Healing with Food: The Root Medicine for a Modern World Heath Crisis
Healing with Food: The Root Medicine for a Modern World Heath Crisis
Whole food, produced without chemicals and cruelty, be it fruit or fish, is the most powerful and fundamental source of medicine for the human body. It is the primary source of rejuvenation, purification, regulation, balance, strength and healing for every aspect of the mind, the body, its spirit and the earth itself. As the earth and the beings who inhabit it share the same basic elemental resources, what befalls the earth, befalls the beings of the earth and what heals the earth, heals its creatures. It is therefore of utmost urgency for the health of both the earth and the people who inhabit it to reconsider how and what we are eating and to take decisive action toward a more sustainable, harmonious future.
In order to restore our relationships with food, we need more than the latest fad super diet based on counting calories and numbers as the means for dietary healing. Our relationship to food and how it’s produced has eroded so severely, that food diversity is seriously endangered. Our food standards have dropped so low that processed, fast food has become a significant path for nutritional intake for a majority of Americans. These issues are monumental for both agriculture and for human health. We are now facing an international dietary crisis. As the westernization of food and what John Robbins calls the ” Great American Food Machine” infiltrates our national food resources and the international food market, epidemics of both obesity and diabetes are rapidly soaring not only here at home but abroad as well. According to the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, “The prevalence of overweight and obesity is increasing worldwide at an alarming rate in both developing and developed countries. Environmental and behavioral changes brought about by economic development, modernization, and urbanization have been linked to the rise in global obesity.”
Here at home:
¨Approximately 127 million adults in the U.S. are overweight (2/3 of adults), 60 million obese, and 9 million severely obese according to data from the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
¨Approximately 30.3 percent of children (ages 6 to 11) are overweight and 15.3 percent are obese. For adolescents (ages 12 to 19), 30.4 percent are overweight and 15.5 percent are obese.
Less than half of U.S. adults have a healthy weight.
¨Obesity is on the verge of surpassing smoking as #1 cause of preventable death.
¨17 million people in the U.S. have type 2 diabetes, accounting for more than 90 percent of diabetes cases. An additional 20 million have impaired glucose tolerance, sometimes called pre-diabetes, which is a strong risk factor for developing diabetes later in life. An estimated 70 percent of diabetes risk in the U.S. can be attributed to excess weight.
To inspire the renewal of our connection to whole food, we need to become more conscious of what we are facing personally, professionally and politically, and to begin a movement of change that begins with each of us as individuals. Changing our relationship to food is as psychologically and socially profound as changing how we choose to love ourselves. Our food choices are rooted in our childhood. They connect us to our families our friends and the memories of our entire life. Great and terrible meals mark phases in our lives and developments in our relationships with others. I have heard one great chef note that the modern definition of famine is not based in food availability but in that of the heart. As we have moved away from a family meal, from cooking, eating and sharing our daily stories together, we have sacrificed intimacy and fertilized isolation and depression. It is therefore important to note that the most effective path to inspire change in this aspect of an individual’s life must include a rediscovery of the inherent joy in eating. Clearly some important components to healing would include using organic whole foods produced as local as possible, sharing meals, telling stories and creating a personal dietary culture rich in meaning.
Chinese medical practitioners have a unique opportunity to contribute toward the resolution of this modern crisis. We have a rich body of information about food, its energetics and medicinal nature to share and inspire our clients with. Chinese medicine is beautiful in its ability to reframe the concepts associated with digestive disturbances and dietary habits into workable psychological paradigms that can create enough conceptual space for people to reassess their relationships with food. Chinese practitioners can offer basic knowledge about how food interaction with the body. Our medicine can categorize food as tonics, which can support the optimal functioning of a body, as phlegm resolving, as diuretics, as carminatives and diaphoretic in addition to noting the toxic effects of food. People must begin to understand this relationship with food, that there is a relationship with food that goes beyond filling our somatic gas tank with any fuel that will make it go in the moment. We need to reawaken a sense of how our bodies change through the seasons, with age and during times of illness. We need to learn about what foods to eat and what to avoid and when so as to promote the greatest health and balance. Chinese medicine can offer a terrific framework for these necessary changes.
