Increase Your Vitality through Chinese Medicine

By: Lynn Jaffe

In a previous career, I spent my time conducting research on the health of physically active women for the Melpomene Institute in St. Paul. As a runner of a certain age, one research project still sticks in my mind. It focused on the impact of running on women’s experience of menopause. Our theory was that if a woman were active, she might have fewer menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes. In fact, the study really became an examination of the impact of menopause on women’s running! The most startling change reported by the study participants was pervasive fatigue and a complete loss of energy.

Many years later, as a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, the results of that sudy make complete sense to me. According to Chinese Theory, menopause and agine are not considered diseases, but rather normal life transitions. How you age and live in your later years depends on your lifestyle in the preceding years. There are many factors, some you can control and some you can’t, that affect how you will feel as you age.

To understand aging from the traditional Chinese framework, an understanding of the Kidney organ system is necessary. It is important to note that from the Chinese standpoint, when talking about an organ system, one is not necessarily referring to the actual organ, but a system of functioning and body processes.

The primary functions of the Kidney are the formation of urine and the storage of Essence. Essence is one of the most important substances in the body, and is responsible for birth, growth, development, and maturation. It is also the foundation for all other substances in the body.

We inherit one kind of Essence at the moment of conception, called Congenital Essence. Congenital Essence is not only responsible for growth and maturation, but also genetic traits and constitution. As we age, Congenital Essence becomes depleted, and when this Essence is completely used up, according to Chinese theory, we die. While Congenital Essence cannot be replenished, it can be used judiciously through good lifestyle habits, and it can be augmented by another kind of essence, called Acquired Essence.

Acquired Essence is made up of nutrients from the food we eat, and can be built up by eating well. Good health, strength, and high levels of energy manifest an abundance of Acquired Essence. Any excess of Acquired Essence is also stored in the Kidney, along with Congenital Essence.

The Kidney is also related to the bones and by extension, the teeth. It also governs marrow, which relates to actual bone marrow, but also to the brain, which is considered the “sea of marrow”. In Chinese medicine, each organ nourishes one of the senses, and the sense associated with the Kidney is hearing.

The gradual depletion of Kidney Essence is the mechanism responsible for aging. It can be seen in weakening and brittle bones, loss of teeth, hearing loss, confusion, and memory problems—all manifestations associated with the Kidney. Weakness and lack of energy is also a common condition of depleted Kidney Essence, along with lumbar pain, as the Kidney is housed in the lower back.

Eat Well

So how, according to Chinese Medical theory, does one preserve Kidney Essence to age well? While there are many factors, good diet is the most obvious. Chinese dietary therapy is a whole discipline by itself, and many books have been written on the subject. One focus of Chinese dietary therapy is on eating and preparing foods in a way that they are easily digested. Foods that are difficult to digest use up energy, or Qi, and over a long period of time can deplete Essence. Some guidelines for eating well include:

-Avoid spicy or greasy foods.

-Avoid very cold foods, such as ice cream or iced drinks.

-Drink fluids that are room temperature or warmer.

-Lightly steam or stew vegetables and fruits, as raw foods can be difficult to digest.

-Avoid drinking too much alcohol.

-Talk to a practitioner of Chinese medicine about what foods are best suited to your specific condition or constitution.

Manage Your Stress; Be Moderate

Managing stress is another way to protect our health as we age. Unfortunately, many of us find stress an acceptable by-product of the busy, and often overwhelming lives we lead. Some of us don’t even realize that we are under incredible amounts of unrelenting stress because we are so busy trying to get everything done. In either case, stress exhausts us physically, disrupts relationships between organ systems, creating unhealthy imbalances, and depletes essence.

Equally exhausting to our internal organs, especially the Kidney and the Spleen, is overwork. This means long hours spent working or studying without adequate rest. Damage due to overwork can also be caused by excessive exercise. Therefore, working in moderation and getting adequate rest is essential to preserving Essence.

Moderation is also key with regard to your sex life. Because the Kidney is responsible for reproduction, according to Chinese medicine, sexual practices can also affect Kidney Essence. Having too many children too close together, or having sex too frequently can deplete the Essence and cause premature aging.

By adhering to the principles of Chinese medicine, I believe that the fatigue and loss of energy reported at midlife by the women runners in the Melpomene study could have been avoided. We can draw some parallels between the women in the study and most of us, in that we live busy, stressful lives, and tend not to take good care of ourselves. However, proper diet, adequate rest and moderation in all things can go a long way toward aging with energy, vitality and good health.

This article appeared in Essential Wellness, October, 2004.

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