Balancing the Effects of Emotional Trauma

Each of us is a wholly unique individual.  It only makes sense, then, that each person’s health challenges are uniquely tailored to best suit their distinct set of needs. As such, in our view, there is no definitive natural medicine ‘protocol’ for any one condition.  However, there are several predictable patterns in many patients suffering from psychological stress.  Below find a brief synopsis of our approach.

The three main physiologic systems we find need to be supported in people experiencing psychological stress are the gastrointestinal system, the endocrine system and the nervous system.  When multiple systems are affected, it is essential that the patient recognize that re-establishing homeostasis within the body is a process that necessarily takes time, often years, to completely take hold.

The gastrointestinal system:

The cornerstone of every health care program recommended by the practitioners of Blue Willow Health Center is promoting a strong foundation for health by prescribing dietary and lifestyle changes specific to each individual’s biochemistry, biomechanics, emotional and hereditary predispositions. We find that a great many people with multi-system imbalances experience an exacerbation of symptoms when eating common food allergens, namely gluten, dairy and caffeine.  Until we discover and address the underlying cause of the food sensitivities, we strongly recommend patients avoid aggravating foods.  We emphasize the important link between the nervous system and gastrointestinal system:  the enteric nervous system is a collection of over 100 million nerves (more than are found within the spinal cord) that sends and receives impulses, records experiences and respond to emotions. It is a network of neurons, neurotransmitters, proteins and a complex circuitry that enables it to act independently, learn and even remember.  The enteric nervous system plays a major role in our emotional lives.  For example, major neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, norepinephrine and nitric oxide, are found there, as are enkephalins (a member of the endorphins family) and benzodiazepines – the family of psychoactive chemicals that includes such ever popular drugs as valium and xanax.  It is our medical opinion that addressing GI health is paramount when treating those with debilitating psychological and/or emotional issues.

Aside from identifying and eliminating food sensitivities, here are some other mainstays of promoting GI health:

  • Food hygiene:  It is important to sit down to eat regularly timed, well balanced meals, and to chew eat bite thoroughly.  We recommend patients NOT eat in front of the television, while reading (or even worse, while driving), so that the body can focus its energies on digesting and assimilating the meal.  We advise people to prepare most of their meals at home, preferably purchasing local, organic foods.  We also suggest eating 5 cups of brightly colored vegetables a day, with at least one serving of dark green leafy vegetables.

(Although we strongly recommend staying well hydrated (with a baseline water intake of one half the body weight in ounces per day), we do not recommend drinking beverages while eating).

  • Apple cider vinegar:  Drink 1/2 teaspoon, in water, 10-20 minutes before each meal to stimulate the digestive process, thereby enhancing absorption of nutrients.
  • Daily probiotics are recommended to help repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria, a balance all to often disturbed by the widespread misuse of antibiotics and the depletion of minerals in our soils.
  • Castor oil packs, nightly, over abdomen will not only stimulate lymphatic flow (which optimizes immune function), stimulate liver function (to enhance detoxification and metabolism of hormones), but also promotes relaxation before bed to assist in the body’s ability to fall into deep, restorative sleep.

The endocrine system:

Cortisol, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ hormone, is excreted by the adrenal glands in response to stress.  Bombarded with the daily stress of a modern, fast paced lifestyle, the addition of constant emotional or psychological stress will place an undue burden on the adrenal glands, which are incessantly trying to keep up with the stress by pumping out more cortisol.  Sustained, excess cortisol causes a host of medical problems, eventually causing decreased or improper functioning within the entire endocrine system.  The number one way to support a challenged endocrine system is to establish a daily routine, thereby allowing the body the opportunity to re-learn how to function in a predictable manner.  All life adheres to relatively predictable rhythms…diurnal, lunar, seasonal, annual, etc.  Evolutionarily, we are programmed to live in tune with the rhythms of nature.  It is only relatively recently that humans have begun to control their environment in such as way that we no longer abide by these natural rhythms.  By a regular meal time, sleep and exercise routine, the body will not have compounded stress of not knowing when then next meal is coming, when it will have time to excrete waste products, or if it will be getting adequate and restful sleep.  This measured predictability will ensure the body will have an easier time bouncing back from the inevitable vicissitudes of life.

Other recommendations for promoting endocrine balance:

  • Sleeping at least 7 hours each night, in total darkness.  Sleeping in total darkness is strongly suggested because light — even from a night light — suppresses the function of the pineal gland. The intricacies of the workings of the pineal gland are still undiscovered, yet we it is vitally important in regulating hormonal balance.  René Descartes, who dedicated much time to the study of the pineal gland, called it the “seat of the soul”, and believed that it was the point of connection between the intellect and the body.  Today, we know that melatonin is produced by the brain’s pineal gland.  Melatonin is important in the regulation of the circadian rhythms of several biological functions, and is also a pervasive and powerful antioxidant with a particular role in the protection of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.
  • B vitamins are generally associated with brain and nervous-system function by having a direct effect on important neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, and generally decline under stress as a result of increased cortisol level.
  • Magnesium: It is well known that stress increases the body’s need for magnesium. In fact, genetic differences in magnesium utilization may account for differences in body responses to stress.

