Category Archives: Longevity & Health
Here, I offer you a brief insight into ancient Chinese wisdom, and show with the aid of some examples, how well it resonates with the results of modern medical research. If you take away a flavour of this short article and change just one thing in your life as a result, then your time reading it will have been well spent.
The Chinese have long been interested in lengthening life and maintaining youth, and this has informed medical practice since ancient times. “Chang shou” or long life, is considered a blessing of heaven: it is a reward to be reaped for following the teachings of traditional Chinese medicine, about work, rest, diet, dress etc. (For some specific examples of these teachings, please read some of my Seasonal Tips.)
The idea of such preventative medicine appears in the classic texts of two millenia ago: “To wait for the battle before forging the weapons, to wait until one is thirsty before digging the well, is this not too late?” It is often said that people in those days, would therefore attend for acupuncture and advice at regular intervals during the year, most usually at the change of seasons, because that is when we are more vulnerable to imbalance.
Now we shall look at just two categories from a long list which the Chinese refer to as the causes of disease: these will be our emotional life, and our diet/eating habits.
Emotions are considered in Chinese medicine, to harm us when we experience them too intensely or for too long: to be annoyed about a speeding ticket the day you have opened the envelope, would be alright; to be completely enraged or to still be angry six months later, would not! “When faced with something exasperating, one should calmly consider which is more important, anger or health.” (Cao Tong, Qing dynasty AD 1644-1912). Indeed modern research shows a bout of intense anger increases the risk of a stroke within 2 hours, by a factor of 14 (Neurology Journal 2004), and increases by a factor of 17, the likelihood of a potentially fatal heart rhythm disturbance (Circulation Journal 2004). By comparison, “Laughing makes you ten years younger.” (Chinese saying)
For good health and a sense of well being, we need to promote a harmonious flow of Qi in the body. This is achieved by meditation, relaxation, exercise, happiness, and by cultivating a free flow of all our emotions, such that particular ones do not significantly linger or predominate. “Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centred by accepting whatever you are doing.” (Chuang Tzu c. BC369-286)
A lack of the more positive feelings, is seen as equally unhelpful: “People have illness because they do not have love in their life and are not cherished.” (Sun Simiao AD581-682) From the modern medical profession,”Those who feel lonely, depressed or isolated, are 3 to 5 times more likely to suffer premature death or disease. I don’t know of anything else across medicine that has such a broad and powerful impact.” (Dr Dean Ornish, Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California.) In the UK nowadays, depression is one of the top five conditions people seek acupuncture treatment for.
Turning to diet, Chinese medicine can guide not only what we eat, but how we eat it. The ancient Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, advised “The five cereals are staple food; the five fruits are auxiliary; the five meats are beneficial; the five vegetables should be taken in abundance.” 2500 years later, these priorities resonate strikingly with the UK’s “5-(portions of fruit & veg) a-Day” campaign. Over the centuries, subsequent texts reveal sophisticated developments in the use of food, including the transition to cooked food, made possible by drilling wood to create fire. Yi Yin in the Shang dynasty (BC1600-1046) emphasised that physicians should use the right kinds of food to help cure disease; food had now become equal to medicine.
Foods today are chosen to support the patient’s Qi, balance yin and yang, and to treat illness. So when recommending particular foods to a patient, an acupuncturist will take account of a host of factors, including the person’s complaint, age, constitution, living and working environment etc. You do not have to be unwell to benefit from advice on the most appropriate diet for you; we should all choose foods which help maintain our health.
Finally, there is how we eat. Never skip breakfast. “People who eat breakfast are significantly less likely to be obese and suffer from diabetes than those who usually do not.” (American Heart Association’s 43rd Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease & Prevention). Eat sitting and relaxed. Think about the food you are tasting, rather than devouring an entire plateful absentmindedly. Eat slowly and chew your food well. (“The stomach has no teeth”- Chinese saying.) Eat only to 7/10 full. After the meal, rub your abdomen with a circular motion, 25 times clockwise then 25 times anti-clockwise. Finally, after a short rest at the table, take a stroll. The Chinese say,”Walk a hundred paces after a meal, and one can live ninety-nine years.”
Below, you will find some modern medical research from which you might wish to take a few healthy living tips.
