Women, Emotions and Wellness: Harmony Speaks with Dr. Hong Jin
In this day and age, most women wear many hats—spouse, parent, caregiver to parents, working professional and community volunteer. Women are the hub in the busy wheel of modern family life. Not only do they have to manage their own schedule and health issues, they also process and balance the energy of all their family members. This is why women have such unique health needs and why their health issues can be more complicated. A key factor in this equation is their emotional life. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) teaches us that body, mind, emotions and spirit are connected. Each plays a distinct role in the health of every individual. It’s especially important for women to understand exactly how emotions affect their well-being. Dr. Hong Jin, a TCM practitioner with more than twenty years of experience treating women’s health issues, recently gave Harmony some insight on the subject.
Harmony: What should women know about their emotions and health?
HJ: In my practice, I see three emotions that greatly affect women’s health. One is resentment, especially with regard to relationship issues—a husband/wife relationship or a relationship with parents. Let me give you an example: A woman who us the major breadwinner of the family expects her husband to do certain things like clean the house, take care of the children and cook. But her husband may not do things as she would, and she does not want to show her anger. She holds it inside, and then it becomes resentment. I see women doing that in the workplace also—holding anger inside. If we’re talking about Yin and Yang, resentment is the Yin aspect of anger. Anger is like an explosion; resentment is when things boil inside—you do not want to say anything until it’s too much. This causes Liver Qi stagnation.
In TCM, anger is associated with the Liver—that’s its corresponding emotion. The Liver is in charge of the free flow of Qi, or energy, in the body. Liver Qi means Liver function, and it’s responsible not only for the smooth flow of Qi in the entire body, but the smooth function and relationships between the organs. So you can see what kind of impact Liver dysfunction can have on a woman’s health.
The Liver is the major organ for women because we menstruate. The Liver stores blood and decides how much blood goes to where according to the body’s needs. For instance, when we study, more blood goes to the brain; when we exercise, more blood to the muscles; before a woman’s period, the Liver sends more blood to the uterus—in TCM we call that the chong meridian. When women have chronic resentment, you see Liver Qi stagnation. And this causes PMS symptom such as headaches before the period, breast tenderness, painful periods, mood swings—all those kinds of conditions.
When Liver Qi is stagnant, it can also cause blood stagnation, and that’s why a woman will have painful periods with dark red blood, sometimes with blood clots. In Western medicine, the illnesses that correspond with this internal condition are endometriosis and uterine fibroids. So resentment, or anger, is one of the emotions women have that can be problematic healthwise. It’s trying to be nice—we try to be feminine and soft and not show anger, but if inside we’re not happy with anyone or anything, it creates resentment. This kind of emotional stress directly affects a woman’s physical condition.
Harmony: Then what do you recommend that your women patients do? For instance, the woman you were speaking about in the beginning, who is working a lot and she’s expecting things to go a certain way at home and her husband doesn’t deliver on that?
HJ: I usually approach it two ways—well, maybe there are more than two ways. One thing, of course, is treatment with herbs and acupuncture. That moves things in the body. But women need to work on their issues. They cannot just rely on the needles or herbs. One thing I say to women—for instance, in the case I mentioned above, I would tell the woman, “Talk to your husband about this issue. Put it on the table.” And also, it is not necessarily that he does not love her that causes that kind of problem! It’s really different than that. You know, men’s brains are definitely different—they do not think in details. In general, they are not as detail oriented as we are. And so I suggested to the woman to talk to her husband and say, “You know, this kind of thing bothers me,” rather than let it sit. Many of my women patients tell me, “I let things sit until I cannot take it!”
Harmony: Do you think that’s something you see more of in the West—women having certain expectations and letting things sit until they can’t take it anymore and then just exploding? Is that something particular to this culture or do you think people all around the world tend to do this?
HJ: I think it is something people tend to do worldwide, but I see it more here than in China. In China, the verbal communication between couples is more than here, in general. Here, people have a very busy lifestyle, especially if they have kids. They send their kids here and there to do sports activities, to learn a musical instrument—all those kinds of things. By the time the kids are asleep, the couple are too tired—they don’t want to talk—they want to go to sleep! So there is not enough communication. In TCM, we say that words and talking are related to the Heart. The Heart needs to communicate through talking. When people do not feel that kind of connection, even though they actually love each other, they don’t feel as if they do because the Heart is starved for love.
