Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Relaxation Response

By David TreviƱo, L.Ac.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Herbert Benson M.D., research cardiologist, professor, author, and founder of Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute. Dr. Benson coined the term Relaxation Response. It was through his work that I learned about the scientific benefits of relaxation.

According to Dr. Benson, eliciting the Relaxation Response is extremely beneficial as it counteracts the physiological effects of stress and the fight or flight response. In his book The Relaxation Response, Dr. Benson explains that regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response has been shown to be an effective treatment for a wide range of stress related disorders. The Relaxation Response in essence is the opposite response to the fight or flight response.

The "fight or flight" or stress response was originally discovered by the Harvard physiologist Dr. Walter B. Cannon (1871-1945). It occurs naturally when we perceive that we are under excessive pressure, and it is designed to protect us from bodily harm. Our sympathetic nervous system is instantly engaged in creating a number of physiological changes, including increased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, dilation of pupils, constriction of our blood vessels, and our blood becomes more viscous and ready to clot, enabling us to fight or flee.

It is not uncommon for individuals eliciting the fight or flight response to describe such physiological changes as muscle tension, headache, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, deep sighing, or shallow breathing. The fight or flight response becomes harmful when elicited frequently, as high levels of stress hormones are secreted and have been found to contribute to a host of stress related ailments such as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, and others.

Luckily, the Relaxation Response turns off the fight or flight response, returning the body and its biochemistry back to pre-stress levels. Dr. Benson describes the Relaxation Response as a physical state of deep relaxation, which engages the other part of our nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system.

Harvard researchers have found that regular elicitation of the Relaxation Response can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, and others.

In a 2004 news interview, Dr. Benson explained that when the Relaxation Response is elicited "our brain waves actually change to an alpha state, our blood pressure and metabolism goes down, and any condition made worse by stress will diminish."

There are many methods to elicit the Relaxation Response including visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, acupuncture, massage, breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, tai chi, qi gong, and yoga. True relaxation is commonly cultivated by breaking the train of everyday thought by choosing a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or by focusing on our breath.

It is important to note that the Relaxation Response is a deep state of relaxation and is not equivalent to sitting with our feet up and watching television, listening to music, or reading a book. These forms of distraction are useful, yet they do not induce alpha brain wave activity the way deep relaxation does.

One of the most valuable tools we can learn in our life is to stimulate deep relaxation. The key is making an effort to spend some time every day to learn to calm our minds and create inner peace. Learning to relax is a great skill that may enable us to be better equipped to deal with life's unexpected stressors.

According to Dr. Benson, the best time to practice the Relaxation Response is first thing in the morning for ten to twenty minutes. Practicing once or twice daily is sufficient to counteract the stress response and bring about deep relaxation and inner peace. The following is the Relaxation Response technique reprinted from Dr. Herbert Benson's book The Relaxation Response.

Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response

1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.

2. Close your eyes.

3. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.

4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word "one"* silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say "one"*, in and out, and repeat "one."* Breathe easily and naturally.

5. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.

6. Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.

When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating "one."*

7. With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.

* Choose any soothing, mellifluous sound, preferably with no meaning or association, in order to avoid stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.

Breathe easy, and feel your body relaxing.


Benson, Herbert. The Relaxation Response, New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers. 2000.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Treating Headaches with Chinese Medicine

By Joshua Herr, L.Ac.

Headaches affect many Americans. The frequency can vary from daily, weekly or monthly. The intensity varies from a mild nagging headache that interferes with normal tasks to debilitating headaches that can leave an individual bedridden. Medications can sometimes resolve a headache, but don't eliminate the root cause.

A practitioner of Oriental medicine is not only concerned with alleviating the headaches when they occur, but also understanding the root cause of the headaches. Correcting the cause of the headaches can eliminate their occurrence.

Chinese medicine understands the symptom of a headache to be one part of a myriad of symptoms that creates a pattern of disharmony that is present in the patient. Whether the headache is located in the back, top, side or front of the head all point to different clinical significance.

Identifying the headache location is a beginning step in making a differential diagnosis. After collecting further information about the headaches, like medical history, diet and lifestyle, the practitioner determines a diagnosis.

