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On Acupuncture

A Conversation With Dr. Charles Lo, a Chinese-born, U.S.-trained MD Who Has Turned to the Way of His Ancestors



"People think of energy as something we get out of the Middle East, or out of the wall plug," says acupuncturist Charles Lo, MD. "But everything living has energy--what the Chinese call qi [pronounced chee]. Everything with a physical form has qi. 'Energy' is really a poor translation, because qi has to do with a number of phenomena. It's the term for air in Chinese, and it's actually a kind of universal, ethereal concept.

"To the Chinese, spirit is the vitality behind a person's mind. It's the twinkle in a person's eye. It's the capacity of the mind to create ideas, and to have the capacity to live."

Six years ago, Charles Lo joined the family firm. His parents, Dr. James Lo and Dr. Mary Lo, both pathologists, got their medical training in China and came to this country in 1948. Both had very Western views of the practice of medicine--until James's chronic back and shoulder pain, which had withstood all that Western medicine could do for it, responded almost immediately to acupuncture. That's when the Los returned to their Chinese roots and began the study of acupuncture, practicing at first, in the early 70s, only on their family and friends. In the early 80s they gave up their day jobs to become full-time acupuncturists.

Charles Lo trained as an internist, completing his internship and residency at Cook County Hospital in 1980. He started studying acupuncture in 1983, and joined his parents in their practice in December of 1984. He went to China in 1985, and again in 1987, "for a more disciplined training," at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing--"the mecca of acupuncture." He treats patients in Oak Park and the Loop, bringing relief with hair-thin silvery needles inserted in just the proper spots, heating them slightly with electrical current.

Lo says his parents gave him a brave example. "I have to give them all the credit for the courage that they had. They were doing acupuncture in '71 or '72, when it was really unknown, and you were really a heretic for practicing it. My parents are very pragmatic people. It didn't matter to them that there wasn't a good explanation why acupuncture worked; all that mattered to them was that it worked for them, and that they could help patients with acupuncture. Everything else was irrelevant."

No one knows precisely how acupuncture works, but putting needles into the places long ago established by Chinese medicine seems to stimulate a response from various organs; it's used for everything from arthritis to asthma, from headaches to labor pains. Charles Lo says there is some evidence of how acupuncture pain relief works: "When the needles go into the muscle, it stimulates certain nerve fibers, which send a signal to the spinal cord. In turn, the spinal cord releases endorphin chemicals to send a signal off to the thalamus and a couple of other areas in the brain. So there's a definite mechanistic Western explanation of why acupuncture works for pain. In my mind, acupuncture is better understood than a lot of Western medical treatments."

Bryan Miller: What was your first experience with acupuncture?

Charles Lo: Actually, my first experience with acupuncture, besides the fact that my parents practiced, was in 1977, when my parents and I made a trip to China. It was the first time they had been back to China in 30 years. Part of the purpose of the trip was for my parents to see old friends and teachers, their classmates and their mother country. And we wanted to investigate acupuncture. So we went to several different hospitals and clinics; we were shown all different kinds of treatments. We saw operations done under acupuncture anesthesia; we saw children treated with acupuncture, and adults--all sorts of different disorders.

Acupuncture is difficult to learn, not only because of the foreign concepts, the terminology and the language, but also because of the fact that you have to be taught teacher-to-apprentice, in a physical manner; you have to see the person doing it. You have to experience it yourself. You have to get the points, you have to learn the meridians, you have to get the acupuncture needles, you have to understand how it feels. You have to experience it. And one of the first things my professor did when I was in Beijing was to needle me, to let me know what it really felt like, to feel the energy and force of the treatment.

In '85 I had an interesting experience. I went over to China, and I had a bronchitis, almost a pneumonia. I was taking antibiotics, and I couldn't get over it. I went over there, training, and they noticed that I was sick. The professor treated me--and within two days I was cured, with just needles. That really impressed me.

BM: Perhaps we should clarify a couple of items before we go on. I understand that points are the spots at which the needles are inserted, but what exactly are the meridians?

