In this, my resource section, I keep articles and research into health and wellbeing, both from a Chinese medical perspective and from a Western scientific perspective. I split them as clearly as I can into relevant sections relating for example to the body, the mind, or to specific conditions or activities.
Tai Chi's health benefits: Trust Me I'm a Doctor (BBC2)
This episode of Trust Me I'm a Doctor explored the health benefits of Tai Chi: Trust Me I'm a Doctor
Please note, that Tai Chi is itself a huge area of study, and encompasses many different practices. There are general principles, but they relate not to specific movements but rather to how you use your body. These principles take time to understand and apply. This documentary only follows a group over a short period of time, but still found an improvement in certain measures of health. Applied correctly over a longer period, there should be sustained improvements in these kinds of measures as well as of the practitioner's sense of wellbeing.
Is alcohol safe?
Research has until recently tended to indicate that drinking a small amount on a regular basis is good for overall health. However there have been a couple of studies recently that suggest otherwise.
My own view is the less, the better, and that at least some of the perceived benefits of alcohol are in fact a result of the social side of drinking, bonding social activity being in itself good for your health.
Here are a couple of interesting articles relating to alcohol consumption, in relation to the latest research available:
No Healthy Level of Alcohol Consumption
Here's Why Moderate Drinking is Probably Not Good for You
Movement for health
In my view the key to good health and longevity, whether that’s via diet, exercise or any other aspect of lifestyle, is to know what’s appropriate at any given moment; in this article I hope to give some pointers in that direction, relating particularly to exercise.
A few ground rules that I use when considering what’s appropriate:
Know yourself and your limits
Know when to rest
Know when and how to exercise
Regard everything you do as an investment
Choosing the right investments for your energy is key to a healthy mind and body
You get out what you put in
If whatever you do, you do it gently, you can’t go far wrong
How can you know your limit?
Your body will tell you via pain, tightness, tiredness or weakness. Signs you’re reaching limits can build up over time; when they first arrive they might be minor inconveniences, but are still worth listening to.
When you become aware of pain, tightness, tiredness or weakness, it’s a sign that you need to either do something lower impact, or just rest and recuperate. The same applies to stress. If you go beyond your limits, you will reduce your capacity until you have healed – reducing your overall energy and your ability to realise other goals during that healing period.
We are all different; you have to therefore remain sensitive to your own capacity, and not be distracted by a competitive mindset.
How should I exercise?
Muscles and tendons are made from fibres and act much like elastic bands: within their limits of movement they retain their elasticity, but too much of a stretch or weight causes strains.
When I use massage in treatment, I recognise tightness in muscles by how defined they are. There are two extremes: flaccidity, or no muscle tone, and rigidity, or excess muscle tone. All of us are on this spectrum and as with most things, the ideal is somewhere between the two.
The best exercise for you stays in your middle ground, exercising muscles without reaching extremes and causing strain, prompting signs of your limits.
When should I exercise?
The easiest way to decide is in my view to do a quick assessment of your energy levels. If you feel tired, rest. If you feel energetic, move! If you feel stagnant, move!
Many of us spend a lot of our time at a desk staring at a computer screen; if that’s the case for you, or you experience some stress at work, you may sometimes feel a bit mentally or physically stagnant and achy. In that situation, you will probably benefit from movement, in whatever form that takes.
If on the other hand you feel drained, exercise may feel like it helps temporarily by getting everything moving, but if it’s too intense, there’s always the possibility that you could deplete yourself further. If you exercise sensitively (within your limits) there’s less of a chance of this.
Building capacity, investing in health
Our bodies heal and build into old age; gentle use can therefore still build capacity.
If you want to increase something you have to invest in it; if you want to be a good chess player or violinist there is no replacement for practice; if you want to build muscles, you have to use them; if you want to develop flexibility you have to loosen your joints. However, how you do this is key. In my view, the only way to increase strength or a skill level sustainably is to practice regularly, with sensitivity, and gradually build up.
What is gentleness in relation to exercise?
Gentleness for me implies remaining soft, flexible, smooth and integrated in movement, and in how you apply yourself to an exercise regime. Any focus like this is an anchor for the mind, and can improve awareness generally. The physical effect is to soften hardness (tight muscles) and improve flexibility and circulation. This can of course take time, depending on how tight you are, and any other contributory habits you may have acquired (see earlier blog entry, 'Eating for health'); however with persistence its benefits are long-lasting.
Adopting this attitude does not mean that you never have to work with pain again, although it ought to occur less and in different ways. When you do experience pain the same attitude will make the experience more bearable and allow you to heal more quickly.
There is plenty of evidence for the importance of exercise in mitigating all sorts of health risks. Here are a few links to online research and recommendations from national bodies in the UK and US, which give details of the many benefits to even light exercise:
Evidence for the health benefits of physical activity, from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health:
Some good simple exercise recommendations from the US National Library of Medicine:
Exercise recommendations from the NHS:
Exercise recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Eating for health
It can be hard sometimes to know what, how much and when to eat. There is a huge variety of advice available, and new research often seems to contradict previous recommendations. On top of this we have our own habits and preferences acquired over years. Even if one is being mindful, it can be hard to see through habits, to feel that you don’t need to eat that last morsel, or have that extra piece of cake.
So how can we know what is appropriate? Here are a few ideas about optimum nutrition you can mix and match, in order to feel your way around what’s best for you.
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper
My view is that this is the best way to eat for digestive health. Eating provides energy for activity, and most of us are active during the day, so need to have calories available during that time. It makes sense therefore to eat a decent breakfast, to charge your battery. If you are not hungry in the morning, my view is it is probably because your body is still encumbered with the previous evening’s meal.
