Eastern vs. Western Medicine

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Hi! Been a while, friend. You haven’t seen me on the blog or YouTube because I’ve been a bit busy writing my book (!!!) which is now complete and will publish on September 1. I’ll be posting more information about that soon!

In the meantime, I wanted to share a bit of the medical stuff I’ve been going through this summer in an effort to share with anyone who has been going through anything similar. I know there are many of you who have systems that don’t seem to cooperate, who are in a lot of pain, who are constantly exhausted, who seem to be sensitive to absolutely everything – heat, food, noise, whatever else. Consider me your guinea pig.

I’ve lived in the Western medicine world for my entire life. My grandfather was a renowned cardiovascular surgeon; my grandmother, whom I’m named after, was an equally renowned cardiovascular nurse. Much of my medical care when I was young was done with their input and stitches from my many uncoordinated tumbles were taken out as I was laying on their dining room table.

Obviously I owe the fact that I am still alive to Western medicine. Without the discovery of medical insulin in the 1920s, I would not still be alive after my autoimmune type 1 diabetes diagnosis at age 10. When I broke my ankle in three places a few years ago, my orthopedic surgeon was an absolute gift; his care and expertise is the only reason I can still walk.

However, I’ve been in a rather rough cycle of unexplained sickness for the past few years and Western medicine often seems to struggle with approaching the whole body as a system. When it can’t find a concrete answer for a specific set of systems, it tends to go into wait-and-see mode, which is not at all helpful when you’re struggling to function in your day to day life.

Two years ago when I got this sick, I ended up quitting my job and master’s degree program. I was struggling to even stay awake for more than a few hours at a time. I was always nauseated. My body seemed to attack itself every time I ate. The slightest activity brought on a world of pain.

I was incredibly lucky and fortunate that my mom saw what was going on and was willing to do anything she could to help me get better, including financing me for a few months while I put the pieces back together. Quitting my job and school allowed me to sleep around the clock for about a month, then slowly but surely start to build up my system again on my own. Doctors weren’t helping, so I took everything into my own hands.

I became best friends with the owner of my local vitamin store – she was excellent at listening to my explanation of what was going on and helping me find ways to bolster my system. I doubled down on my nutritional cleansing and replenishing program, which I truly think is one of the only reasons I never got worse than I was or am. I eliminated gluten, dairy, most sweeteners, nightshades and a variety of other things from my diet. I got better about consistent exercise. I consumed things – kombucha, probiotics, etc. – to help build up my gut health after a strong round of antibiotics during my ankle surgeries probably wiped out any semblance of balance. Each of these things added up and for most of the past two years, I had been enjoying strong health again – getting through massive life events without crashing my health. It was huge.

And then I got sick again. I moved to New York City in March. By April, I was crashing again. By May, I felt sick a large portion of the time. It’s now August and who I was as a healthy, active, positive person feels like a distant memory. The most frustrating part is that I’ve been doing everything I “should” be doing to stay healthy. I have healthier habits than most anyone I know. My basic medical tests – cholesterol, blood pressure, vitamin levels, etc. – are, in one of my doctor’s words, some of the strongest she’s seen (thanks to my nutritional replenishing system).

And yet I am positively crashing. I am exhausted. I am in pain – my muscles and joints are screaming at me a large portion of the time. I don’t sleep – I fall asleep easily but never stay asleep. Anxiety, depression, and irritation has been kicking in way more than ever before. I seem to be highly sensitive to heat, noise, and crowds.

I meditate. I do yoga. I write morning pages. I drink ridiculous amounts of water. I’m still exercising regularly. I eat insanely well. None of it is helping.

What Western Medicine Says

Blood tests and diagnostics are Western medicine’s life blood. I completely respect and am fascinated by this kind of sleuthing. My blood tests have shown that my immune system is attacking my body at a kind of scary rate (which is what it did to make me have type 1 diabetes – my immune system attacked and killed off the part of my pancreas that creates insulin, which converts the food we eat into energy for our systems to function). The tests have also shown that my muscle fibers are breaking themselves down rapidly, which causes quite a bit of muscle aches and pain.

