condition and heal it at its foundation. While no therapy can help everyone, my clinical experience has been that approximately 80% of my patients undergo noticeably positive changes through their course of treatment. Compliancy is an important factor in treatment progress. Generally, patients that commit to my lifestyle suggestions will progress more rapidly.

What can acupuncture treat?
In my clinical practice, I have had great success in treating a variety of health concerns:

Anxiety and Depression
While I don’t claim to be a specialist in any one area, I have helped many people with anxiety and depression get off of antidepressants. I enjoy working with this population because many people with anxiety or depression simply aren’t aware that there are alternatives to drugs and talk therapy. Nutrition, exercise, mindfulness techniques, acupuncture, and herbs can offer an incredible support system for healing these conditions.

Gynecological issues
I have helped many women with PMS, menstrual cramps, irregular cycles, infertility, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats.

Pain
I have successfully treated many people for headaches, back pain, neck pain, sprains, strains, etc.

Constipation/diarrhea/irritable bowel syndrome
Acupuncture and herbs can work miracles for people suffering with these symptoms.

Insomnia
Acupuncture alone can be very effective. With herbs and stress reduction techniques, the healing process is even more powerful.

Other symptoms/disorders that have I have successfully treated with acupuncture:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Allergies
  • Colds and flus
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Addictions
  • Thyroid imbalances

What are the different styles of acupuncture? Which one does Kevin practice?
There are two main styles of acupuncture that have made their way to the Western world. These are called the 8 principle and 5 element approaches to treatment. Most acupuncturists use one of these approaches exclusively. I am uniquely trained in both and actively teach acupuncturists how to integrate both styles into clinical practice. I do this because I believe that these styles are actually inseparable and that their isolation from one another is based on false pretenses. Using both models enables the practitioner the ability to utilize a much broader and deeper set of skills and to effectively treat a more diverse array of patients. The 8 principle approach is based on diagnosing and treating the patient within the parameters of yin/yang, hot/cold, excess/deficient, and interior/exterior. These 8 parameters are used to determine one’s overall health and the relative balance of their internal organs. For instance, a patient can be yin deficient with interior heat. This would likely reflect someone who feels hot, thirsty, irritable, or has dark urine. Menopausal women often fit this pattern. The acupuncturist takes all of the patient’s symptoms, examines their tongue and pulse, and creates a pattern of disharmony based on these 8 principles. Then, acupuncture points are used that directly treat this pattern. For instance, the patient with yin deficiency and interior heat would be treated on acupoints such as kidney 3 and spleen 6, both points that nourish yin and clear heat. The 8 principle approach excels at symptomatic treatment. It can work wonders for pain and acute conditions. The vast majority of acupuncturists use this approach exclusively. My opinion is that, while this approach is certainly valid and useful, it has inherent limitations that create a limited scope of practice for most acupuncturists.

The 5 element model is based on a pre-Communist tradition of Chinese medicine that treats the underlying constitutional factors that are contributing to the patient’s presenting symptoms. This model is more concerned with one’s psychological relationship with their health issues and with any underlying beliefs that are undermining their quality of life. The 5 element model offers a deeper, more truly holistic approach to treatment than does the 8 principle model. It is more concerned with healing one’s core spiritual and emotional issues rather than eliminating their physical symptoms. The 5 element acupuncturist is primarily concerned with diagnosing the patient’s constitutional type, which is the basis of their belief system, attitude, and general disposition in life. The constitutional type is diagnosed by one’s color, sound, odor, and emotion. It has nothing to do with symptoms. Below is a brief description of each element:

WATER
Organ: kidney/bladder
Emotion: Fear
Color: blue
Season: winter
Voice: groaning

WOOD
Organ: liver/gall bladder
Emotion: anger
Color: green
Season: spring
Voice: shouting

FIRE
Organ: heart/pericardium/small intesting/triple heater
Emotion: joy
Color: red
Season: summer
Voice: laughing

EARTH
Organ: spleen/stomach
Emotion: worry
Color: yellow
Season: late summer
Voice: singing

METAL
Organ: lung/large intestine
Emotion: grief
Color: white
Season: fall
Voice: breathy

The 5 Element theory suggests that each one of us is endowed with one of these elements as our primary mode of expression in life. We will always have this constitution from the moment of conception until death. We can, however, transform dysfunctional and neurotic emotions and beliefs into their opposite virtues. This is the nature of healing within the 5 element model. For instance, an earth type who is consumed with worry can transform this dysfunctional emotion into empathy and integrity. A wood type who is habitually angry can transform this emotion into creativity and determination. By healing these deeper emotional issues, one’s physical health will make tremendous strides. The 5 element model asserts that all physical health concerns are preceded by an emotional or spiritual issue. All levels of one’s being need to be balanced in order for true and lasting healing to occur. As a patient, learning about your constitutional type can be an enriching and enlightening process. In clinical practice, these 2 models work very well together. I tend to use the 5 element model for deeper internal medical problems and for patients with anxiety and depression. I tend to use the 8 principles more for immediate symptomatic relief and pain reduction.

