This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 01/11/2012.
By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.
I recently got asked the following question: “What health tips would you recommend to all your patients, in general? I know acupuncture is very individualized, but what kinds of things should everyone be doing, regardless of their condition?”
So, as we enter into the New Year, over the next 10 days, I’ll offer you my top 10 health tips for everyone…a place to start your journey to a healthier, happier you. Some of these are based in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, some in Western medicine, and some are influenced by other systems. I doubt many will surprise you. But sometimes the best answers lie in the simplest of things.
Health Tip #10. Drink enough water.
A healthy adult body is 55% water. Water sustains life. And yet so many of our patients do not drink enough water during the day. A healthy adult should drink at least 64 fluid ounces of water per day – and when you are getting sick, working out a lot, stressed, or feeling run down, you probably need even more. Water flushes toxins out of your body, carries nutrients to your cells, and moistens your tissues so that they can function properly. In TCM, water is vital to health because it prevents dryness in the body, supports the healthy movement of energy through the meridians, nourishes the tissues, and helps us maintain a healthy balance of hot and cold forces within the body. When your body is not getting enough water, every functional process in your body suffers. So it is an incredibly easy thing to do to promote better health!
I often suggest to patients that they add a wedge of lemon to their water when they drink it. This actually can help the body to absorb the water, so that you can maximize the effectiveness of each drop! Furthermore, it makes water more palatable to those who are used to drinking more flavorful beverages. Another possibility is steeping the water in a brita filter with mint or other herbs, to gently infuse their taste and healing properties into the water.
A note about temperature: In TCM, cold foods and beverages are very damaging to the body. If you think about it, the inside of your body is functioning at 98.6 degrees. If you suddenly introduce a blast of ice cold water, it can be a shock to your system, and can be very damaging to some of the energetic systems that function to keep you healthy on a day to day basis. Drink room temperature water (or warm water) whenever possible.
Lastly, I know that some patients really do not like drinking water because of the taste (or lack thereof.) In that case, I suggest substituting cooled herbal tea or naturally flavored seltzer water. Sugary drinks, artificially flavored drinks, sports drinks, fruit juices, alcohol, and caffeinated beverages are NOT ok substitutes for water. Fruit juices are healthy parts of your diet but should be treated as a food (like eating fruit) rather than a beverage, and not consumed throughout the day as the sole form of fluids you are taking in to your body, due to the concentrated nature of the healthy natural sugars. Cola and other sugary or articificially flavored beverages should be avoided at all times. I believe that each individual needs to develop their own healthy relationship with alcohol and caffeine – if you do choose to drink either one, only do so with moderation, and realize that intaking alcoholic or caffeinated beverages actually INCREASES the amount of water that you need to consume to 1) flush the toxins out of your system and 2) avoid excess fluid loss through increased urination.
So, go pour yourself a nice, revitalizing, health-promoting glass of room temperature water and sip your way into a state of healthy living.
Health Tip #9. Take the following pills daily: a multivitamin, omega 3 fish oil pills*, and a probiotic.
The vitamin and mineral content of US produce has dramatically decreased in the last 5 decades. The sad truth is that it is very hard to get all of the vitamins your body needs to function properly from your diet. Therefore, supplementing with a daily multivitamin can go a long way to ensuring that your body is getting the nutrients it needs to grow and maintain a state of health. Be sure to purchase a high-quality multivitamin from a reputable company – it is worth the extra dough.
Omega 3 fish oil pills are another necessity, again due to lack of a balanced diet (even if you try to eat super healthfully!) Our bodies need both omega-3’s and omega-6’s in order to function properly, and our bodies don’t produce either one. It is easy to intake omega-6’s from the food we eat, but Americans don’t eat enough fish to intake the amount of omega-3’s needed to balance the omega-6’s. High quality omega-3 fish oil pills (I like Nordic Naturals)
provide your body with this essential fatty acid. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower triglyceride levels, promote cardiovascular health and decrease risk of heart disease, improve mood and prevent depression, decrease inflammation and increase the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory medications, promote healthy neurological development in utero, protect the brain and prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s.
*If you are taking bloodthinners, you should consult your doctor before adding omega 3 pills to your daily routine, as they also have been shown to thin the blood.
