Work, Rest, and Chinese Medicine

Is it possible to work so hard that it affects your health? According to Chinese medicine, it definitely is. When I was in graduate school studying acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I spent my days in class, came home and took care of my family, and then studied late into the evening. When I finished school, it took me several months to recover my physical and mental energy to the point where I could actually open and maintain an acupuncture practice. The bottom line is that I was working too much and not resting enough.

Chinese medicine and over workThis balance between work and rest is simple to understand but often tricky to navigate. When you work or exercise you are using energy; when you’re resting you are restoring it. Using too much energy is depleting, and over many months or even years this depletion can dramatically affect your health. In Chinese medicine, this kind of depletion is called overwork, and is considered to be a common cause of symptoms and ill health. There are a couple of different kinds of overwork:

-Physical overwork in the form of manual labor is often what springs to mind when we talk about working too hard. Physical overwork depletes your Chinese Spleen, which is responsible for generating new energy in the form of Qi. In addition, it can damage your muscles, tendons, and the nourishing quality of your blood—something akin to anemia. It is also possible to overwork one part of your body, such as your lower back when you’re doing a lot of gardening or your arms is you’re painting.

-Mental overwork comes from long hours of studying, analytical work, or intense concentration. It’s usually compounded by stress, poor nutrition, and meals eaten on the run. Mental overwork depletes your energy and affects your entire body.

-Over exercising or over training also depletes your energy, and can cause symptoms such as fatigue, sleeplessness, irritability, and injuries. Over exercise in adolescent girls may also cause a delay or absence of menses. Similar to physical overwork, it is possible to over exercise one part of your body, causing stagnation, inflammation, and injury to that part. A few examples are knee and hip injuries in long distance runners, low back pain from weight lifting, and wrist or elbow problems in tennis players. A good choice of activity if you are depleted is Yoga or Tai Qi, which are gentle and don’t further damage your energy.

-Not enough exercise. No discussion on the balance between work and rest is complete without mentioning damage to your body from under exercising. While physical work and exercise use up your energy, it also enhances your circulation and keeps your internal organs healthy, especially your lungs and heart. Lack of exercise can be a source of poor circulation, stagnation, weight gain, and dampness.

The concept that work uses energy and rest restores it is simple. However putting it into practice in a way that enhances your health can be a little more complicated. Some work is good, but too much can impair your health. Rest is restorative, but too much also can negatively impact your health. Finding the right balance means working an appropriate amount, getting some exercise, getting adequate sleep and eating well in order to replenish your energy.

Comments are closed.