Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine ● Longevity Nutrition

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Ideas and actions that can help you promote health, well-being and longevity by helping your environment.

I was first introduced to the concept of Sympathetic Overdrive while attending a lecture about the etiology of autoimmune disease presented by Gary and Rain Klepper D.C.  Over ten years later, any skepticism I had regarding the importance of this concept has fully dissolved.  There is an array of chronic diseases, including many autoimmune and skin disorders, which are ultimately and intimately related to gut health.  Overlooking this single issue can render an otherwise sound treatment protocol slow or ineffective.  For successful treatment of gut-related conditions it is imperative that the presence and severity of sympathetic overdrive be assessed and addressed.

Understanding Sympathetic Overdrive

There are two major parts of the nervous system.  The parasympathetic, which is activated when we relax, is known as the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system.  It stimulates blood flow to the digestive system, brain, extremities and sexual organs.  The other part, the sympathetic nervous system, is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. It is activated when our body perceives stress. It reduces blood flow to the extremities, brain and digestive organs in preparation for a perceived survival situation.   As we go through our daily lives, our external circumstances and our thoughts stimulate a constant dance between these two aspects of the nervous system. When a person is constantly stressed, their nervous system can be tilted into the state of sympathetic overdrive.  The stress can be brought on by various factors including constant worry, skipping meals, not getting adequate rest, not allowing adequate time to carry out tasks and difficult life situations.  People who work long hours that involve concentration and active thinking are prone to sympathetic overdrive.  This condition is rampant in corporate executives and hedge fund managers.  It can also be triggered by situations that remind our subconscious of stressful or scary events from our past.

When a person experiences enough stress to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, they often experience cold hands and feet.  Less noticeable but more serious is the reduced blood flow to the digestive tissues.  If this only happens occasionally, the system usually has the resilience to recover.  However, if the body is in a state of sympathetic overdrive, tissues of the digestive system constantly experience a state of reduced blood flow and oxygen exchange.  Elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can lead to further damage to these tissues.

The effects of reduced blood flow from sympathetic overdrive interferes with the proper functioning of digestive organs, alters the balance of microbes residing within the gut, reduces the proper functioning of the immune system and interferes with proper filtering of nutrients that are absorbed. Many of the beneficial bacteria and fungi growing in our gut only thrive in an oxygen environment.  These bacteria are known as aerobes.  As the oxygen supply diminishes with circulation, bacteria that thrive in the absence of oxygen, anaerobes, begin to replace the withering populations of aerobic bacteria.  Clostridium Difficile (aka C. Diff), a common infection in hospitals, is a classic anaerobic bacterium.  Aside from C. Diff., there are likely hundreds of species of anaerobic bacteria that can or do reside in the human gut.  So far, it is estimated that we’ve only been able to culture and identify between 1-5% of these organisms.  However, we know they exist because we can test for one of their main waste products, beta-glucuronidase.   This little waste product can reap havoc on the body’s detoxification systems and will be discussed in another article.

One would expect significant digestive disturbances in this situation. However, some people never experience any digestive symptoms.  In the past 15 years I have seen hundreds of patients who tested positive for overgrowth of C. Diff, numerous pathogens or the presence of beta glucuronidase with no digestive symptoms.  On the other hand, most of these patients had other significant chronic diseases including eczema, psoriasis, tyramine intolerance, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and fibromyalgia.  I want to be absolutely clear that this scenario is only one piece of the puzzle in healing these diseases.

There are very few possibilities to explain how pathogenic bacteria can thrive in the digestive tract without initiating a proper immune response.  The most logical explanation is the disruption of proper immune functioning from gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT).  I suspect that this system either becomes defective or overloaded.  As a result, the constant stream of antigens override this system and they are passed along to other parts of immune system in the mucosa associated lymphoid tissue (MALT).  As a result, inflammatory conditions, like eczema and joint stiffness, arise in other parts of the body. This too is a very large subject that I will discuss in another article or in my book.

