By Emma Suttie, D.Ac
Here is my list of 10 simple things that you can do to improve your health right now. Most of them seem obvious, but sometimes its good to have a little reminder as we are all so busy that it is hard to always find the time to take care of ourselves. All of these are based on Chinese medicine principles, but they really are excellent tips regardless of where they come from, because they really work.
1. Eat Real Food
This one seems like a no brainer, right? Well, eating real food isn’t always easy, especially when we are short on time. Convenience will usually win out over eating properly, especially when we are rushed, and there is a literal ocean of fast foods to choose from. They are often full of chemicals, fats and so little nutrition that you have to eat way more to feel full, which is one of the ways that people gain weight. You will find that when you are eating real, fresh foods, that you will actually eat less and feel better. My rule is always quality over quantity.
The way I would define “real food” is to say that it is food that is as close as possible to its original form, ie- when it came out of the ground, or off the tree. Staying away from packaged foods is a good way to ensure that you are following number one, as well as number 10 (avoid chemicals), as packaged foods almost always contain preservatives, flavour enhancers, fats, salt, sugars, and all of those unpronounceable ingredients that are so bad for us. Labelling laws vary from country to country, but many places do not require companies to label everything that goes into the foods they producs, so it is almost impossible to know what you are eating.
Eating fresh, locally grown foods that are in season is the best way to show your body some love. This is after all the way our bodies were designed, and our digestive systems have evolved to function best when we eat this way. At first, it does take a little more planning, but once you start eating fresh foods, you will notice very quickly how amazing you feel and soon those pizza pockets and big macs won’t appeal to you anymore and you will wonder how you could have ever eaten them! So eat real food, I promise your body will love you for it.
2. Go Outside
The ancient Chinese had an intimate relationship with nature. Life and all of its processes revolved around nature and the ebb and flow of the seasons. When I was in China, I noticed that there was no separation between inside and outside, windows were always open (I once tried to close one because I was freezing and got some serious sass in Chinese), and having fresh air is an important aspect of health. Closing up our houses causes the air to stagnate and this, when left for long periods, can lead to illness. We are constantly needing to breathe in fresh air and the simple act of going outside accomplishes this and much more.
We get energy from the earth, and we are not getting that energy if we are sitting in front of our computers. Being outside is incredibly grounding and relaxing to the body. Looking at the plants and flowers is nourishing for our eyes, taking off your shoes and walking in the grass or on the beach in the sand is you literally connecting to the planet. Being outside in nature nourishes all of your senses, and most importantly, builds up your body’s own energy, or qi, and going for walks is a very effective way to move energy and avoid illnesses caused by stagnation.
3. Breathe Deeply
Anyone who has ever done yoga or studied martial arts understands the importance of the breath. It is the basis for many types of meditation and breathing is necessary for keeping us alive. The Lungs are associated with sadness and grief in Chinese medicine, and many of the ways in which we can release intense or overwhelming grief is through deep breathing exercises.
In times of stress, worry, anger or sadness a few deep breaths can dissipate those strong emotions and clear our heads. The breath is incredibly healing, taking in the new, and letting go of the old. Breathing deeply also brings more oxygen into the body and more oxygen means increased brain function and that is always a good thing. Oxygen improves the immune system, calms the mind and stabilizes the nervous system, improves concentration and memory, speeds up the body’s ability to recover after physical exertion, improves digestion, alleviates headaches and migraines, detoxifies the blood and strengthens the heart. So breathe deep, its good for your health!
4. Express Your Emotions
Emotional health is a big part of Chinese medicine. It is also interesting to note that in Chinese medicine, the emotions are one of the causes of disease. This may seem strange to us in the West, but think about how you feel when someone you love passes away, or a family member is in a serious accident. Those are incredibly strong emotions and they absolutely affect your health. Of course having emotions is a normal part of being human, they only become pathological when they are repressed or unacknowledged, expressed without control (wild outbursts for example), unexpressed or felt intensely for long periods without being resolved.
