The Huangdi Neijing, compiled some 2000 years ago, is regarded as the 'bible' of Chinese medicine. It takes the form of discussions between the 'Yellow Emperor' and his ministers. In the first chapter, the Emperor asks why people 'in the days of old' lived long and healthy lives, but his people were dying before their time and suffering ill health. His minister Qi Bo replies:
'In the past, people...understood the principle of balance...they formulated practices [that combined]...stretching, massaging, and breathing to promote energy flow, and meditation to help maintain and harmonize themselves with the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided over-stressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds...thus, it is not surprising they lived over one hundred years'.
The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine.
So that's the secret formula! And it applies just as much today as it did 2000 years ago. Although we're not all destined to become sages, any concerted changes we make to our lifestyle and habits can have dramatic effects on our health and wellbeing. Collected here are ideas and strategies from some of the most important areas, which are within everyone’s power to change. Virtually anyone can improve their health dramatically, whatever their current situation, by making changes to these key areas. They are of course all interconnected – by improving your diet, you are likely to improve your mental state for example – but the categories may help to organize your approach.
Don’t try to make changes in all these areas at once – you will probably be setting yourself up to fail. You have the rest of your life to work with these ideas! A single, small change can be very beneficial, and may help open the way to further changes when you feel ready. Also, please remember that these are only examples of things that either I've found personally useful, or I've had good feedback about from colleagues/patients/friends. But there is no 'one size fits all' approach to health - everyone has a unique internal landscape that will respond in an individual way, and these particular ideas may be just a starting point for you, and my personal biases may not suit you at all.
Here's how I suggest you approach this information:
- Select one or more of the areas below to target, ideally with the help of an acupuncturist or other holistic practitioner.
- Download and print the progress chart below (one for each week you plan to attempt your changes), and fill in up to 4 of the main symptoms you’d like to improve.
- Give each symptom and general wellbeing a score out of 10 before you start – i.e. how bad is it in general, 10 being the worst it could be, 0 being completely absent.
- Fill in a brief description of the activity/activities you've decided to build into your life (e.g. ‘4-7-8 breathing’).
- Put your chart somewhere you will see it every day, and keep a pen nearby so it’s as easy as possible to stick with it.
- Tick each day you manage to complete your activity, and re-score each symptom.
By doing this, you will be able to easily check your progress, and it will help you stick to your new good habits. After some time, you may feel the new habit is simply a part of your life, and you no longer need to the chart. If things don’t improve, or they worsen, discuss your approach with a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Please note, this is not medical advice, and you should discuss any health concerns with your doctor.
I put this first because it is the starting point of Qi production in Chinese medicine – if the lungs aren't functioning well and bringing in a good supply of oxygen, and the diaphragm isn't moving properly, there will be negative consequences for the rest of the system. An awful lot of people are stuck in poor breathing habits without even knowing it, and simple techniques (if practiced regularly) can be of great benefit. A great article on the subject is The Transformative Power of Deep, Slow Breathing by Peter Deadman.
I like the following two exercises because they are simple and easy to learn – once you get the hang of them, you can use them almost anywhere, and the more you use them, the greater the impact will be.
EXERCISE 1: 4-7-8 BREATHING
This is an exercise that involves breathing in through the nose for a count of 4, holding the breath for a count of 7, and exhaling through the mouth for a count of 8. Once you have mastered it and used it regularly for a while, it is a great tool to reduce stress and anxiety, and help you sleep. Click here for more information, and click here to watch a demonstration video.
EXERCISE 2: BREATH COUNTING
This is perhaps the simplest of all breathing exercises, but don't let that fool you - it can be very powerful. You simply breathe in a relaxed way, counting each exhalation in your mind up to 5, then start again. This is a way of calming your mind and pushing aside the mental 'chatter' that can be so distracting, and stops us from being centered. Click here for a video demonstration.
This is perhaps the simplest area of all. Some people believe that chronic dehydration is the cause of many of today’s health problems, and that regularly drinking more water can improve or even cure a great deal of them (click here for a well-known book on the subject). Coffee, alcohol, fizzy drinks and many juices are not the answer – water is. My advice is to buy a water purifying bottle like the ‘Bobble’ (click here), which holds just over half a litre. There are various thoughts on how much we need to drink, and the book above is a good resource for this, but about 2 litres is a common consensus (4 ‘Bobbles’ per day). Get into this habit, and your overall health and wellbeing is likely to improve. Please note, according to the principles of Chinese medicine, it is best to drink water at room temperature rather than chilled, and not to drink too much with food.
