Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Is Sugar a Drug?

Recently I have been reading a book from the 1970's called 'Sugar Blues'. It's a fascinating look about the history of sugar and sugars' link to the slave trade. It portrays sugar, not just as an envoy to evil human acts, but as a drug. It even goes so far as suggesting that it is in part responsible of the loss of power of the Islamic nations during the Crusades. Which is an interesting idea when you think of how the consumption of sugar has risen drastically in the West and, now that we are all getting sick and fat, we are losing our status as a World power.

I seldom eat sugar these days. However, when I do, I now think about sugar as a possible drug. For me, sugar has the same pull as a drug. When I have sugar, I want more. And more. And then a bit more. So, the idea of sugar as a drug is very interesting to me. When I speak to patients about life-style advice, they take it on very thoughtfully. They nod, they consider changing. However, if I mention reducing sugar, it's a very different reaction. I couldn't quite read what the look was but I always knew they were not going to consider reducing sugar. Then I realised what the look was-- it was fear. No one wants to give up sugar.

So, with this idea that sugar is a drug, I decided in December (as I was making holiday biscuits) that after the holidays I would reduce even further the use of sugar in the daily lives of my family. We are not big sweet eaters so this mainly meant finding an alternative to breakfast cereal and encouraging the kids to choose fruit for their school lunch pudding. My son loves his cereal and he blatantly says its because its sweet. He would sit down to breakfast and say, "I LO-O-O-VE cereal. It's so-o-o fantastic." I always found this a bit unnerving. Partially because I didn't make it. I just poured milk over processed bits of uniform shapes. But also because he would make this exclamation and then devour it obsessively without really tasting it. When you really love a food, you savor it, enjoying it thoroughly. Right?

When I discussed with him options of changing breakfast, he looked panic stricken. For two weeks, he would come to me at quiet times of the day to ask me questions about coming off sugar. He asked questions like, "How long do I need to be off of sugar? Can I do it every other day?" He was clearly worried. And this worried me. His behaviour was that of an addict-- a little nine-year old sugar addict. Gently, we have removed the processed cereals from their diet in the last couple of weeks. I make them granola from my own recipe and the kids help choose what they like in it. This morning my daughter told me that cashews or pistachios would be better than pecans. I use dates and raisins for sweetness but still add a bit of honey too. On other days we make home-made bread for toast in the morning. Still, they drizzle it with honey. For now, that will have to do. Easy does it.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Autumnal Mineral

Although there are thousands historical examples of China’s scientific innovation, their success in the field of endocrinology I find simply amazing.
Some current fertility drugs in the West contain hormones extracted from human urine. It is a common misconception that the utilisation of hormones extracted from urine is a European discovery from 1927. In fact, the Chinese, utilising their enthusiasm for alchemy, had been extracting hormones from urine to be used medicinally since the second century BC (at the same time Iron Age Britains were believed to be introduced to coins). The astonishingly sophisticated extraction process resulted in a product called “autumnal mineral”. One recipe states that they gather 150 gallons of human urine and heat it until it has evaporated leaving dried solids of urine. To purify and rid these dried solids of urea, salts etc., the Chinese utilised the process of sublimation (the transition of a substance from the solid phase to the gas phase without passing through an intermediate liquid phase [ex: dry ice]). Of the 150 gallons of urine, only 2-3 ounces of sublimate of hormone crystals remained. Male and female urine was kept separate in order to extract specific hormones. This was all done with specially designed and engineered equipment.
What is truly astonishing is that to successfully keep steroid hormones in tact, sublimation must occur between the controlled temperatures of 120- 300 degrees. This fact was not learned in the West until this century. It is unknown how the Chinese came across this discovery so early. Regardless, by utilising these methods, the Chinese were able to separate large amounts of extraneous matter and create concentrated and powerful hormone substances for medicinal purposes.
It's facts like this that make my head spin whenever I hear someone suggest that Chinese medicine is not based on science. To me it just seems unfair that such mind boggling discoveries should not be given due credit. However, I'm very aware that the idea that the West discovered all scientific advances is a misconception that is deeply ingrained and is continually perpetuated. It's really unfortunate because if Western science would open their mind to historical discoveries, they could make huge leaps forward. I'm constantly coming across research where the "profound discovery" is based on a herb that the Chinese have been using for centuries for exactly what they are testing it for. I don't mind that they want to know why, but it irks me a bit that they don't give the Chinese credit, and that they label it as "profound".
Reference: Temple, R. (2007). The Genius of China. Andre Deutch: London.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Coming Off Sugar

