Thursday, June 28, 2012

Keeping our insides warm in winter

This is turning out to be quite a cold winter!

In agricultural-based societies, winter was the season of pulling back from the usual workload and spending more time conserving energy; very similar to what many of the plant world during this time. Crops grown over this time are slower growing, and somewhat heartier; and many of the heavy crops harvested in autumn are either preserved or kept in order to be consumed over the colder months. People would still wake with the dawn and bed down at dusk - these times being somewhat brought closer together due to the shorter daylight hours.

Life for us however doesn't necessarily allow us to follow these kinds of patterns. Our schedules are determined by the clock, not by the movement of the sun; and our workloads don't really differ that much from season to season. However, our bodies have an intelligence which mostly is still tuned to those natural cycles - insofar as we unconsciously yearn to sleep more and do less and stay cosy and warm on these chilly winter days.

In Chinese Medicine, wintertime is associated with the Water-phase of the 5-Agents schema. The energy of Water is about dormancy and conservation; the tendency of this time is solitude and isolation, and the emotional need is one of being protected. Immediately, many of us would think of sitting neat an open fire with hearty warm foods, wrapped in warm pyjamas and blankets and fluffy slippers, whilst the cold is kept away.

Here is another one of my family recipes which we thoroughly enjoy at this time of year. It is very rich, but it's also incredibly filling and warming. While the Beef can strengthen Qi, the richness of the meal nourishes and supplements Yin and Blood. The spices also contribute to warming the Yang, while the vinegar and rosemary assist in moving Qi.

Stifatho - Beef stew


½ kilo rump/topside steak, diced
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 medium onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic
2 bay leafs
2-3 sprigs rosemary
400g tomatoes (passata, or canned tomato)
½ cup red wine
1 cup vinegar (malt or red wine)
10 small pickling onions or shallots
5-6 potatoes
Salt, pepper, cinnamon, few cloves
  • Pre-heat oven to 160 C.
  • Saute meat, add onion, garlic, bay leaves and rosemary until meat is sealed and brown. 
  • Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, cinnamon and cloves and simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
  • When the sauce has thickened and reduced, add the wine and continue simmering for another ½ hour. 
  • Add the onions and the vinegar and simmer for another ½ hour. 
  • Add your potatoes and continue to cook gently until the potatoes are soft.
  • This dish is to be very slow cooked so that all the flavours can fuse together and the meat just melts.

Serve this up with a side of steamed green vegetable - traditionally greens such as leafy amaranth, silverbeet, endives, spinach, or 'mountain greens' were lightly boiled and sprinkled with virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Some steamed jasmine/basmati rice can also round this off.

This is certainly a heavy dish, so probably not had as a late evening meal. This dish can take up to four hours, so start cooking it early to have as a late afternoon meal. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kids & Coughs

Coughing is something that all children experience when they ‘catch a cold’, and sometimes it can be most distressing for parents. Usually, a child will experience severe coughing fits at night whilst they - and everyone else - are trying to sleep.

Whilst it can be an inconvenience for the busy, modern parents, the best thing for children is to be kept home from school and allow the body’s own natural healing process to take place, but more importantly it also means that a child won’t ‘share’ their illness with all their classmates; the common cold - or upper respiratory tract infection - is probably the most common cause for school absence.

Paediatrics as a specialist medicine was really developed during the Song dynasty period in China, around the 11th Century. The understanding that children required something slightly different to adults led to the development of specific massage (tui-na) and acupuncture techniques, as well as paediatric herbal formulas. Children are understood to be inherently more yang - as this is the period of phenomenal growth and development, which requires an abundance of Qi and yang-energies. This also means that there is a relative deficiency of yin, and so this constitutional factor needs to be taken into account when developing treatments for children. Their immune systems are also considered inherently weaker, as they are still in the process of developing fully, and so tend to get sicker easier and quicker; the upshot to that is that they also get better quicker than adults too! As with adults, and congenital factors also need to be taken into account.

There are some key things to look out for, and let your practitioner know about which assist in determining the correct treatment. What does the cough sound like - is it a strong, loud barking cough; or a weak, quiet one? Is it dry? If there is phlegm, is it coming up easily? What colour is the phlegm? Is the throat sore? Is there a headache? Is there a fever? Is the child sore? Is there any nasal mucus, and if so what colour is it? How long has the cough been going for?