We live in a society where alcohol is the ‘drug of choice’, but we should remember that it is still a drug. As most people know, that means it can be extremely dangerous if abused. However, many health care professionals (myself included) agree that moderate alcohol consumption is usually not a problem, and can even have certain health benefits for some people. Based on the principles of the Paleo diet (see the ‘Eat well’ section for more information), if you do choose to drink in moderation, the best choice may be organic red wine. Dry cider and certain spirits may also be ‘better’ options. Click here for more information.
Eating like our ancestors
Diet is a huge area, and well beyond the scope of this page to discuss in any detail. However, my personal opinion is that certain variants of the ‘Paleo diet’ – essentially ‘eating more like our ancestors did’ – can be of great benefit to many people. The basic theory is that our genes and digestive systems developed long ago, and that we haven’t evolved to cope well with various aspects of the modern Western diet, including refined sugar, grains and processed food. Instead, a good balance of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds is encouraged. This approach isn't without its critics (click here for an article discussing both sides of the argument), but many people find that their energy levels, wellbeing and health problems improve remarkably after embracing this lifestyle. Many also find that it helps with weight loss.
It is easy to get confused with any dietary approach, and Paleo is no different. Some books and websites will advocate only lean meat; others will stress the importance of including plenty of saturated animal fat in the diet. Some advocate good quality dairy; others ‘ban’ it completely. The important thing to remember is that you need to find what works for you – if you restrict your diet to the point that your cravings are making you unhappy, or you’re missing out on nutrients and feeling worse because of it, you should adjust things accordingly. It should be used as a template rather than a set of fixed rules.
From my own experience, I’d recommend the Paleo Leap website as a good place to start – it is well-balanced and well explained, and it incorporates aspects of the Weston A. Price diet, for example, rather than sticking just to the more restrictive ‘hard core’ versions of Paleo. The GAPS diet (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) is another variant, which may be particularly useful for those with psychological issues or known problems with their gut (e.g. 'leaky gut' or dysbiosis - click here for an excellent introduction). Browse the links below to familiarize yourself with some of the basic concepts, and see where it takes you. I commonly discuss these strategies with my patients, and find they go hand -in-hand with acupuncture and tuina.
As long as you're not vegetarian/vegan, bone broth can be one of the most nutritious things you can consume, and it can even be free if your butcher or fishmonger will give you the bones! You can make the broth yourself with a slow cooker or by simmering for several hours. It has various purported (but unproven, as far as I know) health benefits, including improving gut and joint health, and reducing inflammation. It is certainly a great thing for anyone trying to heal a 'leaky gut'. Click here for more information, or see the Nourishing Traditions book. You can also click here for a guide to making it yourself. It is best to use organic and pasture fed animal bones where possible, and not just for ethical reasons - click here for a discussion of possible bone contamination issues. Click here to read a great article on the benefits of bone broth by Dr. Josh Axe,
If you're based in the UK, Waitrose offer pots of stock which may be a good option if making your own is not possible. Their chicken stock is made from free range chicken bones, onion and carrot. I contacted them to ask how long they simmer their bones, and I was pleased that they made the effort to find out from their kitchen - the answer was around 7 hours. Whilst this may be on the quick side of optimum, especially for beef stock, it's certainly a good second-best for chicken and fish stock. It comes in 500g tubs, so about half of that per day as a drink, or as a base for soup would be a good supply of nutrient hard to come by in other ways. Click here for further recipe ideas.
Ocado sell what is probably a better chicken broth, made by Daylesford Organic. I contacted them directly too, and they cook theirs for 12 hours. You can get it by clicking here. I wouldn't recommend their beef broth on a paleo diet though, as it contains gluten and sunflower oil.
An even better (but more expensive) option is the Paleo Broth Company. They offer perfectly prepared organic beef bone broth in a variety of sizes, cooked for 48 hours to extract maximum nutrient value, and they deliver frozen. Their month-supply option works out at about £3.20 per serving. So, much cheaper to do it yourself, but if you don't have the time and can afford it, this is a great option.
I sometimes get asked whether acupuncture can help with weight loss. My personal opinion is that it can for some people, but as with many other problems, it is only one piece of the puzzle. If you are willing to make a fresh start with your diet and lifestyle, I am very happy to discuss weight loss and what part acupuncture might play.
Seriously Stoneage - a great introduction to the Paleo diet from Bristol-based medical herbalist Max Drake.
Paleo Leap - a huge amount of information here, including advice on tackling various medical conditions through variations of this diet, and many recipes.
The Weston A. Price Foundation - promoting traditional approaches to nutrition and wellbeing. Not the same as the Paleo diet, but there are a lot of cross-overs.