We all know that sugar is not very good for you but after reading articles on the dangers of sugar, I was convinced I had to make an attempt to remove it from my diet. I’m not talking about just removing table sugar but also a lot of the fructose as well. So I look at ingredients and if it says, “sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or inverted corn syrup, or fructose”, I don’t eat it. Fructose in its natural form (fruits and vegetables) is fine but I do limit fruits with extremely high fructose content such as mango and nectarines. I must admit I was hoping I could abandon this effort and determine there was no big difference as I have a bar of Belgian chocolate in my cupboard that the kids have not discovered. I figure my chances of getting at that chocolate bar were good since I don’t have any major health issues to complain of. Okay, so I get tired and look haggard when I do too much. However, I don’t sleep well and am 42, a mother of an 8 and 6 year old and we just got a puppy so that’s a bit like having a new baby, except puppies don’t wear nappies (although I am considering this as an option). Also, I work as an acupuncturist, and am in my second year of my Chinese herbal medicine studies working toward my MSc. The biggest incentive for me to remove sugar in my diet is that despite eating healthily, I get blood-sugar dips so I know I’m not processing sugar well. Blood-sugar dips are a pain. I go from feeling great, jumping about with the kids to suddenly getting extremely shaky, edgy and worrying about what I can legally and quickly eat to prevent me from fainting in aisle four of the grocery store. These used to occur just when I missed a meal but I’ve noticed that now they occur even if I have eaten plenty but that ‘plenty’ contained sugar. What really shook me up is that ‘sugar’ could mean a freshly juiced carrot, and apple juice. After consuming such a healthy mix, I’d be ready to faint within the hour as if I had eaten a Mars bar for breakfast. Apparently, these insulin surges and dips are pretty bad for you. However, I’m also hoping that by coming off sugar I’ll benefit from being able to think more clearly, have loads more energy, and prevent premature ageing. So I decided to give it a go.
The first thing I discovered is that coming off of sugar is ten times worse than coming off caffeine. For one, it lasts longer. But instead of a headache like you get with coming off caffeine, coming off sugar could best be simplified as PMT with jetlag. Not the 3 or 4 hour time difference jetlag, but the jetlag you feel when you land in London at 6am from a Hong Kong flight where you didn’t sleep on the flight and then have to head straight into work. My mood was one of those that caused my husband to know that silence and long walks with the dog was the best way for him to get through this. And instead of lasting a day or two, like caffeine, it lasted an entire week. Some people report it lasting two. I’m not sure I could have lasted two weeks feeling like that. What shocked me is that I didn’t realise my body was so addicted to sugar. And that my body was depending on it, looking for it to run. I found that when I was tired, I really wanted to reach for sugar. Although I also knew that it was sugar that was causing me to feel so lousy. It’s now been about 9 days since I’ve been off sugar. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m sleeping really well. For decades I’ve slept lightly and wake up anywhere between 5 and 10 times during the night. That’s just not happening. I’ve also noticed that I now have no desire for sugar. I had a pear yesterday and it tasted so incredibly sweet that it was almost too sweet. Unlike when I’ve eaten sweets before, I had no desire for more sweet treats. Not craving sweets is liberating. And I've also noticed that my energy has picked up and I'm not having dips in energy. Previously, I craved sweets when I was dipping in energy. Without the energy dips, I have no reason to reach for that chocolate bar. The knock on benefit is that my kids are eating significantly less sugar. I have not asked my family to come off sugar but, naturally, their intake is coming down. I'd like their sugar levels to come down a lot more, however, I need to be a good role model first.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Autumn and Chinese Medicine

