22.08.2013 Eastern Healing

TCM & Obesity

Our hunter-gatherer origins are key to modern obesity, reports Olivier LeJus

In the last few decades, obesity has become a major health issue around the world, According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are now more than one billion people on our planet who are overweight, and 300 million who are clinically obese. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 65% of the population is obese or overweight.

Obesity is a very complex problem, which has many causes including genetic inheritance, social changes, lifestyle choices and emotional disturbances. Researchers have found that certain family genes impair our metabolism, which is the body's ability to transform our digested food into energy.

Our changing environment is also a significant causative factor. For the first time in human history, most of the world's population is now living in cities, and while the demand for manual work has steadily declined in the last few decades, our intake of calories has not changed. Probably the human body was not made to sit around a desk all day in the first place.

It pays to remember that our first ancestors, who evolved 200,000 years ago, were hunter-gatherers who survived like wild animals by eating as much as they could whenever they could, as they never knew when their next meal would be. In response, the human body gradually adapted to be able to store excess ingested energy as fat, ready to be consumed in times of need.

Today, every cell in our body needs glucose to produce ATP, our consumable source of energy. The cells have developed to take only what they require for optimum functioning, and to store the excess in our blood and liver as energy. When they have more than they can handle, these excess calories are stored as fat in the tissues. The fat tissue will only be converted into usable energy when the body is starved of nutrients and all the other reserves have been used. It is estimated that it will take from five to seven days before a chemical switch in the brain releases its reservoir of adipose tissue for conversion. Unfortunately for most of us, this calorie deficit will never occur, and these fat reserves will gradually keep building up around our organs, never to be used.

Now the heart has to work harder in order to pump the larger volume of blood needed to irrigate the extra mass of body tissue. This extra strain on our cardiovascular system soon leads to high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. We all know that losing weight means eating less food and doing more exercise, but it is a constant battle when we are constantly overworked, with no time to cook or go to the gym.

In Chinese medicine, everything in the body is related to Qi (energy). Every organ has a specific form of Qi for optimum function. In this medical framework, the spleen and stomach are responsible for the transportation and transformation of food into energy. When there is a dysfunction of these organs, the ingested solids and fluids are not processed efficiently and dampness and phlegm accumulate in the tissues resulting in weight gain. An excess of rich and greasy food in the diet will weaken the spleen and stomach organs and results in the build up of damp heat and phlegm in the body. A lack of physical exercise will cause the Qi and blood to stagnate, so the energy will not be supplied to the organs when it is needed. This explains why patients suffering from constipation are encouraged to exercise to get the Qi to circulate and stimulate their digestive function.

It is important for the Oriental practitioner to closely look at the symptoms that help identify the specific pattern of dysfunction of the patients. An overweight patient suffering from a weakness of the spleen with an accumulation of dampness in the body will exhibit swelling in the extremities, general fatigue, poor appetite, loose stools, and a pale and swollen tongue. If an excess build up of heat in the stomach is weakening the spleen's ability to transform the fluids, we will see the evidence of excess heat being manifested by excessive hunger, thirst, sweating, constipation, abdominal pain, a red tongue with a yellow coating and a fast pulse.

In another case, a weakening of both the spleen and kidney Yang energy might be the causative factor. Since Yang energy represents heat, when it is deficient the patients will complain of feeling cold, especially in their hands and feet. The kidneys have a connection with the bones, knees and lower back, and a weakness in that organ will be revealed by soreness in these areas.

As predicted, the treatment strategies will be quite different for each of these dysfunctions. In addition to acupuncture treatments, Chinese herbal medicine might be prescribed, as well as dietary guidelines. But the biggest battle is often psychological. For most of us eating brings comfort in time of stress and unhappiness and until a different coping mechanism has been established, long term weight reduction will often be difficult to achieve.

Olivier Lejus MHSc.(TCM), BHSc.(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney

Olivier Lejus

Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com