Chinese Medicine in Context
Hou Po – Magnolia Officinalis (Magnolia Bark)
Did you know that in addition to acupuncture Chinese medicine also incorporates a variety of modalities of health intervention? As human beings are dynamic, complex and represent a host of needs and are informed by both by their DNA and environment, Chinese medicine aims to approach wellness with a similar dynamic system of diagnostic tools and modalities.
One of those modalities central to the consideration of CM being a whole medicine is Chinese Herbology. Chinese herbal medicine consists of hundreds of individual herbs that have been used successfully for thousands of years to treat every health condition from uterine fibroids, to recalcitrant skin rashes, to infantile seizures, as well as the “sensation of a charred piece of meat lodged in the throat”—a condition called “Plumpit Qi”, where there is no physical presence of a foreign object in the throat, though an uncanny inability to speak up, to clear the throat, to feel at ease in the chest.
This rich lineage of the study of the dynamics and medical usage of herbs is a testament to the fact that human beings and plants have evolved alongside one another. The oversight of the utility of herbs in preventative and ongoing healthcare is an unfortunate modern consequence of a cultural perspective that tends to deem the natural environment as an obstacle, dead and surmountable.
Chinese herbal medicine will be a key feature in the overhaul of healthcare in the United States. There are already prominent hospitals, such as the Cleveland Clinic, that are beginning to incorporate Chinese herbal medicine as a viable feature of treatment for ongoing care.
Herbs, plants in general, tend to grow in communities. There are few plants that will thrive alone. As such, we are then able to apply this general rule to the way in which herbs have not only historically been used, from a CM perspective, but also the way in which they become more dynamic and effective in the treatment of human health concerns. In other words, when we use herbs in Chinese Medicine, we more often than not use them in the context of a formula, consisting of three or more herbs to address each condition.
These formulas can consist of a variety of methods of preparation depending on the condition. For instance, one of the most effective methods of formular preparation is in the decoction, or Tang, which basically means “soup” in Chinese. As such, the herbs are weighed out in proper proportion, choosing a major one or two major herbs to enact a very specific medical action to address the diagnosis that has been assessed through an office intake; oral, pulse and tongue examination. A few additional herbs will often be included to further “hone” the formula to address an outlying symptom, or to direct the action of the formula to a particular region of the body. For instance, the herb Mu Gua might be added to a formula to address cramping in the calf, if a patient presents with back pain that is rooted in blood deficiency. The main action of the formula is to address the back pain, but Mu Gua might be added to relax the gastrocnemius in the calf, so as to return blood flow to that particular region, which is contributing to the pain.
The herbs work more synergistically in combination with one another, not unlike their tendency to support thrivance in the context of a garden.
Springtime in DC:
Springtime is beginning to arrive in the greater DC area, albeit with a few hiccups of snow and cold weather. The Spring in Chinese Medicine is often associated with new growth, blooming, starting new projects, and waking from the more internally-focused and conservation-oriented Wintertime.
During this time, there is a lot of change—what is frozen begins to thaw, what is cold begins to warm. The change in the environment can often be directly observed in the human body. The rich lineage of Chinese medicine really describes a detailed and beautiful survey of recognizing direct correlations to what happens to the plants outside when the Spring winds arrive, what happens to the buds when the cold snaps for another week. In other words, as we have evolved alongside plants, Chinese medical practitioners observed that we could also track the change of an individual’s health, and over time develop predictable signs and symptoms emerging at this particular period of the year.
One of the observable changes of Spring is the abundance of wind. Wind tends to be erratic, unpredictable, and it is this time of year that we see an abundance of individuals complaining of experiencing a lot of sinus issues, congestion, headaches, constipation, and a sensation of “clearing out”. The slumber of winter gives way to cabin fever, and we run outside with shorts or t-shirts on, and inadvertently get caught in a snow spell. The next week, we notice our office mates are dropping like flies, and we’re determined to not catch the bug that’s moving quickly and erratically. Inevitably, we catch a similar bug, spend a couple days to a week in bed, and then we meet the rest of Spring with a readiness for the new year.
Sometimes that cough, that chest oppression, or congestion stays for a month, maybe even two.
We find that in Chinese Medicine, in a state of equilibrium, the body will be able to meet the changing season. However, when an individual has underlying dampness, underlying heat or deficiencies, or other obstructions, the ability to meet these changes becomes a little more difficult. The phlegm in our chest sticks around a little bit longer, and we get that sensation of Plumpit Qi that just never seems to resolve.
Hou Po – Magnolia Bark – a go-to Chinese Herb for the Spring:
Despite the recent snowfall, it is not difficult to begin to notice the bloom of the world-famous cherry blossoms in DC. In addition, one of my absolute favorite plants that is also turning the sky pink/purple and white is the Magnolia tree. In Chinese Medicine, this plant has multiple parts that are utilized to address various health concerns, often developing at this time of year. One of those herbs is Hou Po – Magnolia officinalis, or Magnolia Bark.
In the Materia Medica (Bensky, Clavey & Stoger), an extensive text describing the dynamic history, reference/research and usage of herbs, designated to categories related to patterns of diagnosis and differentiation, Hou Po is said to have these following properties:
This herb is bitter, acrid and aromatic, warm in nature and enters the Lung, Large Intestine, Spleen and Stomach meridians.
And, has the following therapeutic actions:
- Promotes the movement of Qi in the middle jiao and resolves food stagnation. For Qi stagnation affecting the Spleen and Stomach and food stagnation with chest and or abdominal fullness.
- Promotes the movement of Qi downward, dries dampness and transforms phlegm. For dampness or phlegm obstructing the middle jiao with distention, fullness, nausea and diarrhea.
