INTRODUCTION TO GENERAL HEALTH
To maintain good health, it is necessary to look after one’s body, mind, emotions and chi
To look after the physical body, it is important to not intentionally harm it.
Smoking is the single biggest avoidable cause of cancer in the world. Smoking causes over a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK. Smoking also causes tens of thousands of deaths each year in the UK from other conditions, including heart and lung problems. Tobacco was responsible for more than 100 million deaths worldwide in the 20th century. Up to two-thirds of all long-term smokers will be killed by their habit. On average, smokers lose around a decade of life compared with non-smokers.
Smoking increases the risk of at least 14 cancers, including cancer of the lung, larynx (voice box), oesophagus (gullet), mouth and pharynx (upper throat), bladder, pancreas, kidney, liver, stomach, bowel, cervix, ovaries, nose and sinuses, as well as some types of leukaemia. There is some evidence that smoking could also cause breast cancer.
It is estimated that each year in the UK around 125,000 people die from tobacco-related diseases, particularly from cancer, respiratory diseases and heart disease.
Alcohol has also been shown to be a cause of mouth, esophageal and liver cancers, among others. Scientists have found that the effects of alcohol and tobacco together are much worse than for either one of them by itself.
Each year in the UK, there are 50,000 alcohol-related deaths. This includes deaths from cirrhosis of the liver and other health problems from long-term drinking, deliberate and accidental overdose, traffic deaths and fatal accidents while drunk.
In Chinese herbal medicine, Tian Men Dong is used to reduce the desire for alcohol and heal some of its damaging effects on the body’s internal organs.
In general, alcohol should be avoided. However, occasional very small amounts of red wine in winter will warm the body and invigorate the circulation of the blood.
Recreational drugs are in three categories: stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens (psychedelics). Many show two effects at the same time. For example, cannabis is a depressant and a hallucinogen, and ecstasy is both a stimulant and a hallucinogen.
Stimulants like cocaine, speed, ecstasy and mephedrone make the body hyper-active and put immense pressure on the heart and whole body.
Depressants like alcohol, tranquilizers, heroin and cannabis make the body hypo-active and weaken the heart, lungs and whole body.
Hallucinogens like LSD and magic mushrooms alter how the senses perceive reality.
Number of drug-related deaths in the UK per year:
Cannabis = 15
Cocaine = 167
Amphetamine = 96
Ecstasy = 73
Solvents = 70
Opiates (heroin, morphine and methadone) = 1,469
In the UK, 6.5% of all hospital admissions are the result of an adverse reaction to pharmaceutical drugs. That means that 1,040,000 patients are in hospital each year from taking pharmaceutical drugs after being correctly prescribed by a doctor in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions.
Scientists wanted to see what the effects of long-term total sleep deprivation would be on animals; all the laboratory animals died. Your body needs sleep, just as it needs air and food to function at its best. During sleep, your heart, immune system and brain all regenerate and heal themselves. Sleeping for less than 6 to 8 hours a night increases the risk of early death by about 12 percent.
To be healthy, the optimum time for your body to sleep is from about 10.30 pm to 7.00 am. This is because humans are diurnal (awake when sun is shining, asleep at night) rather than nocturnal (awake at night). Humans must sleep at night for about eight hours.
Recent scientific research has revealed that a section of the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is made up of 20,000 nerve cells, is the location of the body’s 24-hour biological clock and also has an effect on our alertness. This section of the brain causes a reduction in our temperature that begins at 11 o’clock in the evening and lasts till 4 o’clock in the morning. This cooling period is the time when the higher centers of the brain repair themselves.
So, if you are still awake after 10:30 pm, you are going to keep the system overheated. This denies the body the opportunity to carry out the regeneration and repair of the higher brain centers, resulting in reduced alertness and the inevitable reduction in general health. In TCM, this type of overheating of the brain and body is called Late Night Heat and is treated by acupuncture with the Clear Heat Formula. In our Chinese herbal medicine formula, we would use Lu Gen.
Harm Avoidance of the Physical Body
Smoking, alcohol, recreational drugs and sleep deprivation are all seen by many people as a normal part of modern everyday life. However, they can all damage general health and are in many cases avoidable. So to maintain good health, it is necessary to look after one’s body by avoiding these non-beneficial things.