Assessing the Presence and Severity of Sympathetic Overdrive

There are several key signs that suggest a patient is experiencing Sympathetic Overdrive.  Many of these were originally observed in the Traditional Chinese Medicine literature under the concepts of Liver Qi Stagnation, Liver overacting on Spleen and/or Stomach.   Obviously, there are variations but here are some basic guidelines.

  • Cold hands and feet – This symptom can arises when the stress response is fairly pronounced.  Of course, it can be caused by other conditions that affect circulation.  However, as a general rule, if the patient is experiencing both cold hands and feet, it is usually a symptom of sympathetic overdrive.
  • Constipation or sluggish bowel movements without dry stools – the reduction of circulation to the digestive system slows churning in the intestinal tract and can lead to mild constipation or sluggish movement.   It is possible to have constipation with dry stools along with this condition but it will not be caused by it.
  • Overgrowth of anaerobic bacteria or elevated beta-glucuronidase on a stool and digestive analysis.
  • Any symptom that is generally worse with stress is often related to sympathetic overdrive.


Treating Sympathetic Overdrive

There are multiple ways of treating this problem.  However, tools that the patient can use several times per day will accelerate progress.  The most powerful remedy for this situation is a variation of abdominal breathing that originated from the ancient practice of Qi Gong.  This exercise, acts as a pump to restore circulation to the digestive tissues and directly stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Instructions:  Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent.  Place your hands on the lower abdomen below the naval bringing your attention to this area.  Inhaling deeply, extend your abdomen out as if it is a balloon filling with air.  Exhale and squeeze the lower abdomen in imagining that you are trying to touch your naval to your spine.  The repetitions can be done fairly quickly averaging about 1 every 3-4 seconds or slowly for a deeper meditative effect.   You can also do this exercise while driving or lying down.  Repeat 5-10 times several times per day or whenever symptoms appear.  For amazing abdominal muscles repeat 100-200x per day.

You can find other meditative and breathing exercises in my previous post “Finding Inspiration Through Respiration”

Abdominal heat packs – simply applying heat to the abdominal area can stimulate circulation to these tissues and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Acupuncture is powerfully effective for “resetting” the nervous system and reducing stress. It has been demonstrated to treat the most extreme version of sympathetic overdrive, which we call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.  It is so effective that a few years ago, the U.S Department of Defense funded The Air Force Acupuncture Center.  This is a clinic dedicated to treating military personnel who suffer from PTSD.  It is used as a practice and training facility for physicians and medical professionals for “battlefield acupuncture”.

Herbs and Homeopathic Remedies that Really Work

Please note that all of these recommendations should be administered under the guidance of a qualified health care provider.

Rescue Remedy – This is available in all health food stores and online.  Its intended use was originally for stress and traumatic experiences.  I have found it to be incredibly helpful for treatment of gut disorders that involve sympathetic overdrive.  Just follow the instuctions.

Psy-Stabil by Pekana – This is another remedy that falls under the practice of homotoxicology, which is slightly different from homeopathy.  Its effects are similar to Rescue Remedy but may be a bit stronger.  It is also very helpful for relieving anxiety.

Rhodiola – This herb is literally miraculous for restoring circulation to the digestive system and also balancing the nervous system.  It is also helpful for treating addiction and some causes of depression.  Be careful!  It has some interactions with medications.  Practitioners, be sure to take the time to inform yourself before prescribing it.

Lactobacillus Rhamanosus – This beneficial bacterium is one of the few that generates hydrogen peroxide.  It is very helpful for reintroducing oxygen to the digestive tract and reducing overgrowth of C. Diff and other obligate anaerobes.

Other tips for preventing stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system:

  • Don’t skip meals!  Every time your body has to accommodate a drop in blood sugar, it stimulates the production of cortisol and initiates a stress response
  • Take time everyday to do nothing
  • Give yourself the gift of extra time to complete tasks.  Cramming more and more tasks into your day increases stress and reduces creativity and the possibility of spontaneity.
  • Pay attention to the situations and people in your life who make you feel stressed.  Reflect on why they trigger these feelings in you and decide if there are ways of managing your exposure to them.
  • Spend time in Nature.  This is proven to reduce stress levels.