PaleOMG - lots of tasty Paleo recipes (just do a web search for many other similar sites).
Advice for vegetarians considering Paleo priciples
Advice on budget Paleo shopping
Click here for the story of how musician J.D. Moyer tackled his asthma with a version of the Paleo diet
Click here for a video describing how Dr, Terry Wahls overcame her multiple sclerosis through a modified Paleo diet
Nourishing Traditions - recipes and information from the Weston A. Price Foundation.
The Paleo Kitchen - more recipes.
The Paleo Cure - a book on how to find your own optimum version of the Paleo diet.
Chinese medical dietary therapy
Using some of the more specific principles of Chinese dietary therapy can also be useful. This involves considering your diet based on your Chinese medicine diagnosis and any imbalances you may be expressing. A good book on the subject is Paul Pitchford’s ‘Healing with Whole Foods’, and this site has some nice summary information. However, my reservation is that the diagnosis has to be correct in order to benefit fully from this approach. The danger of the modern-day Chinese medicine approaches is that people become labelled as ‘having’ a certain diagnosis like Spleen Qi deficiency or Liver Yang rising, in much the same way as being labelled as ‘diabetic’ or ‘bipolar’. A Chinese medicine diagnosis – if one is used at all – should only be a way of clarifying the practitioner’s thought process, and it should be a fluid thing that evolves over time. This can make specific dietary choices confusing, especially if you're not trained in this system. This is why I personally prefer a more general approach to a nourishing diet like that outlined above as a foundation for good health.
Sedentary lifestyles are dangerous, and can lead to all manner of problems - not many people would argue with that. But some of us have no choice but to spend a good deal of time sitting down (office workers, for example), and therefore we need to make the best of the situation. Click here for a good article discussing why it's not necessarily sitting itself that is the problem, it's how we sit and how we manage breaks, stretching etc. that is important. If you hate your job, and you sit for many hours a day under stress and in poor posture without taking breaks, you are almost bound to get problems. If you manage your stress, take screen breaks, and learn office-based stretches, the chances of problems are much reduced.
Stretching regularly is a great way to improve flexibility and circulation, and it's vital if you spend a lot of time sitting down for your job. Click here for a simple set of stretches you can do every day. Click here for a set of stretches you can do at your desk. For more information on working at a desk, and methods of improving the situation, click here and here. And if you like working from books, I like this one. The stretches are quite complex, but very effective in my experience.
Regular exercise can be very beneficial, but unless you want to run marathons or get into the Olympics, you don't need to train like an athlete! In fact, it may well be harmful to do so - over-training in the gym is a recipe for disaster. Simply walking on a regular basis is a great start. Regular, short, high-intensity workouts are probably best for most people, backed up by a good diet and plenty of recovery time in between.
As long as you're not sensitive to chlorine, swimming is an excellent exercise option as it uses all the muscles in the body, gets your heart rate going, and can be quite relaxing at the same time. For those who just want to improve their general fitness and flexibility without lofty ambitions, 2 or 3 half hour swims per week will probably suffice, with some regular stretching in between.
For those who want to step it up a little further, Primal Blueprint Fitness (based on similar principles to the Paleo Diet) may be a good place to start. Click here to get a free e-book which covers everything you need to know (you have to sign up for an email newsletter, but you also get various other good quality recipe e-books etc.)
Moving well is not just about swimming and going to the gym. To be truly healthy, we need to allow our bodies to become as free from internal obstructions as possible so that everything can flow and function properly. We also need to allow ourselves time to be still in mind and body (here's a good article discussing this). That doesn't mean sitting on the sofa watching films (although that's fine too!), it means calming the mind from distractions, focusing internally, and allowing things to 'go into neutral'. There are many ways to achieve this, and of course acupuncture is one of them. But learning to do this on your own is preferable in the long-term, as it empowers you to maintain and improve your own health.
Qigong is my preferred method. Within qigong there are countless styles, but generally speaking they involve developing specific physical postures and movements, and internal focus, in order to free blockages, calm the mind, and develop energy. Click here for an introductory article, or here for a good video introduction (even if the production is a bit dated!). Here are some links to Qigong classes in the Bristol area:
Qigong Southwest (Sundays and Mondays in Gloucester Road, but you can only join in at specific times of the year)
Lotus Nei Gong (Friday mornings Stokes Croft, Thursday evenings Emersons Green)
Lucent Qigong (Friday lunchtime drop-in Cotham Hill, courses also available)
QIGONG INTRODUCTORY VIDEO COMING SOON
Yoga is another popular option, but I would say there is more potential for harm with yoga if the instructor isn't good than with Tai Chi and Qigong. Ask around and get personal recommendations if yoga appeals to you, and make sure the style is what you are looking for before committing.