CL: A meridian is an energy pathway; it flows from the external surface of the body to internal connections on the organs. A good analogy would be a waterway: it's not a two-dimensional diagram but a three-dimensional organic-tissue pathway. It's interesting that meridians follow the major nerves and arteries in the body--and we know that they're more electrically conductive. The needles are used to regulate the flow of qi when it's blocked.

BM: And qi is . . . ?

CL: Well, qi is what separates a dead man from a live man. Qi promotes circulation and organ function. It's the source of all movement and energy. Qi is what transforms our food into something usable as an energy source. It comes from three sources: your parents, from the absorption of food, and from breathing air. These combine to give us the energy to move and think.

BM: Do you agree with all of these concepts, or are you just telling me the official view of traditional Chinese medicine?

CL: I agree with the concepts. But I think the terminology makes it all too mystical, and muddles the ideas.

BM: Getting back to your studies in Beijing--do you speak Chinese? Or did you study in Chinese?

CL: My Chinese is very limited, because I came here when I was five. [Laughs.] In fact, my Chinese is embarrassingly poor. But the academy has translators, to translate lectures; we used English textbooks; and a lot of the doctors speak English.

It's difficult to translate a lot of Chinese concepts into English. They're just totally different. You can't translate every character into a corresponding word.

BM: What differences did you find between Western and Chinese medicine?

CL: In China, a lot of the patients know all the acupuncture theories; they know all the [acupuncture] points. They know a lot more than a lot of the doctors that are studying there. It's amazing. But they have been brought up in traditional Chinese medicine, so they understand it--what kind of points you'd use for what kind of disorder. It's a people's medicine; it's not an ivory-tower kind of medicine, like it is here, because Western medicine is practiced so that the patients don't understand what you're doing.

It's just like the legal system: you keep the language high-tech, you're not speaking the vernacular. But that's what Chinese medicine is: vernacular. It's spoken in terms that people understand.

The Chinese treat every patient differently. It makes it harder for a Western doctor to study Chinese medicine: [MDs] expect a set treatment for a set problem. But there's an infinite number of variations in people, and in the disorders they have. Just like there are no two snowflakes that are alike, there are no two humans that are alike--there are no two disorders that are alike, and there are no two treatments that are alike. That's the beauty of Chinese medicine: you can't put everybody into the same box.

BM: Is it true that, in Illinois, only MDs can practice acupuncture?

CL: They passed a law, the Medical Act of 1987, that said that medical doctors, osteopaths, or chiropractors who are certified can do acupuncture, but no one else. That's the only legal way to do acupuncture in the state of Illinois. So Illinois is still one of about 10 or 15 states in the United States that does not license nonphysicians to practice acupuncture. They don't have a certification law [for nonphysicians], so there are a lot of people who are practicing now without a medical license, and I think some people have been arrested--token arrests have been made--in the last five years. But the phone book is full of people who are practicing acupuncture without a license; the state registration people haven't really cracked down on it.

BM: Did you go to medical school with the idea of becoming an acupuncturist?

CL: No. I never thought about doing acupuncture until two things happened. I think that, one, I became really disillusioned with Western medicine, and I was looking for something; and number two, I found that acupuncture was useful for my own personal problems, and over a period of time I realized that it probably suited my philosophy and personality more than Western medicine.

Although I'm still a Western medical physician, I don't like to prescribe medications. I think the main thing is that, in order to be honest with myself, I would have to be able to take the treatment I prescribe. If I was going to prescribe a medication and I really wouldn't take it myself, I didn't feel good about that--whereas with acupuncture and herbs, I do it all the time myself, I get acupuncture treatments, and I feel good about it. I think it's a matter of conscience.

BM: In what way are you disillusioned with Western medicine?

CL: I think Western medicine has a lot of positive things--I don't want to sound like I'm totally negative on it--but I think Western medicine has a limited reality in the way it approaches problems. They look at things primarily from a purely chemical, mechanistic viewpoint of the body. They don't integrate the emotional aspects with the physical and spiritual aspects of a person. And they tend to treat diseases, as opposed to people. I think that the majority of treatments are purely symptomatic; Western doctors don't really understand the mechanisms of most of the medications that they use, and yet they say that they're practicing science.

