One of my favorite Chinese sayings is “Eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, sleep when you’re tired.” It is so simplistic and yet given our culture of constantly changing advice and fad diets, it is also profound. Sometimes it seems the wealth of health-related information to which we have access, is so overwhelming that it is just easier to throw up our hands and do nothing. So here I have made an attempt to outline a few basic ideas that can apply to anyone, anywhere. They are all based on good common sense, but supported by research. And they are all available without any special equipment, fees or subscriptions!
“Eat food, mostly vegetables, not too much.”
Michael Pollen, author of Food Rules, is famous for this admonition about a healthy diet. By this he means to avoid food that isn’t food: steer clear of processed foods, foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce or with ingredients you wouldn’t find in anyone’s pantry. Instead, eat food that you could have grown yourself if you had the skill and inclination. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, eat organic (especially meats and dairy products) when possible. Avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil and artificial sweeteners. Limit the amount of sugar, caffeine and even the total calories you consume. In our world of super-sized meals and “getting more for a buck,” we have completely lost touch with portion sizes we actually need.
In Chinese Medicine, it is important to eat relative to the seasons. In the fall and winter, focus on root vegetables, soups, seeds and nuts. You can ground yourself with heavier foods like meats and dairy products (in moderation). In spring and summer, you can incorporate more leaves and fruits. In our area, spring is the time for snap peas, asparagus, strawberries and lettuce. In short, enjoy what is naturally in season. Shopping local farmers markets is a good way to find out which foods are freshest at any given time.
Unless for very specific medical purposes, we don’t recommend highly restrictive diets or detox cleanses. For most of us, a basically good diet that we can maintain for a lifetime is the way to go. We also don’t recommend drastically changing your current diet all at once. Pick one change you know you can incorporate successfully, and start there. Then add another. Before long, you will naturally be making healthier choices most of the time.
Daily activity helps release energy from all those pent-up emotions and helps you think more clearly. When we force the blood to pump through our arms and legs, we are getting fresh healthy blood to all of our muscles and other tissues and can prevent the stagnation of qi leads to chronic pain.
Exercise also helps our emotional health. A 2008 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that any physical activity (even housework) was associated with improved mental health.
Pick the kind of exercise that you enjoy doing or vary what you choose to do. Relish the movement of your body through space, even if your physical circumstances limit how much you can do. Start where you are and find a way to move that uplifts your mind and spirit. A walk outdoors, 30 min of yoga, or an intense cross-fit class: any of these can serve to enliven your qi and calm your mind.
However, it is also important to beware of the trap of too much exercise! We need to find the balance between yin rest and yang activity. Too much exercise can overstimulate the body making it difficult for us to slow down and relax. What is the right amount for any one person will be different, but a good general rule for those of us who aren’t competitive athletes is 30-60 min per day.
Whether you call it meditation or not, take just 5-10 minutes to close your eyes and focus on taking a few deep breaths. You can do this sitting in your chair at work or in your car at a stop light. As Wayne Dyer says, “the person behind you will let you know when the light changes.”
Use this short exercise to focus you at work. Deep breathing has the wonderful effect of calming the nervous system and gives you a chance to step back for a clear perspective. After practicing this just a couple times a day for a week or so, you will notice improvements in efficiency and productivity.
If you have the time, practice intentional relaxation for 20 minutes each morning. You will be amazed by how smoothly the day unfolds…how controlled you are in your reactions to unexpected events. Taking time to relax and focus our minds each day has both emotional and physical outcomes. Studies at Harvard have shown daily meditation to be useful in lowering blood pressure, reducing pain, improving sleep, regulating the immune system and even reducing symptoms of psoriasis!
Sleep is the yin aspect to our active yang days. Sleeping well is truly a gift taken for granted by those who have never suffered from insomnia or the demands of small children! A good night’s sleep can sometimes rectify a depressed or irritable mood. It can help our bodies heal. In sleep, our minds can relax and discover new solutions to old problems. So get your sleep when you can. Even a 20-30 minute nap at lunchtime may be enough to rejuvenate your mind and help you to be more effective during the afternoon.
Conventional wisdom has held that sleeping during the day may lead to insomnia at night. However, this theory is being called into question. Two studies in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at the sleep patterns of older adults. They found nothing to suggest that nappers suffered from worse nighttime sleep than the non-nappers. In fact, those who napped within two hours of bedtime showed better quality sleep than those who napped earlier in the day. No wonder we are one of the few cultures worldwide who doesn’t incorporate some kind of rest time into the work day.
Heather McIver, L.Ac.