If you do not smoke, do not drink alcohol, do not take recreational drugs and do get a good night’s sleep, then your general health will be vastly improved. Your quality of life will be enhanced, and your life expectancy extended by many years.
Western Medicine Ideas about Food
A balanced diet is made up of the five main food groups:
This group contains starchy foods such as pasta, rice, oats, potatoes, noodles, yam, bananas, sweet potatoes, millet, couscous, bread, breakfasts cereals, barley and rye.
2. Animal protein
This group contains all land animals, birds, fish and seafood.
3. Milk and dairy products
4. Fruit and vegetables
5. Fats and sugars
Our daily food intake should have all five groups represented. There is no benefit from missing out one of these food groups. For many years, it was popular to miss out animal protein, and now there is a new movement to miss out carbohydrates. To keep the physical body healthy, we need to nourish it by providing the nutrients it needs from all five food groups. Yes, the amounts can be varied, maybe for some people certain groups should be reduced or increased, but they should all be represented.
If a person overeats and becomes obese (very overweight with a lot of body fat), it has many adverse effects on health. In the UK, one in every four adults is overweight. A way to measure excess fat is by waist circumference. Men with a waist circumference of 94cm (37in) or more and women with a waist circumference of 80cm (about 31.5in) or more are more likely to develop obesity-related health problems.
Obesity increases the risks of developing type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some types of cancer (such as breast cancer and bowel cancer) and stroke.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Ideas about Food
The above explanation is how food is described from a western perspective. In TCM, rather than saying a person should or should not have a particular type of food because it is healthy or unhealthy, instead it is described by what it does. For example, milk is very moistening, so it would be appropriate for a person with dehydration but not for a person with oedema.
In TCM, food is categorised by its properties, taste and direction. It is then understood what is appropriate for the patient to eat. For example, if the patient felt weak and cold, and it was wintertime, they would be prescribed warm, lifting food. If the patient felt hot with a headache in summer, they would be prescribed cooling, dispersing foods.
Food properties: hot – warm – neutral – cool – cold
Food tastes: pungent – sweet – bitter – salty – sour
Food directions: up – down – in – out
Sour flavour affects the liver and gall bladder.
Bitter flavour affects the pericardium, triple warmer, heart and small intestine.
Sweet flavour affects the spleen and stomach.
Pungent flavour affects the lung and large intestine.
Salty flavour affects the kidneys and bladder.
Traditionally in Chinese, medicine it is said that:
In the end of winter, to keep the liver strong, we eat wheat, chicken and peaches.
Then in spring when it is windy our liver can stay balanced.
In the end of spring, to keep the heart strong, we eat millet, sheep and plumbs.
Then in summer when it is hot our heart can stay balanced.
In the end of summer, to keep the spleen strong, we eat millet, beef and apricots.
Then in late summer when it is humid our spleen can stay balanced.
In the end of late summer, to keep the lungs strong we eat rice, chicken eggs, duck and chestnuts.
Then in autumn when it is dry our lungs can stay balanced.
In the end of autumn, to keep the kidneys strong, we eat beans, pork and dates.
Then in winter when it is cold our kidneys can stay balanced.
So instead of saying a food is healthy or unhealthy, we say it is either appropriate or inappropriate for the season or the patient. For example, in winter we would choose to eat more foods with warm and hot properties. However, in summer we would choose to eat more foods with cool and cold properties. At any time of the year, if a person had a temperature (internal heat), we would advise to eat cool and cold property foods and to avoid food with a warm or hot property.
When the winter weather is bitingly cold, we should have more animal protein which is generally warm/hot in nature. During the hot summer months, we should have more fruit and vegetables which are generally cool/cold in nature.
Whatever the time of year, people with cold conditions should avoid cold foods and have warm foods instead. Those with hot diseases should avoid hot spicy food and have food with a cool nature. In mainland China, there are restaurants where you are diagnosed and prescribed various dishes depending on your health. So food is a type of medicine rather than just a taste experience. So for example, when the body is under attack from the wind-heat of summer, people drink Ju Hua (chrysanthemum) tea because it is cooling and dispersing.
In winter, ginger and spring onion soup are recommended for the onset of a common cold. Ginger is warming, and onions are diaphoretic. So together they can clear out the invasion of wind, cold and damp. However, if these pathogens have already caused the creation of internal heat (temperature) then this treatment is no longer appropriate.
