Asian Medicine for All Types of Fatigue (February, 2006)
By Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac
Feeling tired in the afternoons, leading you to seek a cup of coffee or some chocolate?
Feel sleepy after you eat meals? Do you work a lot and feel too tired to exercise?
Or are you so tired all the time that you can barely function or get out of bed?
Asian or Oriental Medicine, which includes the use of Acupuncture and herbs, addresses all types of fatigue or lack of Qi (energy). The key to any approach, particularly in the field of Asian medicine, is to determine the pattern of signs and symptoms which creates the fatigue. Thus, before even choosing what might seem a particular simple remedy, whether it is an herbal formula or dietary recommendation, one must wade through over twenty different possibilities for fatigue.
In Asian medicine there are five main physiological systems which do not necessarily correlate with conventional western medicine physiology. In a very simplified presentation, they are: Lung, Liver, Heart, Kidney and Spleen. These five terms are metaphors for so much more, as they refer to not only the particular organ and its related organ systems, but also the related energy meridians, particular functions and operations. Suffice it to say, each of these systems can be out of balance creating several different types of fatigue.
For example, you will feel tired if you are not able to breathe due to deficient Lung energy. The remedy might be an herbal tonic that strengthens the lungs by adding moisture. You can also feel fatigued if you suffer from excess phlegm blocking your lungs from operating properly, e.g. from bronchitis. The remedy in this case might be to remove the moisture or dampness from the lungs. Or, if you sit with poor posture or are stressed causing you to breathe shallowly, you might also have low energy. Certain energy exercises (Qi Gong) might be prescribed to help you open up the chest area and breathe Qi into the lungs. One of the various acupuncture prescriptions (selected point formulas) will also help with any of these types of fatigue.
Perhaps you find yourself falling asleep after meals. Spleen Qi deficiency is a likely cause, leading one to eventually suffer from insufficient Blood (causing also things like eczema, hypertension, insomnia, amenorrhea, depression, heart arrhythmia, and anemia). Kidney Qi deficiency is what causes that afternoon slump. Unfortunately when we reach for caffeine or sugar, we are further weakening the Kidneys through over-stimulation from these substances and overwork. How unfortunate it is that our society is inadvertently creating a weakened elderly population through overuse of caffeine and sugar, who will then be dependent on many drugs and pharmaceuticals to manage their deteriorating body functions. When the body is weakened from these “foods” or from overwork, what the body really needs are fortifying foods and herbs (proteins and Qi tonics), acupuncture, and of course, rest.
Sometimes our Liver Qi is stuck due to tension and stress. When we are stressed, the body tenses up and as a result, energy does not flow smoothly. Tightness in the shoulders and neck eventually creates blockage, causing energy to get stuck in the head, leading to headaches, eye problems, ringing in the ears, and even susceptibility to more colds and flus. As all the energy gets stuck and heat rises to the head, there is lack of energy below, creating all the problems of the weak Spleen (above). This is also one of the causes of hypertension, along with a deficiency of fluids and Blood. It is also a primary cause of depression, which is basically “stuck Qi”. A very simple and inexpensive herbal formula can help, as well as just walking or exercising (forcing your body to move the Qi). Exercise is one of the best Qi/Energy generators we can create. Acupuncture can also unblock stagnant Qi throughout the body. Regular treatments teach the body to redirect the flow of energy (from patterns of stagnation to patterns of flow).
And what about the chronic, deep fatigue suffered by some? Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) has been attributed to several things in conventional, western medicine. One theory is that CFS is caused by a virus, bacteria or protozoan which enters the body during an acute illness, such as the flu. I was witness to this type of cause for CFS. While I was in law school in San Francisco in the late 80’s, my roommate and I both contracted the flu. We were both ill for weeks. At some point, however, I eventually recovered from the deep fatigue, almost forcing myself to get well out of sheer necessity due to the need to stay current with my classes, as well as the resulting boredom from being ill. Unfortunately, my roommate did not fare as well. She could not shake the fatigue. It lingered and grounded her to the point that she had to quit her job as a stock analyst and return home back East so her family could take care of her. Her doctors had no idea how to help her. At the time, I was not yet aware of the Asian medicine which could have helped her recover. In retrospect, I recall that she was already very Spleen Qi and Blood deficient and pale when the flu hit, from having eaten cold foods, drinking beer (typical of young adults that age!), and living in the cold, damp weather of San Francisco. She lacked the energy to recover, and the flu (along with perhaps a lingering virus or protozoa) just made her spiral downward.
Viewed from the Asian medicine perspective, several of the organ systems are out of balance in a CFS pattern. With CFS, a person suffers from fatigue, depression due to the stagnation, aches and pains (often called fibromyalgia) from the stuck energy causing the Blood to slow and get stuck as well, and other complaints due to lack of Blood flow (such as headaches, “brain fog”, poor memory, and insomnia). In this situation, a Licensed Acupuncturist (L.Ac.) would regulate the Qi by unblocking it, and detoxifying the body from toxins (heat, phlegm, etc.) accumulated due to the blockage. In addition, the L.Ac. would strengthen the organs which were weakened (either already weakened beforehand and/or weakened afterwards due to the blockage) and raise the Qi that holds one upright and keeps one active. Using a combination of acupuncture, herbs, dietary recommendations, and light exercise, plenty of chronic fatigue sufferers have been able to achieve balance once again.
So, feeling fatigued? Visit a Licensed Acupuncturist (L.Ac.), a comprehensively trained Asian/Oriental medicine practitioner who has the highest training in acupuncture and the use of Chinese herbs. Find out what type of fatigue you might be having and then receive the appropriate acupuncture treatment and herbal formula for you.
Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac. is the President and Founder of the Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine & Acupuncture (PIHMA), College & Clinic, the Valley’s only accredited college of Asian Medicine.