Over my eleven years in clinical practice I have found myself repeating to new patients the same basic fundamentals of healthy living. In modern Western society we have left basic health education largely ignored or left to commercial interests.
At the heart of Chinese medicine is wisdom on how to live life to its maximum, how to be as healthy as you can. I've attempted to summarize, below, the foundations of being a healthy human being.
Please bear in mind, it typically takes patients months to slowly alter their current habits, and it can be difficult. Persevere. The struggle is against the momentum of unhealthy behaviors generated over years, as well as the psychological addiction to those behaviors. Ultimately, physiology, the brute power of nature, is on your side. As you make changes, you lessen the force of inertia of old ways and invigorate your basic, inner nature to re-assert itself and strive for a full and complete life.
Lastly, there may be very real, organic or psychological, obstacles to your fully adapting these basic practices for good health. Aiding patients in overcoming such blockages is a core goal of my medical practice. Do not hesitate in seeking further assistance and guidance when needed.
1. Eat food
Much of what has been labeled and considered food is closer to entertainment than sustenance. The purpose of too much of the typical diet is to provide superficial and fleeting comfort at the expense of true nourishment.
How close to its original, natural state is the food you're eating? How much packaging is involved? What are the colors, flavors, and smells of the foods you eat? False food, highly packaged and processed, is a poor imitation that quickly looses appeal upon closer inspection.
2. Bigger breakfast and lunch, small dinners
The organs of digestion are at peak power and ability in the morning. This is the time to make the most of a healthy diet. You will be most efficient in breaking down foods and assimilating nutrients in the mornings through lunch.
The digestive system is at its weakest point in the afternoon and evening. No matter what you consume at these times you will be far less effective in digesting it and absorbing its nutrients. Large dinners burden and tax the body while reaping little reward of nourishment.
3. Avoid cold and iced foods and drinks
Cold foods, including to some degree foods that have been frozen, and iced drinks sap the digestive organs of their digestive power. When consumed over time they weaken the digestive system and when consumed as part of a meal impede digestion of that meal.
4. Pay attention and honor your instincts
Eat when you're hungry, when your body is telling you that you are ready and able to digest food.
Pay attention to how you feel before a meal. What do you really want, what flavors and types of food is your body telling you you need?
Eat consciously, allowing your body to fully appreciate the experience.
How do you feel immediately after the meal? If you are energized and optimistic, then the meal was a success! If you are tired, lethargic, moody, or down, something about the meal was off, be it content, amount, etc. Over only a little time, by simply paying attention you can alter your diet to be the best it can for you.
Hungry for more? Download this more comprehensive list of guidelines.
In Chinese medicine, food can be used as medicine. Individual foods have specific therapeutic properties that make them appropriate in treating certain conditions or addressing health complaints.
For example, each flavor, such as sweet, bitter, pungent, salty, and sour, have specific actions in the body and affect certain organs.
Additionally, foods have certain natures to them that result in a cooling or warming effect on physiology. For instance, most melons are cooling in nature, making them more appropriate for conditions involving excess heat in the body. Meat on the the other hand tends to be warming and nourishing, heating and strengthening the body.
It is best to work directly with a Chinese medical professional when using food as medicine. For those curious I have compiled a list of foods and their therapeutic properties.
Exercise should be invigorating, energizing, and enjoyable - You should want to do it and enjoy it! If you don't, something is off.
Your exercise routine should leave you energized and excited. Too often we exercise to the point of exhaustion or fatigue. Though this may feel good occasionally, perhaps after a stressful day, ultimately you have left yourself depleted and are forcing your body to dig deep and consume excessive reserves to return to balance. These types of exercise routines leave a person weaker over the years and dramatically increase the risk of acute injury as well as debilitating wear and tear on the body over years.
Exercise, ultimately, is about helping the physical body experience and exercise its unique capabilities, while assisting the mind in attaining calm so that it can rest in awareness of its true nature.
Regarding the maximizing of physical abilities through exercise, it is better to think of your routine as helping you discover your athletic ability, not create more ability or push the limits of your abilities.
A few signs of a healthy exercise routine:
Spontaneous desire to exercise every day
Happiness immediately following your routine ranging from deep contentment to radiant joy
Feeling energized immediately afterward
Overall improvement in all areas of life (not just physical health, but greater success and peace, in general)
Gradual reduction in symptoms of lingering illnesses and fewer occurrence of acute illnesses
Sleep is fundamental. You cannot be healthy without adequate quality sleep.
Sleep is only sleep when it occurs when the sun is down. Sleep during the day, or any time the sun is up, is effective as rest. However, it does not have the deeply recuperative power of full sleep.
Sleep aids should only be used temporarily and infrequently. If you cannot sleep well without their regular use, seek medical attention. Forced or drugged sleep is not good sleep. Overtime, your mind and body will show signs of deterioration.
Signs of adequate sleep:
waking spontaneously with the sunrise
needing only a few moments to awake fully to an alert, joyful state of mind
Perhaps the least obvious, meditation is essential to attain full health.
Meditation is defined here as intentional, detached, focused observation of the activities of your mind.
In meditation, you increase direct understanding that you, the source of awareness, consciousness, are separate from your mind. You also learn better the value, nature, and source of your thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and emotions.
By increasing awareness that you are not your mind, you gain power and the ability to not be controlled by your mind, its thoughts, moods, and emotions. You are also better able to seek the source of negative moods, as well as that of the beliefs and ideas that lay at the heart of unhealthy behaviors and patterns. These abilities gained through meditation constitute the secret to true, deep, complete peace and happiness, the truest definition of health.
