Happy Year of the Metal Rat!

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Happy Year of the Metal Rat!, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAHappy Lunar New Year!

We are currently at the tail end of the Year of the Earth Pig. The Pig is the last animal of the 12-year cycle, which means that this year has been a good year for completion and wrapping things up. The Earth element is about abundance in food, rest, and other sensory experiences. The two together made up a good year to celebrate and enjoy life, like it’s a big party! What comes after a big party? Cleaning up!

The Lunar New Year of the Metal Rat begins on January 25, 2020. Rats in Chinese culture are considered to be kind, friendly, and sociable. The Rat is the first animal of the 12-year cycle, so this year is a good year for renewal and new beginnings. Because it is the start of a new cycle, decisions made this year will influence the next 12 years, so take time to dream, vision, plan, and use your creative energy to come up with new ideas and opportunities.

Metal is about making decisions, cutting/clearing away what is no longer needed. It also has to do with precision, structure, order, details, and efficiency. The Metal Element helps provide a firm, focused structure to the energetic ambitions of the Rat.

To be most successful in your endeavors, do planning and preparation of your projects during the first half of the year, and implementation of them during the second half.  Be confident and determined in pursuing your goals, and don’t let yourself be discouraged by problems or setbacks that arise. The more precise your efforts, the greater success you will achieve.

The Year of the Rat is also a very good year for improving health and implementing regular exercise.

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAJohanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAJohanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

During the last two weeks of November I had the opportunity to volunteer with a group of practitioners with Worldwide Healthcare Initiatives (WHI) at a school in Madagascar. I have always wanted to live or do some sort of work abroad. My children are older now, so when the chance arose, I jumped on it!

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
Our group was led by two women who were originally from Taiwan (Eileen, now in San Diego and Wen Shu, in Canada).




Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe rest of our group consisted of several practitioners from the US (Howard, an MD/acupuncturist from Reno, Huy, an acupuncturist from Houston, and me), and a group from Canada (Melani, a nurse from Ontario who is learning acupuncture, Julie, an acupuncturist from Québec, Julie’s boyfriend, Raphaël, and Gaetan, another man from Ontario who does construction.)

Madagascar is a large island off the southeast coast of Africa. It has been on a major trade route between Africa and southeast Asia and the Malagasy people are ethnically a mixture of African and Asian ancestry. Madagascar used to be a French colony, so many of the people speak some French. All of our patients spoke Malagasy, but some also spoke French. Fortunately, half of our group spoke French, which was valuable in trying to communicate with our patients. We also picked up the Malagasy words for Good morning, Good-bye, Thank you, Yes, No, Pain, It’s better, and Come back tomorrow, as well as a few body parts.

Girls in Madagascar tend to marry around age 16 and often have children right away. I saw many babies wrapped on their mothers’s bodies and older children frequently help care for younger ones. I was really struck by how warm and kind the Malagasy people are. I never saw anyone arguing or yelling. I never saw children scolded or spanked. Everyone was very patient and people seemed genuinely happy, despite the poverty.

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
We spent about a week working at a small, private Waldorf-based school, SekolyTenaquip (Tenaquip School) in Ambhiborosy. The school is named for the Tenaquip Foundation in Canada, which supported the cost of constructing all its buildings.
Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

It is located in the highlands of central Madagascar, about 1.5 hours (mostly on a bumpy, unpaved road) from the capital city of Antananarivo.



Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe school provides education to the children and youth from more than eighteen Malgasy villages, and currently educates close to 750 students ranging in age from pre-Kindergarten through high school. It has some solar-powered electricity and we even had occasional internet access, neither of which was reliable.

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAWhen we first arrived at the school, we were greeted by a few people, including Sarobidy, the 10 year-old son of the school nurse. He had spent several years at a French school in the capital, so spoke French more fluently than most of the children. He also spoke a little bit of English. He was immensely helpful and we left him with a piezo point stimulator so that he could help his mother in treating people after we left.


Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAThe school was located in a rural area that I found really beautiful and peaceful. The area was a little bit hilly, with rice paddies surrounded by unplanted fields in the valleys. All the roads were made up of orange clay, so orange dust ended up everywhere - on feet, clothes, and in our rooms.

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAIt was summer while I was there, and everyone was up very early with the sun, often before 5 am. I would be awakened by the sounds of roosters and the farmers driving their oxen and wagons to the rice fields on the heavily rutted road outside my window. Although we all stayed in rooms at the school, they varied in their comfort level and I was lucky to stay in a small apartment that had several beds, as well as a bathroom with an indoor flush toilet and a small (cold) shower attached to it.