Chinese herbal medicine is particular good for this kind of ailment, but it is also useful to be combined with a session of acupuncture and/or massage. Most children may not be keen on having acupuncture needles stuck in them, which is why massage that stimulates the same points and channels can be better in these situations. The other benefit of taking your child into seeing a Chinese Medicine practitioner is so they can assess the nature of the condition and guide you to what needs to be done.

With getting your child to take medicine, I find that using a syringe (around 10ml) is useful, as it also turns the taking of the medicine into a kind of game - they get to squeeze the syringe themselves, thus also teaching them (in a subtle manner) about taking responsibility for their own health. It also means the medicine will get through and bypassing most of the taste buds! When coughing is the main complaint, I will often combine the medicine with a herbal cough syrup - usually containing honey - which will sweeten the flavour somewhat. There are quite a few good herbal cough syrups that are available from most Asian grocery stores as well as Chinese Medicine dispensaries.

And there is plenty that a parent can do at home to speed up recovery. Dietary therapy is of particular importance for all kinds of paediatric illnesses, due to the undeveloped nature of the child’s digestive system. Teas are very useful for treating the common cold, and particularly so for a cough and a sore throat. The types of teas are again dependant on which pattern of illness your child presents with. ‘Heat’ patterns need to be treated with ‘cool’ teas, foods, and herbs, while ‘cold’ patterns need the opposite. If the Lungs are dry (distinguished by a dry cough), they need moistening; whilst the presence of phlegm suggests the use of substances that will ‘dry up’ the mucus.

Another useful method is massaging the child’s chest with some Tiger Balm when they go to bed. Tiger Balm is said to help promote the movement of Qi and disperse the Qi-stagnation in the Lungs. The smell of the camphor can also help clear the nasal passages, allowing the child to breathe easier through their nose, thus reducing the need to breathe through their mouth, where pathogens lodge in the throat (the first signs of a cold are usually the distinctive sore throat and blocked nose). Baby-boomers may remember having camphor pinned to their undergarments to prevent getting sick; dabbing a spot of Tiger Balm behind the ears and on the throat is used for the same reason.

Here is our family recipe for Chicken Soup - it’s what we were always given when we were sick growing up. It provides nourishment (Qi) to help keep the body strong and fight infection. And it tastes wonderful, and kids love it! Enjoy....

“Avgolemono” - Chicken soup with egg & lemon

1x whole chicken - free-range or organic
1x carrot
1x stick celery
1x onion
pepper & salt

1x cup rice
2-3x free-range/organic eggs
3-4x lemons

20-30g sliced Huang Qi (Astragalus radix) - available from all good Asian grocers. This is optional.

In a large pot of water, bring to the boil the chicken, carrot, celery, onion, and salt/pepper. Boil for 1 hour. If using the Astragalus root, stuff it into the cavity of the chicken.
After this time, remove the vegies & the chicken (carefully) and place in an oven tray. The chicken can be roasted, to provide a second meal, thus getting value for money!

Add the rice to the broth, and boil until rice is ready.
Whilst the rice is cooking, beat the eggs and the juice of the lemon together in a large bowl. When the rice is cooked, turn off heat, and begin to slowly ladle the liquid (not the rice) into your egg/lemon mixture, and continue to beat to create a fluffy mixture. The purpose of this is to slowly bring the egg/lemon mixture to the same temperature as the soup, so the egg will not curdle. Keep ladling soup into the bowl until it feels the same temperature as the soup pot. Then transfer this back into the soup pot. Add salt/lemon juice to taste (if necessary). Serve with some ground pepper.

Monday, June 18, 2012


We can all feel a little anxious from time to time - before an exam, or a job interview, an important meeting, before a first date, and so on. For some people however, these anxious feelings can continue over extended periods of time, and sometimes with no real or valid reason. When the feeling of anxiety is affecting your ‘normal daily routine’, then this is an indication that there is something wrong which needs to be addressed.

According to Western models of mental health, there are a number of anxiety disorders:
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • panic disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • social anxiety disorder
  • specific phobias
Whilst all of these have their own idiosyncratic nature, at the heart of it is some irrational and excessive sense of fear, worry, and dread.

According to Beyond Blue, these disorders are the most common, with an estimated one in seven Australians experiencing an anxiety disorder in any given year, with one in six women being affected, and one in ten men.