Appropriate medical care
"It takes a village" they say. We are a community. We are not designed to attain anything of meaning or real value alone.
This goes for health and healing, as well. We do fall ill. Inevitably, no matter the precautions, illness of some sort will befall us all. We must, therefore, understand when to seek medical care and how to evaluate the appropriateness of that care.
In general, there are three situations requiring varying levels of professional medical care. One is medical emergencies, where there is an immediate and serious threat to one's health (physically or emotionally).
Second is where there are obvious symptoms of illness, and third is when there are no obvious signs of illness, but there is 'room for improvement' in general quality of life, energy, and other less tangible aspects of living. It is these last two areas where this discussion is primarily aimed.
There are two areas to evaluate - the system of care (underlying medical theories, diagnostic and treatment capability, etc.) and the individual practitioner. The former is a far easier discussion so we'll begin there.
Ideally, the medical system you utilize has a well developed theoretical foundation that is capable of giving explanation for your discomfort. For example, a massage therapist may speak of a structural imbalance causing muscular tension resulting in your pain, whereas an MD may use the theories of biochemistry and endocrinology to explain your suffering, and so on.
This theory needs to be backed by clinical evidence of safety and effectiveness. The word 'clinical' is used, specifically, to differentiate between what a 'friend of a friend' reports and evidence derived from scientific investigation. (Not to downplay the usefulness of the opinions and experiences of friends and family members. Indeed, these are very important, but they are so based more on your trust in that person and their being honest about their personal experience, than in their critical evaluation of what their experiences.)
Importantly, the nature of evidence and the methods of how it has been attained may vary from system to system. The methods of modern medical research and those of classical Chinese medicine are different, for example. Each reflects a different fundamental perspective on reality. These differing paradigms result in different conceptualizations of disease, health, and healing, and lead to different forms of investigation and, ultimately, differing approaches to assessment and medical intervention.
Next, for chronic and more severe disorders, the medical system should be able to discuss the influence and effect of the issue in all three of the following realms:
Mental/emotional and cognitive, and
Spiritual (defined as the greater context of life, personal growth and development, the experience of life as a whole).
For example, migraine headaches are often related to the liver and gallbladder systems. When they are, the headaches are likely due to the obstruction of qi in the liver and gallbladder channels - the physical realm. This may manifest alongside frustration and anger (possibly repressed) - the mental/emotional realm. This situation also reflects deep obstruction to this person's spontaneous attempts to express inner potential out into the world - the spiritual realm.
Your chosen medical system should also be able to see (diagnose) and treat you as a unique individual.
The modern Western medical paradigm is a disease-oriented model. The patient's symptoms are matched against a list of potential abstract diseases. When a close enough match is found, treatment is given for that disease.
In Chinese medicine, a patient's symptoms are collected into a unique 'symptom pattern'. Treatment is then based on this specific symptom pattern. This allows for much more individualized treatment.
Treatment should also respond to a patient's changes. Nothing stays the same, including illness. As the the symptom pattern changes, therapy should mirror this change. The aim of treatment must be constantly adjusted to stay on target through all stages of the illness-health process.
For example, a Chinese herbal formula may vary in constituent herbs and individual dose of herbs over the course of treatment. Even upon eradication of all overt physical symptoms, an herbal formula can be adjusted to begin treating the constitutional weakness that allowed for the disease to develop.
Do No Harm
The first rule is 'Do No Harm'.
Negative side effects, or adverse reactions, in any therapeutic intervention should be minimal to none and should be short lived (e.g. they should go away as treatment is adjusted to the patient's unique presentation).
Perhaps, in severe cases, side effects my be great, but, again, these would be short lived.
Also, treatment should not lead to the need for further treatment. Where it does, it is likely not the most appropriate treatment. For example, if treatment reduces one set of symptoms, but causes a new set to emerge, then that is a less than ideal treatments. Alternatives should be sought.
Your chosen medical system should be able to do three things:
1) Fight pathogens when they are present - kill the bug/virus/bacteria, etc.
2) Support health - actively facilitate and support the body's natural abilities to fight illness and maintain health
3) Further personal development - this is the highest level of medicine. At its root, illness is failure of the being to be itself; it is obstruction of the fundamental, spontaneous flow of life. High quality medicine supports the individual's personal progress to fulfilling their potential.
Empowering the Patient
If required, medicine should be able to 'step in' to fight a battle the patient was unable to handle on their own. However, this needs to be a temporary situation. This healing power needs to be turned back over to the patient as soon as possible. Ultimately, good medicine assists, guides, and facilitates.
One of the main ways it does this is by assisting the patient in increasing their awareness of what's going on. (It needs to be understood, though, that ultimately, no one can know the situation better than the patient.)
X-rays are one good example. You fall and hurt your arm. The pain is severe, but you're not sure how bad it is. An x-ray can increase your awareness of what's going on.
Effective talk therapy is another common avenue for increasing awareness by providing a safe place for the patient to fully and consciously experience whatever they are feeling.
Good medicine should also be able to explain how the patient's thoughts and actions have led to the current illness, thus empowering the patient to avoid repeating or worsening the situation.
The more knowledge of the human being a system of medicine has the more assistance it can be to the patient.
Your Individual Practitioner
Your individual practitioner can make or break the whole deal. A profound practitioner of a poor system can effect miracle cures. A poor practitioner of a great system may be very limited in how much they can help.
Fundamentally, your practitioner should be soulfully invested in their style of medicine and in you. Their practice of their medicine should be an extension of their life and personal development.
Lastly, there should be open and honest discussion from the very beginning, through the treatment, and at the conclusion of your interaction.