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAVolunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA








The children who attended the school came from surrounding villages and walked up to 2 hours to get there. They all dressed in uniform and would wave and greet us with shouts of “Bonjour! Bonjour!” when they saw us. The soccer balls that Raphaël and Gaetan brought with them were a huge hit and we needed to ration them out for play each day. Good thing, because those kids were hard on them! Two of the balls ended up bursting during our weeklong stay.

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe children were fed lunch every day that consisted of a large plate of rice covered with a very thin soup of vegetables or beans. For some, this is the only meal they receive all day. Huge vats of rice are made each day and there is a group of women who sit outside and sort stones from the rice before it’s cooked. Rice is grown in paddies locally and there is a small rice mill just down the road from the school.
Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
The school also had some gardens on its property for growing food for the students. There were many different kinds of fruit trees on the school property and we saved the mango seeds from our lunches so that they could be planted. Garbage was either
composted or burned.

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAThe only animals that I saw at the school were chickens, turkeys, chameleons, and dogs. Malagasy chickens are thin and a bit small. The dogs we saw in Madagascar were almost always small, yellow, and thin, and never really seemed to belong to anyone. They probably scrounged for food in the garbage.

Johanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThe first few days were not very busy with patients. I think that there was a little bit of confusion about what we were doing there, so it took a few days to get the word out. Here we are with the midwife (standing) and one of the school employees.


Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
The last day was much busier. Patients sat around the perimeter of the room and we had rows of people sitting on the floor receiving treatment.

We had so many people show up that we quickly outgrew our little clinic space and started treating people as they lined up outside, until it got too hot.

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAJohanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAThen we moved into the cafeteria building and grouped patients according to complaint: eye pain, back pain, digestive issues, and teeth. A few patients fainted because they had not eaten anything beforehand. Having never experienced that in my own office, I learned something new!

The most common problems we saw were tooth pain (most people were missing some teeth), back pain, eye pain, headaches, goiter, digestive issues, and arthritis. Some parents brought small children. There were a few patients who could not walk who were carried in piggyback and one man who had had a stroke was brought in in a wheelbarrow. It was amazing to see him walk with support while he was being treated!

Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAFran and Peter, a retired couple from Canada, were volunteering at the school when we arrived. They were visiting for five weeks and because they had the biggest kitchen and dining space in their building, we did our cooking there and we often ate our meals with them.

The water in Madagascar, as in any developing country, is neither very clean nor particularly safe for us to drink. Gaetan brought a pump purifier with him and left it at the school because the children drank from a large communal bucket that didn’t look clean. I brought my own purifier, a Grayl Geopress, with me and I’m so glad that I did! The water tasted great and I was the only one in my group who didn’t experience any gastric distress. The most challenging part about using it was pulling the pieces apart before each fill, but other than that, it was easy to use.

After we finished volunteering at the school, we still had a couple days in Madagascar. We returned to Antananarivo and did some shopping at La Digue, an outdoor shopping mall filled with local art, crafts, spices, and precious stones. Unfortunately, not everything sold there can be exported, so I’m glad that I checked with customs before purchasing anything!

Volunteer Acupuncture in Madagascar, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAJohanna Utter offers Acupuncture in Davis, CAWe also took a day trip to the Lemur Park, which is a small sanctuary for lemurs and other animals and plants native to Madagascar. Because the lemurs are accustomed to people, we could get near them for photos (and sometimes they would come close to us!)

Worldwide Healthcare Initiatives plans to send other volunteer groups to the school several times a year for the next five years, in hopes of teaching some of the local people more about what Chinese medicine can offer. I would love to return, if the opportunity arises!

To learn more about this project (and read their message about our trip):
https://www.madagascarschoolproject.com/news/medical-mission

Energy Flows Where Attention Goes

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Energy Flows Where Attention Goes, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

Did you know that your brain can’t tell the difference between what you are imagining and what you are actually seeing? Why not use that to your benefit? If you experienced a difficult situation one time, but then play it over and over again in your mind, your brain thinks that you are re-living it and it floods your body with stress chemicals each time. If you focus on things in the past, present, or future, that either bring you joy or for which you are grateful, your brain bathes your body in chemicals that are calming and uplifting.

We all have a choice about where our energy goes, whether in our thoughts or our actions. Whatever you focus on will appear magnified to you. If you focus on problems, they start to appear larger than they are. If you focus on positive parts of your life, you will begin to notice even more things that are going well. Try expressing gratitude for things that haven't even happened yet and see what happens!

How do you want to feel? What would you need to do our focus on to feel that way?

Acupuncture and the Balance Method

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Balance Method Johanna Utter Acupuncture Davis

At the end of May I took a 4-day class in the Balance Method, a system of acupuncture developed by Dr. Richard Teh-Fu Tan, which aims to bring immediate balance to the body. What I learned in this class has completely changed the way I treat, especially the way I treat pain.

