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Herbal Medicine

The Importance of Bland, Sour, & Bitter Foods


There are three flavors that are resoundingly unrepresented in the typical, daily, western diet, whose void is arguably part of the cause of our leading all first world nations in major disease. Sour foods, bitter, and bland foods all induce important healing mechanisms in the body that can only be fully understood through Chinese herbal medicine.

Sour foods have an astringent effect, which makes it very curious why so many Americans drink lemon water or tea when they have a cold or virus, which we want to do anything but astringe. From our perspective foods like lemon, pickles, (apple cider) vinegar, and sauerkraut might be great for improving immune function to prevent contracting colds, but once we are sick, acrid foods such as cinnamon, ginger, and garlic are more advisable.

Sour foods help to conserve (by astringing) the body’s cellular energy and healthy fluids. If we are completely burnt out, or experiencing symptoms such as muscle cramps, or getting a second wind late at night that prevents a healthy bedtime, these might all be requests from our body for more astringing of resources. Personally, I enjoy lemon water, or sprinkling it on kale, broccoli, and/or asparagus. Tomatoes are great this time of year and sauerkraut is especially balancing with spicy foods. Since the spice will naturally bring fluids up and out, we can use the kraut to counteract this effect and keep nutrients inside. Of course, sauerkraut is generally taken raw, so it is important to eat in conjunction with cooked foods or hot tea to fully digest.

The bitter flavor must be hands down the most unpopular in America, and the reason I figure it to be healthy is because my 2-year-old hates it more than anything—while obviously preferring sweet to anything. In Chinese medicine the bitter flavor clears heat (or inflammation) from the body, which is especially important for the next two months of the year. Scutellariae root clears heat from the lungs, Coptis root from the microbiome, and phellodendron from the urogenital microbiome.

These make up the “three yellows,” and if I’ve ever put them in your herbal formula you’ve likely complained to me the following week. Instead, regular consumption of unsweetened green and/or dandelion tea, most leafy greens, and cabbage can help to mature your palette all while reducing the kind of systemic inflammation that tends to rise eventually into the chest or central nervous system later in life. If you must have sweets after dinner, do so with either hot dandelion or barley tea to counter their effect.

The bland flavor is the toughest for me, because like most people with “damp heat” internal body types, I love spices and flavors, and especially love cooking vegetables in a way that is delicious and not so boring. But while there is a time and place for culinary creativity and indulgence, plain steamed vegetables were a staple in the diets of most human beings for centuries prior, which happened to be centuries of much fewer diseases. Sure, people weren’t living as long, but chronic illness in 40-year-olds was much rarer than it is today.

Poria mushroom is one of our most commonly used bland herbs for draining dampness from the gastrointestinal and urogenital microbiomes. Its bland flavor helps to modulate urinary function and reduce pathogenic fluid retention, and by doing so it has the additionally desirable side effect of calming our minds and spirit. How does this work? By reducing the proverbial internal traffic jams of unwanted fluids, our healthy fluids can then more easily circulate up to and from the central nervous system without diversion or congestion. If spicy foods ramp us up, it should be pretty deductive that bland will calm us, and who couldn’t use more calm?

One idea to incorporate this all into a meal is steamed or boiled broccoli (dress with olive oil if you like), sauteed leafy greens with garlic, salt, and pepper, any tofu or animal protein prepared to taste, and a glass of lemon water, and/or sauerkraut on the side; followed by a hot cup of dandelion or barley tea, with honey if you must.

Arthritis: What is the Cause & Cure?

I can’t tell you how many times patients have either inquired to me about a cure for arthritis or informed me that there is no cure, that the cause is objectively unknown, and of course I must laugh to myself at the obtusity of the latter in the context of our dynamic.

First I want to reiterate, I am not one of those (alternative) medicine clinicians who believes biomedicine has no place, nor that my own paradigm of medicine can cure all. If someone has a brain tumor or stage 3 liver cancer they need a biomedical doctor—not me (though they’re best advised to utilize someone like me for complementary support).

I am, on the other hand, absolutely one of those alternative medicine clinicians who believes that biomedicine’s understanding of the human body is limited to structural and literal objectivities, wholly in neglect of its intangible dynamics of physiological substances. This is what Chinese Medicine is almost entirely predicated on, and more relevant to arthritis.

