Category Archives: environmental factors

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) afflicts approximately 1 in every 100 people, it is 3 times more prevalent in women than it is in men and usually has an onset of symptoms between 40 and 50 years of age though sufferers as young as 15 have been recorded. RA is usually diagnosable through blood tests and like other forms of arthritic disease will not manifest exactly the same in all people who have it.

RA mainly affects the small joints in the body, in our hands, feet and neck but can  affect the larger joints too. RA causes painful swelling in the lining  (synovium) of the joints, often (but not always) producing painful nodules under the skin that can vary in size from a few millimeters to a few centimetres over the bony protruberances of the joints.

RA is an auto immune disease with no definate and definable cause but medical science has establiushed that sufferers tend to have relatives who also suffer from RA. RA is three times more common in smokers, it may be triggered by an immune response to another illness and recent studies suggest that vitamin D deficiency may cause people to be more susceptible to it.

Physical activity is greatly curtailed by a flare up of symptoms which tend to be more intense first thing in the morning for an hour or more. Many sufferers find hot weather particularly distressing and find cooler climates more agreeable. RA increases the risk of cardio vascular disease, anaemia and lung fibrosis.

Part of the difficulty of treating RA is that the drugs used to controll it’s symptoms often have undesirable and confusing side effects. Prednisone for instance can lessen the severity of RA symptoms but prolonged use can cause osteoporosis which can in itself be a consequence of lowered physical activity because exercise is difficult and painful.

In recent times fish oil and krill oil containing omega 3 fatty acids have been found effective in lessening RA symptoms. I have met several people over the years who have claimed that alkaline diets have been helpful in treating their own RA, a therapy that most medical authorities do not recommend whether because they do not think it works or that most people do not have the necessary discipline to strictly follow it.

Gentle massage and joint mobilisation can be helpful in treating the symptoms of RA but. An increasing number of RA sufferers find medical marajuana helpful in making their lives more comfortable which is clearly not a legal option in most countries, for a health practitioner to even suggest it’s use in such places may be a crime in itself.

Meditation can help RA sufferers cope with their disease, it costs nothing and will not make the symptoms worse if it doesn’t work for you.

In more severe cases joint replacement surgery is used when disablement and pain becomes intolerable.


The mere mention of the word makes the eyes of many people glaze over, “it’s boring”, “I don’t have the time for it”, “my knees won’t let me sit in that position” and “I tried it once but I got nothing out of it” are all common gripes about meditation.

For many of us the word conjures up images of people seated in uncomfortable looking positions for hours at a time who might belong to obscure religious sects. Some kinds of meditation can be found in such settings but the fact is that many of us meditate without even realising it. So what is meditation and can it be scientifically defined and verified?

The human brain is an electro-chemical organ and an electroencephalagram (EEG) can measure the electrical activity inside the brain. Beta waves are the waves I am using right now, fully awake and focused on the rational task of writing this blog. In our normal waking and thinking state Beta waves predominate. When we meditate our thoughts turn inward and we disengage with the outside world and other types of brain waves become more active.

When we meditate our breathing and heart rate (pulse) slows, blood pressure falls and the parasympathetic nervous system predominates (the sympathetic is more active when we are not meditating). The brain waves that are most active when we meditate are called Alpha, Gamma, Theta and Delta waves, these waves are also more active when sleep. We experience these waves when we are being creative, are lost in the reverance of nature, reverently enjoy art and music, when we unconsciously run on “auto-pilot” and doing yoga. Swimming and surfing are active forms of meditation too.

Meditation and hypnosis have things in common, they both require a deepened state of relaxation both mental and physical for them to take place. There are different methods of inducing this state, a common one is to deliberately slow your breathing by focusing on it and then relax your muscles one part of your body at a time. You can use props like incense, soothing music and dimming the light, some claim that sitting or lying in a pyramid frame is useful too.

Going to bed of a night time is an easy place to start meditating, lie flat on your back, slow your breathing and fully focus your attention on it and then limb by limb go floppy. If you fall asleep in the process it does not matter because it is bed time anyway, if it worked you will awaken very refreshed and happy. You will usually have good quality sleep if you fall asleep this way.

Meditation calms us down but makes us more alert too, so if you are worried that it will somehow make you “lose your edge” don’t be because it won’t. Finding the time to meditate is like finding the time to exercise, you have to create space in your life for it, you do it BEFORE you do other things not after.

PMR (Polymyalgia Rheumatica)

As the name suggests PMR effects our muscles (myalgia) and joints (rheumatica). PMR is one of the 80+ auto immune diseases that can strike without warning, with no easily discernable cause and can be very debilitating. The symptoms of PMR vary from person to person although it does seem to be universally agreed that the larger joints in your body are the worst effected particularly your shoulders. Other symptoms may include a sudden inexplicable weight loss, jaw tension headaches and pain in other joints including your fingers, wrists, elbows, spine and toes. A blood test would reveal a high ESR, more women than men suffer from PMR,  50+ is the typical age demographic and the symptoms of PMR can be similar to the symptoms of other auto immune disease such as fibro myalgia or rheumatoid arthritis.

PMR tends to be episodic, for most the symptoms  start in the shoulders and are most severe first thing in the morning. Raising your arms above your head when your shoulders are acute can be very painful and restrictive, though fortunately they usually respond well to anti-inflammatory drugs… long as you have no high blood pressure or stomach ulcers. Corticosteroids such as prednisone can lessen the symptoms significantly though apart from being contra-indicated for hypertension and stomach ulcers you may experience weight gain using this drug aswell as severe mood swings and an inability to relax. The original onset of symptoms can last from 12 months to 4 years but if it recurs it is usually of less intensity than the first time.

