June 6, 2012
Almost every time I see a new patient, within minutes of the acupuncture treatment starting, their digestive system starts to rumble. I’ve been observing this reliably for 12 years now. What does this reveal about acupuncture, my typical patient and the way I practice? The answer lies within a mix of understanding Yin and Yang, modern stress physiology and the Japanese acupuncture I practice.
Let’s start with Yin and Yang.
One reason it’s best to leave terms like ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ just as they are, is that there is no perfect English translation. Polar pairs like feminine/masculine, dark/light, night/day, aggressive/passive convey gross simplifications of Yin and Yang. Any attempt to translate ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ results in something smaller than the full embrace of the Yin and Yang concept. Yin and Yang are not just polar opposites. They are richly complementary and interpenetrating dynamics of an inextricably entwined whole.
Having said that, I do have to say that, over the years, my favourite medically relevant correspondence with Yin and Yang is found in the nature of our Autonomic Nervous System and it’s two complementary and inter-dependent Sympathetic and Parasympathetic components.
The Sympathetic half of your nervous system enervates all the aspects of your body and mind required for what we call the ‘fight or flight’ response – everything you need to engage with a threat or stress – standing your ground and fighting or running like hell! Muscles tense, heartbeat speeds up, breathing quickens, blood moves to areas that need it and all physiologic attention is drawn away as much as possible from any restorative functions. (This is overly simplistic – there is a lot more to the Sympathetic system than that, but it’s sufficient for this discussion)
The Parasympathetic half of your nervous system enervates all the aspects of your body and mind required for restorative functions – digestion, sleep, deep breathing, relaxation.
Stress certainly is getting a ‘bad rap’ these days. I don’t want this to be misconstrued as yet another blog against stress. There is good stress that we all, in fact need, to live, to thrive and to strive. And there is, in some corners of the ‘alternative health’ scene, way too much emphasis on peace, calm, tranquility and the avoidance of stress. But certainly, our relationship to stress has gone way off the rails. That has a lot to do with what we get stressed about, how we respond to stress and the intensity and distribution of stress in our lives. Many of us are, consequently, in states of ‘Sympathetic overdrive’ – perpetual unrelenting low-level engagement with a switched-on Sympathetic system without sufficient complementary time engaged with the Parasympathetic domain of life. Our internal wiring is more or less permanently and pathologically locked into the ‘fight or flight’ position.
Most patients who come to see me for acupuncture are locked in this pathological state of Sympathetic Overdrive. This is evidenced by, among other things, hyper-tense muscles on the side (SCM) and back (Upper Traps) of the neck. In combination with the dietary disaster that is our current relationship to food (sugar and overly processed ingredients with little nutritional value), this scenario is the deranged ground on which so many modern-day chronic health problems develop.
The Japanese Acupuncture Masters I have studied with and in whose lineages I practice have argued for many years that the acupuncture they have developed, at the level of physiology, is very effective at resetting the Nervous system – from a chronic dysfunctional state of Sympathetic dominance and Parasympathetic hypo-function back to the well balanced Sympathetic Parasympathetic tango required for us to thrive. You might consider a good round of the Japanese Acupuncture I practice to be a Ctrl-Alt-Del routine for the Nervous System.
And the objective evidence that presents itself in my clinic many times a day attests to this. This brings us back to the digestive rumblings I started this blog with. Aside from all of the palpable responses I can observe within minutes of a treatment beginning (all evidence of a relaxing Sympathetic system), what almost always happens once an acupuncture treatment is in place, is this onset of a loud round of digestive noise. Your doctor calls this Borborygmus. This is, in fact, the very real expression of a body being Sympathetically down-regulated and Parasympathetically engaged.
I have come to appreciate that this signals just the very beginning of a process of healing. What I routinely hear from most of my patients is that the biggest impact of the treatment, the most profound response (in their experience of symptoms and general physiology), occurs 36 to 48 hours after the treatment. This shows us that the unravelling of the Sympathetically locked nervous system and deep reengagement with the Parasympathetic system, triggered almost instantly by Acupuncture, sets in motion a whole cascade of physiologic events that yield symptom improvement and a profound sense of wellness one to two days later.
What’s the message here? A good series of Acupuncture treatments serve to unhook chronic states of dysfunction, setting in motion a reengagement with proper nervous system and physiologic function. Deep capacities for healing emerge from this systems level ‘recalibration’. This is all part of what leading edge medical thinkers are calling ‘functional medicine’, a medicine that addresses health by addressing underlying physiological processes, rather than the more superficial focus on disease which has dominated the medical paradigm for decades.
Of course, whether we choose to make the most of that profound experience and commit to a new relationship to life or not, is up to us. We need to inform how we choose to live our lives with what I would call a Nervous System ‘hygiene’ perspective (a healthy and vigorous understanding of and support for our Sympathetic – Parasympathetic dynamic). That means both, on the one hand, a rich, meaningful, purposeful, relevant and engaged relationship to the action of our lives and a deep wholesome and profound relationship to the rest and restorative side of our lives. In other words, and in the words of my current teacher, most of us need a new and wholesome relationship to both the ‘Being’ and ‘Becoming’ domains of life.