I think that's very hypocritical, because they don't really understand human physiology, and I don't think they understand body energy, which is what acupuncture's all about.

Until Western medicine starts to deal with the energetic aspects of the human body I don't think they're going to make much progress, because the Western approach is to cut out, or to treat with chemicals, or to poison, for instance, cancer, instead of supporting the body. Chinese medicine and alternative care tends to be more supportive, as opposed to attacking, and I think that's what the body needs now more than ever, because of the bad environment and all the stress people have. People need support, and they need nurturing.

Ayurvedic medicine, Indian medicine, is just as old as Chinese medicine. [The Indians] have an energetic model of the human body as well. It's interesting that these ancient medical systems both have energetic views of the body instead of physical views. They also integrate the consciousness of the person along with their physical, emotional, spiritual beings.

By spiritual, I don't mean religious-spiritual. It has to do with a person's desire or ability to reach their potential as a human being. It's actually a reflection of the will of the person to have a positive life-style, a positive consciousness.

When you go through college, and you go through medical school, and you take these courses, you tend to believe what you're taught as the only reality--and then you limit the world, you limit reality. In that process of going through medical school and residency, you are not encouraged to be creative or to think independently, or to question, or to go against the grain. I think that's the reason why the medical system is so entrenched in the way they're going--they're stuck in this drug-therapy, surgical-therapy mentality. They're still into the warfare of the body, as opposed to supporting the person.

BM: Is this the fault of, or a function of, the medical establishment, as represented by the American Medical Association?

CL: I don't want to sound like I'm attacking either the AMA or Western medicine, but the AMA has not been very happy to see the growth of alternative therapies, which really started to come into the United States about 1970.

Unfortunately, I think the capitalistic system encourages a lot of bad medicine in this country. Medicine is a business, it's run as a business. The AMA is the biggest real estate holder in the [near] north Chicago area. They get their money from their members, and they get it from all these other organizations, like the American Hospital Association, American Pharmaceutical Association, and insurance organizations.

You know, my parents are still members of the AMA--they're still on the referral list. [Laughs.] Since 1972, the AMA has considered acupuncture experimental; and they still haven't changed that, they haven't done anything about that. And when it's listed as experimental by the AMA, then the insurance companies are not going to cover it. Really, money is what speaks in medicine, money is what gives people power in medicine. And you can make the most money practicing conservative Western medicine, by either doing [surgical] procedures or [ordering] a lot of medications and tests. That's where the money comes in--the insurance companies will pay. That's why there's the continuing escalation in the cost of medical care.

BM: What do your medical school classmates think of what you're doing now?

CL: [Laughs.] Well, when I told one of my friends from my residency that I was doing acupuncture, he said, "Does it work?"

Recently I treated the mother of one of my classmates; she had a shoulder operation and severe pain that wouldn't go away. It's much better since her acupuncture. That's the only way that I'm going to get respect--if I treat patients and I make 'em get better. Because, you know, medicine is like a religion. You have a fixed belief system and a certain ideology, and if you go outside that ideology--if you go to something that's a little different, or something that maybe can't be explained in the physical reality of what Western medicine is--then they reject it.

I think that most of the critics of acupuncture and other alternative care have really never even tried it, never even seen it, never even studied it. Most patients in America and Western society are brainwashed to think that medications are taking something through the mouth, that a pill is the only way to treat certain disorders. That's the success of the commercialism of drugs, and I think that's one of the reasons that we have a big drug problem in the United States--because we think we can cure problems, no matter what the problem is, with drugs.

When you go to other Western cultures, like France, and they have one-fifth the hysterectomy rate, it's because of the cultural thing--the medical system there respects human organs, and they believe that it's better to leave the woman intact. The cesarean rate is much lower in most other countries.

So culturally, from country to country, you have different ways of practicing medicine, different rates of certain types of surgery, and different use of medications.

BM: Doesn't France have socialized medicine?

CL: It has socialized medicine. It also has a big private system.