I love this time of year. With my door to my back garden wide open I can feel the cool breeze and sense that it is Autumn. I've never been able to grasp what makes that feeling but it both energises and calms me. Maybe its difficult to describe but this is the time of change, when Summer’s warm, vibrant Yang energy transitions toward the quiet, cooler Yin energy of Winter. Maybe its not meant to be pinned down. Regardless, it is an amazing time to observe our surroundings because through observing nature we learn how we should live to transition healthily to Winter. Nature acts as a metaphor for us. In Autumn, plants gather nutrients from their leaves and stems, pushing the nutrients downward and inward toward their roots. Impurities are sent upward into the foliage, which changes colours and is shed to prevent it from sapping energy that is now concentrated deep in the soil to ensure survival of the long, cold winter. In herbal medicine, many root herbs are gathered at this time of year because they are rich in chemical compounds. Autumn is a time where we prepare for the cold winter and time spent indoors. We arrange to get firewood for cozy, calm evening by the fireplace; we seal windows to prevent drafts, and begin to take out warm clothes from storage. Being busy and adapting means change. And change frequently results in emotional uprising. Organising and getting rid of the unnecessary (metaphorically, this can pertain to relationships as well as material things) can also lead to difficulty in letting go, grief and sadness. However, this is a season associated with wisdom. Through grief and sadness come lessons of life and self discovery.

As colder weather moves in, we need to consider eating warmer foods. In Summer, raw foods such as salads which are cold to the system were tolerated. However, in Autumn raw food will be difficult to digest and should be avoided. Warm foods, such as soups, roasted vegetables and meats are ideal. This very simple advice should not be undervalued. The strength of our digestion is paramount in our ability to make Qi and Blood. This is especially important in children who naturally have weaker digestive systems.

Seasonal eating of local foods is recommended because seasonal foods automatically and naturally contain the nutrients needed to prepare us for Winter. However, the convenience of freezers, fridges, pre-packaging and air travel has made it a challenge to know what foods are in season. The BBC Food website is an excellent resource for UK seasonal food and recipes.

And finally, enjoy the beautiful change of season. However, with seasonal change comes unpredictable weather. So bring an extra layer to cover up if needed. This is suprisingly effective to prevent catching a cold!