- Descends rebellious Qi, reduces phlegm and calms wheezing. For cough and wheezing due to phlegm congesting the Lungs.
- Source: (http://www.americandragon.com/Individualherbsupdate/HouPo.html)
Wind, from a Chinese medicine perspective is often seen as the cause of a hundred diseases, meaning that change, the volatile and unpredictable nature of spring is at the root of all dis-ease. Our health is often gauged by our capacity to not simply meet our environment, but to make sense of when things are inconsistent. Like the blizzard of DC two days ago, meeting the bright sun and warm breeze today—our bodies can become easily shaken by this environmental inconsistency.
Hou Po – Magnolia officinalis is organized in the Materia Medica as belonging to the category of Aromatic Herbs that Dispel Dampness. The acrid/aromatic taste typically corresponds to the Lungs, as often aroma contains within it volatile essential oils that have a very quick and potent effect that lasts for a short period of time. For instance, if you were to cook a meal that included cardamom or mint, you would want to add these spices in the last 3-5 minutes to obtain not simply the greatest aromatic and flavor benefit, but also the greatest digestive benefit.
It is important then, in this particular season to incorporate herbs like Hou Po that are aromatic, as they are able to remind the internal organs, especially the Lung, how to adapt quickly, without much struggle.
It is not surprising, then, to consider why Hou Po is described as reducing Qi stagnation, that especially effects the digestive system and the chest, leading to coughing and wheezing. Due to the overall slower and insular quality of winter, our bodies tend to accumulate sluggish fluids, that begin to act like blocks of dirty and compacted snow in the streets after several storms and snowplow efforts to clear a path. When Spring comes, our ability to jump outside and meet the influence of wind/change, meets the blocks of muddy snow in our bodies. This then contributes to the inability for the Lungs to remain clear and vigilant, and we get coughing and wheezing, and nausea from all the fluid accumulating in the digestive system.
Thus, Hou Po becomes an exquisite herb to bring a quick-acting warmth, almost white-hot fire, to address the muddied ice obstructing our Lungs. When the Lungs are obstructed, we are unable to meet our environment in real-time. When this becomes a repetitive pattern in the body, we might find ourselves, Spring after spring, with a chronic cough that seems to last longer each year.
Chinese Herbs and our relationship to them, rely on our alliance with mutual observation and appreciation.
Hou Po – Magnolia officinalis is not simply a beautiful backdrop in that volatile and confusing Spring transition—it is really an environmental inquiry into our level of affinity. Affinity, from a Daoist perspective, describes the way in which something catches our attention, or the degree to which we find ourselves involved with a particular phenomenon. Magnolia flower, Xin Yi Hua, similarly, though more directed in its therapeutic action, is spicy and warm, and is used for stuffy nose, congestion, discharge, loss of smell, and sinus headache. When the orifices, including the sinuses or the eyes are blocked, we cannot engage with our environment readily. We can’t see the full picture, we can’t sense the entire image, and our encounter is incomplete. Completion is about the earth element, connection, feeling and knowing the way in which your environment is in support of who you are. Flowers bloom to draw attention to the aesthetic, the sight; when the nose is blocked, their aromatic qualities draw our noses to lean in for a whiff when our eyes are teary, when our necks get stiff and tight from the wind because there is too much happening around us. When we crane in to have a relationship with the herb, we develop a relationship with the way in which we are anchored by our affinity, the clarity of our gaze or direction when the winds are blowing in multiple directions. Its quality to aromatically transform dampness leans into its capacity to clear away the accumulations, the stagnation of winter—which relate to all that is akin to the metal element. The metal element relates to that time of year when we must encounter the death of patterns that no longer serve us, materials in the body that are no longer viable or useable resources.
The difficulty with these patterns is that they can begin to spill into the Spring, those unusable materials begin to become waste that contributes to oxidative stress in the body.
The following research describes the role that Hou Po – Magnolia officianalis has in the what is called the NRF2 pathway. In recent years it has “emerged as the central pathway that protects cells from variety of stressors” (http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/27721050)
NFE2L2 or NRF2 is “a transcription factor that in humans is encoded by the NFE2L2 gene.” It is “a basic leucine zipper protein that regulates the expression of antioxidant proteins that protect against oxidative damage triggered by injury and inflammation” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NFE2L2). These proteins are cytoplasmic protectors, meaning they secure the semi-permeable barriers and regulate genetic expression.
In other words, the bark of Magnolia, much like the skin (the largest organ of the body and governed by the Lungs in Chinese Medicine) acts to guard the body from the dynamic invasion of Spring weather. It does so by clearing out, aromatically, the remnants of the last year that prevent us from meeting the new one. It does so by preserving and regulating the way in which our DNA unfolds, despite the chaos of a changing external.
Magnolia bark, not surprisingly, has been used in ritual Daoism to assist people in dealing with grief, especially related to the loss of relatives and loved ones. The plant as a whole remains a DC-native reminder of strength, beauty and affinity for new life in dying of old ways of being, old health patterns that prevent us from accepting renewed and different experiences of wellness.
When you get a chance today, or this week, do not hesitate to take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the Magnolia. She holds your attention, she wants to offer you injections of dynamic warmth that hit you as unexpectedly as the wind. Her aroma returns to you the memory what it is like to be born, to be new after periods of our life that are like hard winters filled with scarcity and uncertainty.
I wish you beauty this afternoon, of the pink/purple and white nature, brown-scales of armor that provide you with protection as the wind continues to do what wind does for the remaining weeks of winter.
I wish you comfort in knowing that Hou Po’s affinity for the Lung and Stomach, can gently drape you in the metaphor of a constant sense and state of community growing out of your environment, living entities that want so deeply to know you, and for you to know them.
Thank you for reading today. Enjoy your afternoon!