The Truth About Coffee!

coffee cup

Every now and then someone says to me, “I heard that coffee is good for you,” or, “I heard that coffee has such and such nutrients.”  Let’s set things straight.  Coffee is a plant.  Of course it has nutrients in it.  More in the beans than after it is brewed.  All plants probably do.  On the other hand, health and healthy food has become a big, big market.  Companies and food industries are all anxious to convince you that their new product or their food is good for you.  So anxious, that the ones with money can even afford to pay for research.  I know that there is even “evidence” out there that coffee has nutrients and is “good” for you somehow. I’m not even going to look for it or point it out to you or try to tear it apart.

What they leave out is what ELSE is in coffee, or what else it does, basically the side effects.  This is where Chinese Medicine shines, so much so, that Western herbalists are realizing that all herbs should be classified according to Chinese Medicine principles.  Every food has certain properties, such as temperature and toxicity.   Through thousands of years of close observation that far surpasses any research that we have, Chinese herbalists have been able to classify plants based on what conditions they create in the body.

Coffee is hot and greasy.  It creates heat in the body, and, if you think about coffee beans, you can even see the oil.  This is not in and of itself bad.  If you are someone who is very cold and dry, you might need that.  The problem is most Americans are already hot and damp.  Heat and damp are basically inflammation.  All the stuff we love creates heat and damp and so inflammation.  Coffee, sugar, meat, dairy, alcohol, smoking, gluten……  We are mostly all a little bit inflamed due to growing up eating all of these.  More coffee is not going to help this problem, but only make it worse.

And don’t start thinking that just because you have cold hands and/or feet or feel a little cold sometimes that you are cold and need coffee.  This more often comes from stagnation, meaning basically poor circulation.  Exercise would be better.  Generally, only the very malnourished, the very old, or those working outdoors in the cold a lot are cold enough to need coffee.  So coffee isn’t  ALWAYS too hot, just wait until you are old, or save it for a cold day.

On top of that, caffeine is both toxic and draining.  It is a DRUG, and has to be eliminated through the liver and kidneys.  Constantly doing this every day is hard on them.  If feels like it gives you energy, but that is not coming from any root source of energy.  Ginseng or a good food gives you energy because it nourishes.  My herb teacher used to say, caffeine is like using a credit card with no money in the bank.  Keep doing it over a long period of time, and you’re going to go bankrupt.  That’s exactly what coffee can do to people.  Sorry, I know many will be unhappy to hear this, but that’s the truth about coffee.  Whatever benefits it’s said to have are probably best gotten another way.

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The Placebo Effect and the Effectiveness of Acupuncture

Recently, a patient sent me an article from the New Yorker by Michael Specter, “The Power of Nothing.” The article is largely about the placebo effect, but it refers to acupuncture in a way I think needs to be addressed. The patient who sent it to me is a longtime client who has benefited considerably from acupuncture and Chinese herbs. I thought this person also deserved a response, and this is what I wrote:

Thank you so much for alerting me to this article and for sending it to me. It’s an interesting article about placebo effect, but it concerns me considerably in the way the article treats Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. It’s interesting in that Specter, the author, does give a very thorough review of what we know about the placebo effect and why and how people are studying it today. He gives a review of research, quotes researchers themselves, and gives summaries of research articles. The main interviewee, Ted Kaptchuk, an Acupuncturist and Herbalist, says he thinks there’s nothing “wrong” with the placebo effect, it does help people sometimes, and so he wants to understand it better.

I’m basically in agreement with that part. It’s obvious to just about any practitioner that a certain amount of benefit is derived for patients just from the practitioner-patient interaction. However, as one reader who commented on the article a month later points out, it is also known that the placebo effect can only go so far, and for so long. Deeper reaching changes and recoveries need more: “Experienced physicians know that sympathetic concern and reassurance can often allay subjective symptoms—at least temporarily—but only appropriate medical treatment has a chance of curing physical disease.”

