As an acupuncturist and a gluten-free mom raising a gluten-free child, I have wondered quite a bit about gluten from the perspective of Chinese medicine. Of course, Chinese medicine has no monolithic perspective on gluten intolerance. But I enjoy this sort of cross-cultural musings, and reflecting on commonalities among different aspects of my own experience.  Nothing much came of my musings, until…

…today, while riding a stationery bike at the YMCA, while simultaneously reading a book (I know! Terrible multitasking!), the point of connection occurred to me suddenly and without warning (and me on a bike without a pen): Wu, which translates as non-being is the point of connection between Chinese medicine and gluten intolerance.

If you haven’t snorted, rolled your eyes and left his post (post-haste), bear with me while I try to tease this little insight out into the light of (a now dwindling and snowy) day.

Gluten is a protein in certain foods that makes the food puff up, swell and become sticky.  It’s a primary ingredient in all mass-produced baked goods–breads, crackers, muffins, cookies, pies, etc. as well as an ingredient in many unexpected places:  vinegar, salad dressing, soy sauce, and others.   In metaphorical psychology it is kin to egotistical and arrogant thinking,  to a “puffed up” view of one’s own self-importance.

You have to have a little perspective on Wu (non-being), if you’re going to follow this strange correspondence all the way there. As I understand it non-being (Wu) is a fundamental underlying principle of Chinese ontology, which informs both Chinese philosophy and Chinese medicine.  Ontology is the study of being.  In the ancient text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says

All things in the world come into being from Being (Yu); and Being comes into being from Non-being (Wu).

(Chapter 40).  I read something quite funny the other day about the Neo-Taoists (many of whom thought Confucius a greater sage than Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu).   This is from “A Short History of Chinese Philosophy” by Fung Yu-Lan, a book I bought back in 1978 or 1979 when my high school boyfriend, Jeffrey, and I used to go to Samuel Weiser’s bookstore in New York City.   Years later, after Jeffrey and I lost touch we simultaneously graduated from acupuncture schools on different coasts.  It was a number of years later when we learned of our similar paths.  Here Fung Yu-Lan is quoting the Shih-shuo Hsin-yu (Chapter 4):

Wang Pi [226-249], when young, once went to see P’ei Hui.  [P’ei] Hui asked him why, since Wu [Non-being] is fundamental for all things, Confucius did not speak about it, whereas Lao Tzu expounded this idea without stopping.  To this Wang Pi answered: “The sage [Confucius] identified himself with Wu [Non-being] and realized that it could not be made the subject of instruction, with the result that he felt compelled to deal only with Yu [Being].  But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu had not yet completely left the sphere of Yu [Being], with the result that they constantly spoke of their own deficiencies.

Fung Yu-Lan adds, “This explanation reflects the idea expressed by Lao Tzu that “he who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.” (Lao-tzu, ch. 56).”

But what does this have to do with gluten intolerance?  Gluten intolerance is growing like wildfire.  It’s almost as if this near epidemic is a canary in the coal mine, warning us of a major weakness in our microcosmic system (the body) and in our macrocosmic system (American culture).  We’re too full.  We need more space, more emptiness, less puffed-up-ness in our lives.  One of the basic healing principles of Taoist-informed acupuncture is that proper insertion of the right needles allows a person to recede from the complicated, often messed-up experience of being, and to journey, if only for a short time, into that realm of Being and Non-being.  Just as Lao Tzu said, “reversing is the movement of the Tao,” so too is going backwards to one’s source energy a movement which will heal.

Abstaining from gluten–that which fills, expands, makes sticky and full–can be a similar reverse movement towards an emptiness that is resonant with the deepest origins of being–Being, and deeper still with the origins of Being in Non-Being.  This is an idea that is also resonant with the school of thought in Chinese Medicine which arose sometime during the Jin/Yuan Dynasties (1115-1368 A.D.) with the Treatise of the Spleen and Stomach by Li Gong Yuan, in which the origin of disease is believed to lie in deficiencies of these organs.  It’s also resonant with current nutritional wisdom in which fruits and vegetables are the key to health, and with another fact established by Western medicine:  The single dietary feature proven to be linked with a long life is merely the low calorie diet; In other words, if you experience a little less fullness, you will live a little longer.

There is an acupuncture point a few inches from and on either side of the navel called Tianshu (translated as Celestial or Spiritual Pivot).  This name (and location of the point at the center of the body) reflects the cosmology underlying Chinese Medicine in which the person is the conduit or meeting point between heaven and earth. The relationship between person-heaven-earth is not just a theoretical construct but something that is embodied in the structure and functioning of the meridian system, of which Tianshu, the Celestial Pivot is a part.  The human body is a map not only of personal experiences and relationships but of cosmic ones as well.

