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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.
As we slip into the season of colds and flu, what are some of the steps we can take to improve our chances of evading them? Firstly, ensure your immune system is provided with all the essential nutrients. Here are some useful foods.
Beginning with breakfast, have an oat-based cereal eg museli, or make some oat porridge: oats contain a type of fibre known as beta-glucan which stimulates the white blood cells and macrophage cells of our immune system. This is also an opportunity to get some extra zinc by sprinkling a small palmful of pumpkin seeds over your cereal: in the laboratory, zinc has been shown to stop the cold virus multiplying, but studies also suggest it can shorten the duration of a cold (NHS Choices). Another ingredient you might like to include with breakfast, is a probiotic preparation, such as live or bio yoghurt, kefir, Yakult or Actimel. Probiotics appear to be useful in preventing upper respiratory tract infections (Cochrane Commentary). Finally, as regular intake of vitamin C appears to slightly shorten the duration and severity of a cold in some individuals (Cochrane Library), you could slice a kiwi or other citrus fruit over your cereal. A laboratory study suggests blueberries might also hold promise as an immune system aid (Oregon State University).
Having followed all that breakfast advice, we could turn to a mid-morning cup of tea. Black, green and white tea all contain catechins which seem according to a study in Japan, to reduce the likelihood of catching flu.
On to lunch or dinner, oily fish such as salmon, herring or mackerel offers you the benefits of omega-3 oils. Work done at Michigan State University suggests that the DHA in fish oil may enhance the activity of B-cells (specialised white blood cells) in your immune system. So consider a smoked salmon sandwich for lunch, or for a hot meal, have a salmon steak with which you could include sweet potato and carrots; these are rich in beta-carotene which the body converts to vitamin A and which performs a wide range of functions in the immune system. The salmon is also providing you with vitamin D, which like vitamin A, enables an array of immune system processes. Your breakfast milk and yoghurt will have contained vitamin D too.
If you are looking for a light evening meal, try a mushroom omelette: the eggs and mushrooms offer more vitamin D, whilst the protein contains the essential amino acid building blocks for our immune system cells. The mushrooms additionally offer further immune support. If it’s to your taste, add some garlic: a study published in 2014 suggested that people who took garlic supplements over a three month period, had fewer colds than those who took a placebo.
Secondly, following diet, try to get sufficient sleep, avoid overwork, and keep stress levels down.
Finally, attend to basic personal hygiene. Wash your hands at intervals eg at work where colleagues are touching the same door handles, office equipment etc, or after shopping when you have handled a supermarket trolley, petrol pumps etc.
These steps combined cannot completely eliminate the risk of a cold, but should give you a better chance of avoiding one as you are optimising defences on so many levels.
Authors from the Universities of Exeter, Uppsala in Sweden and Michigan in the US, have collaborated to examine the effects of time spent in nature, on health and wellbeing.
Nearly 20 000 people were asked to report on their recreational nature contact. Compared to no nature contact, the likelihood of reporting good health or high wellbeing became significantly greater when contact exceeded a threshold of 120 minutes. Positive associations peaked between 200 and 300 minutes per week. This pattern was consistent across groups including older adults and those with long-term health issues. It also did not matter whether the 120 minutes was achieved in one long or several shorter blocks.
The researchers say one explanation for their findings may be that time spent in nature is a proxy for physical activity, and it is this which is driving the relationship, rather than nature contact itself. Although they tried to control for this by asking participants about physical activity, they were unable to completely separate one effect from another. Experimental research however, indicates that some benefits cannot be due solely to physical activity. Research into shinrin-yoku (Japanese “forest bathing”), suggests that various psycho-physiological benefits can be gained from merely sitting passively in natural settings.
(Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports, online 13 June 2019.)
A new study on cycling and health undertaken across seven European cities reveals that it is the mode of transport associated with the greatest health benefits. Cyclists experience better self-perceived general health and better mental health.
The study was carried out in Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Örebro, Rome, Vienna and Zurich. A baseline questionnaire was completed by more than 8800 people, 3500 of whom also completed a final survey, on transport modes and perceptions of general health. The survey included questions on anxiety, depression, loss of emotional control, psychological well-being, vitality and perceived stress. The transport modes assessed were car, motorbike, public transport, bicycle, electric bicycle and walking.
The findings were that cycling yielded the best results in every analysis. Bicycles were associated with better self-perceived general health, better mental health, greater vitality, lower self-perceived stress and fewer feelings of loneliness. The second most beneficial transport mode, walking, was associated with good self-perceived general health, greater vitality, and more contact with friends and/or family.
Research in 2016 looked at the impact of cycling for commuting and recreation, on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In this cohort study of Danish adults aged 50 to 65, those who reported higher weekly cycling mileages were less likely to develop diabetes; the effect was more pronounced in those who cycled to work.
Perhaps most interesting though was that those who took up cycling after the study began, also had a lower risk of developing diabetes than those who did not cycle. This suggests that it is not too late to access the benefits of cycling, even in the years approaching retirement.
(Barcelona Institute for Global Health, 13 August 2018.
A new study from researchers in Barcelona, Spain suggests that people who eat their evening meal by 9pm or leave at least two hours between their meal and bedtime, can reduce their risk of breast and prostate cancer. Compared with those who eat after 10pm or who go to bed soon after eating, the reduction in risk is around 20%.
Breast and prostate cancers, besides being two of the most common cancers worldwide, are also among those most strongly associated with night-shift work, circadian disruption and alteration of biological rhythms. The study assessed each participant’s lifestyle and chronotype (an individual’s preference for morning or evening activity), and looked at 620 cases of prostate cancer and 1200 cases of breast cancer. The study author concludes that if the findings are confirmed, they will have implications for cancer prevention recommendations, which currently do not take meal timing into account. The impact could be especially important in cultures such as those of southern Europe, where people eat supper late.
(Effect of mistimed eating patterns on breast and prostate cancer risk (MCC-Spain Study). International Journal of Cancer, 17 July 2018.)