I pretty much recommend probiotics across the board to all patients. Because most of us have been on courses of antibiotics many times in our lives, because we don’t all eat a perfect diet all the time, and because we have been exposed to many pesticides and poisons just by virtue of living in a modern world, many of the good, healthy bacteria that are supposed to live in our gut have diminished in number and strength. The good bacteria do a lot to promote health in our body – they help to clear toxins from the body’s tissues, they take up space on the surface of our organs so that bad bacteria can’t grow there, they assist our immune system in fighting off pathogens that can make us sick, and they help the body maintain the correct environment for all our internal processes to work the way they should. Anyone experiencing any digestive issues (which is, sadly, probably 80% of our patients), any problems with inflammation, any problems with energy, or any problems with sleep or mood should take a probiotic if they aren’t already. My favorite is Garden of Life Primal Defense Ultra. (http://www.gardenoflife.com/ProductsforLife/SUPPLEMENTS/DigestiveHealth/PrimalDefenseULTRA/tabid/639/Default.aspx)
Health Tip #8. Go to bed at the same time every night.
So many patients that we see have sleep problems, regardless of what brings them in to acupuncture. Many patients don’t feel tired at night when it is time to go to sleep, while others are exhausted and go to bed early but then wake up during the night. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting in to a healthy routine around sleep…if you don’t have any issues with sleep, then this is the time to do so! It will prevent years of fatigue and frustration down the road. If you do have sleep issues, getting into a regular bedtime routine can help dramatically (although the body takes time to unlearn old patterns of being, so be patient.) If we really want to adhere to TCM wisdom and be in tune with the natural world, we should go to bed early after the sun has gone down and get up with the sunrise. However, you and I both know that is in no way practical! However, trying to get to bed in the early portion of the night…before 11:00 pm…can go a long way to allowing your body the time it needs to clean your blood, restore your blood and energy, and get you ready for the next day.
Health Tip #7. Limit the amount of dairy you eat.
Dairy is a big problem in TCM, and a very common cause of all sorts of health ailments in our patients – everything from digestive issues to coughs to fatigue to skin issues to joint pain can be greatly improved when dairy is eliminated from the diet. From an acupuncture perspective, the energy in charge of digestion controls your body’s processes on a day to day basis. This digestive energy is weighed down by dairy and has a hard time effectively processing it in a way that we can use. Also, when this digestive energy is weak, it is not good at transforming food into energy and transporting that energy to all the places it needs to go in our body (our organs, our meridians, our tissues, our minds). Therefore, dampness develops in our bodies. Dampness is an abnormal processing of fluids, and it slows down how energy moves inside us. It is a direct result of a weakness in our digestive energy. Dairy DIRECTLY causes dampness in our bodies – so not only does dairy weaken one of our core energetic systems, but it also directly adds to the dampness in our bodies. This can cause a compromised immune system, inflammation, and chronic illness. Writing this as a lover of cheese, I understand how sad this is. If you need some dairy in your diet, try to adjust so that you are eating smaller quantities. Goat milk and goat cheese is better than cow’s milk, and yogurt is a relatively healthy dairy because of the cultures.
Health Tip #6. Drink a lot of herbal tea.
Herbal tea is a wonderful alternative to water or –ahem- coffee as a beverage of choice to sip throughout the day. First of all, because tea is warm, it is gentle and soothing to the digestive tract. In TCM theory, the Spleen energetic organ is mainly responsible for digestion and it prefers to be kept warm. By drinking cold beverages (especially those with tons of ice), you are essentially throwing cold water on the engine that drives food digestion and absorption. What results is a cranky, cold Spleen – and that means gas, bloating, and loose stools. No fun. Secondly, drinking herbal tea can help keep you in balance with the seasons. For example, we like to recommend drinking peppermint tea to combat the heat of summer. Despite the warm temperature of the tea itself, the innate cooling properties of peppermint allows the body to feel cooler from the inside-out. Similarly, in the winter, try sipping on a cinnamon based herbal tea. Cinnamon’s warming nature will keep you toasty warm on the coldest of days. Finally, herbal teas are excellent for warding off colds. As soon as you feel the first hint of a cold – a sneeze, chills, runny nose, tight neck – we recommend you rush to the stove and brew up some ginger root tea (fresh ginger root is the best – just cut about 3 quarter sized pieces per 12 ounces of water)… and drink a lot of it, not just a cup – sip on a few cups at least. Ginger root has the property of expelling colds from the body at this early stage. There are many other herbal that can be used for various medical conditions, feel free to call us and ask about a specific ailment!