Friday, 3 September 2010

China with Children- Venturing Out

When I booked our hotel in the hutong, I ignored all the advice that suggested staying near Beijing centre because getting into Beijing by taxi could be time consuming. Wary of ignoring this advice, I decided that we should take the subway which was supposed to be around the corner. We walked out of the hutong alley onto the main road which was gritty, and big city grimy. The air was thick, hot and reminded me of childhood summers in the Midwest of America where the humid heat shocked your lungs as you stepped out from the air-conditioning. Having spent the last 12 years in England, I enjoyed the experience of this memory. Despite seeing a legless man pushing himself on a scooter begging for money, the kids said nothing. He did not request money from us, but instead stared curiously at us, the only Westerners in sight. As we walked on, we passed a stand where they were selling turtles and fish. Not knowing if these were for pets, food, or medicine I hoped the children woudn't ask questions... atleast not yet. The subway was easy to find. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was very clean, cool, incredibly easy to use and cost a mere 80 pence for the four of us to travel. We put our bags through security before entering which made me wonder that if China can put security in their underground system, then couldn't London do the same? The Beijing subway was incredibly simple to navigate. All the stops were listed in Chinese and Pinyin on the subway columns at each platform. The stop you were on was marked and the direction that train was going was shown. When I lived in New York City, you felt you were becoming a local when you could act like you weren't lost on the subway system. After three years of living there I once spent an hour and a half waiting for a train at 2am when I suddenly realised it was the wrong platform. I was sober. Atleast I was when I figured out I was at the wrong platform. After using the subway in Beijing once, I felt I mastered Beijing subways. Yes, this was most likely me being over exuberant and cocky, but it felt fantastic not feeling like I was completely lost in a big city. I loved it.
A couple of stops, an easy transfer and one more additional stop, we ended up at Tiananmen Square. We bought water to cope with the heat and found our way to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was crowded and again, I was surprised how few Westerners were there. In a crowd of hundreds we maybe saw two or three. And there were no Western children. Maybe this is because other parents were smart enough not to travel with their children during the hottest month in Beijing. Regardless, my children quickly became a hot commodity for family photos. Chinese families left and right requested my children pose for pictures. Very little English was spoken but the request was made clear and my children posed with Mums and Dads, and children and Grandparents. My six year old daughter was very unsure about this (see photo) until someone explained it was because she is pretty. I'm not sure what she was thinking before this. My 8 year old son loved his Rock Star-like status and happily posed and smiled and held toddlers hands and wrapped his arms around other kids. Several times I toyed with saying "no thank you" to these requests for photos as it seemed odd to stand back while my kids were photographed with other families. I wasn't sure how my daughter, who is shy, was feeling about having her hand grabbed by someone elses granny and placed in a strange kid's hand while Mummy and Daddy stepped away from them to be out of the picture. Lost for what to do, and seeing that people were genuinely loving the children, I went with the flow and hoped for no lasting psychological damage. I'm glad I did because this scene was a common one. Resistance was futile. At times we just wanted to move out of the heat, but overall, it was a beautiful interaction between people of different cultures enjoying and appreciating the differences between us. Grandmothers would thank me by touching my hand and were generous and laughed appreciatively of my attempted response in garbled Chinese. I realised that this interaction was very special and unique. I certainly would not have experienced this if I had been traveling without my generous, understanding, and accepting children. Again, and as always, I learn from my children.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Arriving at China with Children

I had read and heard about Beijing pollution causing the "Beijing cough", hordes of crowds, pickpockets, sales scams, rude people, unbelievably
dangerous traffic, unrelenting heat, uncomfortable beds, unclean food and difficulty getting from place to place. Conscious I may be inflicting a
holiday of horrors on my children (ages 8 and 6) purely for my own passion of Chinese medicine, I was apprehensive and concerned. In an attempt to allay my fears and excite the children about our journey, I took them to see Karate Kid. It worked for the kids and scared me. I had to admit to myself that my ability to read Chinese is that of a two year old and my speaking skills only slightly higher. I had visions of being subjected to two weeks of eating donkey willies and dog meat that the kids couldn't eat because it was too spicy. Which was only secondary to the fear of having diarrhoea inflicted children and an inability to correctly say, "Where's the toilet?"

We arrived in Beijing airport at about 2 in the afternoon after an overnight flight. The kids slept a few hours on the flight; adults not at all. I've never been one to sleep on planes but my years of flying business class and flat beds have made coach class sleep impossible. I realise I get no sympathy for that. In Beijing, the sky was grey and the warm air thick with humidity. It was 37 degrees, 80 plus humidity. Hot. The kids didn't seem to notice. I always find foreign airports daunting with signs that never seem to go where you thought they did while you try to look like you've been there before. However, Beijing airport was simple to navigate, clean and...actually pleasant. Immediately our children were pointed at and smiled to. Several people said "hello" and the children responded shyly, "nihao" (hello) much to their appreciation. An older woman gently stroked my daughter's long blond hair as we waited for passport control. Surprisingly, my daughter didn't seem to mind.

We hopped into a taxi with our pre-printed destination located on a Chinese language map and headed to our first hotel-located in a hutong near Dongsi station. I was pleased that the ride was no more crazy or terrifying than anything I had experienced during my days in New York City. It was far better than Bangkok or Vietnam which were almost a religious experience creating a belief in fatalism.