The nervous system:

Along with regulating the functioning of the entire body, the nervous system effectively monitors stress in the body.  If the nervous system senses that a situation is stressful, it causes physiological changes within the body to occur.  Some of these physiological changes include increased respiratory rate, accompanied by shallow breathing, increased heart rate, and the release of adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream.  This is the response of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response.  All these changes are necessary for the body in sudden stressful situations, but are extremely damaging to the health when experienced chronically.  If the sympathetic nervous system is constantly telling the body to be on a state of high alert, the parasympathetic nervous system is unable to direct the body to calm down and relax.  It is in the state of relaxation, the parasympathetic state, that we ensure proper oxygenation of the blood and tissues, repair and regenerate damaged tissues and cells, and digest and assimilate nutrients.  For optimal health, it is vital that each of us establish a balance between the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.  To promote a parasympathetic state, we have each patient focus on at least 108 deep, full breaths a day.  Breathing correctly is critical in maintaining the level of oxygen for energy, keeping the correct pH levels in the body, and enough carbon dioxide for bodily functions.  The improper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide created by shallow breathing can create an agitated state, and is known to contribute to anxiety, panic attacks and even phobias.

Other common ways to balance the nervous system:

  • Plenty of essential fatty acids, both in the form of freshly ground flax, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds (eaten daily) and of high quality fish oils (EPA, DHA and Cod liver oil).  Essential fatty acids play a critical role in the functioning of the central nervous system.  Investigations have linked omega-3 fatty acids to a number of neuropsychiatric disorders.
  • Routine, B vitamins and magnesium work on this level as well.

Natural medicine is an art form:  there are no panacea or magic bullets in this system of wholistic medicine.  Each individual has his or her own unique set of symptoms and reactions which will, in turn, dictate the approach the practitioners at Blue Willow Health Center take to creating an individualized treatment plan.  Aside from these basic lifestyle recommendations and supplement suggestions, we specialize in gentle and effective supportive therapies geared towards restoring normal physiology.  As wholistic practitioners, we recognize that physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of imbalance must be addressed to uncover the underlying cause of the imbalance, and often work in collaboration with trained mental health specialists.  At Blue Willow Health Center, our goal is to inspire, motivate and empower each patient to make healthy choices a part of daily life.  We spend time cultivating relationships with each patient, teaching them the principles of ideal health, so that together, we restore physiologic homeostasis.  This is the path towards optimal health.

© 2013 Karin Taylor Wu, ND

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Magnificent Magnesium

It is becoming increasingly evident that keeping the level of minerals in balance in every tissue, fluid cell and organ in the human body is a vital aspect of establishing and maintaining optimal health.  On the cellular level, an imbalance in minerals is one of the basic causes of degenerative disease.  As a result of unsound food production practices and the rampant over-processing of our food, many people in the in the United States are extremely deficient in minerals.  According to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., approximately 70% of the US population suffers from a particular mineral deficiency: magnesium.  Magnesium deficiency is considered one of the most under-diagnosed deficiencies in the US.[1] Over the past century, as the mainstay of our collective diet has moved away from whole grains, green vegetables and legumes, there has been a progressive decline in dietary intake of magnesium in the US, from an average daily intake of approximately 475 mg in 1900 to 175 mg in 1987.[2]

Why is magnesium important?

Magnesium is one the most abundant minerals found in our bodies.  It is essential for the functioning of over 300 different enzymes in the body, particularly those that produce, transport, store, and utilize energy.   Imagine, for a bleak moment, what would befall the world’s plants (and some photosynthesizing bacteria) without adequate sunlight…goodbye, springtime resurgence of new life energy and regeneration.  Ugh!  This is on par with what would happen to your body without sufficient levels of magnesium.  All the DNA and RNA in each one of the approximately 10 trillion cells in our bodies require magnesium for growth and development, the functioning of all our nerves and muscles (including our heart muscle and all the muscles that line our digestive tract and blood vessels), and the regulation of serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, muscle contraction, and cognitive functions like memory and learning) depend on adequate levels of magnesium.

Which health concerns are associated with magnesium deficiency?