If you have a virus causing a temperature then having Pu Gong Ying (dandelion) tea or Jin Yin Hua (honeysuckle) tea will be helpful, because these herbs are both cooling. Therefore, they will reduce the temperature.
If the temperature is caused by the body’s response to the presence of a virus, then it is necessary to have Da Huang (dried rhubarb root) tea which is a purgative to clear the viral pathogen from the system.
Whatever the season or health condition, all food and drinks should be consumed when they are hot, warm or at room temperature. Food and drink that is cold in temperature will weaken the digestion and absorption system and therefore impair body immunity. The digestion and absorption system is a warm process. The food is heated up to be broken down, so cold temperature foods will weaken the functional power of this process.
In general, it is best to eat mostly cooked foods. They have the benefit of being partially broken down and so are easier to digest. They are also warm like a healthy body.
The process of digestion reduces the food to a soup-like consistency. From this, nutrients are extracted and used to nourish the body. Warm soup is thus also very healthy because we are giving the body exactly what it needs.
The preferred ways of preparing food are: boiling, braising, stewing, steaming and cooking a casserole. These have the great benefit of all being hydrated cooked foods that are eaten warm.
Properties of Food Preparation
- raw = cooling
- steamed = cool, neutral
- boiled = neutral
- stewed = warming
- braised = warming
- casseroled = warming
- stir-fried = warming
Having lightly stir-fried food occasionally is OK. Lightly stir-frying as opposed to deep frying is a healthy way of frying. However, you must make sure that the food is thoroughly cooked. Whilst lightly stir-frying the food, add water and steam-fry the food, instead of adding more oil.
It is best to avoid having too much deep-fried, roasted, grilled, barbecued or spicy food because they are all non-beneficial for a variety of reasons.
Properties of Food Preparation
- baked = warming, hot
- deep-fried = hot
- roasted = hot
- grilled = hot
- barbecued = hot
- spicy = hot
Deep-fried food is hard to digest and can cause intestinal illness and damage the liver. Also, deep-frying food causes the loss of 40-50% of the vitamins in the food.
Roasted, grilled and barbecued food (including toasted) is all dehydrated and will make them harder to digest.
Spicy food (chilli) will irritate skin conditions and also cause intestinal inflammation. It also has an irritating effect on the nervous system, which will enhance feelings of pain and cause mental irritability and damage the liver and blood.
Garlic is warm, and excess consumption could cause blood heat. For those people who love the taste of garlic, one way to get around the problem is to cook the food with the whole clove. Then take the cloves out and dispose of them after cooking. The food will be nicely flavoured with garlic, but its non-beneficial effects will be reduced.
The best source of animal protein is white-fleshed fish (eg. cod, plaice, sole, halibut and sea bass). They are easy to digest are very nutritious and nourish the body’s organs, muscles and glands.
People with skin conditions should avoid shellfish because they live in and feed on all the pollutants that sink to the sea bed. They absorb and concentrate these toxic properties in their flesh. In addition, they are hot in nature.
Raw fish is more likely to contain parasites that would otherwise have been killed by cooking. Raw fish (sushi) is also harder to digest since it has not been processed by cooking and so should be avoided.
These dietary recommendations are for good overall general health. In the case of specific health problems, different dietary recommendations are made.
For example, cinnamon should usually be avoided, because it is too hot. However, if a person has poor heart energy, a cold feeling in their stomach and cold extremities, then including cinnamon in their food would be of great benefit. It invigorates the heart, warms the stomach and carries the circulation to the extremities. So in wintertime, a person in poor health and suffering from the cold would positively benefit from having cinnamon in their food. This is why mulled wine that contains cinnamon is enjoyable in winter.
If a person has chronic constipation, they should eat vast amounts of soft fruit, plums, peaches, pears, apples, grapes, etc., and put honey in their tea, because it moistens the bowels.
If a person has heart and lung heat with a dry mouth, nose and throat (smokers for example), they should eat at least one pear and one apple every day. These fruits moisten and cool the lungs. In addition, they should put honey in their tea, because it moistens the lungs.
