This is the case of a professional female in her late 40s suffering from chronic halitosis. She experiences mortifying workplace interactions because of the way colleagues react when she speaks with them. Mints make the symptoms worse. I had previously treated her for heart palpitations using Chinese herbs based on a phone interview. Earlier attempts to quell the halitosis with herbs had proven unsuccessful.
For purposes of this discussion we’ll call our patient Patricia. She is quite health-conscious, exercising daily and eating about 50% raw in addition to taking many supplements. She also suffers from hemorrhoids that are not correlated with either diet or stress. Additionally, she complains of “not being able to feel her stomach” given the amount of exercise she performs. She also reports feeling tingling and numbness of the legs when she exercises, but she found that a tea comprised of Chinese herbs for “blood detoxification” was helpful, so long as she took it twice a day.
From this set of information I queried further, whereupon she volunteered, “I’m still drinking a lot of water.” “Oh yeah?” I replied. “How much?” “One-hundred ounces.” “Does that include other beverages?” “No.”
I’ve spoken to Patricia before about the Chinese medicine view of drinking water. It generally does NOT encourage drinking vast qualities of water to “flush” the body of “toxins.” Furthermore, one’s overall water intake includes water extracted from food and other beverages. If one suffers from hydration issues, then substances with qualities “juicier” than water are appropriate. Fruit or honey are examples. Patricia did NOT feel thirsty. Rather, she had developed a routine of forcing herself to drink water as a means of maintaining good health.
A healthy balance between opposites, hot/cold, moist/dry, top/bottom, is the goal of Chinese medicine, otherwise commonly understood as the Goldilocks principle: Not too much of either extreme but just right. Chinese medical inquiry is aimed at organizing symptoms into meaningful categories of “too much” or “not enough” and often relating the two.
“Did you have hemorrhoids before drinking a lot of water?”
“No, but I’ve been drinking that much water for a long time now. Plus, my tests show everything to be normal, except for a deficiency of sodium and potassium. ”
“Hmm. How might one become deficient in those minerals?” “Uh, by sweating it out?” “Sure, but you’re not sweating it out, are you? I recommend that you drink at most 64 oz of water a day INCLUDING the other beverages.”
Three days later I received a call that the hemorrhoids were shrinking and that she could feel her stomach. She could not report on the breath with any certainty, given the apprehension she has developed over five years, but the quick response in the other areas have made her optimistic.
In Western and Chinese medicine the digestive trac stretches from the mouth to anus. Patricia’s Western exam by endoscopy and bloodwork showed no major anomalies, though all of the symptoms clearly laid along the digestive trac: breath, bloating, bulging (hemorrhoids). From the Chinese medical perspective the excess quantity of water was bogging down the body’s ability to maintain other functions. The most obvious symptom of this relates to bloating, but the hemorrhoids reflect the same problem. Although she had been drinking such large quantities of water for years, the force necessary to process such quantities had diminished. This may be due to years of water consumption or the normal decline in force reserves as a natural part of aging. Whatever the reasons, it is important to note that her body’s rapid response shows simply that less water should be consumed and that supplementing with herbs at this juncture appears premature.
It is reasonable to conclude that the large quantity of water consumed had not only created bloating but also diluted Patricia’s stomach acids, a test not normally made at routine examinations. The stomach in Chinese medicine is considered the organ of “rotting and ripening.” Perhaps her stomach did much rotting and little ripening as a result of diluted stomach acids.
Patricia’s bowel movements were normal, except for the hemorrhoids. A hemorrhoid can be seen as a type of prolapse, i.e., falling, from the Eastern medicine perspective. Prolapse is a sign that the body’s force to carry forth normal function in the prolapsed area is deficient. Area here refers to the digestive trac, the puffiness at the abdomen also being similarly expressed at the anus for the same reason. Similarly, the vast quantity of water had diluted or overwhelmed the kidney’s ability to maintain electrolyte balance, thus the leakage of sodium and potassium.
Quality blood production by the body requires that the body possess the initial capacity to extract essential nutrients from food. If energy is otherwise allocated toward processing water and if water is bogging down the system, then the body simply hasn’t the reserves to produce high quality blood. Numbness and tingling is often a sign of poor quality blood. Despite Western tests’ inability to detect this, her symptoms alone points in this direction. Patricia’s leg numbness upon exercise demonstrates a mild case of blood deficiency, confirmed by the positive results from the herbal tea she drank. It will not be surprising to see this problem abate with energy being freed up for other functions.
Hopefully this discussion has provided a good illustration of holistic medicine in action from a Chinese medical approach. It is a medicine assessing balance between extremes: the Goldilocks principle. Water, despite its obvious life sustaining attributes, should be consumed sensibly, otherwise it can overwhelm the body. When the body’s ability to perform work is less than the work required to be performed, exhaustion occurs. This goes for all aspects of the body and life activity. From the above example, however, we can see that even water requires the body’s work. The kidneys and digestive system must work to process water. At a young age, the body’s capacity to compensate for excesses of all types is much greater than a body in its late 40s and beyond.
Finally, a little bit about Chinese medicine practiced in a Western world. The way that Chinese medicine describes physiology to “the Western mind” is still incomprehensible. Western medicine stands as the standard around which discussions of body occurs. Patricia cited her test results as indication that everything was fine even though symptomatically she wasn’t. Fortunately, Chinese medicine relies primarily upon the symptoms themselves as an indication that something is indeed wrong.
When a patient comes back with test results that report a clean bill of health, rare is the instance where a patient is equipped to determine the appropriateness of particular tests or even the their meaning. The physician who took the original bloodwork should have queried further about her deficiency in electrolytes, but increasingly modern medicine can only afford to do such detective work on TV shows with fancy equipment, or so it too often appears. As a conceptual adjunct to the prevailing understandings about how the body works, Chinese medicine can nevertheless avail itself of Western data to corroborate Chinese medical diagnoses. Fortunately, the collaborative approach toward detecting the problem allowed for the time where the patient could divulge core Western data that could be used to convince her of the diagnostic veracity of Chinese medicine in this instance.