In Chinese medicine, disease is considered to be due to a state of imbalance. So treatment of any kind (food, herbs, Qi Gong, acupuncture) is always attempting to bring the body back to a state of balance, harmony, and health. The Balance Method uses acupuncture to achieve this.

In the Balance Method, pain is generally not treated directly. We locate the channels closest to the painful area, then place needles in other channels that can balance it, frequently on the opposite side of the body. Most often we use points on the arms and legs, which means that the whole body can be treated while the patient remains clothed.

Acupuncture points are chosen based upon internal connections between the acupuncture channels. One connection is the way body parts can be mirrored or imaged onto another area. For example, arms and legs are similar to one another. Shoulders are like hips, elbows are like knees, and hands are like feet. Points on one limb can be used to treat another limb. So, for example, pain in the right knee would frequently be treated by palpating tender points on a related channel on the left elbow and then needling those. Or the lower back could be treated by using points on the hand.

Once needles are placed, patients are asked to move and to locate the current location of pain. Often the pain will have moved, so again we palpate tender points, needle those, then have the patient check for again for the location and intensity of pain. Amazingly, a few needles can be enough to make the pain disappear on the spot! Then the patient is left to rest with the needles in. In the clinic where my teacher practices, patients will rest for an hour or so, often falling asleep while their body resets itself.

Pain may return, although it is usually less intense. It’s generally recommended for patients to come in for treatment 2-3 times per week for 3-4 weeks, then to spread treatments out and gradually taper them off as the pain subsides. While the Balance Method cannot correct structural problems, it can still lessen pain.

The Balance Method can also treat pain in multiple locations, including arthritis and fibromyalgia. It is also useful in treating insomnia and respiratory, cardiac, digestive, hormone, and mood disorders.

Volunteer Acupuncture with California CareForce

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

California CareForce Johanna Utter Acupuncture

I was invited to volunteer with California CareForce in Chico the first weekend of August. California CareForce is a group of medical professionals, community leaders, and engaged citizens who provide free medical, dental and vision care to those in need at temporary clinics across California. Their volunteers believe that everyone, regardless of their background, deserves access to healthcare. As such, they make no restrictions based on income, employment, or immigration status. They do not require insurance or ID to serve patients and all services are provided at no cost.

The services offered at most California CareForce clinics include: general check-ups and physicals in our Medical Section; cleanings, extractions, and fillings in their Dental Section; and, eye health checks, vision exams, and custom prescription glasses made on-site in their Vision Section. Acupuncture and chiropractic is offered at some clinics, depending on volunteer signups.

In Chico, we worked at the Silver Dollar County Fairgrounds and makeshift treatment rooms were set up using metal poles and curtains to separate them. The set-up reminded me of the TV show M*A*S*H, except that we were not near a war, thankfully!

People who were interested in services showed up the day before to obtain a wrist band. They could receive medical services on both days, but because vision and dental were so popular, they could only do one of those on any given day and needed to come back the next day for the other one.

As folks arrived on the weekend, they needed to go through medical triage to assess whether they could have dental or vision services. If their blood sugar or blood pressure was too high, they had to first receive treatment (usually medication), then wait a bit to recheck. Once they passed, they could then move onto the next step, either vision or dental. Because of increased medical care coverage through Medi-Cal and Covered California, fewer people needed other medical services.

The mornings started off a bit slow because people needed to go through the triage section first, but it was so busy in the afternoon of the first day that we had a long waiting list and asked people to come back the next day. The volunteer chiropractor did not show up, so some of those patients chose to see me instead. I provided approximately 30 treatments the first day and over 20 the second day, with some people coming in twice.

The most common things I saw were back, neck, shoulder, and knee pain, so I got a lot of practice treating those over and over. Using the Balance Method system that I learned at the end of May, I palpated and needled tender points that were away from the painful part they wanted treated. Results were pretty quick and both the patients and I were amazed!

About a half dozen women I treated only spoke Spanish, so I worked with an interpreter.  It was fun watching all of their faces as pains disappeared and they were able to move stiff body parts more easily. I was also shadowed on the first day by the teenage daughter of one of the volunteering physicians.

California CareForce’s Sacramento Clinic will be at Cal Expo on October 25th and 26th. The event scheduled after that will be the weekend of January 11th and 12th at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley. If you are interested in supporting California CareForce, you can volunteer your time (in Sacramento) https://www.californiacareforce.org/patients/sacramento/ or donate https://app.mobilecause.com/vf/CARE4CA/JohannaUtter. You can also visit their website https://www.californiacareforce.org/ or their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CaliforniaCareForce/ for more information.

California CareForce is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization that relies solely on funding from grants, sponsorships, foundations and individual donations. Any support they receive helps provide thousands of dollars worth of dental, vision and medical care, at no cost, with no restrictions based on income, employment, insurance, residency, etc. to thousands of Californians with nowhere else to turn. 