The Chinese body clock tells us when different organs are at maximum and minimum levels of activity. Our body’s digestive organs are all at their maximum early morning through to early afternoon; the stomach is at its minimum level of activity already by 7pm. In sleep our body wants to be able to carry out other processes such as tidying, sorting and healing, and eating can get in the way of that, especially eating heavy meals; in my view this is one of the main reasons people need to disrupt their sleep to relieve themselves at night. My advice then is simple: for optimum digestion and sleep, get the bulk of your calories at breakfast and lunch, and eat more sparingly as the day goes on.
Leave some space!
This means simply eating within our stomach’s limits, for example to ¾ full.
What we can easily digest is limited physically by the size of our stomach. If we eat more than our stomach can comfortably hold, that is, if we eat to the point where our stomach feels physically full, we will likely also cause problems further down the digestive tract. Often your sense of how full you are is catching up with your eating, and given a short break after a meal you will feel full even if you still didn’t while you were eating.
Some of us have difficulty digesting specific foodstuffs, and for those people the sense of fullness could very quickly become bloating when those foods are consumed. This is still a message worth listening to. There are many ways of eating healthily, and usually ways to work around a dietary intolerance or allergy, in terms of getting appropriate nutrition.
In the short term overeating could mean you don’t digest the food well, leading to fatigue or discomfort. It could also lead to for example constipation, bloating, or heartburn.
Of course if you have physical work you will need to consume more calories, and however you eat you need to make sure you’re getting a variety and plenty of fresh vegetables and greens.
Avoid foods too laden with strong flavours or sugar, fats or salt
Strong flavours act similarly to stimulants and can cloud our perceptions of whether we are full or empty. The most common examples of highly refined food products are salt, sugar, fats and spices. We all have slightly different constitutional balances, and some of these things are better for some of us and worse for others. You probably have a preference for those things that you find beneficial already, but it’s worth making sure that you get variety in your diet, and being wary of overusing any highly refined foodstuffs.
Mindful eating practices
Generally practising mindfulness initially means stopping and observing the various movements of body and mind that continue when you bring yourself to physical stillness. Over time and with practice your sense of stillness and awareness increase and it becomes easier to be aware of the activity of the mind while you’re also physically active. A few ways you can be more mindful when you are eating are to:
- Pause and take a few conscious breaths before eating
- Eat without distractions (without for example also watching a screen, or reading a newspaper at the same time)
- Eat slowly and chew well; this will also enable you to get the most out of eating less
Being mindful when you eat can develop your awareness of when you’re full, and what types of food best suit you.
Research suggests a couple of further points which I think are worth bearing in mind
I can't put it better than the quotes below, which are from abstracts available on the website PubMed, which publishes medical research as part of the US National Library of Medicine.
“A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention and is consistent with the salient components of seemingly distinct dietary approaches” (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24641555)
“A large body of evidence supports the utility of healthy dietary patterns that emphasize whole-grain foods, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, and that limit refined starches, red meat, full-fat dairy products, and foods and beverages high in added sugars... Diet, of course, is just one approach to preventing illness. Limiting caloric intake to maintain a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and not smoking are three other essential strategies”.
I have presented a few ideas that have been important to me in finding a healthy balance between diet, exercise and sleep. Please also read my article 'Movement for health' for my take on how to exercise. It's worth remembering that with vision and understanding there’s a lot we can do to help ourselves; I hope that some of these ideas provide useful food for thought.
What are the 'channels' in Chinese medicine?
Ancient Chinese doctors had no modern technology, so developed simple techniques to read what was happening inside the body via external changes, such as changes in the pulse, skin, muscles, temperature, emotions and so on. They noticed how changes in each organ affect certain external areas more strongly than others, and mapped these channels across the whole body. This understanding was developed until the channels connected the whole body in a flowing circulatory network, linking the internal organs to the external tissues and limbs; this is the channel network that we use in traditional acupuncture and tui na massage.
Early doctors used the analogy of wells, streams, rivers, lakes and seas for many of the important acupuncture points, each having a different quality and use in treatment. This idea of flow is intrinsic to health and balance in Chinese medicine.
Much as we are often not aware of being well, but are all too aware of the state of illness, channels only tend to become significant in imbalance; for example, stagnation might show up as bumpiness, cold or heat, but if there is no imbalance the channel will likely not be apparent.
Chinese medicine practitioners can use clues like changes in colour, texture, heat or cold in channels to gain an understanding of internal and external physiological processes, and how they are interacting. We can use the same channels to alter any imbalances in the flow via acupuncture, massage or recommending exercises, encouraging flow towards tissues that feel undersupplied, or away from an area of excess.
Because of the way the channels connect the body, it is possible for example to use acupuncture points in the legs and arms to have an effect on the whole body, or in the hands or feet to affect the head. Traditional practitioners often use points that are not solely in the area of any pain you might be experiencing. This is because of the understanding of the channels connecting your whole body.
When a Chinese medicine practitioner meets a patient we can often see the strongest elements, via the sound of someone's voice, their emotions, body shape, whether someone is boisterous or subdued and so on; everything is a clue to possible imbalance. The principles of yin and yang and the five elements are apparent in everything we do. They are a way of seeing reflections of the natural world within; our channels, our internal organs, the way we manifest in the world; these are all mirrors of the world and the part we have chosen in it. With the right understanding, they can all become part of healing any imbalances from within or from without.