The most important thing for having a healthy emotional life is, if there is something happening in your life that is upsetting you, acknowledge it. This is the first step. It isn’t always easy, but it is vital to moving through it in a healthy way. Second is to allow yourself to feel it without judgement. We often judge our feelings about something which can be much more destructive than having the emotion in the first place. There is often a comparison to someone else who is in a worse situation. So feel what you are feeling. Don’t judge it. It is valid, and once you have felt that emotion, then you can let it go and move on.
Here are a couple of articles about the emotions that will give you some more information about how they are viewed in Chinese medicine and some tips on how you can deal with them in a healthy way.
5. Be Mindful
There was never such a paradox, that something that should be so easy could be so hard. What does being mindful mean? Being present. Being absolutely focussed with all of your being at whatever you are doing (or not doing) at the present moment.
This is particularly difficult for us. We live in a culture that has values multitasking. The more you can do at once, the more valuable you are. You are a master of productivity. You are the envy of your colleagues and your friends. How do you get so much done?
Because Chinese medicine grew out of Taoist teachings and ideas, there is a big emphasis on mindfulness in everything you do and living in the present. It is not about getting as much done as possible, it is about doing a few things well and with intention. The idea in terms of health is that when you are doing one thing, your qi or energy is focussed and you are able to channel all of your energy into one thing. When you are doing more than one thing at once, you are scattering your qi, and your focus. Your qi works best when it is focussed. Constantly scattering your qi will lead to deficiency and eventually can lead to illness.
The other reason that being mindful is good for your health is that the spleen, which is the organ of digestion in TCM, is the thing that is responsible for digesting everything that comes into the body. This is not only food and drink, but information and stimulus as well. All the multitasking means that the spleen has to work extra hard to digest all that food/information/stimulus at the same time and it becomes exhausted. We live in an extremely spleen deficient culture because of this. So, being mindful is actually a way to be kind to your spleen, which is really at the core of our health.
Here is a quote that illustrates the idea of being mindful written by Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism.
If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.
~ Lao Tzu
6. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is the body’s much needed chance to rest and heal. Sleep is necessary for the body to repair itself of any damage, right down to the cellular level. It is the body’s chance to build up its energy stores so that it can keep you awake, keep your heart pumping, your lungs breathing and you alive and healthy tomorrow and for many days to come. We are a sleep deprived culture. We often cram so many activities into our lives that we simply cannot get the sleep we need to function at optimum levels.
Not getting enough sleep saps our energy, and has a significant effect on our ability to focus, concentrate and significantly affects memory. We all function a lot better, and feel clear and alert when we have had a good night’s sleep. There are a few things that you can do to help you sleep. Don’t eat stimulating foods such as spicy foods, coffee and alcohol in the evenings before bed. They can over stimulate the nervous system and make it hard to get to sleep. Massaging your feet before you go to bed is very relaxing and opens up the meridians encouraging the free and uninhibited flow of qi. Make sure your room is completely dark. The brain associates darkness with sleep and it is more difficult to sleep in a room where there is too much light. And finally, try to go to bed before 11pm. In Chinese medicine, there is an organ clock, each organ having 2 hours of the day when it needs to regenerate. The liver time is from 11pm-1am, and it is widely accepted that it is best to be asleep as the liver is responsible for many of our bodies processes and emotional responses.
7. Drink Lots of Water
How many times have we heard this one? But its true. There are many ailments whose cause is simply dehydration, and the body is 70% water, so it is vital to our bodies functioning at optimum levels. Water is purifying to the body and helps flush out toxins which can lead to illness. A good thing to do is first thing when you wake up in the morning is to drink a glass of water which will help flush out all the toxins that have accumulated during the night.
Drinking enough water is important as water aids the body in regulating temperature, keeps the skin (the body’s largest organ) healthy, cushions joints, contributes to heart health, rids the body of waste, aids in digestion and protects the nervous system – including the brain and spinal cord. Dehydration is also a common cause of headaches, so keeping hydrated will help keep your entire body balanced, hydrated and happy.