Synovial fluid surrounds our joints. Healthy body fluids surround everything, in perfect illustration of our microcosmic embodiment of the world we exist in. When fluid circulation is impaired it coagulates, like a traffic jam in the body, and equally frustrating to our global agendas. First fluids stick and accumulate, then to the point that they obstruct the thinner, healthy fluids from doing their job of lubricating the joint, creating the ironic illusion of dryness. We hear cracking and feel dry, and label arthritis as a “dry condition,” when in fact it is the opposite. Stress and fatigue, along with sugar, alcohol, dairy, gluten, raw/cold foods and drinks, all induce fluid accumulation, so is it any wonder how arthritis is rampant in the modern world?

Arthritis is very personal to me, as it was the first condition I attempted and failed at treating in my father, as an acupuncture student many years ago. Dad was a great dad, but his diet was poor, stress was high, and he drank daily for a very long time; not to mention that he had a son and student as his practitioner. I think we peaked at temporary relief of symptoms each week.

Conversely, I take great pride in my own management of the gout disease that I inherited from Dad. I was diagnosed with the men of our family’s condition at the premature age of 25, and after suffering several painful attacks many doctors told me that I should live on Allopurinol, or whatsoever was the drug being presently recommended. Instead, I went on to learn Chinese Medicine. I all but completely abstained from refined sugar (exceptions for holidays, birthdays, and Paris) and obviously follow a very Eastern diet. My stress and fatigue inevitably wax and wane, as goes life. I know gout is something I’ll always have to be mindful of, but the fact that I’m now 45 and have never lived on medications or with annual attacks is a feather in my cap.

Without dietary modifications arthritis cannot be cured, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean one has to be completely abstinent from all of the aforementioned usual suspects. Just that the diet should be highly impressive 90% of the time.

Without internal herbal medicine arthritis cannot be cured, in my opinion. Acupuncture is fantastic, but it is rarely powerful enough to break down fluid accumulations or deposits, or adequately restore metabolic function the way herbs can. As always, with herbs there is no one size fits all prescription, no “herbal allopurinol,” nor even one prescription that one would take throughout a course of treatment. As the body changes, the formula changes and adapts to the patient’s evolving presentation.

While organ function is being restored through internal medicine, acupuncture can be invaluable to pain relief and improving local circulation. Committed patients must come for regular treatments for 3-6 months and modify their diets. In the first month acupuncture and moxibustion should be used twice a week. In subsequent months, once a week, and eventually every other week is fine so long as we are consistent and accurate with herbal formulas.


There is my best explanation for the causes and cure for arthritis.


Mercury Retrograde: The Covid Edition


But isn’t it just like Mercury Retrograde to bring with it a wave of coronavirus to add to its usual technology issues, transportation delays, and miscommunications? I am no astrology expert, though it is a science that I enjoy and observe accuracy in, and question when it is mindlessly dismissed, since the absence of belief obviously requires just as much blind faith as belief.

As we presently reside in what is arguably 2023’s first Covid wave, we’ve concurrently embarked upon the “pre-shadow” of Mercury’s retrograde. This means the planet has just begun to circulate in its reverse direction, which can impact Earth and its inhabitants in the aforementioned ways. This will last until mid-September, and recommendations are as follows:

  • Plan for delays, not just logistically, but emotionally. Trains will be even worse and slower than usual, and you will be late for appointments. Life will go on. Try to breathe and/or text-vent to a loved one to keep your cool. It’s not fair, but it always happens—especially on the MTA or New Jersey Transit.
  • Plan for technology problems: Lack of service on your phone, web sites not loading, calls dropping, documents getting accidentally erased, etc. This can be infuriating, but is generally not as bad if we expect and accept it as a matter-of-fact byproduct of the temporary cosmic energy we find ourselves in.
  • Plan for communication problems. Someone you love will probably say something triggering in the next 6 weeks, and/or you will erroneously hear or misunderstand them. Clarify before you react, try to take a deep breath, remember when we are, and either respond calmly or pick up the dialogue in October (if you can wait that long).
  • Be careful. This must be the new dad in me talking, but be sure to look both ways when crossing the street, drive a bit more carefully, and take care around glasses and hot surfaces. Personally, I find myself to be way clumsier during these times, once having knocked down an entire shelf of wine glasses in a restaurant I was working at in Beverly Hills. Not my finest moment.
  • Finally, now more than ever, take care of yourself. I also find myself more prone to illness and injury during Mercury retrogrades, and as this one has bestowed upon us what is arguably the year’s first coronavirus, it is that much more important. Eat warm breakfasts, warm everything, steamed vegetables, hydrate, exercise in moderation, and go to sleep between 10-11pm. Stress management indicated as always.

