(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) This spring I’ve been having conversations just about every day with patients, friends and family about the COVID vaccines. Whether to get one, safety concerns, which one is better, even which arm to get the shot in. My studies of biochemistry and immunology only went so far, and I’m not qualified to offer specific advice on the subject, I tell people again and again. However, I do have some observations that may be helpful based on the way I see everyone grasping for answers.
Personally, I put a lot of thought into getting one of the COVID vaccines (which I did back in February). After all, they are brand-new, super-expedited, and let’s be honest, still quasi-experimental. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have felt compelled to get the jab until it had undergone a bit more testing.
Trying to keep an open mind, I read the entire tomb of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver over the winter.
(By Paolo Propato, LAC) The past is the earth from which the future grows.
My own experience of the past year began with our acupuncture clinic closing, and suddenly spending time at home with an uncertain future. The first week was driven by fear, with the neighbors leaving bags of groceries outside their houses to decontaminate. We were constantly on the phone with family and friends in Iran and Italy to get updates, knowing we were only a week or two behind.
After a few weeks into lockdown, almost every neighbor was jogging or walking outside, and we all spoke from the other side of the street. The news reports gripped us with anxiety, but we would also laugh as we pulled weeds from the flower beds behind our townhome community.
I learned to substitute holding hands with only a look from a distance, and grieved with those that had lost loved ones or had been overwhelmed by fear of the unknown.
Paolo Propato, L.Ac. and Grace Rollins, L.Ac., licensed acupuncturists at Bridge Acupuncture in Doylestown, PA, sit down to discuss the energetics of acupuncture and what it is like to work and train in their field of medicine.
Paolo: Acupuncture is said to be a medicine that harmonizes “Qi” (“Chi” or “Ki”). Can you describe Qi from your experience as a practitioner?
Grace: Many people think of Qi as “energy,” but I think that’s too materialistic of a translation. It’s interesting that one of the many direct translations of the character for “Qi” is "weather," if you add the symbol for “heaven” just before it. In other words, the Qi of the heavens is weather. So to me, Qi is basically a very useful term that sums up certain complex processes that together, create recognizable phenomena in the body. If you try to think of Qi as some kind of literal substance or force you’re just going to frustrate people interested in an anatomical corollary, because you won’t find a measurable “energy” that corresponds to what people who practice Asian medicine and martial arts are talking about.
So how would you describe weather? It’s electromagnetic and gravitational relationships between elements and molecules; it's also the interaction of all those molecules with a wide spectrum of solar and celestial radiation, as well as with the gravitational and electromagnetic fields of the earth and moon. On top of that it’s the outcome of complex pressure systems, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, so many chaotic processes, all overlapping and influencing each other. And even with all this complexity, we can study it, characterize it, make tenuous predictions about it.
“Qi” for acupuncturists is like “weather” as it relates to the body. And the same way that we recognize many patterns and phenomena in weather, we learn how to recognize patterns in Qi as acupuncturists, which aids us in influencing the functions of the body to promote health.
P: What do acupuncture methods actually do?
(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) Around the New Year is when many of our patients start to talk about “detoxing” in order to get their health back on track. It seems like a natural inclination, especially if the holidays encouraged a freer intake of sugars, pastries and alcohol. However, as a practitioner I feel the use of expensive kits, concoctions and "crash cleanses" are a bit overrated.
First of all, what does "detoxing" actually mean? By using its famous enzymes to catalyze changes in other molecules, the liver breaks apart or transforms chemicals, hormones and metabolic byproducts into a form that can be excreted via the GI tract or kidneys. This is why you are wide awake when you first have that cup of coffee, but a few hours later it "wears off"-- the caffeine molecules have been gradually disassembled by your liver and eliminated.
Our daily exposure to high levels of chemicals is a rather recent phenomenon in history. Just think about the following sources our pre-20th century ancestors were never exposed to:
From Patient to Practitioner, and small lessons along the way
(By Paolo Propato, LAc) Having suffered from life-long sinus issues, I found myself at age 24 sitting in a dark room in Florence, Italy as a heavy set man with a big mustache burned moxa cones. The room filled with the strange smell of mugwort smoke. My thought was, “I am paying this guy to help with my sinuses and he is making smoke.” After the session he was smiling and said, “I can help you. It may take some time and you have to do some dietary changes but I can help you.” I still don’t know why I made another appointment, but in the end it saved me from my doctor's push for surgery.
Fast forward to a few years later in Bucks County, when I found myself calling every acupuncturist in the tri-state area asking if I could hang out in their office. As fate would have it the only one kind enough to invite me in was close to home. Grace let me observe and eventually took me on as her assistant as I began to attend three years of grad school in northern New Jersey for acupuncture.
The nights studying, long car rides to school, odd jobs for extra cash-- although tiring and stressful, there was never a moment I thought of stopping. All I wanted was to go deeper into this medicine. The more I stood by Grace's side and watched patients heal, the more I was fueled to keep going. The smell of moxa, so strange years ago, had infused into my cells.
Healing and becoming a healer, with acupuncture
(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) My studious habits as a kid landed me in an elite boarding school and later on an Ivy League college. In this academic utopia I adopted the habits of overachievers, both healthy and unhealthy. I learned how to put in very long hours to accomplish goals; but at the same time, how to entirely disregard natural circadian rhythms (pulling "all nighters", operating on very little sleep, and eating at highly irregular times). I learned how to make exercise a frequent part of my routine, but also how to "train through pain" and use stimulants like coffee and junk food to keep going.
