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Environmental Awareness

By Sara Calabro

Researchers from Belgium and Switzerland recently looked at the relationship between environment and disease. They found that air pollution is just as likely as widely known risk factors, such as physical exertion and alcohol consumption, to trigger a heart attack.

Reporting on the findings, TIME said, “The study raises interesting questions about widening the focus on heart attack triggers—away from a narrow consideration of individual risk factors, which are certainly important, to include more universal ones.”

This is not news to acupuncturists.

As part of their routine diagnostic process—not just for heart problems but all diseases—acupuncturists consider how environmental factors affect health. Does the patient feel worse when it rains? How about in springtime? Did symptoms subside on a recent camping trip? Did they come back upon returning to the city?

In acupuncture theory, humans are looked at as microcosms of the natural world that surrounds them.

The language of acupuncture reflects this emphasis on nature. Diagnoses are categorized as Damp, Wind, Heat and Cold; patients are identified constitutionally as Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood.

These terms are used metaphorically and literally. For example, a patient diagnosed with Wind Invasion might have pain that travels from joint to joint—the pain pattern reflects the unpredictable movement of wind. At the same time, these symptoms are thought to be caused and exacerbated by literal wind in the patient’s environment. In addition to selecting acupuncture points for eliminating Wind, an acupuncturist might offer tips for self-care: cover the neck with a scarf and avoid sleeping in front of a fan.

In contrast to biomedicine, which employs causal thinking to isolate disease (inflammation in the joints causes them to hurt), acupuncture looks at the overall context within which symptoms occur (why is there inflammation in the first place?). Environmental factors that contribute to this overall context include weather, as well as seasonal changes, and living conditions such as moldy basement apartments.

Another environmental factor considered by acupuncturists is air pollution, the subject of the new research on heart-attack triggers. People living in heavily polluted areas may be prone to imbalances in the Lung system, such as cough or shortness of breath.

Air pollution also may play a role in seemingly unrelated conditions, as health from an acupuncture perspective requires balance throughout the whole body. For instance, in some patients, Deficient Lung Qi can inhibit function in the Kidney system, leading to low back pain, difficulty hearing or edema.

Acupuncture, of course, cannot change the seasons or reduce carbon emissions. Instead, it addresses these factors by changing the patient’s internal environment so that it exists harmoniously with external elements.

In Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, authors Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold say acupuncture theory “presumes that if you reorganize the existing pattern of disharmony into a harmonic pattern of relationships, the original cause will disappear because the conditions in which it was rooted cease to exist.”

In other words, since pollution cannot be easily eliminated, acupuncture bolsters Lung Qi to create balance. The original pattern of disharmony—air pollution weakens Lung Qi which manifests as a Kidney imbalance—no longer exists because the Lung Qi is no longer weak. The air pollution is still there, but now the patient is better equipped to handle it.

This does not let us off the hook in terms of environmental awareness and action. But as we continue the imperative fight for a greener planet, acupuncture, because it fundamentally understands the impact of environment on health, can provide added strength.

Photo by Sara Calabro

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