Acupuncture and Alternative Medicine for Adrenal Weakness

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Since 2002, I have treated hundreds of patients in my acupuncture practice in Superior, Colorado which is 10 minutes outside of Boulder. Out of all the patients I have treated, I would say that about 50% of them (at least) are struggling with a pattern called adrenal exhaustion. This basically means that they have lost the ability to rest and rejuvenate. Instead, it’s as if the nervous system is always ‘on’ and the person has lost the ability to stop the incessant mental chatter, anxiety, worry, or stress.

The main symptoms of this pattern include: fatigue, irritability, restless sleep, low back pain, anxiety, depression, nervousness, feeling wiped out upon waking, many female hormonal problems, food cravings and various addictions, weight gain, sluggish metabolism, and so on.

The real question is, what is the cause of this pattern and, more importantly, what is the cure?

Well, in my experience most people have adrenal weakness because they are using excessive amounts of will power to get through life. It is like they are constantly swimming upstream, fighting against life. They work too hard, rest too little, and have a ‘to do’ list a mile long. These are some of the outward causes. The real cause is more of an inner dynamic. In this day and age, many people are disconnected from their true purpose for being alive. Because of this, they don’t know themselves on a deeply intimate level, which causes them to make decisions that lead to distress and distraction.

Generally speaking, adrenal weakness is as much of a spiritual issue as it is a mental one. If the root cause of purposelessness isn’t addressed, then the person can take all the supplements in the world or get acupuncture 3 times a week and it will only have a palliative effect. This is why I have been incorporating life coaching into my practice for increasing numbers of patients. This is also a big reason why I have written The Purpose Principle.

Now, this is not to say that certain forms of alternative care won’t help adrenal weakness. I have used acupuncture alone to kickstart someone’s adrenal function in a way that is very powerful for certain patients. But by far, the patients who make the most progress are the ones who are willing to do the work. They are compliant and they are motivated to make the lifestyle changes necessary to live in balance and awareness.

If you are concerned that you may have adrenal exhaustion, then call my office to discuss your situation.

Acupuncture, Anti-Aging and Alternative Medicine

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Anti-aging medicine and nutrition is big business these days, as most baby boomers are trying anything and everything to look and feel younger. In my acupuncture practice, many of my patients have asked me if I do cosmetic acupuncture or if I know much about using food and herbs to take a few years off their appearance.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to look and feel younger, this desire can easily block us from the deeper issues that deserve our attention. The questions that I always come back to are, ‘What is causing you to look or feel older than your years in the first place?’ and ‘Is it fundamentally healthy to desire a more youthful appearance or is it a sign that we are denying the very natural process of birth, old age, and death?’

So, what is the real cause of premature aging?Why are so many people feeling worn out before their years? Why are so many women hitting perimenopause in their late 30’s instead of their late 40’s? Why are degenerative illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis increasing at astonishing rates?

Well, I believe that my health article on adrenal function addresses this isue quite sufficiently. Many people have lost the abiilty to rest and restore. They are always ‘on’– they can’t quiet their minds and their bodies are in a chronic state of contraction. They have forgotten to breathe deeply. As a result, some of the most fundamental inputs into health and longevity, such as diet and exercise, often go ignored. Why? Because something is missing on a foundational level.(The first 7 strategies of my book The Purpose Principle are all about laying this foundation).

Diet and exercise are of course important inputs into how we age. But there is something much more fundamental that ultimately determines how youthful we are and appear, which is the extent to which we spiritually inhabit our bodies and are conscious of the fact that the body is a vessel for our awareness. If we forget that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, then we won’t be fully awake and alive within our skin. We will overly identify with the body as who we are.We won’t see that we have a choice to bring more light, space, and energy into our bodies simply by heightening our awareness and anchoring our spirits more deeply into this physical dimension.

Yes, there are supplements, herbs, and treatments that can help us to look and feel younger. The real goal, however, is to actually become fully embodied as a human being. Awaken all of your senses and know that there is a deeply spiritual presence that is inhabiting your body. That is the basis of health and longevity. In fact, this aspect of who we are is eternal.It does not age. It was never born and it never dies.