Harmony: It’s like a conduit between the two, and it gets blocked off with too much stress, too much busyness?
HJ: That’s right.
Harmony: So would a very busy lifestyle be one thing that women should try their best to avoid? How would you frame this issue? Try to make time to communicate?
HJ: Yes, I think so. If you want to talk about another reason that causes Liver Qi stagnation, it would be a busy schedule: when we have three or four things scheduled in addition to our regular workload in a week. We have to do this and do that, and normally our shoulders and our neck will become tight. These are other signs of Liver Qi stagnation as a result of stress. I always recommend women make time to take a nice walk after dinner—with their husband or a friend—maybe not every day, but several times a week. See how you can fit it into your schedule, and make that the time you go out for a walk. You know, physical exercise also smoothes Liver Qi. When you go out for a nice, relaxed walk, if it feels right you can communicate with your spouse. Don’t present things in anger, just say something like, “You know, I feel there’s a problem.” Usually women have to initiate conversation.
Harmony: What other lifestyle suggestions do you give to women?
HJ: I suggest they do yoga, Qigong or Taiji. Qigong is especially beneficial. Give yourself fifteen or twenty minutes a day. Also, do some deep breathing. When I show patients breathing techniques, I teach them to count. For instance, count to six when you breathe in and count to twelve when you breathe out. Even the numbers have meaning. Six is the number called liÃ¹ in Chinese, it also is the same sound as liÃº, which means “to flow” or “to leave behind.” And twelve is the number of meridians we have. That’s the reason I chose these particular numbers. You completely let everything go, especially when you breathe out—let it go! I teach my patients to do very simple Qigong movements with the breathing, and it’s really amazing how much people calm down.
Harmony: What about somebody who tends to be resentful and frequently boils over with emotions? How can that person manage their emotions?
HJ: You know, if you deal with the issue bothering you when you feel angry, a lot of times it’s not an objective reaction. Yes, the problem is probably there—your husband or the person in question irritates you in some way you find difficult to accept—but if you are more balanced and more relaxed, then you can deal with the issue better. Do one thing for yourself that you like every week. Think about yourself once a week.
Harmony: So you give yourself some kind of gift, whether it’s actually a physical thing, like going see a movie with a friend, or just time to meditate and relax?
HJ: Right! Go see a movie or get together with several girlfriends. Sometimes it’s good to get together with girlfriends just to talk. Even if the problem is not resolved, you feel better!
Harmony: It’s the component, I guess, of just expressing yourself.
HJ: Yes. Sometimes a woman has a partner who is not good at communication. Even if you initiate communication, the other person might just only listen. Sometimes that irritates women, so you have to find a different way to express your feelings like getting together with a group of women friends. Then you will see that everybody’s life is not perfect! In this world, we all have issues we have to work on to become a better person. I tell them, “I am a healer, and actually, I too have to figure everything out in my life.” The reason I wanted to become a healer is that I want to heal myself. Then I can bring a nice energy to the world, to heal the family or the community. When I grew up I went through some personal changes, and I really understand why the Buddhist philosophy says you need to suffer first. Then you can become a Buddha—you can become enlightened.
Harmony: It purifies.
HJ: Yes, definitely. I think that bitter things purify. Sometimes, in TCM, we use herbs that have a bitter taste to purify things in the body.
Harmony: That’s an interesting point. When we think about problems or difficult periods in life, sometimes we say, “Ah, no, we can’t have this . . . get it out of here!” There’s impatience with difficult things. Sometimes we don’t look at problems as a natural part of life.
HJ: Problems and difficult issues are actually a part of growth. They are necessary in a way. We tend to remember bitter things or learn from pain more than we remember sweet things or learn from happiness. When something sweet happens, we enjoy it and then forget it. But something bitter really gets you! When something causes us pain, we really remember—from childhood even.
Harmony: From many lives sometimes! I think that’s a good thing to point out to people. The expectation is for things to always go well and never have any problems, and it’s unrealistic.