In Chinese medicine the origin of our Qi and Blood stem directly from the Spleen and Stomach, hence diet and digestion are a fundamental component of maintaining health. Historically, the first recorded statements concerning food are found in the Nei Jing and are based on Five Element theory. Chapter 23 of the Su Wen states,
“Travels of five flavors: sour travels to the Liver, pungent travels to the Lungs, bitter travels to the Heart, salt travels to the Kidneys, sweet travels to the Spleen, and these are called the five entering routes.”1
Chapter 78 of the Ling Shu says this of the five entering routes:
“Five travels: sour travels to the tendons, pungent travels to the Qi, bitter travels to the Blood, salt travels to the bones, sweet travels to the flesh. Such are called the five travels…Only a diet comprised of all five flavors—sweet, bitter, pungent, sour and salty, can keep the bones straight, the sinews supple, the Qi and Blood flowing, the pores closed, and the functioning of the five major organs coordinated and balanced harmoniously. Conversely, persistent addiction to a certain flavor will lead to its accumulation within the body and, in the course of time, will result in loss of balance of the organs and bowels.”2
It also describes pathology associated with an overindulgence of the five flavors:
“Too much sour causes Liver Qi repletion with consequent Spleen Qi exhaustion. Too much salt taxes the Qi of the large bones and withers the flesh in addition to repressing Heart Qi. Too much sweet causes Heart Qi to be full and stuffy, the facial color blackish, and the Kidney Qi not balanced. Too much bitter causes the Spleen Qi to loose its moisture and the Stomach to become too broad or distended. And too much acrid and pungent causes the sinews to be slack and the vessels stopped up while the spirit suffers disaster…If too much salt is eaten, the pulse will be sluggish and the complexion will lose its vitality. Too much bitter will cause the skin to dry and the hair to fall. Too much sour and the Liver will produce too much saliva, which in turn will stifle the functioning of the Spleen. Too much salt and the bones will become weak, the muscles and flesh will whither and the functions of the Heart will be suppressed. If sweet exceeds the other tastes, the function of the Heart will cause difficult breathing and chest distention, a black color will appear, and the kidneys will become imbalanced. If bitter exceeds the other tastes, the function of the Spleen will not be able to transfer fluids and the function of the Stomach will be too tense. If spice exceeds the other tastes, then the muscles and pulse will become slack and the Spirit will be injured.” 3
In A.D. 203, the Taisho Tripitaka: Cannon of Buddhist Writings in Chinese was translated into Chinese from Sanskrit. This doctrine discusses potential sources of illness and specifically lists as the words of the Buddha, nine causes for a premature and unexpected end to human life. Interestingly, five of those nine causes are related to food. They are:
“Eating what should not be eaten” which refers to eating things repugnant to the senses, eating out of balance with the seasons and eating directly after finishing a meal.
“Immoderate eating” a habit of over-consumption, or eating beyond what one needs.
“Eating contrary to custom” which means eating at odd hours and eating too much of a strange food in an unfamiliar culture.
“Failure to discharge the old before the arrival of the new” which means heaping more food on top of undigested food.
“Intentional retention of digested food” which means preventing the normal release of stool and urine, preventing a belch, vomit or wind.”4
The importance of dietary therapy was clearly illustrated in the statements attributed to Sun Si Miao. Sun Si Miao (581-682A.D.) authored the famous Treatise on Alchemy, the Dan Jing Yao Jiu, and in regards to food, said, “that when a person is sick, the doctor should first regulate the patient’s diet and lifestyle. In most cases, these changes alone are enough to effect a cure over time. He said that only if changes in diet and lifestyle are not enough, should the doctor administer other interventions such as internal medicine and acupuncture.”5
In the Sung dynasty, “diet and the study of medicine were virtually indistinguishable.”6 This time period was sparked by an enthusiasm for new tastes, ingredients and dishes and the book Liang-fang, or “Good Recipes” could also be read as “Good Prescriptions”. The distinction between what constituted healthy food and medicine was very difficult to define and being a time marked by curiosity and experimentation, many new substances were tried and in some cases, like that of mercury, led to the demise of the taster. During this time period the relationship between food and herbal decoctions such as the “secret-of-Yang pill,” “the four divine pills for regulating the humors” and “powder of cinnabar” were all part of a common everyday approach to diet.
Concepts of what constituted the ideal diet were continuously debated for what seemed healthy for one person was problematic for the next. What was agreed upon was that there were many considerations involved in determining a person’s optimal diet. Issues such as demographics, astrological relationships and an individual’s constitution were all-important factors. In addition, there were a few universal dietary guidelines that were emphasized during that time. Many common foods were seen as having a possible injurious action upon the body but if eaten in moderation, were not harmful. Over-consumption and gluttony were not only devalued from a medical perspective but within the framework of Confucian philosophy, were certainly viewed as being inappropriate.
