All of us move through life in a series of stages, each with its own unique characteristics. When we are young, we go through phases of intense growth and development until we reach maturity, and then there is a gradual state of decline as we get older.
These stages were clearly defined thousands of years ago and documented in the classic Chinese medical text, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine.” It was written in the third century B.C. and is one of the oldest and most seminal works in the history of Chinese medicine.
While civilizations normally last only a few centuries, the Chinese civilization is unique in the world, having persisted for 5,000 years. Because of its long history, Eastern medicine has had millennia to observe human beings and gather evidence about what happens to men and women as they age. There is a distinction between the cycles for men and women. Women move through life in seven-year cycles, and it is eight years for men. How health is maintained through each phase is largely due to something described in Chinese medicine as “jing.”
Jing in Chinese Medicine
Like many things in Eastern medicine, jing doesn’t have a direct equivalent in the West. This lack of comparison makes explaining it difficult, especially when it’s a concept vital to understanding the Eastern view of how we age.
In the simplest terms, jing is a person’s essence. If I had to make a comparison, I would say that jing is similar to the strength of the genes we inherit from our parents. In the Eastern view, jing is given to us by our parents at the moment of conception. If your parents were young, vital, and healthy, your jing would be strong and ensure you would grow and develop with the relative strength your parents had given you.
However, if your parents were older, had chronic diseases or health problems, and were exhausted from a long life of hard work and lack of sleep, the jing you inherited would reflect this deficit. This whole idea may sound strange, but I have seen it repeatedly in my life and work. Simply put, your health (at least the baseline) is a direct manifestation of the health of both of your parents at the moment you were conceived.
For example, if you are strong and robust, your body can handle a little more punishment and bounce back from things like sleepless nights, partying, and drinking. But if you were born with less than optimal jing, you will have to work harder to remain in good health, and your body will not be as forgiving.
Awareness is the key. Are you that person who catches every cold and flu no matter how hard you try to avoid them? If so, make sure you get lots of sleep, eat well, and take care of yourself. This will help fortify the jing you have. Perhaps you are the one who can sail through unscathed while everyone around you is suffering from the latest virus? If so, appreciate your strong constitution, but try to take care of yourself anyway.
The amount of jing given to us at conception is supposed to be finite. Still, there are ways that we can protect and conserve our jing throughout our lifetime. Eastern medicine believes in moderation in all aspects of life. Staying away from extremes is not only a good life philosophy; it’s essential to preserving your jing. Some examples of activities and behaviours that deplete jing are; overwork, not sleeping enough, abusing drugs and alcohol, too much sex, and having too many children too close together. Jing is like a person’s life force—you only have so much. Certain activities can burn it up too, like partying and living hard and fast. You can see this reflected in people who have these types of lifestyles (rock stars are one example) who often look older than their years. They have been spending their jing. The takeaway is that depleting jing literally ages us.
On the other hand, someone who has lived in a healthy, balanced way often looks younger and more vibrant than their years. There are many ways to support and take care of our jing. Taking care of our bodies, practicing self-awareness, and tending to our emotions are all ways to protect and preserve jing so we can keep it going for the long haul.
There is something else I want to mention about jing. If you feel like maybe you weren’t blessed with as much jing as you might like, this doesn’t mean you can’t live a long, healthy life free of sickness and disease. It simply means a little awareness and work are needed to stay healthy and balanced. This concept isn’t meant to be discouraging or to give someone license to abdicate their responsibility to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s simply one way of looking at our relative strengths and weaknesses so we can adjust our outlook and behaviours to live the best lives possible. Knowledge is power.
The Cycles for Women and Men
(The description for each phase has been simplified from the original text in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine).
Women’s Cycles (7 years)
7 Years Old
At the age of 7, a woman’s reproductive system begins developing.
14 Years Old
At 14, her menstruation appears, and she can have a child. In Chinese Medicine, the age of menarche (the first period) is a factor in understanding overall health, particularly the reproductive system.
21 Years Old
A woman’s energy, especially fertility, is completely developed at 21.
28 Years Old
At the age of 28, a woman’s fertility reaches its peak. 28 is considered the best age to have children in the Eastern view.
35 Years Old
From 35 onward, the body and overall fertility begin declining. Women are still, however, able to have children.
42 year old
From 42 onward, physical energy and fertility decline, and conceiving becomes more difficult.
49 Years Old
At 49 (or thereabouts) is when many women begin to experience menopause and can no longer have children. Leaving the reproductive phase is a significant shift in a woman’s life, not just physically but psychologically, and spiritually.
Men’s Cycles (8 years)
8 Years Old
A man’s reproductive system begins developing. Hair and teeth are strong.
16 Years Old
Men’s reproductive systems are fully developed, and they can reproduce. Development in all systems continues, and the body, muscles, and teeth grow strong.
24 Years Old
Kidney energy is developed, the extremities are strong.
32 Years Old
This is the age where the body is at its peak physically, and all systems are robust and vital.
40 Years Old
From 40 is when the body begins a gradual decline. Yang (or fire) energy diminishes, hair turns grey, and teeth become weaker.
48 Years Old
Physical decline continues. Wrinkles appear, hair turns grey, and there is less energy overall.
56 Years Old
Due to a decline in kidney and liver energies, the body begins losing flexibility, movement can become difficult, and stiffness and pain may begin to set in.
64 Years Old
Men’s vital energy weakens, bones become more brittle, flexibility declines, and teeth begin to deteriorate.
Of course, some things have changed since the third century. One of the most notable is that we simply live longer. Our extended lifespan is thanks to a variety of factors, including access to clean food and water and a drastic improvement in our overall quality of life.
Self-Knowledge Is Self-Power
These cycles are ways to bring awareness to the way men and women move through the different stages of life.
For women, knowledge of, these stages can help them navigate significant events, such as if and when to have children and how to move through menopause without anxiety or physical symptoms. The emotional and spiritual aspects also need to be cared for, just as our bodies do.
For men too, these stages act as a kind of guide, letting us know what to expect and helping us move through each of the cycles smoothly. Sometimes, these transitions are not easy, so having a guidebook can help us deal with the anxieties, stressors, and questions that come up as we move into and out of each phase. Chinese medicine offers us many tools to help us more easily move through life.
I am continually humbled by Chinese medicine’s beauty, complexity, and wisdom. Its deep understanding of human beings on many levels is a testament to its effectiveness and one of the reasons it’s still being used to treat health problems in the modern world.
About the Author
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She has lived and practiced in 4 countries and now works through her practice Thrive Consulting. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.