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“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” – Hippocrates
Chinese medicine and all its branches (pharmacopoeia, manual techniques, psycho-energetic techniques such as visualization, relaxation, and meditation, exercise such as tai ji quan, breathing and stretching, etc.) are all used for both treatment and prevention. In fact, preventive medicine and hygiene are major aspects of traditional Chinese culture. The Chinese have a long tradition of preserving health and cultivating longevity: why wait until a person is ill, then desperately seek a doctor who can understand their disease and treat them? Hygiene (in Chinese: Yang Sheng), or proper lifestyle in order to maintain and nourish health and vitality, are fundamental as they allow one to take responsibility for their own health, and avoid long and expensive treatments with many side-effects.
We have discussed how Qi is an intermediary principle between body and spirit, how it is perpetually circulating and flowing along specific channels in the body, how its flow is constantly interacting with our environment, thus modulating our metabolisms according to the seasons. In this regard, health is not a static state where nothing happens, but rather a delicate balance where the body reacts to external phenomena, causing bouts of fever, or tiredness, for example, but quickly regains its basic equilibrium. The main factors that can set our bodies off balance are psychological stress, inappropriate exercise (too much or not enough!), and dietary errors. In this respect, Hippocrates’ principle (“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”) is also a staple of Chinese dietary hygiene.
In the West, we usually look at the biochemical components of food: nutrients such as proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, etc. We do not give much thought, however, to our food’s energy: freshly picked vegetables, just fresh from the garden, certainly have more vitality to offer our bodies then vegetables which have stayed for weeks in a storage room or on supermarket shelves. And what about processed foods, vitamin enriched, but dead and totally lacking any vital energy? Chinese medicine is concerned with the energetic properties of food: the vitality they offer (called Jing Qi) and it’s tonifying effect, their warming or cooling properties, their flavor, which affects the direction of the energy flow in our bodies and our metabolism: for example, pungent, spicy and fragrant foods and herbs, such as mint, ginger, chilies, or even coriander, direct the energy outwards and expel heat, toxins, or induce sweating. But within this category, mint is cooling and suitable for summer, whereas ginger is warming and more appropriate for winter, or for people with a weak stomach!
These principles are used both for the prescription of herbal medicine and for dietary hygiene: the main distinction between food and medicine in Chinese medicine is dosage and taste! Cinnamon, for example, is used both for cooking and as a remedy to warm the body, induce light sweating and fortify the digestive system and vital energy. It can be prescribed in formulas for joint pain, colds, rheumatism, weakness, etc. The same way, almonds can be eaten as food, or they can be used in formulas to treat coughs and lung problems. In fact, all foods can be considered to have medicinal properties due to the way they act on the body, mind, and energy. In this sense, our diets should take into account our specific constitutional needs, as well as the seasons and the weather.
With some common sense, and a basic understanding of the body’s physiology according to Chinese medicine, we should be able to regulate our diets and activities well enough to stay healthy or to restore health in case of illness. Of course, when a person is suffering from a major, chronic condition, this will not be enough to cure them, but it will be a good complement to their other medical treatments and will greatly assist recovery!
Dr. Sylvie Martin