Chronic feelings of anxiety - termed generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) - is said to affect 5% of Australians. It can also occur alongside other mental health disorders, such as depression, addiction, or other anxiety disorders. As well as the uncontrollable worry about everyday concerns, sufferers of GAD can also find themselves with a number of physiological signs and symptoms, such as muscle tension, abnormal sweating, nausea, cold/clammy hands, difficulty in swallowing, edginess/jumpiness, gastrointestinal discomfort (such as diarrhoea), irritability, tiredness and insomnia.

Panic disorders on the other hand a little more dramatic, with the tell-tale ‘panic attacks’ - sudden and acute onset of intense fear or discomfort which lasts for up to ten minutes, accompanied by symptoms such as the feeling of imminent danger or doom, the strong desire to flee, heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, hot flushes, a possible shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered, a choking sensation, possible chest pain, a feeling of nausea or abdominal discomfort, dizziness, depersonalisation, a fear of losing control, or a fear of dying. Diagnosis of this disorder is based on the frequency and intensity of the attacks, and also monitoring for subsequent and continued sense of anxiety about further attacks, or fear of the triggers of such attacks. It is thought that about 3% of Australians suffer from this disorder.    

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are attacks of anxiety that are directly linked to traumatic events, such as assaults, major accidents, natural disasters, neglect, experiencing unpleasant medical procedures, and so on. As well as the usual signs of anxiety, sufferers from this disorder will also experience flashbacks, nightmares, a loss of interest in what was once enjoyable, and memories of the event that continue to intrude on normal, everyday thoughts.
There is no exact equivalent in Chinese Medicine for anxiety, however there were some disease states which closely resemble this, known as “fear and palpitations”, “panic throbbing”, and “agitation”. Involving a state of fear, worry, and anxiety, these disease states share many of the same physical and emotional symptoms described above.

The aetiology of anxiety from a Chinese Medicine perspective is usually some form of stress, which can involves any of the emotions. Emotional stress can lead to the stagnation of Qi , which can also generate internal heat which will deplete the yin-natured aspects of our body, which agitates the Mind. Sometimes, there is also what is referred to as ‘constitutional’ factors, which include the development of patterns of behaviour and coping skills within families. Diet also plays its part, with irregular eating and the excessive consumption of Damp-producing foods - such as processed foods, preservatives, and additives being the worst - causing sluggish flows of Qi in the channels, leading to obstruction the Mind. Haemorrhages and other heavy losses of blood can also lead to the patterns of deficiency which affect the Heart, the organ-system which plays a vital role in our emotional health. Finally, extreme taxation and fatigue caused by working long hours without adequate rest and recuperation can deplete our vital energies, which also throws the internal organ-systems out of balance, leading to the patterns of disharmony which are found in cases of anxiety.

In Chinese Medicine, the Heart organ-system is said to be the “seat of all emotions”, and so any psychological/emotional disorder is linked with pathologies involving this organ. In anxiety disorders - especially in panic disorders - this connection is obvious given the associated symptoms of palpitations, chest fullness, and so on. However, all the organ-systems and channels of the the body are involved in the treatments of this disorder.

Being primarily an energetic medicine, Acupuncture is particularly beneficial in treating individuals with these disorders, as emotions - like Qi - is fundamentally an energic quality. By palpating points along the channels, assessing the pulse, and asking about any other symptoms, Acupuncturists are able to harmonise the channel system, the network which interconnects all parts of the body. Systematic reviews of the research into Acupuncture treatment for some anxiety disorders showed some positive results

Herbal medicine and nutritional health also plays its part, as we are able to bring our internal landscape into balance, harmonising the organ-systems which lead to patterns such as Qi-stagnation, or depleted energies of the individual organs.

Meditation and mindful exercises such as Yoga or Taichi are also very useful to help to learn to relax the body as well as the mind, and providing the time and the space to unwind and alleviate stress.
Something that helps with all types of anxiety is the ability to talk with someone you trust and share how you feel about issues. Speaking with a trusted practitioner - a Chinese Medicine practitioner, your GP, a counsellor, or a psychologist - can also be of great benefit. Practitioners can help in ways beyond the mere physiological, and can also help refer you onto services - such as
Beyond Blue, Lifeline, and Men's Helpline - that exist to help you further.

Anxiety isn’t something to be afraid of, nor ashamed of. But it is something that will affect our daily lives if we let it, and can lead to further complications.