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.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London have found that staying active keeps the body young and healthy. They set out to assess the health of older adults who had been active most of their adult lives to see whether exercise slows down ageing.
The study recruited 125 amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79, 84 of whom were male and 41 were female. The men had to be able to cycle 100 km in under 6.5 hours, while the women had to be able to cycle 60 km in 5.5 hours. Smokers, heavy drinkers and those with high blood pressure or other health conditions were excluded from the study. Participants underwent a series of tests, and were compared to a group of adults who did not partake in regular physical activity. This group consisted of 75 healthy people aged 57 to 80 and 55 healthy young adults aged 20 to 36.
As expected, the study showed that loss of muscle mass and strength did not occur in those who exercised regularly. The cyclists also did not increase their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels remained high. More surprisingly though, the study revealed that the benefits of exercise extend beyond muscle as the cyclists had an immune system that did not seem to have aged either. An organ called the thymus, which makes immune cells called T cells, starts to shrink from the age of 20 and makes fewer T cells. In this study however, the cyclists’ thymuses were making as many T cells as those of a young person.
Professor Janet Lord, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, said, “Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man’s best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society. Our research means we now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier.”
Norman Lazarus, Emeritus Professor at King’s College London and Dr Ross Pollock, who undertook the muscle study, suggested, “Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity. You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.”
A major new study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, indicates that maintaining a healthy weight and continuing in further education, are two of the best behaviours to adopt to extend our lifespan. Data was drawn from 25 separate population studies mainly across Europe, Australia and North America. For each year spent studying beyond school, 11 months was added to lifespan. Giving up smoking and being open to new experiences also seem helpful. However, for people who are overweight, each extra kilogramme of body weight is associated with two months off their lifespan. The study identified two new DNA differences which affect lifespan: a gene linked to the immune system adds around half a year to life expectancy whilst one linked to blood cholesterol levels shortens it by around eight months.
Dr Peter Joshi, Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, said: “Our study has estimated the causal effect of lifestyle choices. We found that, on average, smoking a pack a day reduces lifespan by seven years, whilst losing one kilogram of weight will increase your lifespan by two months.”
(Genome-wide meta-analysis associates HLA-DQA1/DRB1 and LPA and lifestyle factors with human longevity. Nature Communications, on-line 13 October 2017.)
In NGS National Gardens and Health Week, it seems appropriate to survey what we now know about how gardening and access to green spaces, impacts on our well being. Much of what is “discovered” in scientific research into this topic, will come as no surprise to keen gardeners or those who know them.
In the UK, 87% of households have a garden, and half the adult population in England report gardening as a free time activity: homing in on age ranges, this figure is 40% in the 25-44 age group and 70% for those aged 65-74. Increasing numbers of younger adults would like to grow food. As an indicator of the direction in which gardeners’ interests overall are moving, sales of vegetable seeds have recently exceeded those of flower seeds for the first time since the Second World War.
It has been established that time spent in green spaces is linked to a long-term reduction in reported health problems. This includes heart disease, cancer, musculoskeletal problems, obesity, depression and anxiety. School gardening is linked with a significant increase in fruit and vegetable intake by children. Allotment gardening improves mood and self-esteem, and reduces cortisol levels (a measure of stress) in subjects compared with their matched controls. Studies in Holland, Japan and Canada indicate that for every 10% increase in exposure to green space, people enjoy health equivalent to that of someone five years younger. Living in areas with green spaces is associated with significantly less income-related health inequality.
As we get older, gardening becomes relatively more important as a physical activity. There is emerging evidence of a link with prevention of falls, dementia and cognitive decline.
The NHS is beginning to use social prescribing and community referral, having recognised that social and economic factors play a role in underpinning health: Lambeth GP Food Co-op covers eleven practices where patients with long-term conditions work together to grow food. Horatio’s Garden creates and maintains gardens in NHS spinal injury centres.
So in addition to spending time in your own garden, consider visiting others in the south-west which are open this week under the NGS scheme
(Gardens and health: Implications for policy and practice. The King’s Fund, May 2016.)
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.)