HJ: That’s actually another thing I tell women. As I said, I talk with them as I work with them. On the physical level I do acupuncture and use herbs to treat their physical signs and symptoms as well as their emotional stress. At the same time, I tell them, “You need to work on your life. I can treat your body, but I cannot treat your life!” And so I tell them—to help them understand about expectations—they need to lower their expectations a little bit. I might say something like, “The reason you feel stressed is because you have expectations, and when reality does not meet your expectations, you feel unhappy. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with your expectations—you have good expectations, but you need to have a reality check.” It’s not always good to expect a lot—that everything will always go well . . . no money problems, a nice family and a nice job. Life is not always like that. We constantly have to make self-assessments. I tell them, from my personal experience, “The only one I can change in this world is myself. I cannot change my partner; I cannot change my children; I cannot change my parents or my coworkers. The only one I can change is myself.”
Harmony: And even that’s difficult to do!
HJ: It is difficult to do! We learn that the thing that makes us change is pain, through pain and suffering we transform.
Harmony: It teaches patience because personal change is not easy—it takes tremendous dedication and commitment.
Harmony: Aside from resentment, what is another emotion you see in the women you treat? Or is resentment the big one?
HJ: Resentment is certainly one of the big ones, but not necessarily the biggest. It really depends on personality. I find it interesting: certain people feel more resentment—like people at a high professional level, people who have high expectations that things should be a certain way. Then I also see women who are very good mothers and good wives who worry about everything. They worry about their husbands; they worry about their kids; they worry about the world. They carry so much on their shoulders! It’s interesting, the other day I drove by a church with a sign outside. It said, “Worry is the dark place in which the negative can develop.”?
Harmony: That’s so true!
HJ: It is true. In TCM, worry is related to the Spleen and Stomach organ system—the Earth element. People who worry a lot tend to have digestive symptoms; they worry so much their stomach becomes very tight like a knot. This can cause a Spleen Qi dysfunction.
Women who worry a lot often don’t feel like eating. Some women who worry too much cannot digest or process food very well and tend to put on weight. According to TCM, a Spleen Qi dysfunction leads to internal damp/phlegm production, and overweight is a sign of excess phlegm accumulating under the Spleen. Instead of producing nutrients for the body, this condition produces “junk” in the body, which is excess phlegm/damp retention.
In the long run, a woman who worries chronically may not sleep very well. And then because her digestive system is not working right, the organs don’t produce enough Qi and blood from the nutrients she does eat. She may feel fatigue. The Spleen and the Stomach—especially the Spleen—are in charge of producing Qi and blood to nourish the body, particularly the muscles. In Chinese medicine, the Spleen is related to the muscles. So besides poor appetite, overweight, poor sleep, low energy, and bowel problems like irritable bowel syndrome, I also see fibromyalgia. The muscles simply don’t get enough blood, so they ache. Muscle tissue gets nourishment from the blood. If Stomach and Spleen function is not normal, then adequate Qi and blood won’t be produced, and the muscles will not get the nourishment they need to function properly. Then they will ache—a key symptom of fibromyalgia. So you’ll find women who will say, “You know, I have this pain; I struggle with sleep; I wake up early, thinking about my kids; and I cannot go to sleep and I’m gaining weight.” And eventually they may feel depressed because they don’t have enough Qi, or energy. Their digestive system is not producing Qi, instead it produces junk—phlegm and damp. Worry and overthinking often go hand in hand, side by side.
Harmony: What would you say to somebody who has that kind of tendency to worry? Would it be to express their worries more?
HJ: If they are coming to see me as a patient, I always do acupuncture. But again, when you are talking about emotions, really, a lifestyle change is important. They need to work on their life. Besides those things, I ask them to do Qigong and to try to not think about things so much and relax themselves. Sometimes they cannot help it—the mind just keeps going into worry, into overthinking. Especially if they’re depressed, it becomes a problem. They just cannot let things go. It’s very interesting, many women with this kind of problem either have constipation or their stools will be very loose, but evacuation will not feel complete after bowel movement. It almost becomes a physical thing—they cannot let it go completely. I tell them, “Write things down, write in a journal. Put it on paper. Write down the things you are worried about, write out your feelings when you worry.” It’s almost as if when you write it down, you can say, “O.K. I don’t need to think about it now.”
Harmony: It gives the person a way to have it outside their mind and body.
