Ears, Decisions, Humidity & the Gallbladder


In Traditional Chinese Medicine different organ channels are vulnerable to different pathologies. For example, the lungs are susceptible to dryness. We must keep them lubricated by drinking enough water, also through healthy water metabolism affected by the oxygen exchange that takes place during exercise or meditation. The spleen (metabolism) is vulnerable to dampness and cold, which is why we discourage excessive consumption of raw foods and/or recommend sipping ginger tea to counteract its effects (the way Japanese pair ginger slices with sushi). The gallbladder is the only organ channel the ancient medical texts label a “curious organ,” for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being its vulnerability to dampness and heat.

Almost every clinician I know can speak to particular patterns and/or synchronicities with what comes into their door, both literally and figuratively. One week it seems like everyone has right shoulder pain. On another day everyone is asking for herbs to aid with digestion. There are a number of ways to look at this. It very well might be the universe leading us to our calling, guiding us what to learn more about and how to specialize. Another more practical and scientific explanation would be the season we are in. Summer is bound to bring more heat symptoms of inflammation and hyperactivity, while winter more cold symptoms as a result of vasoconstriction or lack of perspiration.

This past month I had two new patients come in with otolaryngology complaints. I also spoke to my sister in Arizona and learned we had both gone to the walk-in clinic in a span of the same week to get wax flushed out of our ear canals that apparently couldn’t handle the job on their own. Coincidence? Obviously not. Besides the genetics we share in common, we are in the midst of a heat wave, the most humid time of year, which will logically exacerbate internally humid climates.

Without getting too graphic, the nature of earwax is not dissimilar to yellow phlegm or arteriosclerosis. Systemic fluid retention over time gets progressively stickier and can attach anywhere. Western medicine tells us (my family) that the reason we occasionally have to get our ears flushed is because we have “narrow ear canals.” But narrow ear canals wouldn’t account for why it occurs at such sporadic intervals and most often during the summer months. Also, if women can squeeze a baby through the birth canal I should think even the narrowest of ear canals could handle metabolizing some wax. I suspect it’s our genetic predisposition to “damp heat.”

Damp heat can show up differently for everyone, depending on our physiological tendencies. Some women will experience hot flashes. Other people will get headaches or just feel lethargic, and either diarrhea or constipation is possible, depending on your diet and constitution. Emotionally, we can see anxiety or temper tantrums, which might partially explain the recent rash of violence around the city.

In Chinese Medicine the gallbladder corresponds with courage, anger and decision-making, and its meridian travels up the side of the leg, through the buttocks and rib cage, then encircles none other than the ear. Can’t make this shit up. Around the same time as my earwax crisis, I began also dealing with some low back pain, a sacroiliac misalignment that was causing pain in my right buttocks. Anything curious going on with my gallbladder at the time?

Well, this all happened to coincide with the first week of me and my wife’s new apartment hunt, finally making the decision to move to Jersey City, and me trying to find the courage to shed my inflexible self-definition of being a New Yorker, to moving five times further away from my brother and best friend, and having to get… wait… deep breath… a New Jersey state license. Oh my God!

I kid… but not really. The entire process, from searching to packing, to planning and moving, is obviously cumbersome. Add to that whatever anxiety I’m wielding around a big change and difference in self-labels, and no wonder my gallbladder (ears) was left vulnerable to this oppressive heat wave.

There is a legend of an old Chinese Medicine doctor who no matter what the patient’s chief complaint or physiological pattern always included one point on the side of the ankle called “Hill Ruins,” or Gallbladder 40. Supposedly he believed that in addition to creating the necessary circulation with the rest of the needles, if he could boost everyone’s courage to make their best life decisions they will have a better life and subsequently better health.

To avoid damp heat pathologies it is important to monitor anger and be brave in our choices. Confer with friends, LISTEN, and be honest with yourself. What stories are just products of your neuroses, like “I’m no longer a New Yorker,” and what stories are real considerations? Of course when such self-awareness is temporarily inaccessible it’s nice to also possess some medical tools to relieve discomfort.

Water with lemon, burdock tea and watermelon are great for this time of year. Nothing acts as a better diuretic than bitter food and drinks, so green tea and bitter, bitter, bitter green vegetables are a must for draining pathogenic fluids. If you dislike bitter, then… well, get over it. Sorry! Add garlic, salt, add onions or whatever you need to, but please develop a palette for the brilliant benefits of bitters: Kale, collard greens, broccoli rabe and mustard greens, ideally all cooked.

Finally, sweat. Exercise! I know the humidity sucks and when it gets up into the 90 degrees it’s important to stay safe, but if you live in a humid climate then nature is requesting you to sweat. Sweating is an activation of the immune system, which if neglected and repressed by a sedentary existence under the air conditioner, actually weakens our immune response, long-term. Why? Fluids that should naturally be perspiring then sink deeper into the tissues, coagulating into arthritic binds that form in either the gastrointestinal or respiratory microbiomes, both of which are most implicated in CoVid-19. If physical limitations prevent you from exercising look to hot baths, foot soaks and gentle physical therapy to begin undoing said limitations. No need to over-do it, but we should all be exercising several times a week… and learn to love bitters!

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