By Bryan McMahon, L.Ac
The Wandering Cloud Ancient Chinese Medicine
The alarm is going off and all you want to do is stay in bed. Daily chores are just too much effort and at the center of all of it, you just don’t feel like yourself. The doctors have diagnosed you with hypothyroidism, or even Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (if they thought to look). The medication may be helping some, but you still know something just isn’t right and that you could be feeling better – more like yourself.
Like all traditional forms of medicine, Chinese medicine is based largely on observation of the elemental forces of nature. The qualitative experience of these forces was applied to the understanding of the human body in a rich system of correspondences. While this may seem like an archaic and outdated means of understanding the world to our modern analytical minds, this more experiential based approach is very helpful for grasping the big picture aspects of health and disease. More importantly, Chinese medicine is extremely practical; it provides us with the means to treat what we see through this lens with holistic methods that yield results. Currently, somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 million Americans are living with autoimmune dysfunction. Whereas just 30 years ago, only one in 400 Americans developed autoimmune disease, that number has exploded to one out of every 12 people today, roughly 75% of whom are women. What could an ancient form of medicine have to say about all this? There is a saying in Chinese medicine that “wind is the captain of the hundred diseases”. A logical place to start therefore, would be to examine what is going on with this wind energy in modern times in order to unwind the underlying causes of autoimmune activity and its treatment strategies.
Take a quick moment to bring on an experience of wind. Don’t only imagine with your mind, but try to experience the sensations in your body as well. How would you describe its essential nature? I think we would all agree that while it can’t be seen or held, it can certainly be felt. Chinese medicine summarizes wind as pure movement without shape or material substance. It can range from a gentle breeze to a howling tempest, making it both the most powerful and unpredictable force of nature. In the body, wind is the dynamic force that keeps all life activities churning, from the cellular level of gene expression and energy generation to the systemic level of heartbeat and blood circulation. The transmission of information via the billions of synapses of our nervous system is also an essential function of wind. The autonomic nervous system bridging these two levels of physical metabolism and mental-emotional activity, with influence constantly being exerted back and forth in both directions. A key aspect of Chinese medical diagnosis involves reading the pulses of a patient where we analyze the rhythm, intensity and patterning of these wind activities both in the body overall as well as within specific organ systems.
Early stages of thyroid dysfunction, specifically hypothyroidism, can be understood as a systemic lack of this wind power. The thyroid is a gland that plays a key role in regulating metabolism, muscle strength, digestion and overall immune function. Chinese medicine understands the thyroid as a key piece of the Taiyin system, responsible for the transformation of “material stuff” into energy, its delivery to every cell in the body and the elimination of waste products from the organs and tissues via the bowels. Think of the Taiyin as the accountant who manages the daily balance of cash flow in and out of our body’s checking account. We pay out each day in the form of work, exercise and mental activity in order to earn returns in the form of nourishment from food, quality rest and the general enjoyment of a positive and secure mental-emotional state both within ourselves and ideally, shared with those around us. If the body’s income deficit is pushed to a certain level, like any good accountant, the thyroid will throw up the red flag and begin to cut energetic output by slowing down certain systems to their minimum essential level of functionality. The result of this down regulation of the wind energy is like turning down the volume knob on a stereo – we feel lethargic and heavy, digestion stagnates, circulation slows, menstrual irregularities arise and skin, hair and nails lose their luster. This is our body’s way of forcing us into a restive and recuperative state, as the thyroid reduces its production of the metabolism stimulating hormones T3 and T4.
This relatively straight forward stage of hypothyroidism is understood in Chinese medicine as a purely deficient condition that can be rectified through the combination of appropriate rest and the up-regulation of the Taiyin wind energy with some combination of herbs, acupuncture and moxibustion. But it’s not always that simple. What if either out of necessity or inertia we are unable to enter into that restorative state of quiet and relaxation? What if sleep quality is somehow compromised and the body is unable to regain its natural balance? This usually indicates a deeper level of central nervous system involvement as the adrenal-pituitary axis begins to release abnormal levels of cortisol often out of sync with our natural circadian rhythms, creating the common paradoxical experience of exhaustion throughout the day, together with an inability to sleep well at night. Chinese medicine sees the brain, heart and kidneys (including the adrenal and pituitary glands) as one integrated system, known as the Shaoyin. In keeping with the above metaphor, it is the savings account of the body where we maintain the energetic reserves that supports strong health and longevity. At this deeper level of exhaustion, we may begin to experience irregularities in heartbeat, decline in memory and mental acuity along with reduced sexual and reproductive functions.
As human beings perhaps the most powerful tool that we possess is our mind; goal-oriented focus and commitment can see us through incredible challenges. It is also our biggest obstacle to well-being, especially when our mental-emotional orientation toward life is not in alignment with the internal feedback of the physical body. For reasons that we can probably all recognize in our own lives, the modern pace of living often dictates that we must press on beyond the point of reasonable physical exhaustion. We stretch our resources to the point of energetic overdraft, continuing to generate activity and movement that is no longer supported by the material resources of the body. Through the power of mind and the aid of stimulants like caffeine, we are capable of generating a tremendous amount of wind power to keep ourselves “running on fumes”. After all, it is the most powerful force of nature and so we are able to get through another day as long as we are able to stir up another strong gust. But its movements are erratic and it further drains our resources. Once mustered, it’s not so easy to simply turn this wind off whenever we like and so over time, its inertia begins to take over, often leading to mood dysregulation and increased signs of inflammation, which scientific research has now shown to go hand in hand.
