In the Eastern view, we’re healthy when our bodies are balanced and harmonious. This balance is between yin (cold/water energies) and yang (hot/fire energies), our internal organs, and our relationship with the external environment.
This harmony is in a constant state of flux because of the activities of our daily lives, how we manage our emotions, the way we treat our bodies, the changing weather, stress, environmental factors, and the unpredictability of life itself.
In the Eastern model, the things that cause the body to lose its balance are the causes of disease.
People have always struggled with external and internal threats to their health. External factors such as the weather don’t usually cause disease, but when the body is weak or the weather changes too quickly for us to adjust, it can make us sick. For example, being out in the rain and then going into an air-conditioned shop can cause cold to get “inside” the body, making us unwell. The following day, we may wake up feeling achy and congested and know that we’ve come down with something.
Other illnesses are brought about by internal factors, such as emotional upsets and excessive sexual activity. But first, let’s talk about how Eastern medicine describes the body, health, and disease.
Chinese medicine is a philosophy drawn from insight into the nature of life and creation. It uses the language of nature to describe the causes for disease and diagnosis: an excess of summer heat, external wind, or internal dampness. These terms may sound strange to our ears, but they describe the causes of common ailments in the Eastern view. It’s simply the language used to describe what has been observed over thousands of years.
It may seem strange to think of our emotions as a potential cause of disease. In the West, emotions aren’t considered when evaluating the etiology of disease, but that does seem to be changing as the widespread effects of loneliness, stress, and depression become recognized as major factors in disease. However, in the Eastern view, emotions and the physical body share a deep connection, each affecting the other. In the Eastern model, many organs have a corresponding emotion. Each emotion affects the whole body, but does so for its respective organ in particular.
Organs and Their Associated Emotions
Joy is associated with the heart, while anger and frustration are associated with the liver, sadness and grief with the lungs, worry and overthinking with the spleen, and fear with the kidneys.
Consider that someone has suddenly lost a loved one. Their grief can manifest in the lungs as a shortness of breath, asthma, and a cough. It also works in reverse. Someone who has a chronic cough can find themselves feeling more melancholy than usual. The cough has weakened the lungs, predisposing them to grief. It’s a constant cycle of interaction.
Another example is someone prone to worrying, which is perhaps heightened because of a public speaking engagement they have coming up. These feelings can manifest as problems with digestion, such as bloating, gas, pain, and diarrhoea. And again, the reverse is true. When we have prolonged digestive issues, it can make us more prone to worry and overthinking.
Diet and Eating Habits
Eating a healthy variety of clean, nutrient-rich foods is vital to maintaining a healthy body, mind, and spirit. It also supports the essential functions of our internal organs and all of the body’s physiological processes. What we eat is actually a vital part of treating disease in Eastern philosophy.
The amount of food and how frequently we eat are also significant. Smaller, more frequent meals are better for you and easier to digest than one or two big ones. Of course, everybody is different, but we live in a culture with larger than necessary portions and never enough time to sit down and eat a meal properly, which explains why digestive problems are so prevalent. Just remember, the body loves consistency, and moderation is key.
One thing that’s unique to Chinese medicine about eating, in particular, is being mindful. Western culture values productivity and multitasking (which isn’t good for us), but the Eastern perspective has always valued doing one thing at a time, which significantly benefits the digestive system. Mindfully preparing and eating a meal will increase its health benefits, as it allows the body to focus on digestion and assimilation.
Stress, as we are all acutely aware, is part of life. Many health professionals believe that it’s at the root of countless illnesses. One of the reasons stress can be so detrimental to our health isn’t that it exists, but how we deal with it. Unpleasant situations are unavoidable, but how we process them is the key to managing stress in a healthy way. When stress overwhelms us, especially on an ongoing basis, it can wreak havoc on the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness. Thankfully, Chinese medicine offers some tools to help us manage stress in life.
Meditation. Meditation, simply put, pulls us out of the chaos of life and allows us to quiet the mind and become cantered. There are a few ways that we can do this: taking a walk in nature, sitting quietly, or lying down. It’s incredible how beneficial taking 20 minutes to sit quietly can be to the body, mind, and spirit. Meditation is a simple yet powerful way to manage stress if you have a tough day or feel like you need a boost.
Tai chi. Tai chi is another excellent exercise and a way to calm the mind, body, and spirit with forms of graceful movements, also with an emphasis on the breath. Both tai chi and qi gong are best practiced outside, as nature has a calming, grounding effect on the body, mind, and spirit.
Qi gong. Qi gong is a gentle, meditative exercise system similar to tai chi. Some forms are considered internal martial arts, while others are more spiritual in nature. Qi gong has been practiced for thousands of years in China, and it’s an ideal way to calm the mind and body with its fluid movements and emphasis on breathing.
Fatigue is a common problem in the modern world. So many of us are overworked, overstressed, and under slept. Sleep is the way that our bodies heal, detoxify, and repair. Getting restful sleep is vital for a healthy immune system and clear cognition. The intense nature of our lifestyles makes insomnia a common problem. Sleeping in a dark room without electronics, not eating at least four hours before bed, and making sure that you aren’t holding on to emotions are some excellent ways to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Excess Sexual Activity
This one always catches people off-guard. Yes, you read that right—excess sexual activity can cause disease. But, before panic sets in, let me explain how that works.
All of us are born with “jing,” which our parents give us at birth. We only have a finite amount, so preserving it is essential for health and vitality throughout life. There are ways that we can supplement and support our jing, and we do that by living well and taking care of ourselves.
There are ways we “spend” our jing, like money in a bank account, and there’s a direct correlation between spending our jing and aging. For men, sexual activity often ends in ejaculation, which directly represents their jing or essence. Ejaculation is considered to be a loss of jing, but only when done excessively, without allowing the body to recover. Jing is consumed when women have children (which is normal), but having too many babies without time to rest and regain strength in between diminishes jing and accelerates aging.
The focus for this idea of jing is that there be ample time between the activities that cause loss (sexual activity for men and childbearing for women) so the body is able to recover, and jing is maintained. Our bodies have innate healing and regenerating capabilities, but must be given the time and resources to do so.
Parasites are as old as time, and most of us have them. An estimated 80% of both adults and children have parasites in their gut. Although many people believe that they’re a problem in parts of the world with poor sanitation and not enough access to clean water, parasites exist worldwide. Symptoms of parasites are pain in the abdomen, poor appetite, diarrhoea, gas, itchy anus (especially at night), bloating, emaciation, and exhaustion. Parasites have a profound effect on the body, draining it of essential nutrition, leading to deficiencies and weight loss.
There are various factors contributing to disease, internal and external. In the Eastern approach, some may be new to us. If we think about health representing a state of equilibrium, anything that throws it out of whack can contribute to disease. Chinese medicine is a medicine that teaches us to listen to our bodies, so that we know when things are out of balance. We can then make small changes to bring us back to a healthy state. Temperance is another.
Being moderate in work, play, food, drink, and our emotions are all ways that we can stay healthy now and long into the future.
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.