Alcoholics (or people with hangovers) should eat bananas because they are anti-toxin and clear the inflammatory heat caused by alcohol. They have a descending nature which will help counter the adverse rising stomach chi (nauseousness), caused by the alcohol.
Ginger is warming. Slices of fresh ginger in one’s cooking or with boiling water to make ginger tea will help a weak digestive system that is affected by a cold climate. However, if there is stomach or digestive heat causing inflammation then ginger should be avoided.
People with heat conditions should avoid spicy food and animal protein. Instead, they should eat lots of fruit and vegetables. People suffering from damp should avoid greasy food, and people with a weak digestion or food stagnation should avoid heavy and hard-to-digest food.
People with cold conditions should avoid food that is both cold in temperature and nature. Instead, they should have special beef broth. Beef is neutral and sweet it is an energy and blood tonic for the spleen and stomach.
Special Beef Broth is made from organic shin beef (beef from the shin of the animal because this is cheap), fresh ginger and water. Place one pound of shin beef in a ceramic or glass bowl and fill with water until the beef is covered to a depth of about one inch. Add several slices of fresh ginger and cover. Place this bowl into a pan of water and double boil for about two hours, keeping the outer water topped up.
Dispose of the beef (which will be white) and the ginger. The nutrients from the beef are retained in the water that surrounded it and may be digested more easily rather than having to eat a pound of beef. Drink this broth before and after a meal. It replenishes, nourishes and tonifies the whole body, strengthens the general health constitution and increased body resistance to disease.
People who have a western perspective on food have some misunderstandings:
For example, they often think that if it is organic it is good for you. However, if the item in question is warming (cinnamon, chilli, garlic, ginger, pepper) and the person has heat/inflammation/temperature then it will still be bad for them because it is warming and so will make their heat/inflammation/temperature worse. Whether it is organic or not does not change its action.
Or conversely, if they have anemia, lightheadedness, low blood pressure, weakness and cold hands and feet (a deficiency patient) they need properly cooked meals, like a meat casserole and hot cooked vegetables. If instead, they eat cold salads then their health will decline dramatically. Even if it is organic salad they will still have a sharp decline in their health because they are weak and cold and they are eating uncooked cooling lettuce.
People who have a western perspective on food also have the idea that if an item contains certain vitamins/minerals/chemicals it is good for them because they are getting their regular daily dose of those vitamins/minerals/chemicals. However, if they do not pay attention to the Chinese medicine ideas of the properties, tastes and directions of foods then they can create a problem.
For example, ginseng is often sold with the recommendation that it is good for you because it contains various beneficial compounds. However, the direction of most types of ginseng is upwards.
So if a person had lightheadedness, poor memory and a fainting feeling due to exhaustion then ginseng would be good for them. But if they had insomnia, overthinking and headaches it would make them much worse.
A final example I will give is coffee. People who have a western perspective ask is coffee good for me or is it bad for me?
Coffee is warming, a cardio tonic and a diuretic. So if it is wintertime and a person has oedema and a cold feeling inside their torso and poor circulation, cold hands and a weak heart not pumping blood to the head then coffee will be good for them. But if they have insomnia, overthinking, headaches are stressed and it’s summertime and they are dehydrated then it will be very bad for them.
People who have a western perspective should include into their understanding that most things are not good or bad, they just do something. The question people should be asking is what does this do and is it appropriate for me now?
Emotions and the Mind
If the emotions are stirred up unnecessarily, then they stop the mind from being able to think clearly. If a glass of water has some mud in it, and it is all stirred up, you cannot see clearly through the glass. If the water in the glass is left to go still, then the mud settles, and the water becomes clear. This is one of the reasons why meditation is so beneficial. By sitting in Stillness and Quietness, the emotions go calm, and the mind can become clear. Then it is easier to see/understand things with more clarity and so have a more beneficial perspective.
When working with emotions, there are three ways forwards.
1. Feel Your Feelings
The first is to allow yourself to feel whatever positive or negative emotion you are experiencing in the moment:
Then, expressing your feelings as you feel the emotion, or soon after. For example, shouting when you are angry or crying when you are sad.
There are great benefits to be had from expressing how you are feeling to the person in the moment or just out loud to yourself, soon after the moment. This has the benefit of allowing the emotion to move through the body and be released from it. This way, the emotion won’t get trapped in the body, causing an obstruction and stagnation of the chi flow.