Stress, anxiety and depression are rampant in our society - we're simply not designed to live the lives we tend to lead in today's world. By making positive changes to the areas above, you should find your stress levels reduce and your well being improves naturally. However, there are of course many other things you can do to help improve your mental health, and I include just a few of them here.
discovering the root cause
There is a good deal of evidence that shows how powerful our mind-body connection is - I recommend the book Mind Over Medicine for an in-depth discussion of this idea. Chinese medicine has recognized this for a long time:
'So much of all illness begins in the mind, and the ability to persuade the patient to change the course of perception and feeling to aid the healing process is a requirement of a good physician'.
The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine.
So how do we change our perception and feeling? The first thing to do is to learn to trust yourself and your instincts - what needs to change in your life in order for your health to improve? See the meditation section below for a guided meditation to start this process. Click here to download a document based on the ideas in Mind Over Medicine. You can work through the whole document, or start by asking yourself the self-diagnosis questions from p30 onward. Just doing this can be the start of a profound process.
There are certain acupressure techniques that you can use yourself, which may help to 'take the edge off'. You can Google 'acupressure stress relief' for various articles and videos - VIDEO COMING SOON
There is a big cross-over between meditation and the internal practices mentioned above in the 'Move well' section. However, if you don't fancy Qigong, or want to do both, there are many local classes (such as this one) available as well as online resources. For busy people, the Headspace smartphone app is an excellent option. You can also click here for a free guided meditation by Lissa Rankin, author of Mind Over Medicine, which aims to relax you and unlock your ability to heal yourself. Finally, Palouse Mindfulness offer a free in-depth online course in MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction); a great option if you want to take things to a deeper level.
This is left until last not because it isn't important – in fact it is vital to every aspect of health – but because usually it will improve as a natural consequence of making changes to the other areas outlined here. That is to say, insomnia is usually a symptom of problems in other areas, and when they are addressed, sleep will improve. That being said, here are a few tips:
- Aim to get 8 hours of sleep per night
- Stick to regular hours if possible
- Keep phones, tablets and other distractions out of your bedroom, and try not to use them in the last two hours of your day (the frequency of light they emit can play havoc with your sleep hormones)
- Don't eat or drink too near to your bed time
- Learn a relaxation method and do it just before bed, or whilst in bed - click here for one example of a well-regarded audio course
- Look at the sources of stress in your life (see 'Discovering the root cause' above) and make positive changes where possible
Primal Blueprint Rules of Living - more ideas about how to optimize your health and improve your life
ACUPUNCTURE & CHINESE MEDICINE
British Acupuncture Council - find out more about acupuncture and search for local qualified practitioners
Yin Yang House - general information about Chinese medicine
Xinglin Institute - teaching and research based on Classical Chinese medicine
Association for Traditional Studies - preserving, documenting & disseminating China's traditional knowledge
Chris Kresser - interesting thoughts on the possible mechanisms of acupuncture, and a wealth of information on various health topics
supplements & Foods
Probiotics - one option for a broad-spectrum probiotic, which may be useful for some people with compromised gut health
Vitamin B12 - deficient in many people, especially those on vegetarian/vegan diets
Xylitol nasal spray - natural alternative for sinusitis which uses a sugar alcohol to 'flush' the biofilm
PREGNANCY & labour
Debra Betts - Debra is a leading authority on acupuncture in pregnancy, and her site provides lots of free information
Acupressure app - iPhone/iPad - easy techniques for pregnant women and their partners to help during and after labour
STRETCHES & rehab
Sports Injury Clinic - stretching exercises
Sports Injury Clinic - rehabilitation exercises
The Permanent Pain Cure - stretching book
Any supplement suggestions made are based on my personal experience and research/learning, and feedback from my patients. These suggestions should not be seen as 'prescriptions', and it is advisable to do your own research and consult your doctor before taking anything if you have any concerns, especially if you are taking any medications or you have any recognised health conditions. It is always best to start any new supplement at the smallest dose possible, and work up to the recommended dose gradually, monitoring your body's response as you go. If you experience any adverse reactions, stop taking them and seek medical help if symptoms are severe or persistent. If you are starting more than one new supplement, it is best to introduce one at a time over a period of days to make it easier to identify any that may be causing problems.
Please note - in line with standard practice, I may receive a commission on the sale of some products. I only recommend brands and suppliers I believe to be of high quality. I never suggest anything I don't believe has a good chance of being of benefit, but please don't feel under any pressure to buy the supplements I suggest, or from my suppliers.
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