“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” – Hippocrates


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The next couple of posts will deal with, what I think are, the most magical and amazing beings on the planet…viruses.  A press release that was first picked up February 2, 2010 by Popular Science boasts of the discovery of a new chemical LJ001 that has the capability of acting as a broad spectrum anti-viral.  The actual press release  starts out by saying, “Viruses are insidious creatures…” and then goes on to discuss the potential of LJ001 to put an end to some of the world’s most deadly human diseases including AIDS, Ebola, and hemorrhagic fever.

The development of such a drug has the potential to ease human loss and suffering and contribute to “society’s concept” of a utopian existence.  On the other side of this we must consider the compelling research that suggests viruses could be “the little man behind the curtain”, with regards to evolution of life on this planet.  I’m concerned that science doesn’t yet know enough about how viruses contribute to every aspect of our existence to use a drug like this safely.  For example, the primary gene responsible for producing syncytin , which forms the placenta, comes from the activation of a retrovirus that is embedded in the DNA of all mammals’ germ cells.  Syncytin is very similar in structure to the viral envelop that LJ001 attacks.  This is just one tiny example of how viruses play a part in our existence. 

On February 24th, National Geographic will be re-airing the documentary, “The Virus Hunters” which discusses theories on how viruses have been a powerful force in facilitating the ever-evolving complexities of life on this planet.  This one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen.

One aspect of discussion pertains to an experiment in which a virus is introduced into the brains of prairie voles causing behavioral changes that resulted in the promiscuous males becoming monogamous. The original article that appeared in Nature.

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In my last post I discussed some of the evolutionary aspects of darkness and addressed humans’ psychological issues around it.  Here I would like to shed some light on one tiny example of how altering our environment has a direct effect on our own health and longevity.

A large body of research demonstrates that the master hormone, melatonin, has a powerful influence on the development and growth of cancer cells. Melatonin, which is one of the few hormones that is present in all animals and some plants, is produced by the pineal gland in response to darkness.  It plays an indispensible role in the regulation and coordination of circadian rhythms, hormone levels, reproductive cycles, feeding times and neurotransmitter levels in all animals.   We’ve known for a long time that melatonin suppresses tumor growth by altering the cell’s use of fatty acids.  The evidence also suggests that it alters estrogen sensitivity of cells helping to slow or arrest the growth of breast, prostate and uterine cancers.  Small disruptions in the amount of light an organism is exposed to can result in significant drops in the production of melatonin.  A study conducted by R.T. Dauchy et al. demonstrated that very small amounts of light (.2 Lux which is that of a full moon under clear conditions or that of a door cracked into a lighted hallway) suppressed melatonin production in cancerous rats by 87% with a corresponding increase in tumor growth.  Rats that were exposed to 24 hours of light had only a slightly higher reduction in melatonin levels.  Another well-done study demonstrated that melatonin levels were affected by light spectrum more than intensity (lux).  Light emitted at shorter wavelengths, similar fluorescents and LEDs, resulted in almost a two-fold reduction in melatonin levels.  Light emitted at shorter wavelengths similar compact fluorescent or sodium bulbs had a lesser effect.

There are literally thousands of studies showing the strong link between cancer rates and melatonin levels.   A large study even showed a statistically significant reduction of hormone-sensitive cancers in blind men and women.

 Everyday our bodies develop hundreds, if not thousands, of cancer cells.  Along with our immune systems we have several lines of defense, like melatonin, that serve to slow growth and destroy these cells before they develop into tumors.  Out of the illusion of safety, light pollution has become a pervasive force in the developed world and darkness is becoming a precious commodity.  As we in the Northern Hemisphere approach the winter solstice, might I suggest that we take steps to bring the safe and lovely darkness back into our lives. 

  • Turn off  unneccesary exterior lighting – is any of it really necessary?
  •  Keep indoor lighting to a minimum as darkness falls.
  • Consider implementing one night per week with minimal light exposure and go to bed early.
  • Draw your bedroom shades. 