However, no reason for any of this has been identified – I don’t seem to have any additional auto-immune diseases or any kind of degenerative muscle disease. Because we cannot find a clear “why”, Western medicine can’t find a way to treat me effectively.

Side note: there’s some really interesting research into why autoimmune diseases are on the rise – its explanation is that our immune systems are completely out of balance for a variety of reasons, causing them to overreact to benign things. In other words, our body no longer understands how to call off the attack and our immune systems are in constant fight mode. There’s a good book about this here.

I have technically been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, but this has definitely been more of a “well… we really don’t know…” diagnosis than a definitive one. As a band aid, I have been prescribed medications that are not only known to have a whole host of troublesome side effects, but have caused me issues in the past, so I won’t be taking them.

Because nothing clear has been found, my doctors – my primary care practitioner, endocrinologist and rheumatologist – have gone into hands-off mode. Since no major issue has made itself obvious, I’ll either be fine soon or my health issues are in my head. It’s frustrating, debilitating and, to be really honest about it, I think it’s irresponsible.

What Eastern Medicine Says

I have been scared of acupuncture for a while – I have a thing about needles (the back story on this is in my book). But when nothing else was helping, I went ahead and made an appointment with a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner.

What was fascinating to me about my appointment is that, without prompting, all of the things found in months of blood tests were echoed in half an hour by checking my pulse and looking at my tongue and skin. The words used to define what’s going on and the approach is different, but the concepts are the same.

Also interesting to me is that, where Western medicine sees physical, emotional, and spiritual health as separate, Eastern medicine doesn’t see a division. Western medicine is seeing that my immune system is running haywire but doesn’t know why, and therefore doesn’t have an approach to try to head it off. Eastern medicine is seeing that my body is swinging heavily “yang” – defined as hot, masculine, go-getter, achieving, etc. When in balance with “yin” – quiet, calm, intuitive, nature-oriented, feminine, etc. – this is a great thing. But yang isn’t meant to be dominant at all times – when consistently firing, it leads to chronic disorders, inflammation, crashing immune health, anxiety, lack of sleep, etc. See also: everything that I’ve been dealing with for a few months. TCM is seeing that this is affecting my physical heath, obviously, but also my emotional and spiritual health. It’s all one.

Looking at myself as a person, I swing yang anyway. My natural state is hot-headed, over-thinking, imbalanced toward achievement. When I can take time to calm down and nurture my yin side, that’s all fine. But when I’m swinging yang without anything to bring me back to the other side, I get in trouble. If I then put myself into a yang environment – lots of people, lots of movement, lots of engagement with technology, not enough quiet and calm, too much heat, too much aggression, not enough time with creativity or laughter, not enough time nourishing my feminine side – I crash from imbalance.

And what have I done in the last six months? Moved to New York City, added two hours of commuting on crowded trains to my schedule, written a book in three months, moved away from the people who brought out my creative, feminine, fun side, stopped smiling (it’s how you help make sure strange men don’t follow you home from the subway in this city), been exercising heavily during the summer (hi, heat exhaustion), and haven’t figured our how to disengage from my go-getter side in months.

Hello yang imbalance i.e. inflammation/immune imbalance.

What To Do About It

I don’t have an answer to this yet, but having everything explained in a different way by Eastern medicine – despite the same end-answer of an overall immune imbalance – has been really interesting. Acupuncture isn’t really concerned with what the answer is, honestly. It exists to help the body heal itself and redirect imbalanced energy. I look forward to continuing along that path.

In the meantime, I recognize that my current lifestyle is doing me exactly zero favors. I don’t have the how yet – how to disengage, how to nurture my more lighthearted side again, how to rest – but I’m certainly open to it all, and I think that’s step one.

 

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