Unlike muscular problems where you get a little warning before you get into a painful position, PMR can suddenly feel very intense and stop you in your tracks the moment you bend a joint even a little too far. Potentially the most serious symptom of PMR is Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA), it is this that causes the jaw tension headaches which, if left untreated can blind you.

Some PMR sufferers try an alkaline or nightshade free diet and find they do not help, others who try claim such diets definately do work. In either case you can still take your medications if you want to use both, so long as any food you eliminate from your diet has it’s nutritional values replaced by some other food. Many who get diagnosed with PMR find alot of relief from acupuncture, ice packs, massage, osteopathy and chiropractic, these therapies can be used in conjunction with pharmacuetical treatments too.

For a previously active and able bodied person the onset of PMR can be scary and demoralising, any exercise at all in the early acute stages may prove impossible, even having sex may require some adjustment. Practising meditation and relaxation techniques can help you cope with PMR as will planning what you do when you go out, if your knees are affected you might find that stairs are best avoided and getting into and out of coats can be embarrassingly difficult too. Like many other health problems that effect your abilities your facility to distract yourself and remain positive is an important part of  managing PMR.

Climate change and TCM

Whether climate change is an acute crisis brought about through human behavior or an as yet little understood natural cycle there will be implications for our health, even the fear of  it can have an effect. The prospect of tropical diseases becoming  active in previously sub-tropical environments is one of the more obvious possibilities not only for people but for plants and animals too, whatever effects our agriculture impacts on us . If we were to properly study how our attempts to control our own environments impacted on our health we may be surprised, air conditioning is a good case in point. Even though air conditioning has been with us for decades now we still have not come up with a system that can be kept germ free past the twenty year mark, keeping hospital infection rates down is difficult for this reason alone. How ironic it was when CFC’s in our refrigerators and airconditioners were found to be effecting our ozone layer.

Long distance air travel often exposes us to sudden climatic change too, perhaps some of what we experience as jet lag may be a bit of climate shock effecting the body in a weakened state from body clock interruption. Climatisation is thought to usually take a healthy adult about two weeks when they travel to a place with a different climate to home. When a person  lives in a cold climate they acquire better immunity (all other things being equal), but lose their extra natural resistance after several weeks in a warmer climate.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the last two weeks of the current season and first two weeks of the next is called “doyo”, doyo is considered to be like a lunar year (one callender month) of transition from one season to the next. Many herbal, acupuncture and even chi gong practices are oriented to not only observe the current season but the next also, in all five seasons- summer, autumn, winter, spring and doyo* (in four parts).

There are no doubt other traditional medicine practices around the globe that innovatively and effectively deal with severe weather, in Russia for instance kindergarten children are marched bare foot in circles through tubs of icy water just  before winter hits and few children seem to get colds later on.

Maybe too many of us urban dwellers just don’t go outside enough anymore, we now know that not everybody gets enough vitamin D from sunlight so in a sense climate induced disease (and the fear of it) is already with us but we are only starting to notice it. Some urban and city environments because of the orientation of their streets and buildings create some very unpleasant wind tunnel effects and not much sunlight falls to the ground in high rise areas in winter time, making them fashionable climate ghettoes.

I have never had a client ask me to tune them up for the next season with acupuncture but I treat plenty whose problems are in some way connected to climatic factors, even the wind entering your car window on a still day creates a very localised wind that your body can react to, weather is not what it used to be for many reasons.

Climate, Health and TCM III

Heat, whether it comes in the form of an unseasonably hot day in a cooler month, during normal summer weather or as a result of a hot  artificial environments has  health significance in TCM. People are considered to be more accident prone, have headaches more often, suffer “hot-blood” conditions like psoriasis, suffer more from cardiac conditions, febrile diseases and insomnia, when exposed to heat and hot weather.

Psychological illness can be exacerbated in the heat too, people tend to be more manic and excitable when it is hot and crime waves have been known to correspond with heat waves. Many become reckless in the pursuit of having a good time in summer, in TCM summer is the season of accidents. Just as the heat can quicken your pulse, so too do “heat causing” food and drink like alcohol, coffee, chilli, chocolate and drugs that rev you up like ice and speed. In Summer time people are more sociable, venture  into nature and celebrate alot. In Australia more babies are born in August and Serptember than in the other months of the year, in TCM Summer is the season of joy.

People who dislike the heat often have a tendency to suffer from the energy states listed above just as people who prefer summer to winter often find that things like their osteo arthritis and blood circulation worse when it is cold. There is a feature of perceived heat in TCM too, where a “full heat” condition like heat stroke, hyperthyroidism or malaria does raise your body temperature, “empty heat” often does not.

In TCM empty heat is viewed as a condition caused by deficient body fluids rather than a fever, in my time as a nurse I encountered quite a few elderly people who would kick their blankets off and complain of feeling too hot even when the air temperature was not particularly warm.  These poor souls often looked emaciated (due to chronic dehydration) and were flushed across the nose and cheeks (malar flush). They even looked dried out  but would rarely drink water when it was offered, much to the frustrations of the nurses and doctors looking after them.

Empty heat (Yin deficiency) can be experienced by younger people too in the form of AIDS and Lupus. Whether heat is full or empty when you suffer from it it makes it hard to properly relax and be still. Burn out from living a frantic life style for too long is regarded as a heat condition in TCM also.

The five pernicious climates (cold, damp, dryness, wind and heat) interact with each other, heat and damp cause “hot damp” conditions- high humidity during monsoon can literally drive people mad who are not acclimatised to it because the moisture in the air will not allow your sweat to dry and cool you. When cold and wind combine the cold and flu season starts and wind dryness plays havoc with allergy sufferers.

In TCM so long as the transition from one season to the next is gradual rather than sudden and weather extremes do not occur we adapt and are less susceptible to illness.