BM: I don't know France's system, but I know something about Britain, which also has a dual system. I knew a woman who had to wait something like five years for a gallbladder operation, because it wasn't an emergency. Could this waiting line for nonemergency surgical procedures have anything to do with the lower rates of surgery in other countries?

CL: I don't think so--more people have surgery in the United States than any other country; it's not just a matter of when they get it done. It's a cultural thing, and it's an economic thing.

For instance, although the United States spends more per capita on health care, it is rated the 21st country in terms of infant mortality, which is a measure of medical care. It's not that the United States does not have good high-tech medical care, it's because there's a social-economic gap.

BM: We also have a lot of young women who are abusing their bodies while they're pregnant--smoking crack, for instance.

CL: Yeah, they're poor, they're in the ghetto, and they have no prenatal medical care. But that's a reflection of our medical system. It's a private system. Only the people who have money or insurance are going to have good care.

BM: There are public clinics. No one's going to argue that they're the ideal, that there are enough of them, or that they necessarily give the kind of care you'll get in a private ob's office on the North Shore. But a lot of young mothers-to-be don't seek out any help. They don't go to the clinics.

CL: Right; they get discouraged by the system, so they don't seek it out.

The main thing about Western medicine is that it doesn't emphasis preventive care. It doesn't emphasis noninterventional things. It doesn't emphasis diet. The longer I practice medicine, the more I think diet is the number-one item that has to be dealt with. In medical school, you're taught practically nothing about nutrition and diet; in residency, you're taught practically nothing about nutrition and diet; and when you practice, you don't do anything about it. The American diet, and the diet that's served in hospitals, is pretty horrendous. It's unhealthy.

I predict that, in future, diet will be the number-one therapy that will have to be dealt with in terms of both cancer and degenerative disorders.

BM: What do you think should be the dietetic emphasis? You were talking about herbs earlier.

CL: Western medical training does not teach you about the energetics of food. All foods have energetic properties. I don't mean just calories per weight of the food; I'm talking about whether they're hot or cold, and how they affect your body; whether they make you tense or relaxed, whether they moisten or dry you out. The traditional Chinese medical system has classified and done a lot of empirical studies of the properties of food and the effect they have on a person's health. Literally you are what you eat, and peoples' diseases are what they eat, too. I think things like gallstones, breast cancer, irritable bowel, and degenerative disorders are all related to diet. It's because we live in a toxic environment, and we're exposed to too many chemicals--not just the chemicals we inhale but what goes in our food, the processing of our food, modern farming techniques, the way animals are treated with antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, hormones. These are all coming out 20 or 30 years later in the person's life, and causing all their medical problems, really.

BM: All of them?

CL: The degeneration of people with Alzheimer's, arthritis, cancer--I think eventually they're going to trace them to diet. Maybe some people have predispositions toward these disorders, but I think the diet and the life-style really make it manifest.

The environment and diet are the two main problems that are going to have to be dealt with in the future. I mean, the United States has the number-one cancer rate in the world, and there's a reason for that. If you look at breast-cancer rates in women, they're five times higher in the United States than in Japan. It has a direct correlation with the amount of dairy products and fat that's taken. The ironic thing is that the government was doing a study on fat intake in women, and studying to see if it had any influence on cancer rates, breast-cancer rates--and then they canceled that particular study [before the results were in]. But the epidemiological studies have shown that the Western countries' high-fat diet has a direct correlation with breast cancer. Women move from Japan to Hawaii, and their rate goes up; they move to the mainland, and it goes up to where American women are.

BM: When they've switched to an American diet.

CL: Yeah. So actually, people thought maybe it was a genetic thing, or maybe a local environment or toxic pollution. But Japan's just as polluted as the United States. It's the diet that makes the difference.

The cancer rate at the turn of the century was about 1 in 25 people; it's now 1 in 3. And probably by the year 2000, 50 percent of the people will have some kind of cancer at some time in their lives.

BM: You say that food can cause tension and other problems--what foods make you tense, besides caffeine?

CL: I would say animal products in general--dairy products, eggs, chicken--as well as sugar, caffeine.

BM: Do you prescribe diets to your patients?

