No one’s going to live forever, but we all want to live as long as possible while in good health. You may be fatalistic and think that it’s all in your genes—nothing you can do about that! That’s actually only half the story. How we live our lives has a big impact on our health and wellbeing and, by extension, on our longevity. I’m not just thinking of lifespan but rather of quality of life. Let’s talk about the pillars of long-lasting health: life-style choices and self-care.
I encourage everyone to avail themselves of routine screenings like blood labs, mammograms, colonoscopies, etc. once you’ve reached the recommended age, even if you think you’re healthy and low-risk. Guidelines keep changing based on the latest research, so stay tuned! There’s enough evidence, however, that early detection and intervention can prolong life in many cases. While I personally use conventional medicine sparingly, I do my screenings regularly as recommended. It’s a good idea to develop a relationship with a primary care physician you trust before you actually need one.
The first important step for us busy New Yorkers is to recognize that we need some space to think about our health and well-being. Before you can even start to think about healthy lifestyle choices, you need to get into the habit of regularly checking in with yourself. Listen to your body! How are you feeling? Have you noticed any changes? etc. Women tend to be a little better at this than men, but I think we would all benefit from paying a little closer attention to ourselves. You may even want to start keeping a wellness diary.
So, let’s talk about the pillars of health more specifically: I’ll start with sleep. What are your sleep habits? Are you getting enough quality sleep to feel good and focused all day without using caffeine? Remember that your body and brain need 7-9 hours of quality sleep to do all the necessary repair work and detox for you to stay healthy and ward off chronic disease.
Are you physically active? Getting exercise, moving around as opposed to sitting in front of the computer all day? Do you include strength, stretching and cardio in your daily routines? Do you engage in vigorous activities for at least 30-60 minutes most days? Do you have fun with your exercise regimen? Being physically active is super helpful for pain relief, good digestion and for your mood, as studies have shown.
Are you socially engaged? Do you have good friends, happy family relationships? Are you involved in meaningful communities? If not, think about issues you care about and look for a group or nonprofit you could join. That’s a good way to make friends.
Are you toxic? Yes, that’s something important to talk about. Unfortunately, most conventional physicians will not educate you about this topic, so you will have to look to other sources. Pollution of our environment is turning into a big health concern for us. It can be a factor in your thyroid function or your fertility and many other physiological functions. Here are a few things you can do: Reduce your exposure to chemicals to a minimum. For example, avoid air pollution, remove commercial cleaning and skin care products from your home; look for nontoxic, environmentally friendly substitutes. Avoid plastic containers, esp. for hot or liquid foods. If you regularly wear make-up, look for a product line that focuses on nontoxic ingredients. Even new clothes, your furniture or shower curtain can gas off chemicals you don’t want to inhale.
Food: My favorite topic! Yes, I do advocate for organic foods, especially when it comes to animal sources. There’s a saying “You eat what your food has eaten.” If you’re unsure about where to start with organic, visit the Environmental Working Group‘s website and check out the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen foods. (The EWG website also investigates skin care products.)
Food is so central to being healthy. When you think about it, the cells in your body are constantly being replaced, and the building blocks for the new cells to replace them come from the food you eat, obviously.
There’s now a plethora of diet advice out there for people who want to lose weight, but this completely misses the point. Forget about counting calories and think more about the quality of your food, and especially the nourishment it provides to you and you family. Where does your food come from? How has it been prepared? Clearly, you know your food better if you prepare it yourself and cook from scratch as often as you can.
I think my number one nutrition recommendation would be to give up processed foods, basically most foods that are packaged and have more than one or two ingredients. Or, some may say anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Focus on eating a wide variety of fresh, seasonal vegetables, some fruit, some ancient grains, and foods from naturally raised animals. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out cookbooks on mediterranean or ancestral diets. Nourishing yourself properly should be a high priority for you. You may need to make more space in your schedule to shop and cook, and to actually sit down and eat your meal in peace.
Now let’s talk about other health practices. The big star of self-care is regular meditation. There’s so much research supporting the health benefits of meditation, so we really don’t have an excuse any longer. You can use an app, read a book, take a class, go to a retreat—whatever works for you. Meditation can be part of other practices such as yoga, tai chi or qigong, which have many additional health benefits. Find something that you enjoy and makes sense to you, and integrate it into your daily habits. Meditation will turn out to be a powerful tool for stress management.
Finally, I want to talk about seeking professional care. Don’t wait to think about this until you’re sick. You really want to begin receiving care in order to stay healthy; in other words, health care, not sick care. Think about how regular acupuncture or massage can help you with stress relief and minor illnesses before they become severe or serious. Or maybe you have a chiropractor you like and get an adjustment once or twice a month. It’s possible that you would benefit from working with a talk therapist. There are many options, and you have to experiment a bit to find something that works for you.
What makes East Asian medicine so special to me is that we look at the whole person, not at a disease. We get to know our patients quite well to understand where they’re coming from, what their experience is, how well they’re functioning, what motivates them, what their health goals are, etc.
Instead of looking for a pharmaceutical drug to suppress an uncomfortable symptom, we prefer to look at the root cause and identify the imbalances that lie below the symptoms or the illness of our patients. Our goal is to help restore balance. We use the concepts of the life force Qi, the complementary opposites of Yin and Yang, and the cycle of the five phases of transformation (often called the Five Elements), which describe how all our physical and mental-emotional functions are interrelated and depend on each other for good health.
Chinese physicians have developed their expertise over several thousand years, through observing their patients closely and passing along their treatment experiences to the next generation. Chinese herbal therapy is the primary medical practice in East Asia, but energy medicine (such as acupuncture and qigong) is also widely employed. We still use some herbal prescriptions that were developed over 2000 years ago. Yet, we also use many modern therapies. Chinese medicine is a professional medicine and constantly evolving.
People are always fascinated by acupuncture. There’s now a considerable body of modern research showing its benefits. Conducting acupuncture research is not easy because our biomedical research model of randomized controlled trials was really developed for pharmaceuticals, not for treatments involving touch.
Acupuncture is believed to engage with the flow of energy in the body to remove obstructions and restore smooth flow. From a modern, scientific perspective, acupuncture seems to be engaging with communications systems in the body, including the nervous and endocrine systems.
Acupuncture is very safe when provided by a professional acupuncturist. It can be helpful for a wide range of health concerns and is now used in many major hospitals around the country.
In addition to acupuncture, we also use other physical therapies in Chinese medicine, such as moxibustion, tuina, cupping and guasha. Moxibustion is a form of heat therapy that uses mugwort to direct warmth at specific acupuncture points. Tuina is a spectrum of Chinese bodywork to treat musculoskeletal as well as internal health concerns. Cupping and guasha are used to release stagnation in the surface layers of the body by creating suction or friction.
All these internal and external techniques can serve as therapies to restore the free flow of your energy and to promote a sense of balance and wellbeing.
© 2018 Christiane Siebert