How the organs are affected by emotional chi stagnation:
- Stagnation of chi in the liver causes depression
- Stagnation of chi in the heart causes hate
- Stagnation of chi in the spleen causes obsessive behaviour
- Stagnation of chi in the lungs causes anguish
- Stagnation of chi in the kidneys causes the person to be incapacitated by fear
2. Transform Your Emotions
The second way is to transform the yang emotion into the yin emotion:
- Transform anger into kindness
- Transform hate into love
- Transform anxiety into trust
- Transform sadness into courage
- Transform fear into confidence
This does not mean to be kind to the person you are angry with or to love the person you hate. It does not mean you should trust the person who made you anxious.
What it does mean is that you need to transform the yang emotions into yin emotions. You may be angry with someone else but be kind to yourself. You may hate someone else but love yourself. Someone else may make you anxious but trust yourself. Someone else may have made you sad but within yourself, be courageous, and someone else may have scared you but within yourself, be confident.
3. Transcend the Emotional Perspective
The third way is to maintain a clear-thinking mind. When a situation occurs instead of having an emotional reaction, you can have an appropriate thoughtful response. This skill of having the ability to transcend a subjective emotional reaction and have a more objective mental response is the beginning of the path to true wisdom and internal peace.
In TCM, one of the most important ideas to maintain good health is that the chi should flow smoothly around the whole body and that the mind should be balanced and calm. A simple external way for this to be achieved is to walk in nature for at least half an hour every day. Walking smooths the flow of the blood and chi, and being in nature calms the emotions and heals the mind.
However, there is also an internal way to make sure that the chi is flowing smoothly around the body and is evenly distributed with no excess or deficiency. This way of internally balancing the chi is a meditation technique created by the Taoists, called the Small Heavenly Orbit.
The Small Heavenly Orbit meditation involves circulating the chi around one’s own body through the two largest meridians, the governing vessel meridian (GV) and conception vessel meridian (CV). When you put the tongue on the roof of your mouth (in the same place that it touches when you say the letter ‘L’), it connects these two meridians together, creating the Small Heavenly Orbit.
The governing meridian goes up the back, is yang and supplies chi to all the other yang meridians to keep the body strong and protected. The conception meridian goes down the front of the torso, is yin and supplies chi to all the other yin meridians to keep the body nourished and healthy. These meridians both contain a vast amount of chi, that is why they are called vessels.
The yang meridians are on the hard parts of the body: the front of the legs, the spine, the back and the outside of the arms. The yin meridians are on the soft parts of the body: the insides of the legs, the belly and the insides of the arms.
All the yang meridians in the body connect with the governing meridian, and all the yin meridians connect with the conception meridian. We can fill these two main meridians with chi, like filling reservoirs with water that then overflow to irrigate the rest of the body.
When we have finished circulating the chi around the Small Heavenly Orbit, we always store the chi in the belly, not in the head.
If you leave the chi in the head, it could cause the brain to overheat, creating mental imbalances such as over-thinking, insomnia, high blood pressure and headaches.
If you finish by bringing the chi down into the belly, behind CV 4 and storing it there, you experience calmness, balance and a feeling of being grounded and stable.
The Small Heavenly Orbit can be practiced almost anywhere, at any time. You can practice standing up or sitting down, sitting crossed-legged or on a chair, inside a building or outside in nature.
The secret to success with the Small Heavenly Orbit is simply practicing. If the chi does not feel like it is flowing strongly enough on a section of the orbit, or if its movement feels too slow or blocked, the solution is just to practice more. Eventually, all blockages are removed, and the chi is felt throughout the whole orbit. The important thing is to persevere.
Breathing can also help us to move the chi. As we move the chi up the back through the governing meridian, we breathe in, and as we move it down the conception vessel, we breathe out. At first, it may not be so easy to synchronize the breathing with the movement. You may have to move the chi more quickly or breathe more slowly. Eventually, the breath and chi are moving in harmony. A calm inhalation helps to lift the chi up, and a relaxed exhalation enables it to descend. The inhalation and exhalation is through the nose.
There is more information about the Small Heavenly Orbit on this page Introduction to Taoist Meditation.
Paul has written many Chinese Martial and Healing Arts Books.