We arrived at Double Happiness, located midway down the grey grittiness of the 4th alley. As in any grotty, gritty, grey alley I hoped it was a safe location and was comforted that we were located midway between two police stations. Double Happiness was a haven. Everything about it was fantastic. It was so safe that our kids walked around the hotel on their own, ordered juice at the bar and then came into the room to tell us all they discovered-fountains with spinning balls, bonsai trees with hidden statues, fish with bulging eyes, a rooftop garden. They talked with the people who worked and lived there. The kids confidence in speaking some Chinese grew and the staff complemented them and helped them say more. The beds were comfortable and despite being woken by our children giggling at 2am and not falling asleep again until 4:30am, we got some sleep in our beautiful room (the Family room). When we awoke for breakfast, we passed a staff member doing Qi Gong in the courtyard. The buffet breakfast was all made on site with dumplings, steamed buns (pork or bean paste), delicious vegetables, meat , eggs, and everything else you can imagine. The kids managed their breakfast without resorting to forks or Western food (both were available).

We were now ready to venture out...

Friday, 23 July 2010

Spirit, Science & Sophistication

This article is also available on the Avicenna website

Although it is common knowledge that Chinese medicine has been utilised for centuries, less is known about its sophisticated evolution and the scientific scrutiny it has undergone throughout its lifetime. Several ideas and concepts of medicine, assumed to be developed in the West, were actually developed in China and predated the West by thousands of years. For example the concept of how blood circulates around the body via the heart is attributed to William Harvey in 1628. It is well documented that the theory of circulating blood was developed prior to this, however Harvey substantiated the theory utilising experimental methods and therefore gained credit for the idea. Interestingly, the scholars whose theories dominated before Harvey were based on texts of an Arab of Damascus, al-Nafis, who historians believe, may have obtained his knowledge from China.

In China, the concept of circulating blood in the body was established by the second century B.C., two thousand years before it had been accepted in the West. For the Chinese, this was not just theory. The Chinese researched corpses, stretching out arteries and veins to be methodically measured and weighed in order to estimate the time it takes for blood to circulate the body (Temple, 2007, p. 136-8). Their findings were published and discussed among academics. New ideas were launched from this discourse including descriptions of the 28 pulse characteristics and pulse diagnostics.

Unique to the Chinese concept was the dual circulation of Qi which flowed throughout the body as well as through the blood. Additionally, the Chinese linked an individuals spirit or Shen with the heart and blood. A statement of fact in Chinese medicine says: “If the blood vessels are harmonious and uninhibited, the essence spirit has an abode“. In other words, if the blood is not flowing as it should, an individual’s spirit may be effected. An example would be a state of delirium that can occur in a severe illness.
Despite the elusiveness of certain topics such as “spirit” the Chinese were methodical researchers. Utilising incredible skills of observation, they documented, tested and discussed their theories among scholars. Observation was made not just on individual patients but groups of patients and populations and then compared with other regions. From there, ideas were developed upon, questioned, and modified. These are the same considerations required for quality research today. This evolving, methodical and rigorous research over a large population, over an extended amount of time is what has made Chinese medicine effective. This process continues to this day.

Even the more elusive topics such as “spirit” are gaining credibility today. Recent studies in neuropsychology show that the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. Research has also revealed the heart’s ability to release a number of hormones including noradrenaline, dopamine, and oxytocin (the ‘love’ or bonding hormone). A 2004 study showed that when heart rhythm patterns are coherent the effect is heightened mental clarity, improved decision making and increased creativity. In Chinese medicine these are signs of a strong Shen (spirit). The similarity to this 2004 statement and the two thousand year old statement of fact would not surprise a practitioner of Chinese medicine: “If the blood vessels are harmonious and uninhibited, the essence spirit has an abode”.

by Liz Evans


Flaws, B. (2008). Statements of fact in traditional Chinese medicine. Boulder: Blue Poppy Press.

McCraty, R. (2000). Psychophysiological coherence: A link between positive emotions, stress reduction, performance and health. Proceedings of the Eleventh International Congress on Stress, Mauna Lani Bay, Hawaii.

Temple, R. (2007). The genius of China: 300 years of science, discovery & invention. London: Andrew Deutch. (based on the research of Joseph Needham)

Tiller W, McCraty, & Atkinson, M. (1996). Cardiac coherence; A new non-invasive measure of autonomic system order. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine; 2(1): 52-65.