There was an emphasis on the natural aspect of food. Eating foods according to the proper season was important and also eating foods personally grown was seen as a superior dietary activity. There was an attempt to de-emphasize the rich and varied food of the city official and promote the simple meals of the mountain villager. Philosophically, it seems important to note that this emphasis on the simple and natural diet was in and of itself the intellectuals attempt to align themselves with the Confucian doctrines of social concerns, ethics and humility. Additionally, this naturalness included the idea of eating all edible plants, roots and mushrooms gathered in the local area and mountain regions. It included foods easily accessible and also a style of cooking that allowed for the foods inherent “clarity” to express itself. Meals which were simple yet elegant provided a sense of balance between food, man/woman, his/her environment and heaven.
It is no surprise that during this time, a great physician Li DongYuan wrote the Wei Pi Lun, “The Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach” and founded one of the great schools of Chinese medical thought based on the function of the Middle Burner. He basically postulated that the health of the Spleen and Stomach is a primary consideration in the comprehension of health and pathology because all postnatal Qi is dependent upon its function. From this perspective, food is elevated to a very important position in relationship to health and consequently should be regarded and treasured
According to Chang in Food in Chinese Culture, the most important advance in medicine during the Yuan period to be in the arena of dietary medicine. Namely, the publication of the Yin-shan cheng-yao, “Principles of Correct Diet” of 1330, written by Hu Ssu-hui. The essence of this document was ” Many diseases can be cured by diet alone” and one main focus of the book was on supplementing deficiencies through diet.
For over two thousand years, Chinese dietary therapy has evolved into a comprehensive system for determining optimal nourishment for our bodies. Divided into two categories, health preservation and remedial therapy, specific foods may be selected to both support the individuals Righteous Qi and avoided to prevent further damage. Clearly, the greatest Chinese physicians commented on and added to this basic theory of nutrition with great texts of dietary theory and food categorization.
Today, we can begin to address issues of diet using a few simple and powerful guidelines. Firstly, from a Chinese theoretical perspective, using a Five Phase or Five Travels approach to seasonal eating can be quite helpful. According to this system of thought, each season is associated with both a food flavor and an organ system. The web of the body is held in balance through a moving constellation of creation and control mechanisms. During each rotation of change through the elemental phases, the peak strength of the matching organ system with it’s corresponding taste and season also changes. When a particular elemental phase is engaged and is at its strongest activity, it is important in Chinese dietary therapy, to not over-consume the flavor of that system. Doing so could project that aspect of the body into an excessive state and create imbalance in the body. Instead, eating the flavor of the element for which the active phase may insult, thus protecting it and giving it strength, is the best strategy for optimal health through the seasons.
In addition to the Chinese theoretical basis for diet, we must consider a renewed consciousness around what and how we are choosing the foods we purchase. We must take into consideration sustainable agriculture techniques and a purchasing model which includes supporting our local farmers. We need to consume as much local, organic, fresh food as we can. Food that is free of as much toxicity as possible must be the ultimate goal of every individual to ensure the best health for our families and ourselves. Foods produced with respect for our water resources and those produced with practices that contribute to healthy soils and work in harmony with the eco-system are the foods we want to eat. We must consider biodiversity as a significant issue and support the farmers who are saving and protecting our precious seeds. Slow food practices must be re-embraced, from production to the table if we are to heal the earth and ourselves. The issues are complex but the solution can be as simple as biting into the first delightfully sweet, organic strawberry of the season, allowing the joy of that flavor to fill your whole body, and giving thanks for a beautiful life. Food is an amazing gift!
1 Prince Wen Hui’s Cook Chinese Dietary Therapy, Flaws & Wolfe, p. 15, 1983.
2 Prince Wen Hui’s Cook Chinese Dietary Therapy, Flaws & Wolfe, 1983.
3 Prince Wen Hui’s Cook Chinese Dietary Therapy, Flaws & Wolfe, 1983.
4 Medicine in China, Unschuld, p.311, 1985.
5 The Tao of Healthy Eating, Flaws, p.1, 1997.
6 Food in Chinese Culture, Chang, p.171, 1977.
My osteopathic acupuncture practice includes the utilization of counterstrain, myo-fascial release, neuromuscular therapy (trigger point release), soft tissue manipulation, visceral manipulation, lymphatic flow support, articulatory techniques for joints, spinal and skeletal manipulation in addition to the use of specific Oriental medical techniques, apitherapy and Chinese herbology. I have extensive experience working with many conditions ranging from severe traumatic injury to cancer, women’s issues, HIV, sports injury, chronic pain, arthritis, diabetes, MS, lyme disease, fibromyalgia, lupus, neuropathy and chronic fatigue.
I have completed two degrees in Chinese medicine comprised of over 7 years of formal study and 20 years of clinical practice.