According to Chinese medicine, it is also important not to drink very cold water and not to put ice in your drinks. This is because it uses a lot of the body’s energy to warm it up, and cold injures the spleen which is charge of digestion.
8. Find Love
Romantic love is wonderful. But I am talking about the love that is everywhere and available to everyone at all times.
Love is one of the most important things for our happiness and our health. Love is everywhere, if you chose to simply notice that it is there.
Love is noticing a beautiful flower. Someone holding a door open for you when your arms are full of groceries – this is love. When your cat crawls into your lap and goes to sleep – this is love. A smile from a stranger – this is love. When a friend listens to you rant about your bad day – this is love. Someone cooks you a delicious meal – this is love. And when you look in the mirror and see the beauty instead of the flaws, this is LOVE. These are all acts of love. And that is what love is, it is action with intention. Can you see it? Can you feel it? It is everywhere. <3
*This photo illustrates a lovely story. This firefighter pulled this dog out of a burning home, saving her life. He then went back into the house to continue fighting the fire. When he came out and sat down to rest, she walked right over to him and thanked him for saving her life.
9. Move Your Body
Our bodies are designed for movement. We have evolved over many thousands of years to move. It is only relatively recently that our lives have become so sedentary, and a lack of movement is at the root of many of our health problems. In Chinese medicine, illness arises when the qi becomes blocked or stagnated. When there is a blockage of the flow, the whole system is thrown out of balance. The best way to circulate qi is simply to move your body around. If you sit at a desk all day, get up and walk around your office every few hours. Take a walk at lunch, and if the weather is nice, walk or ride your bike to work.
There are many ways to move your body. From simply doing some stretching exercises at your desk, to taking a yoga class, or doing tai chi or qi gong. Walking, riding a bike, playing with your dog, or getting down on the floor and playing with your children, they all achieve the same purpose, movement. If you have ever watched children, they are always moving! Every parent knows how exhausting it can be to keep up with a small child, but they instinctively know that movement is good for our health. So, keep moving, and get that qi circulating!.
10. Avoid Chemicals
This one is huge. And not easy in this day and age. Just start small and be mindful of trying to keep things as natural as possible; from what you put in your mouth, to what you use to clean your house. Have a yard? Grow a garden. Vegetables can be grown in a small plot and are relatively low maintenance and easy to grow. Live in an apartment, or a place with winter? Try an herb garden in pots, they will add so much to your cooking! Shop at the farmers market and eat as much organic as possible. If you have to eat packaged foods, read labels. Take time to cook and bring your lunches to work, this way you will know exactly what is in the food you are eating.
Make your own laundry detergent. Here is a recipe and it is chemical free and costs about a tenth of what the store bought stuff does. Instead of using harsh cleaning agents that are full of chemicals, consider using natural cleaners like vinegar, alcohol, lemon and baking soda. There are many great recipes online, places like Pinterest are wonderful resources.
Makeup and beauty products are some of the worst offenders when it comes to chemicals, and you are applying them to your skin, the largest organ of your body. You can make wonderful masks, sugar scrubs, moisturizers and lip balms with natural ingredients that you can find at the health food store. Things like almond oil, honey, beeswax, rose water, coconut oil, oats and cucumber are some of the ingredients that you can use to make your own beauty products. They are easy to make, you can customize them to your skin type and they smell delicious! You also know that you are not absorbing any chemicals into your delicate skin.
Chemicals cause the body to age prematurely. They also decrease fertility in both men and women and increase the risk of birth defects. It is especially important for growing girls to avoid toxic chemicals to avoid problems having healthy children in the future as they are born with all the eggs they will ever have.
Our bodies are bombarded by a barrage of chemicals every day. Of course, we can’t avoid them all, but if you are mindful, you can avoid a lot of them. Keeping life simple and using common sense is the best way to live a healthy and balanced life.