CL: I'm not an expert on diet or nutrition, and I'm just starting to study it myself. I don't want to give people the impression that I have a perfect diet; I think I have a better-than-average diet for an American, but I'm still working on improving it.

It takes too much time to counsel patients about their diets, or go over their habits; I think that's why physicians don't do it. Improving the patients' diet would do more for them than seeing ten different doctors.

BM: We were talking about increasing cancer rates a few minutes ago. Can you treat cancer with acupuncture?

CL: No, I don't claim to be able to treat it. I think once a patient does develop cancer, they would have to make some dramatic changes in their diet and their life-style in order to really treat it. Unfortunately, most patients who have cancer go the standard Western route and get their surgery and chemotherapy. And a lot of those treatments are good for certain types of cancers, but on the other hand, there are a lot of cancers in which the type of care you receive makes absolutely no difference. Obviously, once a person develops a cancer, they're treating it after the fact.

BM: There was an item in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago that said that for many cancers there was no correlation between chemotherapy and remission.

CL: That's true. I have a friend who's an oncologist, and it's not that oncologists don't have good intentions of helping the patients. They don't know what else to do, because this is all they've known, all they've been taught, all that's accepted, and all that's paid for by the insurance company. But there are certain cancers in which, whether you get surgery, chemotherapy, or whatever, it doesn't make any difference in terms of longevity--in fact, they probably suffer more when they do get the therapy.

Some people can't be cured of cancer, especially in the late stages. Obviously, people aren't going to seek alternative care until they're at the end of their rope. And that's the type of patients I see a lot, patients that have seen five or ten other doctors and had surgery, been on drugs, had steroids, and had everything else--and then they'll come and try acupuncture.

I feel bad, because the chance of their getting helped by acupuncture is probably pretty low at that point. If they'd come [sooner] and tried acupuncture, and then tried some of those other things--I think you should try the treatment with the least side effects first, and then go down the line. You have to look at the risk-benefit ratio that everybody talks about in medicine, and alternative cares generally don't have that kind of risk. You don't hear of malpractice suits over alternative care very often at all--it's because homeopathy, herbal medicine, acupuncture are all very safe. They're not going to hurt the person. They may not always help the patient, but the first thing in the Hippocratic oath is "Do no harm to your patient." So if you pick a type of therapy which is going to do your patient harm and has a great risk, then I think you're not doing your patient a service.

Because of the religious nature of medicine, most patients tend to go into a lot of procedures and therapies without really understanding them, the risks of the treatment or the procedure, and then they're unhappy with the results.

The other thing about American culture is that we have a distorted view of what happiness, and what health, is all about. I think people expect to be perfect, to be happy all the time, and to be healthy without having to work at it. And to be healthy nowadays is very hard work. You have to go out of your way, and take time and effort to be healthy--not only in terms of exercise but of buying and preparing the foods, of learning relaxation techniques, and doing those types of things that de-stress yourself, because stress is what is making everybody so addictive. Addiction is the number-one problem in the United States now--drug addiction, cigarette addiction, alcohol addiction.

Those addictions are related to stress, and I don't think the war on drugs is ever going to work unless you help patients deal with stress in other ways. You have to teach kids at a young age that popping a pill is not going to solve their problem, and that it's not the right way to go. Kids learn young, from getting antibiotics and Tylenol and all this other stuff, that you take pills when you're sick or you don't feel good. You grow up with that mentality, and then when you get depressed, you take an antidepressant; if you feel anxious, you take an antianxiety pill; if you can't sleep, you take a sleeping pill. If you can't lose weight, you take a diet pill. That deals with the body from a mechanistic view and a superficial level.

In Chinese medicine, they've never considered the brain to be an organ. They considered it to be something extra; whereas we consider the brain to be the central computer. It has certain essential computer functions, but on the other hand, the brain is influenced by all the organs in terms of the energy properties, the blood flow, and the chemical makeup of the brain. The relationship between the brain and the immune system is being recognized more now, and the whole field of psycho-neural immunology has been developing over the last 10 or 15 years. That really is the modern expression of what Chinese medicine has always said.

Now they've done a lot of studies that show that a person's mood or attitude will make a big difference in the way their immune cells react or function.

