An Interview with Heather Fenwick, Acupuncturist

In addition to this blog, I’ve been working on an “I’m Sick, Not Crazy” podcast, and I did my first podcast interview via Skype on this past Thursday with Heather Fenwick, who specializes in acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.  The interview was fascinating, and I thought that I would transcribe it so that I could share it in writing as well as video format.  After about 5 hours and 16 pages of transcription, I realized that was a mistake, and I decided to just share a few highlights here with you.  To view the entire interview, please check out my podcast, which is available on iTunes, YouTube or my website

First, I asked Heather to give an overview of how acupuncture works to facilitate healing in the body.  Here’s some of her answer:

Heather: Basically, the needles are inserted in a spot that has a little more conductivity to the brain.  There’s nothing in the needles.  So, it’s just a little signal that says to the brain, ‘Hey!  We need a little more help over here.’  There are certain times where there is too much stagnation we call it in Chinese Medicine.  A stuckness, or a tightness of a muscle is a stagnation, for example.  Often times a needle in that point will just say, ‘Hey, release the stagnation.  Things need to flow through here.’ Heather:

In other cases, we would call a deficiency, where there is not enough energy, not enough chi, not enough blood flow in Western Medical Terms.  A needle in that point would say, ‘Hey.  We need a little more neuron firing.  We need a little bit more circulation to this area.

And the brain figures it out.  The body is healing itself.  It’s crazy to wrap your head around everything that your brain can do.  The needles are just there to sort of tap the brain on the shoulder, and say, ‘Excuse me, Brain, we’re here.  We just need a little bit of help over here,’ and then the brain has infinite organizing power to just figure it out and fix it.  Your body fixes itself.

I love that Heather’s answer fits in with the purpose of my work, which is to help you learn how to take control of your own health and healing.  Using acupuncture, you can get your body’s energy flowing properly, so that you can heal yourself.  How marvelous!

When I asked her about cases that she’s worked on that illustrate how acupuncture can effect healing, she gave this example:

Heather: I’ve had a lot of people with physical pain in the body.  Low back pain that is debilitating, and now they can totally function.  I had one patient who had a pretty severe case of scoliosis, and she’d say ‘I ate ibuprofen.  I ate, like, nine ibuprofen yesterday.’  And then she just can’t even stand up.  So, she could just barely drive herself to the clinic. And I’gave her a treatment.  She left and she said, ‘I feel a little bit better, and then two days later she’s like, ‘I feel amazing.  I don’t know what you did, but I’m back to 100%.’

Every now and then I’ll have somebody who comes in and I’ll say, OK.  It’s going to take 4 to 6 treatments and then we’ll re-assess.  And every now and again, somebody’s like, ‘Oh yeah, the insomnia’s totally gone after one treatment.  I’m fine.  My anxiety level is perfect. I don’t wake up feeling foggy headed.’  So, every now and again, I’m surprised at how well and how quickly the medicine works, but it totally depends on the person and a case by case basis, but, yeah, those are the good moments, for sure.

Although it is the exception to the rule, it’s amazing to think that one treatment could make such a huge shift in someone’s health in some cases.  Even the more normal 4 to 6 sessions to reduce low back pain, which is extremely common and difficult to treat using Western Medicine, is a gift.

Then, I asked her a question I’ve always wondered as an acupuncture patient.  What is it that the acupuncturist learns from looking at my tongue?  The answer is fascinating.

Heather: So we look at the color of the tongue.  If it’s more purpley, that’s a stagnation.  Like a bruise, right?  A bruise is considered blood stagnation.  So purple will point toward blood stagnation.  Red is heat.  The tongue can be divided into anterior, middle and posterior, like front, middle and back thirds.  So, the front third is the upper part of the torso, heart and lung.  If it’s red, that points toward heart heat or lung heat.  The middle of the tongue is the stomach, the digestive organs.  While the sides of the tongue point towards liver and gallbladder.  The very back of the tongue points towards kidney and urinary bladder.  We look at the different parts of the tongue to show us these different organ systems.

The tongue is really cool because if you want to know what’s going on inside of the body, look at what’s coming out of the body.  And the tongue is both an internal and an external organ.

It had never occurred to me before, but she’s right.  The tongue is both internal and external at the same time.

For my next question, I asked her how she sees acupuncture fitting into a well-rounded healthcare regimen, and with Western Medicine.

Heather: Western Medicine can be very good for things that Chinese Medicine is just not good for.  If you break your arm and have a compound fracture where your bone is sticking out of your arm, then don’t come see me.

If you have stage 4 cancer, I can help with the effects of radiation and chemotherapy, but at that point, I think it’s best to go to the Western Medical model.  Obviously, I see some limitation in the Western Medicine model, in that they basically wait until it’s too late to try to treat something.  So, it’s always a band-aid kind of a treatment.

For the preventative side of it, obviously, the acupuncture is best.  If we’re doing preventative medicine at the onset, at the beginning of your low back pain, you start seeing an acupuncturist, and you start doing yoga, getting the corrective exercises, then 10 years down the road you’re not that candidate for low back pain.

I very much see them as integrated medicines.  Integrated, as in, they braid together.  The hospitals in China have acupuncture in the hospitals.  People who get chemotherapy get the chemotherapy in one arm, and Chinese herbs on the other arm. So, they can reduce their nausea and their low energy, and it’s very, very effective.  I would love to see Chinese herbs administered intravenously in the hospitals here, and we are gaining some traction for studies that they do and things that they can treat.

But there are certain things, like IBS, that a lot of people suffer from . . . Western Medicine is pretty clueless about what causes that. And, in Chinese Medicine, we have a theory for what causes it.  It’s liver overacting on spleen, and we know how to treat it very, very effectively.

This image of a chemotherapy patient receiving simultaneous infusions of chemo and Chinese herbs is so wonderful.  It gives me hope to think that these two very different types of treatment can be wedded together to create a more holistic and more effective approach to healing.  The knowledge that acupuncture is effective for IBS is extremely helpful as well.  I get a lot of IBS patients referred to psychotherapy because doctors feel that it is a psychological illness.  Unfortunately, treating IBS with psychotherapy hasn’t proven very effective, in my experience.  In the future, I’ll refer these patients to acupuncture.

After this, Heather and I discussed the importance of self-care, self-love, and seeing oneself as inherently worthy.  She told this wonderful story about the Dalai Lama:

Heather: There’s a story about the Dalai Lama. He had been coming to this science of mind meeting, with like, neuroscientists, or neurologists.  I don’t know.  Brains.  Really smart people, at like MIT.  They started to talk about self-esteem and how that leads to different issues, and he was, like, ‘Hey, can we time out for a second?’  And he went back and forth with a translator for a while about the concept of self-esteem because in the Tibetan language, and the Tibetan way of thinking, they don’t have a concept of self-esteem because every single life is a precious human life.  Every single one.

And so, you could see he was really confused, and he was like, ‘Well, how many—do lots of people suffer from low self-esteem?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.  This is a thing.’  And he was like, ‘Well, how many people in this room suffer from low self-esteem?’ And, like, everybody raised their hand, and he was shocked.  The idea of having low self-esteem was shocking to him.  And he’s not conceited at all.  He’s the most humble human being on the planet.

It’s nice to take a step back and see the things that are just ingrained [like the concept of low self-esteem].  It’s like we’re swimming in this water, and then, hold on a second. What about this water?

If you would like more information about acupuncture and Chinese Medicine, Heather recommends the book The Web That Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuck.  She also, quite generously, offers herself as a resource.  She says that you can feel free to contact her at her website,, and send her a message through the link to request an appointment.

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