Health Tip #5. Exercise.
It’s so easy NOT to move a lot during the day. Most of us have jobs that require a car ride to get to work and hours of sedentary desk or computer work – followed by a home lifestyle that includes more computer and/or television time. When we are inactive, our energy, or Qi, becomes stagnant, or blocked. Qi stagnation can lead to a plethora of symptoms, including feeling irritable and stressed, headaches, digestive woes, aches and pains, etc. One of the easiest things we can do to combat these symptoms is to exercise. And by exercise we mean moderate exercise (too much exercise can seriously deplete Qi), not running marathons: for example, walk briskly for an hour, go for a jog, find an indoor pool and swim, sign up for a yoga class, dance, dust off your bicycle and go for a ride… Find an activity that you enjoy and make it part of your daily or weekly schedule. If you have severe time constraints, break it up throughout the day – walk for 15 minutes before work, 15 minutes at lunch, and 15 minutes at the end of the day (one tip for being successful at doing this is to always carry comfy walking/jogging shoes with you). You will quickly see that a lot of your ailments will significantly improve once you are able to move your Qi!
Health Tip #4. Meditate.
Just as physical movement is important (see Tip #5) in maintaining good health, so is slowing down. Sounds contradictory right? But what we mean is slowing down your brain, calming your mental buzz, silencing what I call “monkey brain” (“I need to do this and that and call him and email her and make sure so and so is taken care of and pay this bill…” you know the chatter). Why is this important for health? In TCM terms, overthinking and overstimulating our brains depletes Qi in the same way as exercising too much or eating too little. Sufficient Qi is required for every bodily function – when Qi is depleted, we feel exhausted, lazy, and depressed. Meditation is an excellent way to quiet your thoughts. And meditating is really easy to do. All you need is a quiet room, a comfortable chair (or couch or bed), and a tool that is repetitive. The tool can be a simple mantra that you repeat over and over in your head (“Patience, compassion, love; patience, compassion, love; etc), counting your breaths as you breathe deeply, a CD with a more formal, guided meditation, or music with a simple, repetitive beat. If you are new to meditation, it’s wise to start with short sessions (eg 5 minutes), during which you really concentrate on clearing your mind. If a nagging thought enters, visualize writing it on a piece of paper and throwing it away. Once you are able to maintain a quiet brain for 5 minutes, try to add 5 more. Keep going as long as you feel comfortable and calm. If you fall asleep, all the better – you probably deserved that nap!
Health Tip #3. Limit the amount of processed foods as much as possible, and eat organic produce whenever possible.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where convenience is king. Most of us are too busy with work, family, and life in general to prepare fresh, home cooked meals three times a day. As a result, we often end up relying on frozen meals, to-go food at the grocery store or (sigh) fast food restaurants, or we just forego meals at all in favor of little junky pick me ups like nutrition bars and Starbucks.
Why is this such a bad habit? Well, if you ever stop to read through the ingredients of what you are eating, you can see why… the general rule is that if the ingredient is not a standard kitchen ingredient (eg, cheese flavor, xanthan gum, carrageenan, etc) then it’s probably not a good idea to put it in your body.
The best option, of course, would be to have organic whole food ingredients (a mix of veggies +/- fruits, a protein [meat or bean or tofu], and a whole grain) that are cooked (baked, steamed, lightly sautéed) for each meal. One tip is to prepare a double sized serving at dinner one night and use the leftovers for lunch the next day. For snacks, we love to recommend nuts or trail mix with a higher proportion of nuts to fruit. If you aren’t a nut fan, or you have an allergy, try whole grain pita bread or fresh veggies with hummus, or a yummy sharp cheddar cheese with apple slices.
If you aren’t able to prepare healthy meals and snacks but are looking for the next best option, try the hot food bar at your local supermarket (we are partial to Whole Foods because of their use of organic foods) and grab a meal consisting of brown rice, steamed veggies (kale, sweet potatoes, broccoli, beets, carrots), and a protein (chicken, tofu, beef, beans). Or look for what soups are available.