My lessons in the Type A lifestyle continued when I graduated and began to work long hours in the nonprofit sector, where our work "was never done." The pattern was to fuel ourselves with coffee, pastries and anxiety, work ourselves silly, and then go out for lots of beers at the end of the week to decompress. It's the kind of routine that gradually chips away at your vitality.
I wasn't even half-way through my twenties when I started to feel the way a lot of middle-aged white-collar workers feel: sluggish, unfocused, often sleepy during the day; always in need of stimulants like coffee and sugar; suffering aches and pains from inflammation, poor posture and repetitive strain. I had acne that seemed to be getting worse with age, not better. I was even on three drugs: two different long-term antibiotics a dermatologist had prescribed me, plus birth control pills. So now I was getting side effects like yeast infections, dry eyes and light sensitivity. I didn't have the knowledge in those days to pursue other options.
I'm pretty sure if I hadn't found a good acupuncturist I would have ended up on more drugs to try to alleviate all these nagging symptoms (or to take care of side effects). A co-worker told me she had seen a local Japanese-style acupuncturist to help with her menstrual cycle-- within a few sessions she had gotten her period back after a several month hiatus. That seemed pretty irrefutable so I decided to give it a try.
(By Paolo Propato, LAc) The other morning Issa was lost in thought, looking out the window while we sat at the breakfast table. I was drizzling honey on a sliced pear when he turned to me and asked, “Dad, I have a question.” That is typically how every conversation starts with him.
“What is wood made out of?”
“Trees,” I replied.
“Then what are trees made out of?”
I felt I knew where he was going so I smiled and said, “Wood.”
“WHAT?! That makes no sense. How can wood make a tree and the tree make wood?!”
(By Paolo Propato, LAc) Uncertainty has been the global theme of 2020. The virus, the economy, the election, the school year, the climate… they have affected all of us. Typically with an intro like that, an article about a meditation technique or the benefits of acupuncture on stress should follow. Most of you know by now that acupuncture is beneficial for stress and our community meditation classes still exist online. So, instead I’d like to write about what you teach me everyday.
Patients come into our clinic worried about their jobs, kids, and the issues mentioned above. No matter what preoccupies them, they all keep moving forward, finding ways to make it work. Whether they have autoimmune disease, sciatica, depression, anxiety, you name it, they all find ways to keep moving ahead. Despite what is going on physically or mentally, they make an effort to be grounded and more balanced. Many become innovators and begin to change their lives, doing things they never thought they could do with their diets, bodies and minds. Some of these changes are very small and some drastic but all are done in the spirit of adaptability-- responding to what life is asking of them at this point. These patients remind me of a story my wife once told me.
One night we were speaking about our son going back to school, and she paused mid-sentence as her eyes filled with tears. I sat watching in silence giving her space to process whatever was coming to her mind. “Growing up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, there was a period that was really bad. We had run into a shelter during school when we heard the sound of planes bombing from above. We waited in long lines for milk and basic necessities."
(By Grace Rollins, MS, LAc) You may think that as an acupuncturist my most important duty is to “put pins in people,” as many of my patients like to phrase it. This is true to a degree, but I don’t always use needles to treat people, and when I do there’s something even more basic and arguably more important that I do for each patient that comes in. It sounds simple, but is easier said than done: It’s to get every patient to lay flat, quiet, and still.
Hyper-vigilance is common among many of my patients as a consequence of trauma, or a function of our modern over-busy, over-stimulated, over-stressed way of life. It manifests as nervousness, anxiety, muscle tension and guarding, digestive issues, over-sensitivity to pain, sleep disorders, blood pressure issues, hormonal imbalances, cognitive and behavioral disorders, immune imbalances, and even inflammation and poor injury healing. It’s the kind of root cause that most medical doctors are helpless to address, yet relates to so many of our society’s chronic health issues.
Over the years I've observed many different patterns of vigilance in my patients. There are those who, when asked to lay down, stay upright on the table while trying to talk or explain things to me, and need to be told another time or two to lay down so I can start examining. There are those who, upon laying down, seem uncomfortable with stillness, talking a lot (often with the hands), asking a lot of questions, keeping the eyes open and watchful, and tensing up the body.
Hyper-vigilant patients often take shallow breaths at a fast pace, and they tend to be more intolerant of needle sensation. I consider some nervousness to be normal if experiencing acupuncture for the very first time, but I see guarding sometimes in patients I've known for years and whom I know to look forward to their appointments. It’s a clear sign to me that their nervous system is in an over-stressed, over-protective state.
More of a problem in recent years, I also get patients who delay in putting their phones away or even must have one at their side. I can sympathize with the occasional pending emergency or urgent matter, but for some folks this is a constant need. Being unable to tolerate an hour of isolation is a form of extreme vigilance.
From fight-or-flight to rest, assimilate and heal
How easily a patient can lay flat, tolerate stillness and endure disconnection from their phone can tell me a lot about the state of their autonomic nervous system (ANS), the branch of our nervous system that controls many of our autonomic functions such as heart rate, digestion and blood pressure. When the autonomics are more sympathetic branch-dominant, the patient is revved up, in fight-or-flight mode. In a sympathetic dominant-state it's hard to sleep, digest properly and repair the body. Blood circulation is impeded, muscles get tight (especially in the neck and back) and the mind tends to feel anxious.
(By Paolo Propato, LAc) Take a moment to read this piece by piece. Sit with what is said for a few seconds or minutes before moving on.
Close your eyes, breathe and go inward. Your mind will keep talking. Let it. Just don’t participate.
Please take a few moments to do so... I’ll wait.
You may have noticed your thoughts. You are able to watch the thoughts as a separate entity. See if this is true. Do not interact with these thoughts... just watch them.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.