“Chinese medicine” is a bit of a misnomer.
When I began my studies in acupuncture, I thought I was going to learn about medicine. Instead, we learned about health, at least as the foundation.
Although Chinese medicine has a robust understanding of disease pathology and the many avenues to its treatment and cure, it more importantly has a profound comprehension of what it means to be healthy—not just in body, but also in mind and spirit.
This focus on health seems to be sadly lacking in the Western approach. In Western medicine, the focus is on disease, and medical students spend many years in school studying the body in a diseased state and the diseases themselves.
This difference in focus also determines each one’s approach. One treats the human being and the other treats the disease.
Doctors may be interested in disease, but patients are not. Patients are interested in how to be healthy so that disease never comes to visit. Eastern medicine has always taught people how to live a healthy life, first and foremost. To achieve this, there are some core practices that we must be aware of, understand, and ultimately live by if we are to succeed.
Right now, this wisdom seems to be needed more than ever. People want to be empowered to participate in their own health. Chinese medicine clearly defines a human being’s essential needs and relationships (to nature, seasons, and food) that must be navigated properly in order to sustain health. And getting there is up to us. Sometimes we need guidance and support, but ultimately, we are responsible for our own health and well-being, and Chinese medicine can empower us on this journey.
Attune to Emotions
In the Eastern view, we are more than our physical bodies. What we feel and how we process those emotions are essential to living a healthy life. Human emotions are complex, and our medicine, because of its emphasis on quantifiable, physical phenomena, doesn’t always acknowledge the connection between our emotions and health. (Thankfully, that does seem to be changing as we unravel some of the consequences of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and stress.)
In Western culture, we have a tendency to avoid unpleasant feelings, and on the surface, that’s understandable. I mean, who wants to wallow in grief, anxiety, or fear? Achieving emotional intelligence is the goal. That means developing an awareness that situations in your life will evoke emotional responses (which is normal), then becoming aware of the emotion provoked, acknowledging it, and taking the time to work through it. This simple process is how to begin sorting through our emotions healthily. To help process what you’re feeling, you could talk to a trusted friend, write about it in a journal, or simply take some time to sit with it. Taking this time is something we don’t often consider, but it’s an integral part of health maintenance.
Harmonize With Nature
Living in harmony with nature may seem like a strange concept in our era of indoor living. Nature has become a place we “go” and not something we are intrinsically part of. But not that long ago, our ancestors did live in harmony with the natural world, and life ebbed and flowed with the changing seasons. Eastern medicine grew out of this harmonious interplay between humans and the natural world. Many of our modern diseases are rooted in our constant exposure to unnatural substances and disconnect from the soothing beauty of the natural world.
It seems common sense to say it, but as outdoor temperatures, available foods, and sunlight change—along with the activity of every plant and animal in the world—so too will human beings change.
Eastern medicine teaches that we should adapt our eating habits and behaviors to this flow of the seasons.
Spring signifies a new awakening, with young plants pushing up toward the sky. Spring’s expansive energies make it the perfect time to take on new habits and goals. You’d even be wise to delay the start date for your New Year’s resolutions until you have spring’s assistance. Spring is associated with the liver and anger, making spring the best season to deal with any unresolved feelings of anger, resentment, or frustration. Spring is the best time to seek personal development and growth and make plans for the future. Cooking should be of shorter duration and at higher temperatures. The color associated with spring and the liver is green, so eating green foods is most beneficial at this time of year.
Summer, associated with the heart and joy, is when energies are at their pinnacle and is the best time of year to be outside and active, enjoying the sun. Rising earlier and going to bed later maximize the benefit of the sun’s nourishing rays. Eating lighter fare and more raw foods like salads allows us to benefit from their cooling effects, which are important in the year’s hottest months.
Fall‘s changing leaves signal a turn inward and a slowing down, preparing us for winter. Fall is associated with the lungs, and its energy is “letting go.” Fall is the best time to complete any unfinished projects to make room for new experiences. Cleaning, reorganizing, and donating are perfect fall activities and help us to let go of anything we no longer need.
Winter is associated with the kidneys and represents our deepest, most fundamental energies. This is the time to become less active and be more reflective. Winter is the season of rest, so going to bed earlier and rising later help to conserve energy in these cold months. Cooking foods longer on lower heat, as one does for soups and stews, imbues them with more warming properties, protecting us from the external chill.
Eat Your Medicine
Modern research has shown that many diseases we attributed to genetics are now known to be largely preventable through diet and lifestyle. Coronary artery disease (CAD), ischemic stroke (a stroke caused by limited blood flow to a particular artery in the brain), Type 2 diabetes, and many types of cancer are some of the most prevalent—and preventable—causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide.
Research finds that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. One study from the New England Journal of Medicine shows that people eating the Mediterranean diet had a 30 percent lower incidence of cardiovascular events than the control group. The Mediterranean diet generally refers to one high in fruit, nuts, seeds, vegetables, legumes, and cereals, while limiting the amount of meat and dairy products.
Another well-documented example of lifestyle and dietary changes impacting disease rates comes from Finland. In 1972, Finland had the highest mortality rate from CVD (cardiovascular disease) in the world. Officials there examined environmental factors and made changes such as increasing the availability of low-fat dairy products, enacting anti-smoking legislation, and improving meals served in schools. In five years, significant advancements were made, and by 1992, CVD mortality rates for men ages 35 to 64 had dropped by 57 percent. Recent data show a 75 percent decrease in mortality from CVD.
Using food as medicine is one of the pillars of Eastern medicine. As a consequence, the Chinese, over many millennia, documented the healing properties of foods, attributing a thermal nature to many as well. Chinese physicians knew well and taught their patients the healing properties of foods that grew in their communities, and how they could be used to heal illnesses and fortify the body against disease. In traditional Chinese culture, eating “superfoods” was a way of life.
Listen to Your Body
Our bodies speak a language we have gradually forgotten. We routinely confuse thirst for hunger, frustration for fatigue, and stress for malnutrition. The clues our bodies send are an information delivery system that can tell us what we need and if something is wrong. Hunger, fatigue, sore muscles, sweaty palms, or a racing heartbeat are all ways our bodies communicate with us.
Some of this communication happens beneath the level of our conscious awareness, but some does not. Pangs in our stomach signal we need to eat, fatigue lets us know we need rest, and palpitations and sweaty palms may tell us that the boy we like is close by. If we feel energized by exercise and exhausted by candy, these are key lessons to navigating ourselves toward better living.
When it comes to health, the signals the body sends will be subtle at first–like a mild headache. If we don’t pay attention, they may get louder and the pain may become intense until we pay attention. Our bodies are always speaking to us; it behooves us to listen.
Health Is A Daily Practice
In our society, many of us have stopped listening to our bodies and are told we should listen to doctors instead. This suggests we don’t know what we need and should leave our health decisions to someone else. In the Eastern view, the physician works with the patient and trusts in the wisdom of the body to help it to heal when needed. But the emphasis is always on living a healthy lifestyle so that we can avoid illness whenever possible.
Eastern medicine teaches us that health is achieved when the body, mind, and spirit are all in a state of harmony. Maintaining this harmonious state is realized through being mindful, and tending to ourselves on a daily basis. With this constant attention to the details of our lives, we can make small adjustments and easily correct anything that might be askew. These tweaks make larger adjustments unnecessary and dramatically reduce the chance of a nasty surprise. The practice of incrementally improving our daily lifestyle is one of the most profound ways we can take care of ourselves and ensure we live long, healthy, happy lives.
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living, a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.