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The following piece represents a more personal and practical approach to Chinese medicine and alternative therapies than the others on this site.  It was published in a medical journal among other specialized and technical pieces about this condition in the Summer 2003 issue of "Endless Water," the official organ of the Diabetes Insipidus Foundation.  You can find out more about both the foundation and the condition at: www.diabetesinsipidus.org

Chinese and Alternative Therapies

In the Progressive Care of 

Central Diabetes Insipidus (CDI)

By Alexander Gross, Dipl. Ac.

I'm limiting this article to CDI because it is the form of this condition that I've known for the last 75 years and in a fairly severe form since I turned 18. It was in fact my continued battle with DI that led me to undertake the study of Chinese Medicine over a four-year period. I'll do my best to describe my own experiences and keep matters as simple and direct as possible, since Chinese medicine can become almost as technical as its Western counterpart, but it can offer many benefits to those who seek it out.

If anyone wants to know at the outset whether Chinese or other alternative approaches can provide a "cure" for DI, the answer is no. But they can act as an extremely effective jumpstart for activating the body's own ability to deal with disease in general and move gradually from a weaker condition to a stronger one.

Before I even get to acupuncture, let me describe my earlier experiences with another alternative approach, the so-called mega-vitamin or "ortho-molecular" therapy. And let me tell you specifically what my health problems with CDI were around 1974. At that time I was still struggling between injections of Pitressin Tannate in Oil, which could work well but acted erratically regardless of dose, and Diapid Nasal Spray, which almost worked but rarely well enough. I flowed too much and weighed 190, a fair amount of it excess water, and although I could do rote work like reading in various languages and making notes, I frequently suffered from what Aisha Elderwyn has called "brain fog." Although I had many ideas for articles, books, and plays, I was largely unable to follow through on them. The strains of living full-time in New York City were also too much for me, and we were spending much of our time among the trees and mountains of the Catskills. There are of course several on-line forums about this condition, and reading thoughtfully through all those DIF and Yahoo messages, I've heard repeated echoes of these problems, irrespective of specific product or dosage taken.

Like many at that time, my wife and I were carefully scanning the claims of various alternate therapies (and since Ilene is hypothyroid, she had her own reasons for doing so). The Megavitamin Diet was the one that spoke most eloquently to us. It seemed to me likely that one reason for my brain fog and general weakness was that DI had washed out many of my vitamins and minerals before they could reach my brain and body. Fortunately, there was a New York clinic specializing in that therapy, so we both went there, took their famous (and controversial) hair test, and were issued many bottles of large pills to supplement our other vitamins.

We brought them home, and I started taking them. Though no miraculous cure took place, the results were nonetheless remarkable. The very first night after starting I had the most spectacular and truly technicolor dream of my life, and my daily life became far more colorful as well. The problems with my CDI dosage of course remained, but I suddenly became far more able to accept and handle them. My flow was still excessive, but my weight started to come down. I even found the courage to administer my own injections, which Ilene had handled until then. This is what I mean by a jumpstart—suddenly moving upwards among the various stages marking a process of gradual recovery. As dramatic as this transformation was, on a scale of 1 to 10 I'd still say I moved only from a "3" to a "4," with "9" or "10" reserved for our most gifted athletes. Ilene also tried this therapy and reported comparable results.

When a few years later one of the first graduates of the nation's first acupuncture school set up shop in Woodstock, these results led us both to find out if she could help us further. At first we were a bit disappointed. While her treatments did nothing to hurt us, we were not certain they were helping us either. She was also something of a nag and kept urging us to take up taiji lessons from a teacher in Woodstock, and we begrudgingly followed her advice.

I kept asking her questions about why she chose certain points to needle and what precise medical theory she was following. Since I'm a linguist and had even before then acquired a smattering of Chinese, I quickly realized that she was essentially repeating what her Chinese teacher of acupuncture had taught and was not really able to explain what she was doing in coherent English. In other words, I became aware that she was following both a method and a theory, but she was unable to explain either to me.

I found this somewhat infuriating but also fascinating. Could there possibly be two separate theories that accounted for human health? What I did not realize was that I myself was beginning to sink into the infinitely soft and seductive folds of Chinese culture and was embarking on a journey of several years that would take both Ilene and myself back to school to learn Chinese medicine from the ground up. It would almost totally immerse me in the Chinese language and the world view it embodies.