For more information on other things you can do including lighting that has a lesser effect on you and the ecosystem that you are a part of,  please visit The International Dark Sky Association.

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DSC_0064Modern Western society has risen and thrived around the idea of “doing” and “accomplishing”.  Those of us who have grown up inside this paradigm are always looking to the next thing we are going achieve.  Reflecting upon the Law of Accelerating Returns we look back on human history and can see the pattern of our achievements in which we are now approaching the “knee of the theoretical curve”.  However, like the rhythms in everything that is a part of our world, we must consider the curves within the curve. The constant dance between light and darkness and the natural cycles that are driven by it.

Many of humankind’s greatest minds found their inspiration not by “doing” but by “being”.  By allowing inspiration to come, these moments of genius have brought creative and profound change to our species from the beginning of time. Think back on your life to those times that we have all had.   When you sunk into a single moment with a sudden certainty and understanding that wasn’t there the moment before.  These times often come when we allow ourselves to open up and “be”, if only for a tiny second.

For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, we are approaching the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year.  Think about what is happening to everything else on this part of the Earth.  Everything is going inside itself, slowing down, resting more.  It’s a time of regeneration.  There is darkness, silence and solitude.  In Traditional Chinese yin-yang theory we are approaching the most yin time of year.  Like the trees that put all their resources in the ground to be able to bloom again in the spring, we have the same opportunity with our bodies and with our minds.

How do we allow some of the stillness to enter our lives so we can make room in ourselves for new inspiration?  One way is through respiration.  When we focus on our breath we bring ourselves back to the very fundamental rhythms that encompass all of nature which we are a part of.

Below are several simple, effective breathing and meditation exercises that help you to tap into the parts of yourself that can bring about inspiration.

For those of you who have taken up residence with your PC or Mac there is a great meditation and napping program called Pzizz.

Any amount of breathing or meditation exercise can be life-changing.  Like anything the more you practice the easier it becomes.  When you start out it can often takes several minutes for the mind to calm down enough to become present.   For some people it takes several sessions.  It is recommended that you allow yourself at least twenty minutes or the amount of time it takes for you to notice a shift in the activity of your mind.  You will absolutely know when you achieve this.  For anyone who finds it very difficult to focus on your breath, you might consider simply doing nothing for a few minutes per day.

Exercise 1: First, sit or lie comfortably with your eyes closed.  Inhale deeply through your nose intoyour upper chest.  Exhale somewhat forcefully through your mouth.  Try to focus completely on the process of breathing.  Repeat this part 10-15 times.

Second, inhale and exhale slowly through your nose into your lower abdomen (the area below your naval).  As you do this, allow your tummy to naturally rise and fall.

Exercise 2: This one is a little more challenging but with practice you can gain a new appreciation and understanding for your body.  Sit or lie comfortably with your eyes closed.  Take a few deep breaths to get centered and relaxed.  Exhale deeply and allow your body to inhale on its own.  Practice allowing your body to breathe on its own, as if you are an observer, watching a child breathe as it sleeps. The more you practice this, the more you will relinquish your need to feel the illusion of control.  Enjoy!

Exercise 3:  This meditation is a little more active and can be helpful if you find that you have difficulty focusing on your breath.   It has the additional benefit of activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  This part of the nervous system is normally active if we are calm.  It brings circulation to the digestive system, promotes relaxation, calms the mind and enables sexual function.  It also enhances healthy weight loss in the abdominal area, balances neurotransmitters and promotes cleansing of the intestines.  It’s exceptionally helpful for people with chronic constipation.

Instructions:  Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your knees slightly bent.  Place your hands on the lower abdomen below the naval bringing your attention to this area.  Breathing naturally while exhaling, pull the lower abdomen in, imagining that you are trying to touch your naval to your spine.  Then, exhaling, press the abdomen out as far as you can.  Repeat 50-200 times.  The repetitions can be done fairly quickly averaging about 1 every 3-4 seconds.  You can also do this exercise while driving or lying down.

*Note:  The first few times you do this exercise you may experience more gas and more frequent bowel movements.  This is a very good sign and should resolve after a couple of days.

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