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Health in Our Community: An Acupuncturist’s Perspective

When I approached SDGLN.com about writing a health column from the perspective of Oriental medicine, I was sure I had an abundance of things to say - and write about. Yet, when I sat down to write, I wondered if what I wanted to write had anything in common with what people in our community are thinking about, dealing with, and wanting to read. Let’s start with more general topics and wait for feedback, I thought. Then I thought about this month’s elections, and I felt dismayed. Ah, there’s my topic!

How does election day and its outcomes affect our health? Aside from the obvious impact on our community of political decisions to approve funding for AIDS/HIV, or rescinding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, are there any other connections between political decisions and our well-being? Strong anti-hate crimes legislation would certainly improve our sense of safety and welcome in the world… but what about things like legislation that prohibits gay marriage? Do these things impact our health, and if so, how? And what can we do about it – in addition to supporting GLBTQ-friendly politics? Furthermore, what do the theories of Oriental medicine have to say about this, if anything? Read on, my intrigued friends…

There are many ancient theories in the practice of Oriental medicine, which detail a great number of causes of illness. General categories include things we are all familiar with, like external pathogens which invade the body (viruses, bacteria and the like, which were unknown in ancient Asia), internal weaknesses, prior injuries, poor diet, lack of exercise, old age, and habitual excesses (addictive behaviors and substances). But there is one more, something more subtle – and therefore, more insidious. First, some background information…

Oriental medicine acknowledges that each of our internal organs has multiple functions, and we can call them physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. So, each of our organs has a corresponding physical “job,” emotion, thought process, and way of contributing to our life journey and goals. Illness can begin in any one of these levels, and affect any or all of the other levels. Further, since the proper function of our internal organs depends on each one doing its job optimally, when there is imbalance in one organ, it can impair function in any of the other organs as well. Our organs work inter-dependently, and when each is working properly, the result is internal harmony and good health. When there is imbalance, the result is disharmony and disease.

Here’s a relevant example, to help make this clearer. Oriental medicine theory holds that the liver has the physical jobs of helping the heart distribute blood, and helping the lungs move Qi (Qi is pronounced “chee”, and let’s think of this as our body’s life force). Because the liver is so involved in helping these substances flow, a healthy liver is described as helping to ensure flexibility and the suppleness of our tissues – and attitudes! The emotion which most affects the liver adversely is anger, including frequent and intense anger (as in rage), and old anger that a person just can’t seem to let go of. When a person is angry, they are anything but flexible.

The mental function of the liver is to help us carry out the goals and directions that are decided by its partner organ, the gallbladder. And its spiritual function, is to help us move along on our life’s path, easily and smoothly around obstacles, so we can grow into who we are to be, rather than getting stuck at an obstacle because we are furious that it is in our way.

When a person experiences frequent or chronic anger, frustration or even depression, this impairs the normal function of the liver. Instead of flowing freely, the liver becomes “stuck”, and the diagnostic term for this is “stagnation.” Interestingly, it is also sometimes called “depression”. When a liver is stagnant or depressed, its ability to help move blood and Qi through the body is impaired. When blood and Qi are not flowing freely, they can also become stuck or stagnant, and this causes pain. Such pain can occur anywhere in the body. When stagnation occurs in the internal organs, it causes illness.

Sometimes we do get angry about political choices that affect us adversely, and this is appropriate and healthy. It is good to defend ourselves outwardly – but it is also important to protect ourselves inwardly, so our livers do not become stagnant and stuck. Emotional depression is one way that long-held anger and frustration manifest; rigid attachment to ideas and beliefs is another. If we recognize we are becoming rigid and inflexible in any of these ways, this is our whole being’s way of getting our attention so we can acknowledge something is wrong, something is stuck.

But what can we do? Well, being an acupuncturist and herbalist, of course I will recommend you find a good acupuncturist to work with. There are many treatments and herbs which can help get the liver “unstuck,” but if society keeps telling us we deserve less than our “mainstream counterparts,” it’s kind of like trying to fill a bucket that has a hole in the bottom of it. So we need to do more. In fact, as long as the political climate does not embrace us in our totality, we need to treat ourselves almost as if we have a chronic illness. As much as it horrifies me to write this, I believe it is true – read on.

First, I want to be absolutely clear that I am not saying we are sick – we are not sick to be who and what we are. What I am saying is, we are sickened by the policies of our culture and religions to some extent. The judgments, fears, and restrictions of civil liberties which arise from these institutions are sickening; they make us sick with chronic fear for our lives and the daily struggle to live a fair and reasonable life. It is a kind of heart-sickness, and yet our heart contains one aspect of our soul, so it is also a soul-sickness.

So many things have improved for us since Stonewall, and we have many reasons to celebrate – and celebrate we must do - for celebrating is one way out of anger, frustration, fear and depression!

Yet, as a person who lives with a chronic illness, I know that celebrating is fun and great and health-promoting and wholesome, but all the celebrating in the world will not nourish my cells, help my body heal from daily trauma, give me serenity, or help me sleep better at night. These things are all also essential for abundant wellness and a quality of life worth celebrating!

This article has focused mainly on some of the harmful emotional, psychological or mental stresses we live with as GLBTQ people, and how these can cause real physical harm and illness. However, it is also true that positive physical healing experiences can heal the psyche, emotions and spirit, and vice-versa. Just as disharmony can begin in an organ and any level of its functioning, so can healing. This is the good news!

The color green is soothing to the liver, and there are several ways we can make use of the color green to heal our stagnant and inflamed (righteously angry!) livers. One way is to eat fresh leafy greens in salads or as steamed vegetables. Another way is to go for relaxed walks amid lush greenery – Balboa Park is a perfect place – and be sure to let your arms swing! Or go visit your favorite florist. You can wear green colors that feel calming and enlivening to you, or bring some nice happy greens into your home in living plants, paint or furnishings. It is kind of like color feng shui for health.

Something else you can do to calm your liver and help it get “unstuck” is a breathing practice. The liver lies underneath the diaphragm, and when the liver energy is stuck, it can make full breathing difficult. Conversely, when we breathe fully and deeply, this helps the liver move, or become unstuck. The key is to breathe deeply, fully, and at a relaxed pace. Feel your lungs expand and release. Take your time.

In one of my more eclectic experiences in Judaism, we talked about the moment in-between breaths as a rest, a moment to realize that everything in the world is as perfect as it can be at that second, so we can relax, celebrate and give thanks. Then we breathe again and come to the next moment of completion, perfection and celebration.

Most of the time, we breathe unaware as we hurry busily through our lives, striving to make the world a more perfect and welcoming place, and we go about feeling bitter about how much there is always left to do. This is life; in-between our moments of hard work, there are little moments to celebrate our accomplishments and our companions along the journey. We can use those small moments to heal ourselves, by allowing ourselves to receive and appreciate the air. After all, we make our Qi from the air we breathe and the food we eat… but that is a topic for another column!

To your ebullient health!