The even more disturbing side of this article is that these same people, Specter and Kaptchuk, discount acupuncture in a harmful way, with just a few sentences, and with no proof or clarifications whatsoever! After such a careful elucidation of the placebo effect, why would they do this to acupuncture? At least one statement is not even true.

The article opens by saying that Ted Kaptchuk practiced acupuncture for many years, and then turned to research. There’s an implication that he thought acupuncture didn’t work, and yet later he’s quoted as saying he helped thousands of people. His quoted reasoning is that it wasn’t the needles, but something to do with him personally! This is a pretty big presumption to make without any reasonable evidence presented.

One example is given (the only example) of a patient Kaptchuk said he treated for chronic bronchitis, who then came back saying her ovaries were “cured” as well because of his treatments. Ted says there’s no way the acupuncture and herbs could have done this, but how does he know that? They give no facts, and leave things very vague. How many times did he treat her? Was the woman actually diagnosed with an ovarian disorder, or were they going only to investigate (they say she cancelled her surgery because the pain was gone). Perhaps she just had pain. If just pain, perhaps it was actually related to the chronic coughing, but referred, and clearing the bronchitis cleared that pain as well. If she did have an ovarian cyst, the most likely cause of ovarian pain, cysts are almost always due to what we call “dampness” (think of the fluid inside), and chronic bronchitis is, too (think of the phlegm and inflammation in the lungs). If he cleared this for the lungs, to me it is very likely that it cleared the ovaries as well. We even sometimes use some of the same herbs and points.

Later in the article, Specter states in just one partial sentence that clinical studies don’t demonstrate the effectiveness of acupuncture. Despite the thorough citing of sources elsewhere in the article, here there are no sources or references to research at all. And, in fact, the statement is not even true. A large number of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of acupuncture, to the point that, ten years ago, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recommended acupuncture for a long list of conditions (PDF). The NIH doesn’t recommend things lightly, and in fact, they said they recommended acupuncture because enough evidence already existed at the time to show its effectiveness. Since then, even more studys have been completed that show the effectiveness of acupuncture.

What is also true is that a number of studies on acupuncture have not been able to show effectiveness, but if these are what Specter is referring to, here again, there is no questioning in his article of why the studies fail; whereas in examining the placebo effect, the article does question the formats of the studies. It has been my experience that many acupuncture studies are not drawn up in a way that can accurately measure the effectiveness of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. In order to fit the current research paradigm, many studies treat everyone with the same disorder with the exact same treatment. This is not how Chinese Medicine works, which is part of its beauty.

It is a statement of fact in Chinese Medicine that each symptom or disorder might be treated by a number of different point prescriptions or herbal prescriptions because every human body is unique. In TCM, we treat based on each individual’s pattern. One person may have menopausal symptoms for one reason, and another person might have a different imbalance that exhibits the same symptoms. Treating them both with the same points and herbs might make one better and the other not, or might even make them worse!Other difficulties in doing research on acupuncture is, in fact, having an effective “placebo” treatment to use as a control. To date, no one has come up with something that feels to all patients like they are getting acupuncture, but which is not acupuncture. No wonder some studies aren’t able to show anything! Add to this that acupuncture is just not a big money maker, so no one wants to put much money into research (a big problem with all research today), and you start to touch on the difficulties.  We need to come up with a new paradigm.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about, having a B.A. in Biochemistry, having worked in research in the biotech industry, and having taught research methodology at TCM schools. (But to go into depth about it is a subject for another article.) Unfortunately, however, I think Michael Specter’s article has some serious flaws that need to be addressed and I’m a bit surprised that Ted Kaptchuk allowed the article to be published; however, not really knowing the man, it’s hard to say. Coincidentally, I happened to just meet someone who is also involved at the Harvard Institute, an insider, who mentioned that several of Kaptchuk’s colleagues were also upset with him about this article. While I understand the need to study the placebo effect, and I also can understand changing from clinical practice after 40 years (it’s hard work) to something that gives more prestige and millions of dollars in grants, I don’t understand why Specter and Kaptchuk felt they had to discredit acupuncture in the process. The nature of the article belies the rigor they say they are trying to promote.