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Acupuncture in the Public Health Setting

By Elizabeth Sommers, PhD, MPH, LAc and Kristen E. Porter, PhD, MS, MAc, LAc

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Climate Change: An Asian Medicine Perspective

Climate change describes a pervasive and multi-component process of interactions between human activity and environmental shifts. Collectively, it involves changes in the earth's protective ozone layer; desertification of vast land masses when water becomes scarce; melting of glaciers and subsequent rise in sea level; illnesses transmitted by mosquitoes or ticks; and the threat of loss of many medicinal herbs through the destruction of their natural habitats. These are only a few of the phenomena that are apparent when we assess the changes in our environment related to industrialization and widespread use of chemicals.

A Healthy Nation

The American Public Health Association (APHA) is devoting much of its efforts this year to addressing climate change. The theme of its Annual Meeting, held in early November 2018, is "Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health." APHA describes the theme as follows: "Climate Change is happening today and it undeniably poses many risks to our health, making it the greatest public health challenge. As public health professionals, we need to work towards safeguarding all communities against climate risks by protecting people's health, wellbeing, and quality of life from climate change impacts."1

Further explaining why the health of the planet is important for public health activists, APHA states: "The science is clear; climate change is a serious threat to human health. Science is not an opinion; it is evidence. Climate change can harm the water supply, increase vector-borne disease and increase extreme weather events. Vulnerable populations such as communities of color, the elderly, young children, the poor and those with chronic diseases bear the greatest burden of injury, disease, and death related to climate change. As an APHA priority, we believe in the need for strong climate change, strategies and interventions that protect people's health. The public health community plays a critical role."

tornado - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark The Planet and Its Living Creatures

The Gaia Principle is a paradigm that offers an explanation of the inter-relationships between our planet and all living creatures.2 In fact, this way of envisioning our planet considers the earth a living system that is able to regulate itself when humans recognize that our interventions shift the balance of life. The principle is based on the interdependence of all living things and the recognition that biodiversity is desirable. Thus, the wellbeing and salvation of each individual is dependent on the wellbeing and salvation of all living creatures.

Medicinal plants also face challenges to their environment related to climate change.3 Rainforest ecosystems may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Projections about the changes in regional conditions indicate that these rainforests may become warmer and drier.

The lush rainforest ecosystem could be transformed into a dry savannah. Plants native to Arctic and alpine areas also face threats from changing climatic conditions. Extreme weather such as droughts, hurricanes, heat waves already impact medical plants and we may see more threats in the future.

We spoke with two acupuncturists who have a global perspective on the inter-relationships between people and our planet. Diana Fried MAc, MA, Dipl.AC. is the founder and executive director of Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) and Brendan Kelly LAc is the author of "The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis: Healing Personal, Cultural and Ecological Imbalance with Chinese Medicine."

The Global Perspective

AWB's website describes its mission and strategy as follows: "… (to) provide disaster relief, recovery and support for building resiliency — to communities affected by disasters, human conflict, environmental devastation, poverty and social injustice. Unresolved trauma affects not only the health of individuals, but the well-being of families, communities and entire nations. Trauma often has repercussions for generations, preventing cooperation, co-existence and peace among the world's people. AWB's mission is to interrupt the devastating effects of trauma by reducing suffering and helping individuals and communities find greater balance and resiliency."

From The Experts

Fried described the recent experience of AWB: "Last year AWB was asked to respond to about one disaster per month, just in the U.S. alone. This is a substantial increase from the past. Of course, marginalized people are hit the hardest, and we have grave concerns about the impact of climate change on increasing the quantity and impact of disasters. Marginalized people have fewer resources to adapt and live in more vulnerable situations. I also worry about "disaster fatigue" as these events seem to be coming fast and furiously; I don't know how or when those who serve may get tired and even a bit numb and weary of helping."

Kelly's book examines micro to macro levels of life on earth and explains natural phenomena in terms of Chinese medicine.4 It offers thoughtful insights into the dynamic co-occurring effects between the natural world and health. Using Five Phase Theory and the paradigm of yin and yang, the book explains the imbalances of an over-abundance of fire drying the water element. Kelly also sees oil as the earth's jing and notes comparisons about jing depletion in our bodies as well as in our planet.

We asked Kelly about his motivation in writing the book. "My motivation was to share what I saw as the very clear connection between what was happening in the treatment room and what was happening culturally and ecologically. There is a perceived separation in our world between the work toward human health and the efforts for ecological sustainability. The holism embedded in Chinese medicine allows us to see that the personal and the ecological are intimately interconnected."

Kelly commented on how his book might affect the daily practice — both clinical and personal — of readers: "I hope the book allows readers to see that the warming and loss of coolant that is heating the planet is also overstimulating our internal environment. Unfortunately, much of our culture is based on this same imbalance of Yin deficient heat, which pervades all aspects of our country and our lives. I hope that readers can recognize that our cultural story of "new, more, bigger and faster" is a root cause of many of our individual, cultural and ecological imbalances."

Although Kelly's book describes problems and challenges to the natural world, it projects an optimism that humans can shift the earth's balance back to health. Kelly has these words for readers: "One of the last sub-chapters in the book is titled "Beyond Optimism." In applying Chinese medicine's insight and wisdom to environmental issues, it's clear to me that comprehensive, deep reaching changes are coming. The transition we need from overemphasizing Yang to revaluing Ying is the same movement as day becoming night and summer becoming winter. As I see it, this transition is undoubtedly happening. This only question is how gracefully we'll make the transition."

As acupuncturists, global citizens and friends of the earth, it is our task to bring our hearts, minds and spirits to making a graceful transition. Together we are unstoppable.


  1. American Public Health Association (APHA). "Creating the Healthiest Nation: Climate Changes Health." Annual Meeting Theme, 2017.
  2. Gaia Theory, Model and Metaphor for the 21st Century Entrepreneurial Earth, 2017.
  3. Cavaliere C. "HerbalGram: The effects of climate change on medicinal and aromatic plants." American Botanical Council, 2008;81(44-57).
  4. Kelly B. The Yin and Yang of Climate Crisis: Healing Personal, Cultural and Ecological Imbalance with Chinese Medicine. Berkley: North Atlantic Books, 2015.

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