HJ: Exactly! It’s very interesting . . . I haven’t spoken about the Western perspective of it yet. About seventy to eighty percent of serotonin is located in the gut. Serotonin is a major mood regulator. Actually, a lot of times, if you give people something to regulate their serotonin level, they will be better. Elevate their serotonin level, and their mood will be better, their thinking will be clear, and they will be able to let things go more easily and not get stuck on something and go over and over on it in their mind. And also, they sleep better because serotonin has a relationship with melatonin, and both relate to an amino acid called “5HTP.” On a sunny day, 5HTP converts to serotonin and regulates the mood. At night, it converts to melatonin and regulates sleep. I usually tell them to take an amino acid like 5HTP as a supplement. Or you can eat turkey, which has 5HTP in it. Besides writing things down, food can help. Overthinking and worry, as I said before, are often found side by side. You overthink and then you worry; you worry too much and then you think too much.
Harmony: It’s like a mouse on a wheel going around and around!
HJ: Exactly. Also, they may have a neurotransmitter imbalance. In the brain there are four quadrants that relate to emotions. One of the major quadrants relates to serotonin, which is, as I’ve said, the basic mood regulator. So I advise people who worry a lot to take supplements, work on their diet, as well as travel to a sunny place—schedule a family trip to a sunny place in the wintertime. Also do more exercise. Exercise is good—research shows it can change the mood the same as some antidepressants. After we exercise, Qi flows more freely. We tend to be more relaxed and not feel stuck—the muscles and the mind do not feel as stuck.
Harmony: The last thing I’d like you to speak to is breast cancer and emotions.
HJ: Let me tell you about one more emotion that is problematic for women’s health, and then I’ll speak about breast cancer. The third emotion I see in women is fear. It’s interesting, I mentioned that wives tend to be worried—especially mothers. Women worry about their kids and are afraid things will go wrong, that something will happen to the kids, like when they are driving, and so on. I often see worry and fear side by side. Fear, in Chinese medicine, is the emotion that is related to the Kidney. When some women have fear it can lead to a Kidney deficiency, especially if the woman overworks. For instance, if she tries to take care of her family and she works full-time, I see adrenal burnout syndrome or adrenal exhaustion.
Also, some women cannot get pregnant for emotional or physical reasons. They may be afraid for their future, for when they get old, of who will take care of them—many things like that. If they have any of these fear factors, it has a negative impact on their fertility. Fear causes that; it’s a large factor in infertility. I’ve worked with the Portland Center for Reproductive Medicine for the last eight years, and the doctors at that clinic send patients to me regularly. I treat them with acupuncture. A lot of the patients who work with center are receiving in vitro fertilization or intrauterine insemination. These women have many fears—fear about things going wrong, about whether or not they will become pregnant, and they are anxious. That, of course, affects the Heart. So ultimately it’s harder for them to get pregnant. When I treat them, I talk with them and say, “Don’t think about whether or not you’ll get pregnant. Just think, ‘I want to be healthy first.’” A woman’s body—her uterus—in Chinese medicine, in the Chinese language, we call yÃge gongdi? n, which means “palace of a child.” I tell them, “This palace is cold in your body. Your body creates the environment for a child. If the palace is not in good condition, a child—a soul—does not want to come. When the palace is ready, when it has good energy, then a child will come to it.”
Harmony: That’s an interesting way to put it. Most women in this culture don’t think of their body as the ground where the child will grow. There’s a tendency not to think about the quality of the “soil” where the child will grow.
HJ: Fear affects the Kidney because in Chinese medicine the Kidney dominates the reproductive system. The Kidney and the Heart are the Water organs. They need to be in balance. When people have fear, they are often very anxious. Women in this country particularly don’t want to admit they have fear. They are more willing to say they are a little bit anxious. You know, it’s interesting, they feel some emotions are fine and some are not so good.
Harmony: That’s because in this culture it’s become more acceptable to have an anxiety disorder.
HJ: Right! It’s not perfectly O.K. to admit that you have fear.
Harmony: I guess it’s not so acceptable to say, “I’m scared to death of everything.”
HJ: But where does anxiety come from? Oftentimes, it comes from fear. It’s a Heart and Kidney imbalance. Heart is the Fire organ; Kidney is the Water organ. The Heart with the Kidney, when imbalanced, is a Fire-Water imbalance. This can cause anxiety problems and also insomnia—the Heart and Kidney are out of balance, and it affects a lot of things in the body. The reproductive system will also be affected because besides the Kidney, when you talk about the reproductive system, the Heart has a special relationship with the uterus. It’s called bao mai in Chinese, which means “uterus vessel,” and it’s directly connected from the Heart to the uterus.
Harmony: The bao mai is the vessel itself?
HJ: Yes, it’s the vessel from the Heart to the uterus.