Common syndromes that lead to headaches are Liver Yang Rising, Liver and Kidney Yin Deficiency, Liver Blood Deficiency, Stomach Heat, Qi and Blood Stagnation as well as others. Diagnosing the clinical syndrome enables the practitioner to create an acupuncture and herbal medicine plan that best fits the individual.

At the 56th annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ, 2004;328:744-747) on the use of acupuncture for headaches was highlighted. The study had 401 participants with predominately migraine-type headaches, who received 12 acupuncture treatments over 3 months. At 12 months, headaches were less in the acupuncture group, patients used less medication and made fewer visits to their primary care physicians.

The above study illustrates the usefulness of acupuncture as a therapy for the clinical management of headaches. Often patients experience an immediate elimination or reduction of headaches with acupuncture therapy. The use of food diaries is another useful tool that can help to identify dietary factors that can be contributing to the occurrence of headaches. Wheat, dairy and sugar are common ingredients in an American diet that contribute to an internal imbalance that gives rise to headaches.

Herbal therapy remedies can also correct the internal imbalance that contributes to the reoccurrence of headaches, as well as treating acute episodes of headache. For mild headaches, placing White Flower Oil on the temples can resolve the pain. White Flower Oil is a Chinese medicine liniment that is great to have in the medicine cabinet. As well as treating headaches, it can also be used topically for sinus congestion, arthritic pain, sprains, strains, and bug bites. Use caution when applying White Flower near the eyes, because it can irritate them if placed too close.

If you experience mild, infrequent headaches, explore how dietary factors may be contributing to their occurrence. Try White Flower oil and/or the acupressure described in our Fall 2009 Newsletter. If the problem is more severe, Chinese medicine offers many natural therapeutic resources for you to consider.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Cupping Therapy

By Ann Wolman, L.Ac.

Many patients have experienced cupping as part of their treatment at the Chinese Acupuncture Clinic and have expressed curiosity regarding its origins and uses. Cupping has been widely used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. In ancient times, it was known as "horn cupping" and/or "bamboo jar therapy." Now cups are almost exclusively made of glass.

Early treatments focused on swellings and purulent swellings; however, over the years, cupping therapy has been expanded to treat a wide variety of complaints including arthritis, muscle tightness, sports injuries, sciatica, the common cold, post-stroke hemiplegia, abdominal and epigastric pain, menstrual cramps, intestinal spasm and even obesity. The use of cupping therapy has spread around the world and is now commonly seen in places as diverse as Cyprus, the Philippines and Turkey.

Cupping is done by creating a vacuum in a cup or jar, usually by means of heat, and applying the cup to the skin to draw up the underlying tissue. The amount of suction can be relatively great or mild depending upon the condition being treated. Usually a cotton ball is held in a pair of hemostats and dipped in alcohol. The cotton is ignited and inserted into the mouth of the cup while it is burning. The cotton ball is withdrawn quickly, and a vacuum is created as the cup is placed firmly against the skin at the desired location.

Cups can be moved (put an oil or liniment on the skin before applying) or left stationary over a particular area, for example, over the lungs to help decongest and ease breathing. Cupping can be combined with the application of liniments and with acupuncture. To remove cups, simply press against the skin at the base of the cup to break the "seal."

There are a few cautionary measures to keep in mind while using cups. Cupping should not be applied where skin is not smooth, or where there is a lot of hair, as it may be difficult to maintain suction under cups. Cupping should also not be applied over any abrasions or cuts. Smaller cups are often used around joints because they have rounded or angular surfaces. Too many cups placed closely together may pull surrounding tissue and cause pain. Cups should not be moved over bony prominences like the spine. Cups should not be left on for long periods of time (more than 15 minutes) to avoid blistering. Cupping should be avoided in areas where it would not be appropriate to have mild discoloration of the skin, like the face. Do not try to pry cups off from the top when removing them.

Cups can create bruising depending on the strength of the cupping process. This is normal and will resolve like any other bruise, disappearing without special treatment. Be careful not to apply a second group of cups until the skin has returned to its normal color.

Cupping has several advantages. It is safe, as long as it is properly administered, simple to perform, cost-effective and can be done at home as part of a self-care program. Cupping feels good, because it warms the area, releases heat and stagnation and relaxes muscles. I have one 5-year-old patient who regularly requests that "we do that cupping thing" on his back. Cups can be inexpensively purchased at the clinic, and your practitioner will happily go over an individualized treatment plan that can include cupping at home. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask.