Acupuncture Today Article #1

Breath: The Movement of Oxygen and Energy

By Shai White-Gilbertson, PhD, MSCR, Dipl Ac, CTR

I remember with surprising clarity the first time a patient started crying during an acupuncture treatment I was giving. This is now quite a long time ago, back in 1999, when I was a student.

I had just needled Lung 7 on her right wrist and looked up to see that her eyes were full of tears and, it seemed to me, a question: why is this happening? I thought for a moment and then said, “The needle I just placed is in the lung meridian. That particular meridian has the special job of processing grief. Is there any chance it might be especially sensitive or might need extra support today?” No acupuncturist will be surprised to learn that there had been significant sadness in my patient’s life recently, a troubling family matter that weighed on her. She would, indeed, be appreciative of any directed support I could work into her treatment.

I no longer remember the rest of the appointment, and the countless number of times I’ve had a variation on that conversation have blended together to such a degree that I don’t think I could recount any others with such specificity. That first, right wrist, though? It has stayed with me. My guess is that, as was my habit in those days, I probably offered this patient an image to consider during needling and that image probably involved breathing in a color or temperature that would support her overall treatment, intending to gently blow some of the lung’s resonant energy into her rough and hurting places. Lung, air, grief, breath: these are deeply connected concepts in acupuncture practice.

Molecules and Meridians

Since I left practice to become a molecular biologist, I’ve learned many strange and wonderful things about cells. When I am navigating my own times of grief, of held breath, the imagery that rises is now informed by both my acupuncture background and the knowledge acquired over many years of biomedical classes and research. The journey of air through the lungs, into the bloodstream, and finally into every cell is an especially rich story.

A little background is in order, but anyone who has built a sandcastle or saved for a vacation will quickly understand the principle at work: small, low energy efforts can build something quite amazing if those small efforts are allowed to accumulate. In the case of the cell, a series of proteins embedded in the inner membrane of mitochondria patiently and cleverly execute a single difficult task. The proteins each use a tiny amount of energy to move protons to a designated holding area. Energy has to be invested in order to continuously pump protons to an area that is already teeming with them. As the protons accumulate, the natural tendency is for the protons to flow away from this area of overpopulation and the cell provides one doorway in order to create a river of protons, not unlike the flow you would see if the Hoover Dam sprouted a single culvert in its vertical surface. This flow is the sandcastle, the savings account that the cell has meticulously created with relatively small efforts: move one proton, move two protons, don’t stop. The result is a mechanical force that can run a tiny molecular turbine. It’s worth taking a moment to let that settle: the proton “river” does not metaphorically turn an axle; rather, it quite literally does this in every cell, every minute. This mechanical power source is critical for making the chemical energy that allows us life, and oxygen plays a key role in maintaining the power source.

Much of the oxygen we breathe finds its way to this workstation of the mitochondria. There is a specially carved place for the oxygen molecule to land in a protein called cytochrome C oxidase. This protein is the anchor in the relay team that creates the proton storehouse. As the final player, it falls to cytochrome C oxidase to make sure that the important process leaves no harmful by-products. The cell offers an excellent example for us here, as it strives to ensure that no industrial waste is associated with generating its power supply. The possibility of such contamination is real; the energy that moves the protons involves a complicated dance of passing electrons from one pumping protein to another and these electrons can hardly be left to wander unsupervised after passing through the gauntlet. Instead, the electrons are combined with protons which are allocated to cleaning up rather than being pumped into the proton warehouse. In cytochrome C oxidase, the protons, electrons, and molecular oxygen are combined.

Elegantly, safely, and neatly, the final product released by cytochrome C oxidase is two molecules of water for every molecule of O2. Should this reaction be stalled, the entire relay team of proton-pumping proteins will back up and eventually grind to a halt, and the river of protons will dry up. It is at this deep, cellular location that oxygen does its magic and it is to this level that breath is drawn.

Breath turning to water is already a respected concept in Chinese Medicine, particularly in the Five Phase school of thought where lung energy nourishes the kidney element of water. As the kidney meridian is charged with processing the emotion of fear, any activity that nourishes both lung and kidney has wonderful potential for our lives. The deep and steadying breath we have all taken in some difficult moment unlocks energy and buffers fear energetically, chemically, physiologically.

Oxygen allows the energy-making machinery of our cells to whir along, and part of that process is actually making pure water appear from a protein that would otherwise be stuck. It is the exact opposite of rust, that combination of moisture and machinery that results in any bike left outside for too long fusing its chain and gearing. In the body, instead of water turning a mechanism stiff and brittle, water flows out, leaving behind a sparkling flexibility. This is a very different image than the one I might have considered in 1999, but one I appreciate carrying with me now.


Written shortly after the 2016 election

Post-Election Lessons from Oncology

Shai White-Gilbertson, PhD

When you are a cancer researcher, it can seem like cancer is EVERYWHERE. It shows up in friends, family, co-workers, strangers, pets, celebrities, even plants. Then, if your job is thinking about cancer, it makes for a lot of cancer. A lot. Of cancer. And you still don’t really get used to it. I wind up being the go-to person to talk about cancer when someone in my world has a cancer scare or worse, a cancer diagnosis. The diagnoses that knock the breath out of your body are the ones where you know it’s actually very, very bad. Whatever the doctors are saying in appointments, whatever prayer circles are engaged, whatever chemotherapy or herbal extracts are lined up on the counter, it’s bad. This is the dreaded Stage IV metastatic cancer and it’s a gut punch when it finds someone you love. You say: “No.” As in, “No. This cannot be happening. This CANNOT be happening.”

The hardest days for everyone are often right after the diagnosis. Everything goes into free fall. The plan you’d made for the weekend now seems so stupid, so pointless. When someone gets a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, it feels like the world is ending on that day, even though things may not be materially different from the day before or the day after. But now, you’re watching someone’s future dissolve in front of your mind’s eye. It gets thinner and more transparent, bleeding away until only nothingness remains. It’s terrifying. It’s not just the uncertainty that frightens. Frankly, the known natural history of the disease is enough to stab the heart with dread. If it is prostate cancer, it will tend to metastasize to bones, creating terrible pain. Breast cancer will tend to show up in liver and brain, with all the nausea and confusion and despair that entails. Other cancers have their favorite haunts for metastatic spread, and knowing this means seeing the destruction in advance, and trembling.

This airless, gasping place of “no” is also where I landed after the 2016 election. Many of us landed there. We knew there were problems in our country, but we’d hoped that things were solid enough to keep the body as a whole plowing forward on its usual schedule of daily life, with work and diversions. Only a handful of days ago, many of us were going about life more or less normally, worried about some troubling symptoms, but confident that it would all turn out to be fine. It’s not fine. And it wasn’t fine then, either. The madness and violence inherent in bigotry and entitlement have been here, on the streets of Ferguson, at a club in Orlando, at a church in Charleston, at Standing Rock.

On November 8, our collective test result came back, and it was very bad news. When xenophobia fuels the rise of an authoritarian figure, the diagnosis is dire. The country is sick, systemically sick, with something that has a known natural course of progression. When fascist ideology runs the executive offices of a country, there is decay of the judicial system, corrosion of the press, and collapse of civil liberties. We know this from seeing it happen over and over throughout the world, and now we envision the end of our democracy as the gears start to turn against minorities and power is consolidated. It’s textbook, it’s terminal, and it’s terrifying.

I’m educating myself as fast as I can about the history of political resistance, of reconciliation, of recovery, but I am way behind. What I already know about is the history of treating cancer, and I think there might actually be something to notice there: miracle recoveries DO happen. They are hard to study because there aren’t lots of them, but they are absolutely documented. Healing is a real possibility, even healing from aggressive, systemic disease. I keep thinking about an old, pre-chemotherapy approach that had some interesting successes. A doctor named William Coley found that if he induced an extreme fever in a cancer patient-and he injected pathogens into people for this specific purpose-sometimes they would recover from the infection and then recover from the cancer. Research into this mechanism has since suggested that putting the immune system on emergency alert helps it to recognize the other dangers in the body it has been charged to protect. Cancer is a tough target. Because it begins inside, it’s harder for the immune system to recognize. A high fever can forcibly wake up the system.

I’ve been thinking about this because so many people I know have felt physically sickened by the election. They’ve been in bed with cold sweats, or feel a fire in their marrow that flares with each news update. Could we be feeling the heat of transformation? In medical terminology, the immune cells I just mentioned would be called going from “immature” to “activated.” In their immature state, they couldn’t register the disease. They hadn’t encountered it directly enough (or under intense enough conditions) to be sensitized. After activation, these cells are astonishingly attuned, engaged, and relentless. There must be huge numbers of us who would’ve called ourselves pro-equality but hadn’t been activated to seek out the disease of oppression, to confront it directly as part of our daily work. That it should have to come to such a desperate diagnosis before the immaturity burned off is both predictable and depressing. Now, we have a shot at a miracle recovery only if we work together. Otherwise, the whole democracy dies on our watch, because we weren’t watching. Of course, now it is impossible not to see the rash of swastika graffiti on buildings, to see internment camps being cited on TV as precedent for policy. It hurts all over.

There’s one other thing to mention about a terrible diagnosis finding a loved one. After the “No,” after the initial horror, there is something important to say. To the stricken, through your own grief, you say, “I am with you.” This is what I say to America now. I won’t abandon you to this.

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Prompt #11

Image result for wildflowers growing out of old truck

I’m part of a local writers group and each week we write spontaneously for about 15 minutes on a prompt supplied by our fearless leader, Dave.  Here’s what I had to say about this picture one Saturday afternoon:

A quote from the poet Rumi was my voicemail greeting for a while, back in the days of landlines:

“Where there is ruin there is hope for treasure.”

At the time, I was grieving.  Seems like there is a lot of that in life.  Pretty sure I was born into a world that seems broken from the get-go.  Rust and ruin everywhere.

I’ve been looking for treasure in ruin for a long time.  It’s not quite the same as looking on the bright side of things…some shit is just dark.  But, the light green of life is wily–it has no strategy, no game.  A singular drive to be, to grow, in any setting, out of any crack, seems to be its only organizing principle and this simplicity of focus proliferates into wildflowers and poets, no matter the ruin.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the odd an unexpected wildlife refuge which has appeared around the Chernobyl site.  Life plus time always equals something.

Frankly, I think that my problem–from conception–was that neither life nor time, components of this equation, are native to wherever souls come from.  The adjustment felt like fragmentation, like ruin.  Finding some treasure in the rusty truck of existence has been the defining mission and preoccupation and grief of life so far.  But, life is the only place where you can find wildflowers, and they are nice.   Some days they are almost enough.

Prompt #10

Yellow flower growing on crack street, soft focus

I am part of a local writer’s group, and this week we conspired to do our prompt writing a little differently.  When Dave handed out the prompt picture, we all wrote on an additional secret theme: how much we appreciate Dave’s efforts to keep our little group thriving.  It was a rather sweet and earnest tribute.  Dave smiled.  Here’s what I had to say:

A year ago this time I was in a grey world.  My eyes had filmed over with a lead colored layer of sadness.  Big, grey eyes looking out and big, grey eyes looking in, searching for signs of life, but seeing only a flat dull palate everywhere. A crack in this world appeared when I started writing.  Something, still vital, still lived, too deeply hidden to see, but still able to crack the surface world open through the tectonic force of creativity.  I showed up in a local writers group, run by the fearless leader Dave.  This group got water down into the crack, and reminded that buried piece that there is, after all, a world to inhabit with its own color. So here’s to Dave, who waters the colors of the world.  Watercolorers get their own gallery shows, but Dave is a color waterer, its own important art form.

Prompt #9


I’m part of a local writers group and each week we write spontaneously for about 15 minutes on a prompt supplied by our fearless leader, Dave.  Here’s what I had to say about this picture one Saturday afternoon:

Two very similar looking figures are gesturing at each other.  They are having a very meaningful discussion about the nature of truth and perspective and reality.  It could be a poignant reminder of a poster hung in my father’s office, which reads: Other cultures are not failed attempts to be you.  How true, and how important.  I love that poster, and the fact that my dad chose it.  What an opportunity to have a moment of sincere contemplation.  Why, then, am I distracted by the single main difference between the two figures?  One has the letters “gp” stamped in contrasting color at his or her lower trunk region, if you know what I mean.  I have to assume that it stands for genital patch, and lets me know who in the tableau is pro-shaving and who is pro-bush.  This strikes me as an odd controversy to obliquely reference in the middle of this otherwise rarified discussion, but let’s go for it.

Brazilians, man-scaping, laser hair removal, and all manner of very personal grooming has become the standard way people interact with one specific secondary sex characteristic.  The rest of them, the breasts and deep voices and whatnot, are welcomed but this fuzzy demonstration of adulthood has become yucky somehow.  Well, I see the debate raging on this page and I am firmly on the side of GP. With the time we save by not participating in this nonsense, we can eat more ice cream and read more books.  That means that whatever perspective we’ve chosen to get behind will be heftier (from the ice cream) and more well-informed (from the reading).  We are in it to win it, so I think we’re looking at a 9 here, people.  Fuzzy forever, bitches.

Prompt #8


I’m part of a local writers group and each week we write spontaneously for about 15 minutes on a prompt supplied by our fearless leader, Dave.  Here’s what I had to say about this picture one Saturday afternoon:

I was down at the Waffle Hut, a knockoff of the Waffle House, just yesterday.  I know…how could there be a knock of the Waffle House, when it is itself a knockoff of the International House of Pancakes?  Won’t a waffle wormhole open up at some point?  And the answer is yes.  The Waffle Hut people are talking about a creating down scale version of their fine establishment, whose claim to fame already is unlimited ketchup with your hash browns, which are, themselves, partly made of ketchup.  Sloppy and red and moist, their hash browns already bring to mind liquefied roadkill, so a down market version is not going to be pretty on the face of it.  But, yes…the real problem is the impending waffle wormhole.  They wouldn’t listen to me.  My studies, self-funded so you know they aren’t biased, indicate that this may be how we all arrive at the end of the world.

You may be wondering what a breakfast food-fueled singularity looks like, and I’d love to give you the doughy, crispy specifics.  Knowing what to look for won’t help, but you’ll at least know I was right, and won’t it be comforting to know that?  I think it will be. Here’s what to keep an eye out for:

  1. About a week from the annihilation of all of life, the skies will start to darken.  This is because a slowly rising and yeasty substance created through the worm hole will slowly blot out more and more of the light sources.  Say good bye to your favorite constellations and hello to an infinity of carbs.
  2. The day before the end, you’ll feel kind of greasy and won’t be able to wash it off. It’s the bacon sweats, just coming from the outside in.
  3. At the last minute, in the now-entirely darkened sky, you’ll see a blaze of light and it will spell out “Waffle Shed”, the name of the knock off the Waffle Hut people are creating.

The end.  Of everything.

Prompt #7


I’m part of a local writers group and each week we write spontaneously for about 15 minutes on a prompt supplied by our fearless leader, Dave.  Here’s what I had to say about this picture one Saturday afternoon:

The clouds were hanging low on that night. Our hands, reaching up, almost touched the tendrils of misty promise as we each stretched to our fullest height.  Each of us was so full of gratitude that our bodies automatically took on the largest dimensions they could, just to provide space to the feelings coursing though.  All except for Eric.  He had fallen to his knees.  A sensitive young man, he was beyond trying to cope with the relief we all felt and simply gave in.  It took him down to the ground, instinctively he put more of himself on the solid land we’d never expected to see or feel again, and it held him up, absorbed his tears, and it seemed to me out of the corner of my eye, whispered something to him.

The journey home after being taken from our homeland had been deadly.  We’d all lost someone to starvation or disease.  It took many years for new crops to take, new homes and barns to rise, old faiths to rekindle.  Nearly 20 years after the night of supreme thankfulness, I asked Eric a tentative question: do you remember anything about that night?  Do you remember the moon, the clouds and close they were?  He looked at me, and then at the hard packed soil which made the floor of my little house.  Yes, he said, kneeling down to place his hand on the ground.  I remember something  I was told, a secret my heart could hear from the very earth.  Quietly, I asked what he’d heard.  He smiled at me, keeping one hand on the ground, and motioned for me to bend down.  Placing his other hand on my heart, he smiled again.  Then I heard it, too.