BM: Like the famous Norman Cousins treatment, when he decided to cure himself of a fatal disease with vitamin C and laughter.

CL: Well, I think that can be done. People like Norman Cousins take things into their own hands, and that shows a lot of courage and a lot of spirit. And that is the type of spirit that I'm talking about--that you're not going to accept the pessimistic view of the doctors, the Western medical view, and that you're going to go out and seek your own solution for your problem.

I think there's a lot of pessimism and fear in medicine now, because of AIDS and cancer. I think that's not good for public health--because fear and anxiety suppress the immune system, whereas relaxation and joy make the immune system stronger. The majority of my patients are all stressed out and depressed, and I can see why they're sick.

BM: So what do you do for their anxiety? You stick them with the needles in the proper points, and apply the proper electrical current, and--what else do you do for them? Do you tell them to go home and read a funny book?

CL: No, I try to go over a patient's life-style when I initially evaluate them. I think it's important to know whether they're happy with their job; happy with their home; what kind of diet they have; their habits, whether they smoke, whether they drink, whether they exercise. It's also important to know if a person's determined, the person's spirit level, and to understand what whatever disorder or disease they have means to them; how they feel about it emotionally, how it affects their sleep. I try to evaluate them in all these factors.

Using acupuncture points will help some of those aspects of the person, and if you can just help the person relax a little bit and de-stress a little bit, it can make a big difference. When people start feeling a little better, then they begin developing a little more confidence and they're not as afraid.

Most people think of putting the needle in a part of the body as a purely physical treatment, but it's not. Each point has an effect on a different organ, and in turn that organ has an effect on their emotions, and also ultimately their spirit. If you try to separate, say, the treatment of pain [from the emotional aspects], it won't work. Pain is a subjective thing, and it means different things to different people. I don't mean just in terms of what a person can tolerate--some people have better pain tolerance than others--but in terms of what it means to them: the effect on their life-style, their relationships with their family and friends, and their job, and their aspirations in life, what they can and can't do anymore. No two people ever have the same kind of pain. You can't just prescribe the same pain medicine to everyone who walks through the door and expect them to get better.

BM: So you wouldn't have approved of the campus quack where I went to college. He gave everyone the same pills--blue and yellow antibiotics if they had the sniffles, and Darvon if they were depressed.

CL: Right. That's what happened to me in college. I was depressed, and I went to the campus health care, and they gave me some antidepressant without really talking to me. And obviously [when taking the medication] I felt worse--I felt tired, I felt down. And I just stopped taking them. That was most people's introduction to psychotherapy. Recently, there's been so much publicity about [one particular] antidepressant drug, I think it's kind of scary. Obviously, it's a huge advertising promotion for the drug company. They can't make the drug fast enough.

There are more people addicted to legal drugs than there are to illegal drugs. The number of iatrogenic injuries to patients and admissions to hospitals is just staggering. It's not in the headlines; it's not publicized--they suppress that kind of thought--but it's there.

I think it's criminal the way the pharmaceutical companies essentially bribe doctors and give them gifts, and trips, and free drugs. It's corrupt. If a drug is good and it works, you don't need salespeople.

BM: What do you think is the proper way to treat a condition such as asthma? I know that acupuncture can be used for it.

CL: In Western medicine, asthma is treated as a disease, whereas in Chinese medicine, asthma is a symptom of an organ misfunction. The organ misfunction may not necessarily be the lungs--it may be the kidneys or some other organ--and to treat all patients with the same asthma medication is pretty simplistic.

BM: So how do you treat it?

CL: The Chinese approach is that you have to determine where the organ weakness is, and in many cases it has to do with kidney function or even the spleen function. Obviously the immune system is low in these patients, and they tend to react to a lot of environmental stuff. I don't think it's as important what they react to as the fact that their immune system is weak. So if you just desensitize them to what they seem to be allergic to by these allergy tests, you're missing the point. You need to strengthen the person's organs and their immune system, and then they won't react. And they won't have the asthma attacks.