A lot of people are turning to the anti-aging industry because they fear impermanence and death. Looking older is a reminder of their mortality. My interest is in helping people become liberated from this form of suffering rather than putting a bandage on their issues by taking a few wrinkles out of their face.

As a health practitioner, I believe it’s paramount to keep returning to the question, ‘What really matters?’ If you think about it, what this world needs more than anything is massive amounts of individuals choosing to wake up, open their hearts, and live with purpose. If it was really helpful to focus on appearances, I would be all for it.But our world needs a much deeper level of treatment than this if it is to sustain itself for much longer.

Acupuncture and Natural Treatment Options for Anxiety

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Approximately 38 million Americans suffer with chronic anxiety or depression. One out of eight adults are currently taking antidepressant medications. While these medications can offer support and benefit on certain occasions, there are indeed many people that do not respond well to this form of treatment. This can be due to a number of factors including:

  • Various side effects that outweigh the benefits of the medication
  • A developed tolerance to the medication that causes the benefits to diminish
  • Excessive sensitivty to the concentrated nature of these medications
  • A belief system that suggests that the anxiety is not due to a biochemical imbalance, or that this imbalance is the result of a deeper spiritual issue

In my clinical practice, I have worked with a number of patients who were convinced that they had run out of options after finding medications and/or talk therapy to be ineffective for their needs. Many of these people try acupuncture as a last resort. Based on the experience I have had in working with numerous anxiety ridden patients, I now firmly believe that Chinese medicine, nutritional supplemenation, meditation, and yoga can offer tremendously helpful support in healing the root causes of this epidemic. This approach is much more comprehensive and much less invasive to the brain that using SSRI medications. It accounts for not only biochemical factors, but also energetic, nutritional, and spiritual influences as well.

Acupuncture
Practiced for over 2,500 years, acupuncture is a branch of Chinese medicine that treats the energetic level of the human body/mind. As surprising as it is to most people, acupuncture is usually a profoundly relaxing experience that establishes a deep quality of restoration and balance to the central nervous system. Most people feel altered, floaty, dreamy, or sleepy after treatment. This feeling tends to stick around for a few hours after the treatment and becomes a more continuous experience with repetitive treatment. Acupuncture works by balancing the flow of Qi, or internal life force, in the body. Anxiety is typically a byproduct of weak Qi in the heart or kidneys. Other symptoms such as low back pain, heart palpitations, insomnia, irritability, or nightmares commonly accompany the anxiety.

Chinese Herbs
There are a number of Chinese herbal formulas that can work wonders for anxiety disorders. Here is a brief list of formulas I commonly use in my practice to treat anxiety.

  • peaceful spirit formula by Golden Flower
  • salvia and amber by 7 Forests
  • heavenly emperor’s formula
  • free and easy wanderer
  • suan zao ren tang
  • calm spirit by Health Concerns

Western herbs can also be helpful. Here is a brief list of herbs that can be bought at the local health food store:

  • chamomile
  • valerian
  • lemon balm
  • passion flower
  • kava

Nutrition
One of the most important considerations here is to maintain stable blood sugar throughout the day. The majority of anxiety patients suffer from hypoglycemia. They tend to eat refined carbohydrates and/or drink coffee to start the day, only to experience the typical ‘crash’ around 2-4pm. To keep the blood sugar stable, begin the day with a high protein breakfast such as eggs, turkey bacon, whole oats, or smoothies with whey or goat protein in them. Eat a low glycemic snack every 2-3 hours. Avoid coffee and other forms of caffeine. It can also be revealing to avoid allergenic foods such as wheat, gluten, pasteurized dairy, and refined sugar for one month to see if the anxiety significantly improves.

Here is a brief list of nutritional supplements that can be very helpful in treating anxiety:

  • 5HTP
  • GABA
  • Fish oil
  • B vitamin complex

Meditation and Yoga
Many people find meditation and yoga to be their most powerful allies in healing anxiety. With regular practice of various breathing techniques and yoga postures, people often feel that they have much more control over their anxiety and that it need not run their life anymore. These practices can be direct gateways to the rest and restore mode of the nervous system. On a deeper level, they can help us forge a spiritual connection with our lives that instills an unshakable sense of trust and safety in the workings of the universe.

