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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.
A study by the University of Technology Sydney, of 139 000 adults aged 45 and over, reveals associations between food groups, memory loss and heart disease. A high consumption of fruit, vegetable and protein-rich foods was found to be associated with lower risk of deteriorating memory. A high consumption of fruit and vegetables was also associated with lower risk of comorbid heart disease. People aged 80 and over, with low cereal consumption, had the highest risk of memory loss and comorbid heart disease compared with people in other age groups.
(Eating and healthy ageing: a longitudinal study on the association between food consumption, memory loss and its comorbidities. International Journal of Public Health, online 12 February 2020.)
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University looking at walnuts and the gut biome, have found that eating walnuts daily as part of a healthy diet, leads to increases in certain beneficial gut bacteria associated with improvements in some risk factors for heart disease. Forty-two adults aged 30 to 65 and already identified as at risk from cardiovascular disease, were put on randomised, crossover diet trials. For the first fortnight, they consumed a standard western diet. There then followed three different six week diets to test the effects of walnuts. The walnut diet included 57 to 99 grams per day of whole walnuts. Faecal samples were collected to analyse gut bacteria.
The team found that after the walnut diet, there were significant associations between changes in gut bacteria and risk factors for heart disease. Eubacterium eligens was inversely associated with changes in several different measures of blood pressure, suggesting that an increase in Eubacterium eligens was associated with reductions in those risk factors. Additionally, greater numbers of Lachnospiraceae were associated with reductions in blood pressure, total cholesterol, and non-HDL cholesterol.
Kristina Petersen, assistant research professor, said “Replacing your usual snack, especially if it’s an unhealthy snack, with walnuts is a small change you can make to improve your diet. Substantial evidence shows that small improvements in diet greatly benefit health. Eating two to three ounces of walnuts a day as part of a healthy diet could be a good way to improve gut health and reduce the risk of heart disease.”
(Walnuts and Vegetable Oils Containing Oleic Acid Differentially Affect the Gut Microbiota and Associations with Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Follow-up of a Randomized, Controlled, Feeding Trial in Adults at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. The Journal of Nutrition, 18 December 2019.)
The headline above is unlikely to surprise you. However, researchers at University College London, found that just six months of training for a first marathon, resulted in an aorta (the main artery from the heart) with a flexibility equivalent to that of someone four years younger. The greatest benefits were reaped by older, slower, male marathon runners with higher baseline blood pressure.
The researchers selected 138 healthy, first-time marathon runners, mean age 37, from the 2016 and 2017 London Marathon. They examined the participants before training and after marathon completion to determine whether age-related aortic stiffening would be reversible with real-world exercise training. Assessments included blood pressure, and aortic stiffness by cardiovascular MRI. Training schedules equated to between 6 and 13 miles per week.
Training decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 4 and 3 mmHg respectively. Aortic stiffness reduced with training, with increases in distensibility of up to 9%. This amounted to the equivalent of an almost four-year reduction in ‘aortic age’. Older patients had greater changes, with males and those running slower marathon times deriving greatest benefit.
Dr Charlotte Manisty of the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science & Barts Heart Centre said, “Our study shows it is possible to reverse the consequences of aging on our blood vessels with real-world exercise in just six months. These benefits were observed in overall healthy individuals across a broad age range and their marathon times are suggestive of achievable exercise training in novice participants.”
(Marathon running makes arteries younger and lowers blood pressure. UCL News, accessed online 8 January 2020.
Training for a First-Time Marathon Reverses Age-Related Aortic Stiffening. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, January 2020.)
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.