Another example is patients with headaches. A headache is a symptom and not a disease. But it's treated as a disease, and it's given pretty standard pharmaceutical treatment, with pain relievers and beta blockers and a lot of other drugs. Headaches, according to Chinese medicine, come from many different sources. One of them is fatigue. Another one is excessive stress. So you have to determine where the imbalance is; you just can't treat everybody with a shotgun approach, treating them all the same.

The same thing with irritable bowel. A lot of these other syndromes that have been coined in Western terminology as diseases are only symptoms. They're treated with drugs as purely symptomatic. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical companies like those kinds of disorders, because that means the person is going to be on [a medication] for a lifetime. A lifetime customer.

High blood pressure frequently is a stress reaction or a dietary problem. In Chinese medicine, it's frequently an overactive-liver problem. Western patients start on medication--and usually the doctor makes them believe they'll have to be on it for the rest of their lives. Whereas probably just a few changes in their life-style or their diet could lower it enough so that they wouldn't have to use any drugs.

Then you get the side effects of the drugs, and they get treated with other drugs with their own side effects, and it's just a medical nightmare. It's a vicious cycle.

BM: I'm interested in the correlation between stress and medical problems. I have a friend with colitis whose physical situation has improved since she lost her extremely stressful job. Then there are the old people whose spouses die--and how, when it was a close and loving relationship, frequently the other will die within a few months.

CL: Right. There's a bond, there's a spiritual bond. It's very true. It's also true that more people die on Monday than on any other day of the week.

BM: "I'd rather die than go back to work . . . "

CL: [Laughs.] That's what they feel like, and that's what happens. Both strokes and heart attacks are big on Monday. It's purely because of the perceptual stress that Monday means to people. In everyday life, people understand how emotions interact with their medical problems--maybe they don't make the direct correlation, maybe they don't state it in so many words, but they can experience it and see it.

That's [the reason for] the energetic model that the Chinese developed--because if you take away the material body, what is left but energy? And the energy can be experienced in many ways. It can be experienced in meditation. It can be experienced through t'ai chi; it can be experienced through the [acupuncture] needles; it can be experienced through massage. But it is definitely a real experience.

One thing that's very hard to get across to patients is that you are more than just flesh and bones: you have an energetic structure. People don't want to believe in anything they can't see. I think that's why a lot of people are skeptical of acupuncture, because they need to see something; they want some kind of proof.

Energy is a very hard concept to prove. On the other hand, people use that term every day--"I have no energy," "I feel lots of energy," "I have nervous energy"--and they're right.

When they talk about energy, Westerners tend to think electrical energy, whereas the human body is more than just a car or a machine that has electrical energy flowing through it. There's a consciousness involved in that energy.

Unfortunately, Western medicine is still dealing with Newtonian physics and its limited mechanistic world, as opposed to a quantum-mechanics view of the body, which states that there is no such thing as [the] material but only energy.

BM: That sounds a lot like Christian Science: "There is no truth in matter."

CL: Well, the Christian Scientists are not that far off. A lot of these systems that go back [in history] have a philosophical basis: What is consciousness in a person? Where does consciousness flow from? Where does it go to? Most people believe that consciousness comes from having a physical body with a brain. Whereas the Eastern view is that there is consciousness first, and then the physical reality comes after that. The physical is only an illusion of that consciousness.

We have an illusion that we're sitting still--but we're going through space at an amazing speed. We have an illusion that the earth is flat. We have an illusion that the body is made up of flesh and bones. And that's the way it's treated now--that it's a machine that you can take apart and treat with chemicals. I think that ultimately will change, once the more balanced energetic view of the body becomes more popular, both with the general population and with the medical establishment. It's going to take a long time, because there's too much invested in the physical-reality view of the world--too much money, too much technology, too many people's jobs.

BM: Is there anything you wouldn't try to treat with acupuncture?

CL: I wouldn't try to treat cancer. I wouldn't want people to call me a quack.

BM: Do you mean that you couldn't treat cancer, or that you wouldn't because you're afraid of what people might say?