From a holistive perspective, our symptoms are never random. There is always a reason why they creep up. In the case of anxiety, it is helpful to disengage from our personal feelings about it and look at the bigger picture. What is the anxiety telling us about ourselves and where we are at in life? Is it a warning sign that something is amiss and needs to be acknowledged or changed? In any regard, the practices mentioned here can offer a profound level of support in getting to the root of the problem and inducing a gentle course in a new direction of calmness and insight.

Natural Treatment Options for Arthritis

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Approximately 44 million Americans have been diagnosed with arthritis. Many of these people are being treated with Western medications such as steroids and anti-inflammatories, while many others’ symptoms are left untreated, as they do not want to pursue conventional Western treatment options.

In my clinical practice, I have worked with people with all forms of arthritis and I have helped many of them get off of pain killers and steroids. This is possible by using a combination of acupuncture, herbs, nutritional supplements, and possibly techniques such as yoga or meditation. I am always pleased (as is the patient) when we can use natural therapies for pain management because they do not have any side effects, unlike most of the Western medications for pain relief, which can cause a host of complications. Many of these medications weaken the body over time, which, in my opinion, causes premature aging and general debility.

Below are several natural herbal and nutritional supplements that have proven effective in overcoming the pain and inflammation of arthritis. It is always best to seek out the services of a healthcare professional if you are interested in using these products.

Nutritional Supplements

  • Fish Oil: Taking a high quality essential fatty acid complex can be very helpful for reducing pain and inflammation and increasing synovial fluid in the joints. Fish oil can also help any depression that accompanies the chronic pain. Start with 3,000mg daily.
  • SAMe: This is a naturally occurring metabolite found in the human body and plants. The active ingredient is methionine. SAMe has been shown to alleviate depression, reduce appetite, and improve neurotransmitter synthesis and receptor binding. I will often use SAMe when there is a combination of depression and chronic pain, as it reduces inflammation and regenerates joint tissue. It is excellent for both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Start with 200 mg early in the day on an empty stomach, increase to up to 1,000 mg over a period of a few weeks as needed.
  • MSM: 2 grams daily prevent cartilage breakdown
  • Vitamins and Minerals: Key nutrients that manufacture synovial fluid are vitamins A, B complex, C, D, and E. Calcium, selenium, magnesium, and zinc are also crucial. Vitamins C and D are most important for nourishing bones and connective tissue.
  • Cetyl myristoleate: This is a form of fatty acid that has extraordinary qualities for joint lubrication. It needs to be taken constantly at a dosage of 500-1000mg/day. It is useful for both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.

Herbs

  • Evening Primrose Oil: This wonderful herb has been found to reverse cases of mild to moderate arthritis.
  • Shen Tong Zhu Yu Tang: This is a formula used for systemic blood stagnation characterized by sharp and severe pain throughout the body. It is useful for muscle spasm, inflammation, and pain that is fixed in nature.
  • Juan Bi Tang: This is a classic formula for arthritis. In Chinese medicine, Bi is a syndrome that is characterized by certain elements such as wind, damp, or cold lodging in the body causing pain. This formula is helpful for achiness and stiffness primarily in the upper body.
  • Du Huo Ji Sheng Tang: This formula is useful for Bi syndromes that affect the lower back, legs, and knees. It helps to relieve achiness and tension.
  • SPZM: This is a Health Concerns formula that is useful for muscle spasm, particularly in the upper body.
  • Channel Flow: This is a Health Concerns Formula that is useful for pain anywhere in the body. It can help with moderate or severe pain.

Nutrition

The following basic dietary tips will be very helpful for managing the symptoms of arthritis:

  • Start eating an organic whole foods diet that is rich in fish, chicken, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. This diet is rich in essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber.
  • Avoid refined sugars and carbohydrates: These foods promote inflammation and pain and weaken digestion and vitality.
  • Avoid synthetic additives and sweeteners and genetically modified foods.
  • Avoid coffee and alcohol: Both of these are irritants to the liver, colon, and stomach. They can exacerbate pain and emotional ups and downs.

Acupuncture
Acupuncture is one of the greatest therapies available for healing arthritis. It has been clinically proven to reduce pain and inflammation, improve circulation, and trigger the rest and restore mode of the nervous system. Acupuncture should be painless and deeply relaxing. I recommend getting weekly treatment for 6-8 weeks for chronic arthritis, then assessing for progress.

Meditation and Yoga
Meditation and yoga have been practiced for thousands of years in many different cultures. They have stood the test of time because they have enormous healing benefits for the mind and body. If practiced appropriately, meditation and yoga can offer profound support for managing chronic pain, overcoming fatigue, and improving flexibility.