The first stage of Covid is generally treated with an individualized version of the formula: “Huo Xiang Zheng Qi San,” which interestingly targets fluid retention in the gastrointestinal microbiome. This is generally advisable only on the very first day. Once the virus is in the throat or chest we’re almost invariably looking at one of the most famous formulas in all of Chinese Medicine, “Xiao Chai Hu Tang,” still modified to the unique patient, but with the intention of opening the chest and lungs, downbearing qi, and reducing heat and/or fever symptoms. Past this stage things become more interesting. Per usual, there is no one size fits all formula, but instead many ways we can prescribe based on constantly evolving symptoms and tongue appearance. Time is of the essence with this crafty, clever virus, so if you should contract it please contact me as soon as possible for a virtual consultation. Spare no expense. You don’t want long Covid.

I am not an “anti-vaxxer,” but based on my clinical observations in the past few years I can understand why some people would be wary of certain vaccines. I cannot, however, fathom why we cannot as a society adopt masks as a standard practice during waves in crowded spaces. While most people do fine with Covid, it is a gross over-simplification to say: “it’s just like the flu.” The flu almost never had summertime waves (Covid has had one every year), and almost never caused so many long-term neurological and cardiovascular diseases. I agree that we cannot live in fear—nor should we live in denial.

For the next month try to not snap at the pedestrians or cars that cut you off in public. Try and accept that that web site just won’t load when you want it to, that you’re going to be late, and things just will not get done according to schedule. Mercury’s retrograde might be viewed as Buddha’s messenger, to teach us unattachment, acceptance, and patience, in the face of a lifetime of the opposite conditionings. I’m speaking here to myself as much as anyone else.

Counteract Summer Heat With Chinese Herbal Teas


In spite of thus far boasting minimal over-heated days that inspire associations of barbecues and the beach, Summer is upon us

At home we joined our community pool, which is supposedly very popular and only a short walk from our home, but are yet to throw the baby in, as the only days that temperature might have permitted have been of coinciding rainstorms. The humidity just recently arrived, which for me is a bit of an ironic breath of fresh air, as a New York (New Jersey) summer sans the dense filth of 90-degree oppression on train platforms would resonate as just another bittersweet symptom of global warming.

Chinese Medicine appropriately labels this as “damp heat,” a very serious pathogen that genetically applies to yours truly and is nothing to be snoozed at. When dampness, or pathogenic body fluids mix with inflammatory heat they form an often impenetrable pathogen the Chinese label as “phlegm,” and “the cause of 1000 diseases.”

“Phlegm” in our medicine refers to not only that of the lungs and sinuses, but also the plaques that create arteriosclerosis, polyps, Alzheimer’s Disease, fatty liver, and I suppose about 1000 more illnesses. If someone is genetically susceptible to heat, left untreated their own dampness will inevitably transform into “damp heat” and become that much more difficult to resolve. Think many cases of autoimmune disease, cancers, and diagnoses of similar gravities.

Typically, the American trademarks of summer are in direct opposition to Eastern Medicine’s advice for mitigating the side effects of the external damp heat. Red meat and barbecue are sources of damp heat, as is alcohol—especially beer—spicy foods, or shellfish. As one of a family of many gout sufferers I must pick my spot wisely to indulge in one of my favorite summertime meals, oysters and some snobby, local IPA. At the least I always attempt to resolve such indulgences’ side effects on their backends.

More cooling foods and drinks that should be ingested liberally include watermelon, cucumber, celery (or celery juice), lemon, radishes, and of course chamomile or mint teas. Other recommended food grade medicinal teas are ju hua (chrsyanthemum flower) and yi yi ren (job’s tears/pearl barley), both of which should be available at any Asian market.