CL: I think I have to be cautious about what I say I can treat and can't treat. Acupuncture works better for energetic disorders and functional disorders of the body. It doesn't work well with structural problems of the body. For instance, if you have a bunion, acupuncture may relieve the pain a little bit, but it's not going to make the bunion go away. If you have a dislocation of the vertebrae, acupuncture can't help that. If you have a broken arm, you have to have it set. You have to have things structurally intact for acupuncture to work. But you can use acupuncture for just about anything you can treat with a pill. That's the guideline I'd go by.

I would treat almost anything, except certain disorders that are obviously going to get better with surgical procedures; patients with severe orthopedic problems; patients with severe, acute infectious diseases, which would be treated with antibiotics; and cases of violent behavior and psychiatric disorders. I probably would not treat a seizure disorder.

BM: Like epilepsy?

CL: Yeah.

BM: But you've been talking about energy fields and so forth--wouldn't that be a good candidate?

CL: It is a good candidate, in China. But it's not a good candidate here, because culturally people don't want their families to see them seize. That's what I mean about high expectations. People want no seizures. If they had 15 seizures, and you reduced them to 5, that wouldn't be good enough. They want no seizures. In China, they treat epilepsy with acupuncture--but they use Western medicine, too.

But you're right. Epilepsy is a classic energetic type of disorder. It's a structural disorder too--a structural problem in the brain. A lot of it's disturbed energetic properties in the brain that can be improved with acupuncture. But I probably wouldn't treat it, because of medical-legal reasons.

You have to be careful about the medical-legal environment. It's not good in the United States--it doesn't matter what you're practicing. You have to be cautious, whether you're practicing acupuncture or Western medicine, what you treat and how you treat it. I never make any claims about acupuncture. If a patient says, "Well, what are my chances?" I can't give anybody a percentage. Everybody's an individual.

I never give guarantees to patients. There are no guarantees in human life, and especially in medicine. If you want a guarantee, you should go buy a car. I think any doctor who gives a patient a guarantee is being dishonest. They want to lure the patient in. I don't want to lure patients. I want patients who want to come and try it.

BM: Are you finding any more acceptance among your medical colleagues?

CL: Ahhhh. . . . There's a lot of books, articles that have been written in the last 15 or 20 years about acupuncture. It's not well known in the Western medical community, because they're not interested. Acupuncture has to be better than Western medicine in order to be accepted by Western medicine. But it's a subjective realm you're dealing with. When you're dealing with a broken bone, you can see it in X rays; it's there. No one is going to argue about it, it's black-and-white. When you're dealing with an energy disturbance, you get into arguments about what's wrong with the person.

One of the things that bugs me is that people ask, "How does acupuncture work?" But they don't go to their doctors and ask, "How does aspirin work?" It doesn't bother them that Western medicine doesn't understand how a lot of its procedures work. When you go to your Western doctor, you're dealing within the faith. You don't question your priest. Whereas if you go to an alternative, you demand proof, studies, black and white.

[Some medical critics of acupuncture] dismiss it as a placebo. There's a placebo effect in any kind of therapy. The placebo effect isn't entirely a bad thing. It works all the time in doctors' offices--people feel better when they get a prescription. But acupuncture works in animal studies, so there's obviously more to it than that.

Actually, if you go strictly by belief systems, acupuncture shouldn't work at all in the United States, because nobody believes in it! But everybody believes in Western medicine, so it should work all the time.

BM: You make an effective analogy between medicine and religion. Are you making many converts to your faith?

CL: Most of my patients that come in are skeptical. But once they've had a good result, then they become believers--and that's part of the conversion from the religion.

For instance, there's a guy that I've just been treating. The first couple of times I saw him he was very skeptical. He didn't know if he wanted to have treatments. He wanted a guarantee. He didn't trust me; he was very scared. He had this problem which affected his nerves and his legs; he couldn't walk very well. He had plans to go to Europe, and he needed to be able to walk a lot there, so he had a deadline. He wanted to get results, but he was suspicious.

Today I saw him, and he's feeling better, much better. You wouldn't believe it. He brought his wife in; he wants to have his wife treated. It's like he's converted. People want an explanation of the way things work; but when you have that kind of experience, what kind of explanation do you need?

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