France, Food, and … hot flashes?

Rhoda at the Louvre

Last month, I was lucky enough to go on a three week trip to France. Well, of course it was wonderful, full of delicious food, beautiful scenery, and interesting people. We stayed in a cute home with my boyfriend’s mother in the suburbs north of Paris, dropping into Paris itself a couple of times, the prettiest city in the world. Then we went west to visitNormandyandBrittany, and more friends and family. It was all so lovely, it’s hard to pick out a few things, but the highlights were: Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny; the Mont Saint-Michel and the walled city of Saint Malo; and bicycling on an island off the coast of Brittany called L’Ile de Brehat. I’ve included a few pictures for your enjoyment.

Everywhere we went, we of course ate some of the most incredible food, a big part of French culture. Everyone wanted to “wine and dine” us, literally breaking out the bottles of wine and the richest food in creamy sauces, always finishing with sumptuous cheeses, and often dark black coffee.

My only difficulty with this seemingly idyllic situation was that I am going through the process of perimenopause, and so have become prone to some occasional hot flashes at night, mild, but they often do wake me up. I can usually keep them under control at home, with herbs and acupuncture and a healthy diet. Traveling was more of a challenge. I had only brought a couple of general herbal formulas in pill form, and had forgotten to bring needles home from work, so had only the ten that were in my purse. I had to pay much closer attention to my diet and lifestyle to keep them at bay and get a good night’s rest.

Being on vacation helped. After the initial couple of days of long plane ride, sitting around visiting, and jet lag, I was able to walk every day and relax. Diet was a tough one. Long story short, I figured out that if I kept it to either half a glass of red wine or half a cup of strong black coffee per day, and took my herbs and got exercise, I didn’t get hot flashes. As soon as I had more wine or coffee than that, the hot flashes came back.

Why is this? According to Chinese Medicine, both these foods are very warming. As we enter the perimenopause time, our Yin aspect is declining, which represents fluids, hormones, blood, and the cooling aspect of our bodies. Yang, related to activity, air, and the warming aspect of our bodies, often does not decline as much yet, so in relative excess. Without as much Yin to balance it, it’s easy for Yang heat to flare up in a variety of ways, including hot flashes, headaches, upper body rashes, tooth decay, dizziness, and high blood pressure. So, unfortunately, for a period of time in mid life, for both men and women, it becomes more important to limit warming foods such as alcohol, coffee, spicy food, beef, and lamb. If at some point later in our lives the Yang aspect becomes more deficient, then we can add them back in.

The exact amount you can tolerate may differ from person to person. I figured out half a glass of wine or coffee worked for me while I was on vacation. Since I’ve been home, and busy and stressed out with changes going on at the office, I can’t do any wine or coffee at all. Experiment, and see what you come up with!

Studying medicinal plants in the Anza-Borrego Desert

Ocotillo

Ocotillo

The sky has turned a gorgeous shade of blue, and there’s a blooming Ocotillo in front of me, flowers bright orange red against that deep blue sky. A light breeze blows; I am sitting wedged into a small “wind cave” of sandstone, high on a hill, several miles back through a canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert. The cave provides some shade as the sun begins to go down on the other side of the sandstone outcropping. As I sit quietly, hummingbirds come to drink from the flowers of the Ocotillo.

An Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), if you haven’t seen one (which I hadn’t until a couple weeks ago), is a very tall cactus, probably 10-12 feet high, with many several inch thick branches curving gently up from the base. At this time of year, most of them have long arrays of these orange-red flowers at the top of each branch, wings of six inches in length, but each made up of a cluster of small flowers full of nectar. There are many here in this desert, and it is one of the 60 or more plants we learned about on my trip here, a trip to study the medicinal and edible uses of local plants.

Monkey Flower

Barrel Cactus

Barrel Cactus

Really, people, this was amazing. I’m so happy I had the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with local plants and learn about them in depth from an expert, Tellur Fenner of the Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic in Oakland. While in acupuncture school, I memorized and had clinical experience in the medicinal properties and uses of over 300 Chinese species of plants, and had to be able to recognize them in dried form, but aside from a few live specimens we had growing in pots around the school, I rarely got to know the whole living plant. This is something I’ve always wanted to experience more fully.

That Ocotillo I was enjoying can be used medicinally for many ailments, according to Tellur, a student of the late, great herbalist, Michael Moore (no, not the film documentarian). Its primary use is in helping to clear lymph and fluid congestion in the pelvic region. I would translate this in Chinese Medicine terms to clearing dampness from the lower jiao. To most of us, that means it can help fat absorption in the intestines, and reduce hemorrhoids, urinary irritations, enlarged prostates, and more. Generally these days, a tea or tincture (herb extracted into alcohol) is made from the bark, although the roots have uses as well, and you can even make tea from the flowers!

Red Peony

Red Peony

All of the plants we met were fascinating and beautiful. It was especially exciting for me to get to see an herb I use frequently in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Red Peony, flourishing readily in the transverse hills adjacent to the desert. Here, we see the lovely leaves and flowers, but it is the root that is used for medicinal purposes. A white tuber with reddish skin, it can relax muscle spasms, like those of menstrual cramping, promote circulation, and from Chinese Medicine point of view, the most inner white root nourishes the blood and smoothes Liver Qi. Interestingly, Tellur was able to tell us that Peony has the same medicinal uses all over the world, which helps to validate it really does what we say it does!

Each day was jam packed with this kind of information (and even more details, including botany lessons). And at the same time, we got to just enjoy being outdoors, with night skies full of stars, surrounded by blooming cacti during the day, enjoying canyon streams with fan palms and campfires with good company in the evening. I’m always looking to expand my knowledge to better help my patients, and what a wonderful way to do it! Thanks to this opportunity that sprang up in my email inbox (Thanks, Isabelle!), I’m now able to learn firsthand about local medicinal plants. Tellur Fenner is a local ethnobotanist, with extensive experience and a great teaching style, who teaches all level of students, so if you’re interested, you could learn, too!

wind cave

wind cave