Frozen meal junkies can try some healthier alternatives like Amy’s kitchen (www.amyskitchen.com) products. But even Amy’s meals aren’t ideal because of the processing required to eat them. They must be frozen for transport and storage (in TCM terms, this can significantly damage a food’s nutritive value) and then heated in a microwave to eat (further damaging the nutrients).
If all else fails and you are stuck in nutrition bar land – read the ingredients. Stay away from bars that have over 15 gms of sugar (you may as well be eating a candy bar) and look on the label for for simple, healthy ingredients. Lara bars are a great example of healthy nutrition bars: http://www.larabar.com/. Clif bars are a great example of sugar-laden, candy “nutrition” bars: http://www.clifbar.com/food/products_clif_bar/6311.
Health Tip #2. Eat hearty, warm, cooked meals whenever possible.
As we mentioned in Tip #5 (drink lots of herbal tea), in TCM, the Spleen energetic is responsible for digestion and it likes to be WARM. Cold “raw” food, like salads, and cold beverages weaken the Spleen and can lead to digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, and irregular and sometimes painful bowel movements (eg, like IBS symptoms); a weak Spleen can also lead to a general feeling of fatigue, overall body weakness, and even depression.
Raw foods are cooling. A body must heat a food to body temperature in order for the Spleen to extract energy from the food. If the Spleen is even somewhat deficient (as is the case with most people), eating raw food will use up energy that the body can’t afford. By the time the food is heated up, digestive energy has become significantly weakened. While we are certainly not recommending that you give up eating all fresh greens, if you do have some digestive weakness then sticking to cooked grains and vegetables is a better choice. Alternatively, if you do have a salad or other raw food for lunch, wash it down with a warming herbal tea, like ginger tea, to help stoke the digestive fire.
In order to keep a healthy, happy Spleen, we recommend to almost all of our patients (particularly those with weak digestion) that they incorporate as many warm, cooked foods into their diet as possible. Some suggestions include soups and stews cooked for a long time, rice porridge (ie, congee or jook: http://www.homemade-chinese-soups.com/congee.html), meats and vegetables that have been roasted or baked, and foods prepared with warming spices such as ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne.
Health Tip #1. Listen to your body.
And now, our #1 Health Tip for EVERYone… listen to your body! Listening to your body is essential to maintaining balance and good health. Our fast pace of life, coupled with the constant stimulation of being wired to everything through televisions, computers, and smart phones creates an overload on the nervous system. In all the busy-ness and noise, we lose connection with the most fundamental “signals” of life – the valuable information that comes to us through our body’s sensations and emotions. We need to learn to pay attention to what is happening in our bodies.
How often do you ignore basic needs? Do you rest when you are tired? Do you get as much sleep as you need? Do you eat when you are hungry, and stop eating when you’ve had enough? Do you drink when you are thirsty? Do you even notice when you are thirsty? Our bodies tell us what they need to be balanced. Our only job is to listen.
As we increase the awareness of our body’s signals, we get a lot of valuable information about how to keep it in balance. The more we can perceive about what is going on in our bodies and emotions, the better. If you start to notice more subtle messages from your body, you can become aware of an imbalance before it manifests in a disease. You can notice when you begin to get tired and take a meditation break or a catnap. You can feel discomfort in your body before it screams in pain from a repetitive motion injury. You can notice things early and nip problems in the bud.
Listening to your body and increasing awareness of your body’s feelings and signals is a critical step in improving your health. Once you are aware of what your body is telling you, you can follow through with an activity, exercise, or treatment (eg, acupuncture!) to bring it in balance. It can be difficult to form this habit of listening to your body’s cues, but in the long run, making the effort to be more self-aware can greatly help in maintaining optimal health.
Martha Graham (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/martha-graham/about-the-dancer/497/), the founder of modern dance, once said “Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul’s weather to all who can read it.” We often think of this in relation to acupuncture – movement doesn’t lie, and your body is movement. It is the flow of blood in your veins, the flow of qi and energy through your meridians, the beat of your heart, the patterns of your thoughts. Your body does not lie. It has an innate wisdom, and it knows how to be healthy. You need only to trust and to listen.