From time to time I see patients who are suffering from gout. More often than not, they will come in with pain, redness, and swelling at the base of their big toe. Occasionally, I’ll see someone with gout in another joint, but the common denominator is that they’re in pain–big time.
So what exactly is gout? Once called the disease if kings because rich food is a factor in this condition, gout is the build-up of uric acid crystals in your joints. The most commonly affected area is your big toe, but it can also occur in the joints of your hands, feet, arms, and legs. Essentially, gout happens when your body produces too much uric acid, or your kidneys can’t eliminate it fast enough, and the uric acid builds up. Uric acid is also the stuff of some kidney stones.
Attacks of gout frequently occur after a high fat, rich meal or after drinking alcohol. It’s considered a disease of men, as 95 percent of sufferers are male.
In Western medicine, gout is commonly treated first with NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen. However, people who have multiple or frequent attacks may be treated with other medications to help normalize uric acid levels.
In Chinese medicine, gout is considered a Bi Syndrome, which simply means that there is some kind of obstruction causing the pain and swelling. In all of the patients that I have treated with gout, the obstruction was caused by a combination of dampness, heat, and wind. While this may sound like a weather report, wind, damp, and heat actually describe this condition very well. In most cases of gout, the affected joint is red and feels warm ( if not hot) to the touch, which accounts for the diagnosis of heat. There is almost always swelling, which is the build-up of fluid in the area, or what’s called dampness in Chinese medicine. Gout also tends to come and go, and can move from one joint to another, which is a quality of wind.
Gout can also be caused by wind, damp, and cold. In those instances, symptoms are worse or aggravated by cold, and sometimes damp, weather.
At its source, gout comes from an imbalance in your Stomach and Spleen, the Chinese organ system of digestion. In most cases, the cause is overeating the wrong foods–those rich, fatty, fast food gut bombs that you know aren’t good for you. However, some people just have funky digestion and struggle to transform the food they eat into energy and nutrients, which can also be an underlying cause of gout.
As a practitioner of Chinese medicine, my treatment plan for a patient during a flare up would be to use acupuncture to move the blockage, increase circulation, and relieve pain. In between episodes, my strategy for gout patients is to work on resolving the underlying cause by combining acupuncture and Chinese herbs with lifestyle and dietary tweaks to prevent further recurrences.
If you’re prone to attacks of gout, there are a few things you can do to decrease your risk of further episodes:
-Avoid rich, greasy, and calorie-laden foods. They’re hard to digest, and only contribute to the dampness problem.
-Take it easy on the adult beverages. Alcohol is dampening and warming in general.
-If your gout is worse in the cold, damp weather, warm the affected joint during a flare-up. If it’s hot and swollen, use a little bit of ice to cool the area down (wrapped in a cloth to avoid skin irritation).
-Some foods to limit include liver, sardines, and sea foods in general. Also, know that fermented foods are dampening, so you want to limit them, too.
-Obesity is a risk factor in gout. If you’re overweight, that extra fat is considered damp tissue (it’s full of water) and aggravating your condition. Losing those extra pounds will only serve you (and your health) well.
-Aim for lighter foods in general, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In addition, you have more control over foods that you cook yourself, so put on your apron and go to work; you can make your meals leaner and meaner.