May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA
A few years ago I posted about Maternal Mental Health Week (the first week of May) and the Blue Dot campaign. Well, it is such an important topic, affecting the entire family, that the week has now been expanded into the entire month of May!

I often hear women say "postpartum" when they mean postpartum depression, but the term "postpartum" actually means the period following delivery, not necessarily depression. The correct term for mood changes during or after pregnancy is Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs), which can include anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and bipolar disorder. It is not limited to the immediate postpartum period nor is it limited to mothers; fathers and other family members can also experience PMADs during pregnancy and for up to a couple of years after the birth of the baby.

The transition to motherhood is, in my experience, the biggest life transition you, as a a woman, will ever experience. Your entire identity changes, both in your own eyes and in the world’s. If you have had careers where you have been competent and in charge prior to having a baby, the transition can be a rude awakening. All of a sudden after a life of being competent, you are thrust into a world of sleep-deprivation, a sore body, rapidly fluctuating hormones, piles of laundry, and a crying baby (and often mom!) who does not do things according to your schedule. Because of these changes, it can be hard to know if what you are feeling is a normal part of adjusting to a life with a baby or whether it is something that needs treatment.

Approximately 1 in 7 women experiences PMADs. If you find that you are having disturbing thoughts, such as “I’m not a good mom,”or “my baby doesn’t love me,” please reach out to your care provider for help. Postpartum Support International (PSI) has a helpline that you can call and they will connect you with local help. As PSI says, “You are not alone, you are not to blame, with help you can heal.” PSI’s Helpline is 1-800-944-4773 or you can text them at 503-894-9453.

The therapies most prescribed for PMADs are talk therapy and medication, but Chinese medicine (including acupuncture, herbs, and moxa) offers a powerful, personalized form of treatment. There is a long tradition in Chinese culture of postpartum practices that support the physical, emotional, and mental health of the new mother. She is fed deeply nourishing foods and herbs and is encouraged to get lots of rest, while others help her care for the baby.

I encourage every woman to come in for postpartum treatments. After the baby is born, so much attention and energy is focused on the new arrival that the recovery of the mom is often forgotten or overlooked. After labor, a new mom's hard work is not done! She and her body need pampering. Caring for a newborn is exhausting and getting support in the form of moxa, herbs, and acupuncture can go a long way towards replenishing energy reserves and preventing future health problems.

Emotions and Chinese Medicine

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Emotions and Chinese Medicine, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CA

In Chinese medicine, disease has both internal and external causes. One of the internal causes is emotions. Each of us experiences all emotions and that is normal. However, when an emotional state persists, or we “dwell” there, it can become pathological. Traditionally, the seven emotions are anger, joy (over-excitement), worry or overthinking, grief, sorrow, fear, and terror. Although each emotion affects the whole body, it is believed in Chinese medicine that each emotion most affects a particular organ system. Ultimately, all emotions have an effect on the Heart.

In Chinese medicine, anger affects the Liver. Imagine what happens when you become angry. You tense up, your face becomes red, your voice becomes louder, you might clench your teeth, have headaches, or experience neck and shoulder tension.

Over-excitement affects the Heart, a little bit like falling in love! You might laugh inappropriately, find it hard to settle down and fall asleep, or even suffer mania or hysteria.

Worry or overthinking affects the Spleen. The Spleen is the major digestive organ in Chinese medicine, which includes digesting and assimilating ideas, as well as food. Worry can cause either an increase or a loss in appetite.

Grief and sorrow affect the Lungs. This shows up as a lump in your throat, heaviness and emptiness in the chest.

Fear and terror affect the Kidneys, causing uncontrolled urination.

According to the Su Wen, part of the Huang Di Nei Jing (the Yellow Emperor’s Canon) which was compiled over 2,200 years ago and is still used today, the emotions disrupt the flow of Qi in the following ways:

When there is anger, the Qi rises up.
When there is elation, the Qi becomes loose.
When there is sadness, the Qi disappears.
When there is fear, the Qi descends.
When there is cold, the Qi is gathered.
When there is heat, the Qi flows outwards.
When there is startling with fright, the Qi is in disorder.
When there is fatigue, the Qi is damaged.
When there is obsessive thought, the Qi is knotted.

There are several ways to reverse the detrimental effects of emotions: Acupuncture is very good at moving Qi and releasing stagnation in the body.  Using your breath and consciously feeling tension release from your body as you exhale is also helpful. Another way is through meditation – sitting silently and having no relationship with whatever arises, realizing that it’s temporary. And yet another is to recognize that only part of you feels a particular emotion, while the rest of you is fine.
As Pema Chödrön says, “You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.”

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