A meta-analysis of 25 double-blind, randomised, controlled trials covering 11 000 participants, has concluded that vitamin D supplementation is both safe and can help provide protection against acute respiratory tract infections.
Participants ranged in age up to 95, and data on a host of factors was assessed, including incidence of infections, their requirement for antibiotics, and number of days off school or work. Trials had taken place in 14 countries across 4 continents. Protective effects were strongest in those who already had profound vitamin D deficiency at baseline.
There were no serious adverse events associated with taking vitamin D. Concerns normally centre around raised blood calcium levels and kidney stones; these were no higher in the vitamin D groups compared to the control groups.
The researchers say their results add to the body of evidence supporting the introduction of public health measures such as food fortification, to improve vitamin D status, particularly in settings where profound vitamin D deficiency is common.
Public Health England recommended in 2016 that everyone needs vitamin D equivalent to an average daily intake of 10 micrograms, although this is intended to protect bone and muscle health.
(Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. British Medical Journal, online 15 February 2017.)
A study carried out at the University of Eastern Finland, suggests that frequent saunas are associated with significantly reduced risk of dementia in men.
The effects of sauna use on the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia were studied in the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIHD), which gathered data for 20 years on more than 2000 middle-aged men living in eastern Finland. Based on their sauna useage, participants were divided into three groups: those taking a sauna once a week; those taking one 2–3 times a week; those taking one 4–7 times a week.
The more frequently saunas were taken, the lower was the risk of dementia. Among those taking a sauna 4–7 times a week, the risk of any form of dementia was 66% lower and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease 65% lower than among those taking a sauna just once a week.
Previous results from the KIHD study have shown that frequent sauna bathing also significantly reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death, the risk of death due to coronary artery disease and other cardiac events, as well as overall mortality. According to Professor Jari Laukkanen, the study leader, saunas may protect both the heart and memory to some extent via similar, still poorly known mechanisms. The sense of well-being and relaxation may also play a role.
(University of Eastern Finland, online news, accessed 4 January 2017.)
There is one supplement you should consider taking from this point in the year: vitamin D. Last summer, Public Health England issued new advice that all adults, and children over the age of one, should get at least 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day. Vitamin D is found in oily fish eg salmon, red meat, liver and egg yolks. It can also be found in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals. It’s difficult however to get the recommended amount of vitamin D from diet alone, and our main source is from the action of sunlight on our skin. From October to the end of March, sunshine in the UK is too weak to achieve this, and we are largely covered up and/or indoors anyway, so these are the months in which it is particularly important to consider a supplement.
It’s relatively cheap too: checking today, you can buy 3 months supply in Exeter High Street for £3-59.
It is accepted that vitamin D is needed for healthy bones, teeth and muscle. There may also be associations (although causality has not been established) between low vitamin D status and a host of other conditions such as dementia, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and some thyroid problems. This year, two separate studies from Australia have linked vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy with autism, and deficiency in childhood with allergic disorders such as asthma and eczema. It is a vitamin about which we still have much to learn.
If October is that point in the year when your mood and overall health starts to dip a little, then read on. An impact study published this year by the University of Derby, concluded that people who took part in the June 2015 “30 Days Wild” nature engagement campaign, experienced significant increases in levels of health and happiness.
The campaign called on people to “do something wild” every day for a month. Suggestions were given as to how they could engage with nature in a variety of activities, ranging from momentarily stopping to notice a wildflower or picking and eating a wild berry, to letting a patch of lawn grow longer or going for a walk in the woods. The researchers point out that happiness in the UK has previously been observed to remain constant between May and October, with 1% variations in late autumn and early spring. It was therefore reasonable to assume that any changes reported by participants, were due to their regular engagement with nature. Participants were surveyed at baseline, in July and at follow-up in September.
There were statistically significant increases in participants’ connection to nature, health, happiness and conservation behaviour, and these improvements were sustained at the September follow-up. The researchers suggest that the reported health improvement was related to the improvement in happiness, mediated by the increased nature connection. They also say their findings suggest that connection to nature may provide people with resilience to meet the challenges of everyday life, while also facilitating exercise, social contact and a sense of purpose.
(30 Days Wild: Development and Evaluation of a Large-Scale Nature Engagement Campaign to Improve Well-Being. PLOS One, 18 February 2016.
Summary at Devon Wildlife Trust accessed October 2016.)