arthritis

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At the farmer’s market this weekend I came across this year’s first batch of Stinging Nettles, or Urtica dioica. Nettles are one of those plants that remind me how miraculous the planet is. Just when everyone is suffering from allergic rhinitis (stuffy nose) the plant that treats that symptom is ready for harvest. Nettles have many uses, but allergic rhinitis is what they are famous for. In Chinese Medicine we say that Nettles clear heat and leach dampness, making them suitable for treating phlegm-damp obstructing the nasal passages. Dry them and add them to your Chrysanthemum infusion for a great allergy treatment. They should be used with caution, however, in those with a yin deficient presentation, as they are diuretic (make you pee) and can be quite drying. Another use of the herb is Wind-Damp Impediment, such as arthritis, and historically they were applied topically as a counter-irritant for this purpose. Taken internally, they also treat arthritic conditions or painful, stiff joints.

The whole arial parts can also be cooked as a delicious spring vegetable. They have a very high mineral content making them an ideal food for those with anemia or for those concerned about developing osteoporosis. Here is a recipe for sauteed stinging nettles that I found on Chow.com:

  • 1 pound stinging nettles
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large shallot, sliced lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Zest of 1 medium lemon
  • Juice of 1/2 medium lemon
  • Wearing thick rubber gloves, clean the nettles by soaking them several times under cold running water, then drain. (Do not touch raw nettles with your bare hands. If you do not have rubber gloves, use tongs to handle the nettles.) Separate the tender leaves from the tough stems, discarding the stems. (Use scissors for this process if you don’t have protective rubber gloves.)
  • Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallots and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until the shallots have softened, about 2 minutes more.
  • Using tongs, add half of the nettles and the water to the pan. Cook, stirring often, until the nettles have begun to wilt, about 2 minutes. Add the remaining nettles and cook, stirring often, until wilted, about 3 minutes more. (Add more water a tablespoon at a time if the pan becomes too dry.)
  • Remove the pan from heat. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve.

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In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), arthritis is called “Bi Syndrome” which is translated as “painful obstructive syndrome”. The theory of Bi Syndrome is that it initially occurs at a time when our defenses are low and we are exposed to “the three evil pathogenic factors” of wind, dampness, and cold. These factors are said to enter our bodies and obstruct the normal flow of Qi and blood, thus causing inflammation and pain.

Wind Bi is characterized by symptoms that move from one area of the body to another, affecting multiple joints. Sudden changes in weather and exposure to wind are likely to exacerbate the condition.

Damp Bi symptoms include a feeling of heaviness, numbness, and swelling. Damp Bi will worsen with exposure to damp weather or living in a damp environment. 

 Cold Bi manifests in a fixed, contracting type of pain and is also aggravated by exposure to cold. In the Northwest we are commonly exposed to wind, cold, and dampness, although our body type, dietary habits, and lifestyle can also be contributing factors in arthritis.

The treatment principle for arthritis with Chinese medicine is to invigorate the flow of Qi and blood, strengthen the body’s defenses, and to expel the wind, cold, and damp factors. How is this done? First, start with prevention. It is especially important when the season changes from summer to fall and from winter to spring to dress warmly, get plenty of rest and exercise, and keep a regular, balanced diet. For arthritis with fixed pain that is worse with exposure to cold, tea made of fresh or dried ginger, cinnamon bark and twig tea, and cayenne will help to warm the meridians and expel cold. For arthritis that is worse with exposure to damp weather, a diet low in fatty, greasy foods, sugar, dairy, and cold or frozen foods (including ice) will help. Include barley, soy, rice, and eat all meals warm or cooked. 

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine have also been proven effective in increasing circulation, strengthening the immune system, and reducing inflammation and pain associated with arthritis. 

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