Harmony: So if there is a Fire-Water imbalance, that will affect where the baby will grow?
HJ: It will. In fact, any emotion will affect infertility. An unnatural emotion—meaning an emotion that is very intense or sudden, or held chronically—will affect a woman’s body and her fertility in an unnatural way.
Harmony: Any emotion?
HJ: Yes, any emotion because of the direct relationship between the Heart and the uterus. In Chinese medicine, we say that the Heart is the organ that rules every other organ, and it dominates the mind, dominates emotion. So in my way of thinking, every emotion has to have an association with the Heart. And then besides the Heart, each organ has an emotion that is associated with it through Five-Element theory.
Harmony: And what about emotion and breast cancer?
HJ: With breast cancer, a lot of times it’s related to Liver Qi stagnation. I see women with breast cancer—with lumps, for example—and it is Qi stagnation that causes Liver Qi stagnation. And then other factors are poor diet plus worry. You know, if a woman only has a poor diet, without the added stress of emotions, usually it would not be as bad. But if the diet is poor and there are emotions like worry or overthinking, that can contribute to breast cancer. We’ve talked about the Spleen and how it can create phlegm and damp—this kind of phlegm/damp, when congealed together, can also block Qi and blood, and cause Qi and blood stagnation. When we talk about the Spleen and the Liver, it’s important to know they have a special relationship according to Five-Element theory, so their function can affect each other. Also, regarding the Kidney, when we have fear, it can cause anxiety; it can also cause depression because the Kidney has a close relationship with the Liver: it is the mother of the Liver. When the Kidney (the mother) has fear as an emotional problem and is not functioning well, this situation will eventually affect the Liver (the child). Then Liver Qi stagnation can develop. When the Liver is affected, it also shows in some Qi stagnation and then this will cause blood stagnation and then possibly cause breast cancer.
Harmony: And so breast cancer is really the end stage of a series of imbalances in the body? For example, a woman may get lumps for a while, then it shows up in different symptoms in her body over time and eventually manifests in breast cancer?
HJ: Right. We see, again, blood stagnation—the lump itself, the cancer itself—the Qi and the blood stagnation, but underlying this condition, the function of different organs can be affected. It can be Qi and blood stagnation with phlegm accumulation, like congealed phlegm, which we’ve talked about, due to worry or overthinking. Or the Kidney can affect the Liver and cause Qi stagnation. Since the Kidney is related to and governs the reproductive system, if the person is frightened—the emotion associated with the Kidney—it can affect the endocrine system. Then, of course, hormonal imbalance can result and that can contribute to breast cancer.
Harmony: So would you say that with breast cancer the emotions are a great factor? You said before if the woman had just a poor diet, it might not manifest, but are the emotions really the tipping factor?
HJ: Yes. I believe so.
Harmony: The emotional stress makes it impossible for the body to heal itself?
HJ: Definitely. If you don’t have a life that is too busy, too stressed and your Qi flows freely, then you can take the time to cook for yourself and your family—you pay attention to your diet and don’t eat junk food all the time. If you have a busy lifestyle, even if you do not eat very well, but you are emotionally content, in general, if your Qi and blood flow, then your body will be O.K., so the balance will not be tipped, as you have stated it. Western medicine says breast cancer is related to family factors—if in your family your mother or siblings have breast cancer, you may have a greater chance to get breast cancer. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney is related to congenital factors; the Kidney is also related to the emotion fear. So for those women who have this congenital tendency and are afraid they may contract this condition, if they work on their emotions and take good care of themselves, they may not develop breast cancer. If they have a stressed lifestyle or they work too much, that can tip the balance.
Harmony: In terms of family, sometimes our perceptions and the way we handle stress come from our family. We look at how our family handles stress. Is that something that’s learned too? For instance, if you see your parents, and their reaction to a problem is to scream, maybe that’s your reaction too.
HJ: Right! I often see the extremes in people I treat. Often it is true—you learn from your parents, but sometimes people choose the opposite way as a reaction to their family situation.
Harmony: It’s as if the person decides to emotionally go to the other end of the Earth!
HJ: That also causes a Yin-Yang imbalance. Any extreme can cause a Yin-Yang imbalance!
Harmony: I guess the human reaction is, “I’ll go far enough away from that type of behavior so it won’t bother me,” but essentially, any extreme is out of balance.
HJ: Exactly, and any imbalance will create health problems.