While the former is great for clearing heat in the upper portion of the body—think possibly headaches, summer dizziness, styes, and any issues of redness around the eyes—the latter is directed more to the intestines and urogenital microbiome. This time of year people are more prone to hyperhidrosis below the belt, swelling of the limbs, UTI’s, hemorrhoids, or stickier stools. If you wish to live in accord with the season and do better than low-quality store-bought herbal teas, I recommend getting these ingredients for tea at home.

30 grams of job’s tears + 10 grams chrysanthemum + 8 cups of water.

Boil and simmer for 40 minutes, drain out the herbs, and drink the slightly bitter, earthy tea. If you cannot measure grams and/or want to make a full pitcher for the week it’s fine to eyeball the measurements, simply aiming for a 3:1 ratio of job’s tears to chrysanthemum. In Chinese Medicine the bitter flavor is indispensable at clearing heat from the body, and recommended that westerners acclimate our palettes to it.

Finally, each season brings its own recommendations around our circadian rhythms. Summer corresponds with the fire element, which corresponds with the heart organ. The hours assigned to the heart are 11am-1pm, which for the next few months makes this an optimum time for 15-30 minutes of rest and relaxation. I realize most people, myself included, are usually quite busy at this time, but whenever possible it is ideal for heart health to take a pause, to close our eyes, lie down for a short meditation, and/or book your acupuncture visits accordingly (this from one of my most respected teachers, Dr. Henry McCann).

Please don’t get me wrong. The experience summer barbeques with friends is, in my opinion, one of life’s finest treasures, and should never fall by the wayside. However, it is advisable to eat mindfully the remaining 90% of our time, and appropriately to always counterbalance our indulgences on the day after.

The Physiology of Wildfire Smoke (in NYC)


While the sepia tones and brush aromas from this week’s Canadian wildfires’ spillover to the northeast might have looked great in a photograph, or smelled enticing in 1% of its dosage (if seated by a campfire with marshmallows), on the ground in real life it was daunting, and for many systemically disruptive. Personally, I was outdoors plenty, both on my commute and on my break at Union Square farmer’s market, albeit with a mask on, and thankfully did not experience symptoms.

Chinese Medicine nicknamed the lungs “the delicate organ,” which really they are not—in fact quite the opposite—however what is meant by this is their being most and primarily vulnerable to external pathogens. Toxic fumes are an external pathogen. They dry the sinuses and respiratory microbiome, which can bring with it symptoms such as chest oppression, frontal (or maybe temporal) headaches, and of course, dryness. Or as my wife and I learned, if you are a 2-year-old trapped indoors as a result, rabid, recurring cases of cabin fever.

The formula everyone needed at least one day of at home this week was “Xiao Chai Hu Tang,” or “Minor Buplureum (root) Decoction.” It includes buplureum root to clear heat from the upper body by increasing circulation downwards; pinellia root to dissolve accumulation in the chest and sinuses; scutellaria root to clear heat specifically from the lungs; ginseng to generate healthy fluids in the stomach to protect it from the bitter nature of the other herbs; ginger to warm the stomach for a similar reason; and finally licorice and red dates to generate healthy fluids in the stomach, chest, and central nervous system.

It’s no wonder this is one of the most commonly prescribed herbal formulas in Chinese Medicine. Nevertheless, it should almost always be modified according to the individual; especially those with low energy, low appetites, and/or aversions to cold weather. Typically, these were the body types I saw most impacted by the air pollution this week. Frontal headaches, dryness in the throat, and chest oppression, as a result of the external toxicity exacerbating their pre-existing internal toxicities as a result of metabolic dysharmony. Not to worry, as my father always said. There’s hope.

If any symptoms are lingering and you are not presently coming for acupuncture or taking herbs I would recommend any or all of the following:

  • Hot mint tea, maybe with honey, to open the chest, cool, and lubricate the sinuses
  • Asian pears, or fresh pear juice, also to lubricate the lungs and sinuses.
  • Rice congee with chopped up pears, red dates, some honey and cinnamon—YUM—to generate healthy fluids in the respiratory and gastrointestinal microbiomes.
  • Gentle exercise, such as qi gong, yoga, or deep breathing. NOT… outdoor running, for the love of God.
  • If nothing else, just stay hydrated, preferably with room temperature or hot water. Cold drinks constrict blood vessels, which obviously then traps local inflammation.

These are great treatments to treat only the branch of the problem, as its root cause is of course Republicans.

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