Along the way I would gain, almost incidentally, somewhat greater control over my CDI and move one further stage upward in the illness-health index, this time from a "4" to a "5," perhaps even a bit further. In addition to taiji we now, at the ages of 47 and 46, both took up aikido. Until then we had both been fearful of almost all athletics, but suddenly we were transformed into bodies hurtling through the air and slamming down onto mats, just as we sent other bodies hurtling in the same way.

What our acupuncturist did to bring us to that point violates all the principles of western medicine and is fairly extreme even by the standards of Chinese medicine. The important thing is that it worked, even though it was not a total cure.

Let me start by explaining that when our acupuncturist began treatment, I still needed injections of Pitressin Tannate in Oil for my CDI. These could last anywhere from 8 to 36 hours, dependent on many factors beyond my control, and could at any time be overthrown by a resumption of flow. Thanks to megavitamin therapy, over four years I greatly reduced my dosage from one cc down to one-tenth of a cc, but I still needed injections. Diapid nasal spray would have been far more convenient, but it alone could not control my condition.

Our acupuncturist, whom I'll call Heather, was surprised that her earlier treatments had no effect. There are standard points to be needled for all complaints assigned to what Chinese medicine categorizes as "kidney syndromes," and Heather was using them. This does not mean that all such complaints are treated in the same way, and additional points—or herbs, or exercises—can be assigned according to individual symptoms (or the points may be manipulated differently).

As I have pointed out on-line, Western and Chinese medicine embody two distinct conceptions of the human body, as divergent as two maps of the same territory drawn to different projections, scales, and mapping conventions. Thus, while there are no precise Chinese diagnoses corresponding to either CDI or NDI (or to most Western diseases and syndromes), in practice distinctions are made between the two conditions because slightly different symptoms may require treatment in various patients.

If this sounds distant or abstract, perhaps acupuncture needs some demystifying—its method really isn't all that different from what teenagers do when they assume they can develop muscles by exercising them and concentrating on the desire for them to grow. The Chinese simply extend this assumption to suppose that directing other kinds of stimulation at other parts of the body can influence them as well. Including our internal organs, which are not buried away in some distant no man's land measurable only by scientific testing but actually lie just a few inches away from our fingertips.

There is a great gulf between Western and Chinese medical vocabularies. For instance, as amazing as it may seem, there is no word for "acupuncture" in Chinese. There is no real way you can say "acupuncture" by itself. You are forced to say zhenjiu, or "acupuncture-moxibustion," more literally "needle-burn."

Where Westerners become fixated by the apparent cruelty of needling and demand a single word for it, Chinese refers to a range of actions that can include either needling or warming specific points on the body. Related  Chinese approaches direct two kinds of massage or use cupping (a Chinese usage known to Russians and Jews as "banhas") or exercises or other forms of stimulation on these same points, which are so important in the unified Chinese world view that they also become the attack points taught in Chinese and Japanese martial arts schools.

What follows may sound a bit scary, and it is definitely not something anyone should try at home. Or should even ask acupuncturists to do for them, if they seem at all hesitant. Heather was lucky in having studied under a Chinese teacher of the old school, and he had taught her to move slowly towards more extreme methods where mild and/or moderate ones seemed to fail. And this is what Heather now began to do.

Heather was becoming increasingly impatient, and she slowly embarked on the "burn" aspect of what the Chinese call "needle-burn." At first she merely held a lit stick of "moxa" (the Japanese word for the herb mugwort, or Artemisium Vulgaris) close to my flesh but without bringing it in contact. The points she sought to stimulate were the two so-called "kidney shu" points, directly behind the kidneys, about an inch to either side of the spinal column at the level of the navel. When a few weeks of this approach brought no results, she next moved to what is known as "indirect moxa"—placing two thin slices of garlic or ginger on those points, creating a small pile of loose moxa herb on each one, and setting them alight. This technique is known jokingly among acupuncture students as "Roast Patient in the Tze Tsuan Manner."

This was painful but bearable and left at most a small welt that soon subsided. But after a month it also brought no result. Heather gritted her teeth and told me it was time to really get tough with my condition and use "direct moxa."

She now placed fairly large piles of moxa herb directly on my kidney points, without any intervening garlic or ginger, and set them alight. This was unbelievably painful. What's more, on at least one occasion she insisted on repeating the procedure before the pain had totally subsided, before any healing at all could occur.  The scars can no longer be seen, but I still bear two small marks along my spine where Heather burned me.