One of the most important examples of the complimentary exchange of yin and yang in Chinese medicine is the harmonious dialogue between our body and mind. The body provides real time feedback on the effects of the directives issued by the mind; the mind then adjusts in order to keep the body comfortable and in good working order. Imagine a scenario whereby a military leader forces their troops to march for days on end without adequate rest or resupply on a campaign far from the comforts of home; morale is low and everyone is exhausted as enemy spies begin to sow the seeds of discord among the ranks. At a certain point the troops are going to begin questioning the orders coming down the chain of command. A similar dynamic is playing out within us whenever we ignore the warning signs of fatigue and depletion, or worse yet, more advanced signs such as chronic inflammation and mood dysregulation. The close-knit cooperation among functional units, namely our organ systems, breaks down as each tries its best to carry on under the conditions of questionable leadership and lack of resources. Eventually, desertion and even outright rebellion become options to be considered. Any sustained disintegration of body and mind will begin to influence the cellular level of activity and just as soldiers direct their frustration and confusion at the leadership that brought them to this place, the “fighter” cells of the immune system will begin to attack the compromised tissues, glands and nerves they perceive as failing to respond to the actual situation on the ground.
To summarize, the autoimmune activity of a condition such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can be seen as the eventual outcome of a combination of several factors, namely:
- Compromised vitality and low physical power
- Continued levels of unsustainable life activity
- Breakdown between the reporting mechanisms of the body and the clear directive power of the mind
- Chaotic wind activity that develops its own momentum
Autoimmune dysfunction may not always develop in such a clear step by step fashion and can certainly be accelerated by other major life and health events, but these factors generally all come together in some proportion along the way. The good news is that once we have a clear understanding of the elements involved, we can lay out a gradual path to resolution that starts by calming the wind so that our energetic resources can start to rebuild. Here are some general recommendations to consider:
- Scale back on unnecessary activities and obligations. Natural healing requires as much time spent in the combination of a relaxed state of mind and low stress environment as we can provide. Time spent in nature is particularly effective in this regard.
- Increase time budgeted for sleep by at least one hour. Sleep is the ultimate revitalizer. Studies show that the vast majority of American adults are chronically under rested. Eight hours a night is standard, but as many as 9-10 may be required for some people to return from deep states of depletion. Follow the rhythms of nature and sleep at a regular time; before 10:30pm is recommended.
- Open up avenues for communication with your body and get to know its actual state. Practices like contemplative breathing and yoga nidra (a form of reclined “body scanning” meditation) are great for strengthening the connection to our body’s sensations, both inside and out. They also deeply relax the nervous system and improve sleep quality when it is compromised.
- Eat a balanced diet composed of as many whole foods as possible. Nothing keeps the wind howling like a diet high in sugar, caffeine, alcohol and processed carbohydrates. If you have chronic food sensitivities, consider a blood screening by one of our naturopathic providers to clearly identify any food intolerances that are contributing to inflammation. Work on including plenty of complex whole grains and healthy fats that digest slowly to moderate swings in blood sugar levels. Phase out all THC inclusive cannabis products and other recreational drugs.
- Avoid situations and stimuli that trigger mental-emotional reactivity whenever possible. The mind is directly linked to the body in Chinese medicine by the network of energy channels. Wind activity increases dramatically whenever we find ourselves in a highly-stressful environment, overloading the channels with activity and tension. Over time this translates to heightened levels of anxiety and chronic pain. Nowadays, news feeds and social media prioritize content that gets us emotionally involved. Consider how and when you consume various forms of electronic media and limit the exposure to negatively charged content as much as possible.
You may have noticed that mention of exercise is missing from that list. For most patients working with Hashimoto’s must begin first with the above initiatives to “rest and digest”; light activity such as walking or traditional forms of exercise like Taijiquan may be enough during this initial phase to keep the channels open and active. The intensity of exercise can be steadily dialed up as the wind activity begins to calm, though for certain individuals, more vigorous activity may be recommended from the beginning.
These lifestyle adjustments form the foundation of a traditional Chinese medical treatment plan. Regular acupuncture treatments to directly regulate the winds of the body and daily herbal formulas that are custom tailored to your changing needs will be significantly more effective within the context of a healthy daily routine and sustainably paced rhythm of life. As the energetic balance sheet shifts from red to black it becomes not only possible, but natural for bloodwork indicators to normalize and many symptoms to fade away into a background of increased well-being.
Many past patients have told me that they felt like the spark was missing from this engine of positive lifestyle change. While working in China for over 5 years I saw the power of the combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs to help individuals get that fire going again and feel more at ease within themselves. Rather than just giving a medication for a disease, I treat an individual by helping them regain the vitality that they have always had naturally. If you’ve been struggling with not feeling like your ‘old self’ start by working with these recommendations where you can and schedule a consultation to put together a treatment plan that will help get you jump-started and back on track soon.