Zoe Darling
Acupuncturist, Herbalist, and Health Counselor
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Auto-Immune, Acupuncture, and Healing

malakwa-2_1024Having done grad school research and had my own life touched deeply by MS, recently colleagues asked me specifically how I work with auto-immune conditions. While acupuncture and East Asian Medicine are amazing in alleviating symptoms and even altering the course of illness, when the body is attacking itself, as in auto-immune conditions, understanding and healing necessitate a broader, deeper conversation. In responding to my colleagues, I felt inspired for them, and you, to distill my approach to care. While originally posted in 2016, I’ve continued to update this entry.

I’ve named four broad facets worthy considering. Evidently, how these apply is very individual. I offer these up with a healthy dose of humility. The causes and conditions of our lives, our illnesses, our vitality, are so much bigger than any list of bullet points. Please feel welcome to reach with questions or comments. And please share these ideas with anyone who may benefit.

Bring Awareness to and Address Nutritional Deficiencies (and Excesses). Simple maxim from trusted colleague Bruce Milliman (ND, background is in Microbiology and Immunology), “When the body has its basic needs met, the immune system has less reason to waiver from homeostasis.” Food insecurity has consequences. Food choices, due to scarcity, family modeling, peer pressure, addictive process, and culture have consequences. And eating, for many adults is complicated. If you are working with food insecurity or struggling with your relationship with food, support and accountability are critical in creating new patterns without shame. Here, I’m simply naming the most common nutritional imbalances I see contributing to auto-immune conditions.

  • Blood Deficiency – Anemia is estimated about 9-12% of non-Hispanic white women, closer to 20% of Black women and other Women of Color. Pre-clinical iron deficiency is estimated higher in all populations. Iron carries oxygen to our cells. This allows us to burn fuel to produce energy required for every functioning system of the body. Think about it; every single cell needs oxygen to function.
  • Protein (deficiency). Protein is imperative for the building and repair of body tissues, day to day wear and tear, also healing after exercise or  injury. Regular protein consumption further stabilizes blood sugar and consequently mental health. Basic equation for your daily needs:  8g protein/20lb of body weight.
  • Fat. Healthy fats are critical for building nerves, regulating hormones, storing energy for times of scarcity etc. etc.
  • Dampness. This Chinese medical term refers to dysregulation in the body most easily compared to inflammation. Common foods that worsen dampness: refined flour and processed foods particularly wheat, sugar, dairy {particularly unfermented}.

Excavate One’s Psychological basement. Chinese maxim, ‘when the qi is blocked there is pain’. When someone has a history of unexplored or unintegrated trauma, the qi is blocked. Trauma can include, and is not limited to, poverty, neglect, verbal, physical or sexual abuse, early childhood parent divorce, death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver, alcoholism or other substance abuse in the family. And, for anyone surviving as Black, Indigenous or a Person of Color in this country, any constellation of these named traumas are further enveloped in the many kinds of oppression, aggression, and limitation that influence one’s life experience every day. In my clinical experience, the combination of unexplored trauma with dietary deficiency (or excess) is particularly consequential. Science is now demonstrating clearly how trauma and grief show up in the body. These authors are a small handful of those who provide insightful ways to understand, explore and integrate trauma.

When we process and integrate past trauma this means that we have found support and tools to turn toward rather than away from the trauma. That integration then supports us to be freer, fully present and engaged in our current lives. The container in which we hold past trauma in our own heart-minds expands, becomes more spacious and less constricting. Rather than our nervous system reacting for us, we have more choice, more freedom. And this has ripples in the our physical, mental and spiritual health. Pathways or tools of support may include different forms of therapy, Al-Anon, somatic work, deep excavation with a partner, family member, community elder, friend or spiritual tradition. There is no single way. For most, the integration happens in chapters over a lifetime. We become better able to clearly see, speak about, and relate to our experiences, to past and current triggers, in a different way.

Cultivate self-awareness and rewire the brain. Learn to ‘tune in’, to really listen to what’s happening for us, in us, is critical to healing and thriving. Self-awareness is a birth right. It doesn’t belong to any religious or spiritual tradition. But it also doesn’t come automatically. We have to teach ourselves to ‘tune in’, particularly to the more subtle alarm messages from the body, from the heart-mind. Western, industrialized, capitalistic culture (colonizing culture) emphasizes numbing or ignoring the physical body and defying limits. Our bodies are quite hard-wired as mammals to survive short term deprivation and imbalance; famine, drought, war. Long term ignoring the body’s alarm system has very different consequences for health and well-being.

For those with auto-immune conditions, I’ve witnessed a fundamental imbalance of giving versus receiving. You might read that again allowing it to sink in. There is a fundamental imbalance of giving versus receiving, a lot of giving and not much slowing down to receive. In the chaos of alcoholism or other abuse or systemic oppression, attuning to another person’s emotional state is what commonly allows survival, prevents or attenuates verbal abuse, or violence toward self or others. However, these patterns, particularly if established in childhood, can develop into life-long orientation to others’ needs at the expense of awareness of or care for one’s own well-being.

Empathy is critical to being human, being in connected relationships. And, empathy is more authentic and sustainable when we tune in regularly and deeply to our bodies, our limitations, as well as our joys and passions. I have seen people cultivate such awareness through sitting meditation, Qi Gong, Tai-Ji, other martial arts, Yoga, writing exercises, creative pursuits, and other somatic and contemplative practices. Remember, tuning in is your birthright and something you alone can choose to do. In a body holding trauma, it can also be really scary. So take gentle steps. There are a lot of resources on the Meditation + section of my website. I have an continue to support many people in developing these skills. Having a guide, teacher or peer support is really helpful.

Find a good healer. I don’t believe there is a single best modality.  Before I moved into this medicine, I was a grief and bereavement counselor with Hospice of Seattle. I’ve been a Zen student my entire adult life. I’ve been asking deep questions, witnessing people in their transformation, and complexities of healing for more than 20 years.  I believe the most important element in healing is a trusting rapport between the person seeking and the one providing support. So ask your network or look on line and explore providers and approaches:  western medicine, Acupuncture and East Asian Medicine, Massage in so myriad forms (SOMA, Rolfing, Lomi Lomi), visceral work, Cranio-sacral, Ayurvedic medicine, Homeopathy, Biofeedback, Somatic Experiencing etc.. In your own community, wherever you are, there are resources to support your healing and trauma integration. You may also have to travel. In this era, we have also have such access to information and wisdom through the web far beyond our direct geographic constraints. And I am a firm believer in the benefit of finding someone who you deeply trust to hold you, literally hold you.

I commonly cross-refer to colleagues and draw resources together for my patients building a team of trusted providers based on the needs/sensibilities of the individual. This could include a primary care physician (ND, MD, DO), psychotherapist, endocrinologist, T’ai Ji teacher, massage therapist, meditation teacher. There may be months or years of work ahead.

What healing means is unique for everyone.

And it’s imperative the person seeking support be the one determining the timeline and approach of their own care, their own path. I can assure you, wherever you are in your journey, the body-mind is always ready. Until the day we die, we cut ourselves and the body rushes to clot the blood and stitch itself back together. It’s always trying to heal. I am happy to consult about this comprehensive approach. Gather resources toward you. You deserve to thrive.

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