Some readers may find this description horrific, though perhaps no more so than some Western procedures. What matters is that a few days after these treatments, I found I could no longer tolerate my injections and was finally able to use Diapid nasal spray alone. Another small but meaningful step upwards, as also occurred when megavitamins helped me lose water weight and gain greater confidence.

I've studied enough Western medicine to anticipate the objections likely to be raised: allegedly my health was already on the mend and would have improved anyway without either therapy, and I was merely hypnotized by charlatans. I'm sorry, but I cannot agree—what Heather and I did together was a controlled exercise aimed at a single goal, which was attained. Far too many CDI patients still suffer serious health problems simply adjusting the dosage of their medication and must often deal with the side effects of secondary conditions as well.

At this point I can readily anticipate that some readers may have already thrown up their hands in despair. Precisely why, they may demand, was Heather treating the kidneys and how can CDI possibly be described as a "kidney syndrome," when anyone remotely informed about endocrinology knows that it originates in the hypothalamus and the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland? I could easily enough extricate myself from this apparent gaffe by explaining that what the Chinese call the kidneys do not have the same properties as our Western medical concept of the kidneys. And I would be quite correct in making this distinction, as outlandish as it may sound at first hearing. 

But I would like to go considerably further in explaining this matter. In some ways, however contrary to learned or intuitive notions it may sound, in this one case the Western assumption may be less scientific than the Chinese one. The Western version, parodying the famous song "the shoulder bone's connected to the neck bone," goes as follows:

The hypothalamus is connected to the pituitary, the pituitary's  connected to Vasopressin (ADH), Vasopressin's connected to the fluid level, the fluid level's connected to the kidneys, the kidneys are connected to the ureters, the ureters are connected to the bladder, the bladder's connected to the urethra, and the urethra is connected to the outflow.

Although this account is close to anatomically correct, it nonetheless contains one major unscientific assumption, indeed a theological argument based on the notion of a "first cause," in this case the hypothalamus.

But the hypothalamus, however its complex functions may be one day understood, cannot serve as a "first cause" for controlling any of the major physical processes under its apparent rule. The hypothalamus is in itself a part of a loop, a feedback device, all of whose component parts must function coherently together for life to flourish. This means that in logical terms there is a true excluded middle in our song, namely:

"the outflow's connected to the hypothalamus,"

which for all anyone knows may be the true seat of thirst.

To suppose otherwise would be to claim that the major motivational force in a car is its engine, without paying heed to the radiator, fan belt, carburetor, spark plugs, drive shafts, fuel supply, and exhaust system, all of which must also be present and work harmoniously together for a car to truly function.

Once we look at the human body as a system of feedback devices rather than a logical extension of "first causes," it becomes apparent what Heather was doing and why she was doing it. If the mechanisms of CDI and thirst are all joined together in a loop interconnecting hypothalamus and outflow, then it would be possible to exert stimulation on a single part of that loop and transmit that stimulation to every part of it. Thus, by treating the "kidneys," Heather was also treating the hypothalamus and the posterior pituitary. This is a fairly reasonable working hypothesis, and there is no need to wait several decades for medical science to discover the precise bio-chemical connectors involved in each step of this process. None of which in any way  negates the great strides made by Western pharmacology over the last decades in the synthesis and gradual refinement of Vasopressin through the several stages of Pitressin, Diapid, and dDAVP.

It's also important to point out that where Western medical theory continues to rely on the "magic bullet" approach (after Koch's nineteenth century work with syphilis), that it tries to find a single substance that will treat all patients with equal success, many alternative therapies are based on "typologies," methods which assume different patients may require slightly different treatments according to their physical types.  This is true not only of Chinese medicine but also of the Indian Ayurvedic system, Muslim Unani medicine, the related ancient Greek Empedoclean and Galenic methods, and more recent European approaches based on "humours."

I want to make it clear that I myself no longer practice as a Chinese doctor and do not accept any patients. But I believe those with CDI and NDI are well within their rights if they choose to cautiously seek out other approaches to healing in order to achieve partial but meaningful progress in dealing with their condition.

 A more technical discussion of Chinese medicine by the author can be found on his website at:


Copyright © 2003 & 2006 by Alexander Gross. Parts of the above may be incorporated into a book about the author's experiences with DI, tentatively entitled My Fifty Years with Drink.

This article is Copyright © 2003
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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