Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Eating our way out of our mood swings

There is a link between our mood and blood-sugar which is well known. With diabetes on the rise, the dangers of drops in blood-sugar and how to deal with them are now being taught in First Aid courses, describing the tell-tale signs of mood swings and irritability linked with long periods of not eating. The more serious symptoms include seizures, and unconsciousness (and in extreme cases, death!).

One does not need to be diabetic to suffer from lowered-blood sugar, nor from the shakiness and irritability associated with lowered blood-sugar - when there is no detectable reduction in blood-sugar, it is usually associated with the drop in energy a few hours after a meal. The usual symptoms are shakiness, a general sense of weakness, altered mood, confusion, fatigue, anxiety, a pale complexion, abnormal sweating, an increased pulse rate, and hunger.
It's not just the food we eat, but also the type of bugs (good and bad) that live in the digestive tract, that can affect mood. The evidence for the wider implications for gut bacteria affecting the nervous system is slowly growing, with disorders of these microbes being linked with medical conditions such as obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. There is also growing speculation and research into the link with the state of the gut flora and its effect on mood.

In Chinese Medicine, the health of the digestive system is associated with the organ-systems of the Spleen and the Liver. The digestive system is one of the main parts of the body where vital energy (Qi) is produced, however if a person is tired, run down or has weakened digestive function, their Qi will become depleted because of an impaired ability to absorb nutrients and energy from food. A lack of Qi puts strain onto the liver and creates symptoms of anger and frustration. When the qi is lacking, soon to follow is a deficiency of a nutritive substance called Xue (roughly translates to blood),  because the poorly functioning digestive system (Spleen) is not absorbing and distributing the basic building blocks of Blood from the diet. Blood in Chinese Medicine has a large role in housing the Shen (spirit, or Mind), so if the Blood becomes depleted, the mind lacks the support and grounding it needs. This can leave people feeling easily overwhelmed, easily brought to tears, or feeling generally unsettled and out of sorts. People who suffer from mood swings can fluctuate between the symptoms of depleted blood and constrained qi - feeling tired and cranky when you're hungry, or being driven to emotional eating when upset. Common symptoms of a weak digestion - not necessarily a problem that is fixed by antidepressants or a nice relaxing holiday.
The key in fixing these very common types of mood fluctuations is in looking after the health of the digestive system. Ensuring that the diet provides the foundational building blocks required to function on a daily basis is a good start. What we eat is going to make a difference not just to the energy to move our physical bodies, but also to maintain psychological and emotional wellbeing. A substantial quantity of good quality green vegetables is vital (3-6 cups per day). A good healthy dose of ‘good fats’, so that we can produce cholesterol and maintain a healthy endocrine system. Because hormones like estrogen and testosterone have a role to play in disorders such as depression, eating dietary fat that converts to hormones is important.

The quality of the Blood/Xue depends on vital minerals and vitamins, such as Vitamin B, D, C, and zinc, calcium, and magnesium. The state of the gut flora needs to be protected, and clearing nasty bacteria, parasites and yeasts such as candida and others, while re-building good flora with the use of probiotics can greatly improve the health of our digestion.

Get serious and cut down on the amount of sugar you consume, as this is what will ‘damage the Spleen’ and therefore damage digestion and the production of Qi. A routine of regular, gentle exercise that moves Qi and Blood, such as walking, Yoga, or Tai-chi is also useful. At the same time, looking after the nervous system by eliminating or minimising exposure to serious stressors such as "general life stress", chemical toxicity, emotionally toxic people, and changing your inner emotional landscape to look more like the hills from the sound of music, rather than a wartorn battlefield. Strategies to help reduce stress can be enhanced by learning to meditating, learning how to relax, and maintaining regular sleeping patterns.

Of course, your Chinese Medicine practitioner can prescribe herbal medicines, acupuncture and tailored advice to you so that you can really quickly regain balance in your mood and in your mind. Once you achieve harmony, it's much easier to maintain it using these strategies listed above.
In these ways, it is possible to maintain the health of the physical, emotional and mental aspects of ourselves.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Do you have the gall to keep your gallbladder?

It is becoming increasingly more frequent that people are having their gallbladders surgically removed. This is usually due to the advise of a medical practitioner (usually a surgeon) who recommends it as a first course of treatment in cases of gallstones (cholelithiasis) and with “sluggish” gallbladders, or gallbladder inflammation (cholecystitis). Most people in this situation are told that it is perfectly alright for this to happen, and most are under the impression that the gallbladder has no real necessary function in the human body.

This could not be further from the truth. What's more, the procedure of removing the gallbladder would be considered a last resort, when all other methods have failed.

The gallbladder indeed has a very important function as part of the digestive system. Its role is to store a substance called Bile, and to secrete it into the small intestine during digestion. Bile is an alkaline substance, bitter-tasting and greeny-yellow, containing acidic bile salts, cholesterol, bilirubin, electrolytes, and water. Its main role is in the emulsification and absorption of dietary fats. The storage of bile in the gallbladder occurs between meals, removing the water and electrolytes, and storing it in concentrated form, to then be released about 30 minutes after a meal. When dietary fats are present in the duodenum (the upper part of the small intestine), hormonal signals are sent to the gallbladder to begin secretion.

If the gallbladder is removed, it becomes near-impossible to digest any form of dietary fats, requiring one to be on either a no-fat diet, or very small amounts eaten regularly. Dietary fats are required for the operation of the endocrine system (hormones); they provide the pre-cursors to many of the sex-hormones in the form of cholesterol; and they are also important for the absorption and metabolism of important fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. The gallbladder is necessary for dietary fats to be absorbed by the body, so that the endocrine system can perform its role in healing the body when necessary.

In symptomatic cases of gallstones, there is considerable localised abdominal pain and jaundice. Other signs and symptoms of gallstones could include heartburn, flatulence, epigastric discomfort, and intolerances to fatty foods and cabbage. An inflamed gallbladder is usually caused by the lodging of a gallstone in the cystic duct. The pain is similar but will present with specific findings of test results.

In Chinese Medicine, the gallbladder is also said to have a psycho-emotional role, allowing us to be courageous, and having the courage to express our innermost desires in the external world. This is recognised by many other cultures also, with the common expression “having the gall” to do/say something with a degree of audacity. Confucian medical scholars likened the gallbladder to the social role of the judge, whose job it is to make decisions and carry out the (legal) decisions of the State. Thus indecisiveness is said to indicate a weakness of the gallbladder, whilst to have 'da dan' (a large gallbladder) indicates that someone is courageous and decisive.

So how can Chinese Medicine help with gallbladder disorders? Using acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary therapy, practitioners are able to dissolve and clear gallstones. Often gallstones are asymptomatic, so if there appears to be some issues with digestion (especially involving foods with considerable levels of dietary fats), it is often useful to do a “gallbladder flush”, which helps clear the ducts that carry bile, and dissolve and clear any stones that are yet to be big enough to cause pain or complete blockage. There are very effective herbal formulas which dissolve the stones, and then flush them out. Apple cider vinegar and artichokes are known to be useful for this, as are lemons, limes, turmeric, parsnips, radishes, mung beans, rye, endives, linseed oil, chamomile tea, and seaweed.

It is a better idea such non-invasive and less-radical procedures to clear the gallbladder of stones and inflammation before heading down the route of surgical removal. The gallbladder has an important function in digestion, and it is probably worth the effort to keep it.