Here is an incomplete list of health conditions associated with magnesium deficiency:  Various mental and emotional imbalances (e.g. anxiety and panic attacks, attention deficit disorder, depression, irritability, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, PMS), Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, blood sugar imbalances, chronic fatigue syndrome, constipation, diabetes mellitus, fibromyalgia, heart disease, hypertension, hyperthyroid, infertility, inflammation, lead toxicity, malabsorption, nerve problems and muscle spasms (e.g. migraines, leg and foot cramps, gastrointestinal cramps, generalized muscle aches and pains), obstetrical problems, osteoporosis, oxidative damage and sudden infant death syndrome.  Phew!

How can I make sure I am getting enough magnesium?

Magnesium is found in abundance in whole, unprocessed foods (especially in green vegetables, chlorella, sea vegetables, whole grains and legumes).  First and foremost, reduce your intake of packaged, processed and refined foods, and focus more on home cooked meals, always moving towards a whole foods lifestyle.  It is also important to be aware that as your intake of dietary calcium, vitamin D, animal protein and alcohol increases, so does your body’s magnesium requirements.  Also, a number of drugs (e.g. antibiotics, chemotherapeutic drugs, cyclosporine, corticosteroids, and long term use of laxatives) have been shown to induce magnesium deficiency.  Along with a well-balanced diet (with a minimal of 300 mg daily, while striving for 600-800 mg a day, from whole food sources), we recommend supplementing with a biological dose of magnesium, about 150 mg (as opposed to a substantially larger pharmacologic dose which is unlikely to be utilized by the body), taken in split doses through out the day.  Given that thiamine is critical for magnesium metabolism, and that several studies show that magnesium is synergistic (more powerful) when partnered with vitamin B6, finding a combination supplement (Magnesium with thiamine and B6) is a good idea.

Case in point

A 35 year old woman came to us suffering from 6 months of prolonged PMS (experiencing 2 weeks of painful, swollen breasts and abdominal bloating, sugar cravings and the resulting discomforts of living as though on an emotional rollercoaster), dysmenorrhea (with debilitating uterine cramps that radiated down to the upper thighs, low back pain, muscle weakness and light headedness), and mild insomnia due to night time rumination (excessive worrying at night as soon as the head hits the pillow).  Although she already had many great health habits firmly in place (clean diet with healthy food choices, regular and varied exercise, and consistent stress management practices), she needed some counseling on her on eating lean protein at every meal to help balance mood and blood sugar (thereby reducing sugar cravings), and more support around avoiding her known food sensitivities (namely gluten and dairy).  We recommended a rotation of freshly ground seeds (flax/pumpkin and sesame/sunflower) and essential fatty acids (fish oil and evening primrose oil) with her menstrual cycle to help regulate her hormones.  We also suggested she begin taking 150 mg of a combination magnesium powder (dissolved in warm water), taken in a single dose before bed (to help calm her over active mind).  After just one month, the magnesium helped regulate her body’s water balance so that both the swollen breasts and abdominal bloating were no longer an issue.  With her hormones closer to a balanced state, her emotional lability (easily aroused and unpredictable emotions) shortened to just two days before bleeding.  As for muscle cramping, her menstrual cramping reduced to more a tolerable level with no pain radiating to her upper thighs.  Both she and her family feel grateful and relieved!  From this brief symptom picture, we already have clues that show us that our patient is likely to need long term support of her digestive system, her liver function, endocrine system, Qi (vital energy) and blood flow, and in addressing the deep seated fear that arises when she is in a vulnerable state, keeping her up at night…the healing journey continues!

In conclusion…

At Blue Willow, we passionately believe in the power of the triad to find and address underlying imbalances that are contributing to your experience of any troubling or uncomfortable symptoms.  Three is indeed, the magic number!  Most of you are familiar with the concept of layers of healing — meaning true healing only occurs once balance is restored to the body, mind and spirit.  In traditional Chinese medicine, we emphasize drawing on the strength of Three Treasures within each of us, our Jing, Qi and Shen (essence, vital energy and spirit), to return to a place of optimal health. At Blue Willow, we believe in establishing a long term relationship with each person seeking our support, so that we may offer the deepest and most comprehensive levels of care we can.  If you are over-stressed, experience anxiety, fatigue, muscle pain, muscle spasms, or PMS, you may do well to consider supplementing with magnesium for a month to see if you can reduce some of your uncomfortable symptoms.  More importantly, we hope you will consider the potent, scientifically demonstrated health promoting effects of just this one mineral – magnificent magnesium – and will begin to implement some daily lifestyle changes that will help ensure optimal health for your body, your community, and your planet.

© 2013 Karin Taylor Wu, ND


[1] Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes.  Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Fluoride. Washington, DC National Academy of Sciences, 1997.

[2] Magnesium deficiency in the pathogenesis of disease, New York: Plenum Press, 1980.