Could the growing prevalence of gluten intolerance (including but not limited to celiac disease) be a symptom of something out of balance not only in the afflicted guts of so many individuals but also in the relationship of all humans with heaven and earth?  Is there a connection between gluten intolerance and global warming, massive pollution, depleted uranium and an overall lack of respect for the living planet on which we live?  If there is (and I believe so) then until we are comfortable as a society with reversing these deadly trends (reversing is the movement of tao), then what we eat and how our individual digestive systems react to what we eat, will be the least of our planetary survival concerns.

Just the title of this post has my heart racing with excitement — at times like this I marvel at how I, of all people, became such a geek.

It’s no surprise that medical problems run in families just like body types, the shape of one’s nose, and the color of one’s hair. But could genetics be simply an expression of an overwhelmed system? According to the 5-Channel system of acupuncture as described by one of the greatest living teachers of Chinese Medicine, Jeffrey Yuen,
that’s exactly right. During one of his many continuing education conferences, which I attended, Jeffrey Yuen said genetic tendencies towards certain diseases can be thought of as a particular type of pathology that one or more ancestor was unable to resolve within his or her 5 channels, and which therefore descended into the next generation. The way I understand it, the 5 channel system of Acupuncture is the only medical paradigm to understand a mechanism for how genetics can be trumped by internal or external environmental factors.

It’s recognized in western medicine that people with a genetic predisposition (genetic markers) for a particular disease may or may not suffer from that disease in their lifetime. But how or why that expression remains latent or becomes manifest is not understood. The 5 Channel system (particularly the Divergent Channels) provides a way of understanding the mechanism of latency. I’m no Jeffrey Yuen, and would not attempt to teach (or even report more deeply) on this subject. If you’re an acupuncturist, get thee to a seminar taught by this amazing teacher. His teachings resonate for me so deeply because my own experience as an acupuncturist has shown me, time and again, the wisdom of pathology.

From my experience as an acupuncturist, I believe that early warning signs of a distressed system are the wise pathologies of an intelligent being. With a little training anyone with the capacity of self-reflection can learn to be a better listener and a more active responder to the wise direction of our own pathologies. Many of my clients who continue to receive regular acupuncture after a medical crisis has been averted do so because they feel that the experience of acupuncture makes them more receptive and responsive to the lessons of small pathology which the body uses to school us in how to take care of ourselves.

Small examples of what some of my clients have learned from their own experiences: eczema is related to food allergies, back pain is related to intestinal problems, acne and migraines in women and girls is related to hormonal changes. There is one more complicated example of the wisdom of pathology which involves a young woman diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis.

She came to me for acupuncture after receiving a diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis from a doctor of natural medicine. She was looking for help to restore the healthy functioning of her liver, which according to liver function tests had not been functioning well for at least a year.

What unfolded was an example of something I wrote about in an earlier post (The Number One Problem in American Healthcare: No one is Listening). By sitting with this woman for as long as it took (about an hour and a half) I learned a great deal of important clues from her medical and family history. The first thing to be revealed that perked my interest was that she had had one episode of severe eczema on her hip about one year ago. She had been given a topical steroid and it “went away.” I put that in quotations because I believe that while the rash may have disappeared from the skin, the problem went deeper, and found another post from which to stand on its soap box and scream, look at me, look at me. The new post? Her liver. I immediately shared my son’s story (gluten free because gluten intake results in eczema, whereas abstinence from gluten means no rash), and the stories of others I’ve worked with (including a 12 year old boy who would not explore dietary triggers to his eczema until he became unable to tolerate almost all foods and had to be treated in a hospital for massive food intolerances at the age of 19). Her response was immediate: “That’s interesting,” she said, “my sister was diagnosed with Celiac disease when she was 2!” Bingo. I told her of the tendency of diseases to run in families and urged her to get tested.

Unfortunately her doctor was misinformed about Celiac, and didn’t realize it ran in families, and counseled her against the test, reiterating that she had autoimmune hepatitis. Celiac disease doesn’t cause liver disease, he said. Luckily this woman is someone who feels comfortable thinking outside the box. I shared with her my own belief that the body’s intelligence should not be underestimated. Celiac disease goes undiagnosed and is misdiagnosed so often (average time between sickness and diagnosis is something like 10 years!) because the “typical” celiac presentation (diarrhea, malnutrition, weight loss) is perhaps not so typical afterall, rather just one way that the illness sometimes manifests–just so happens it’s a way that western medicine thinks is sensible for a disorder effecting the small intestine.

So, she got the test. Positive for celiac. After being on a gluten-free diet for a short time her liver function tests returned to normal. Which, for me, is proof enough that when it comes to an autoimmune disease (such as celiac) anything is possible. When dealing with autoimmune disease, the whole concept of cause and effect is turned upside down and shoved down the rabbit hole. A does not lead to B–it might lead to C, instead. We need a paradigm, such as Chinese Medicine, that can enter a dialogue with the bodymind from any one of many multi-faceted entry points, a paradigm that can contemplate multiple correspondences between organs and multiple relationships between functioning parts and whole systems. Western medicine is great at what it does. But it doesn’t particularly shine in the world beneath the rabbit hole.