Before my very eyes, my children are growing. I see their bodies getting bigger and developing, their hips and shoulders broadening, their muscles thickening with exercise. In just eight years my daughter will go off to college, and three years later my son will too. Eight years sounds far off, but it’s not.
I hold tight to every moment of my children’s childhood that I can. And I know that these are essential years for their learning and habit-forming for their future. As a Doctor of Acupuncture, what can I teach my children in these formative years about how to take care of themselves? What habits can I engender that will serve them long after they leave my house?
This is the first of a three-part series of advice for my own children. Hopefully it will be helpful for you, too.
In Chinese medicinal philosophy, there are two parameters that project your health. First, there are the circumstances of your birth and conception. Was your mother sick? Was your father exhausted? Were they drunk? Chinese Medicine says that when sperm meets egg, there is a qualitative benefit to the resulting embryo if the parents are young, robust, healthy and sober.
These are important players, but let’s face it, what’s done is done. You can’t control what happened at your conception. What you can control is the way you live your life, what you consume, and how you consume it. These things can make or break your health and happiness, despite any congenital advantages or disadvantages.
This is where food comes in.
By giving the body the best food available, and eating it in a mindful way, we allow the body to extract the chi (or energy) from the food. This chi creates the platform for flesh, muscle, and energy to thrive.
People talk too much about what to eat. There are hundreds of fad diets and trendy superfoods; but really, it’s pretty simple. Eat tons of produce. Eat primarily whatever is seasonal and local.
Some grains are okay, and meat is too. But these things are small additions to the meal, not the main event. You will not find a doctor on Earth who will argue with eating a plant-based diet.
When the weather is cool, cook your produce. Steam it, sauté it, roast it, blanch it, if you are so inclined, flambé it. Warm yourself from the inside out. Add the herbs and spices you crave – there’s a reason you crave them. In warmer weather, raw foods are okay, in moderation.
It doesn’t only matter what you eat, but how you eat it. Do you eat while watching TV? Driving? Standing over the kitchen sink? Chinese medicine says that mindfulness creates better digestion and assimilation of the food. I think we all know from experience that stressful eating situations (think: in a rush, with unwelcome company, when we’re upset) can make our bellies hurt.
Food is to be loved. It should be beautifully arranged, in a way that makes our mouths water. Not only because it is pleasant, but also because the stimulation of our salivary glands causes us to excrete amylase, a key enzyme in breaking down sugars and starches. In short, enjoying your food actually makes it better for you.
Eating with mindfulness brings our attention to the sacred time of eating. Saying Grace, a silent prayer, or just taking a moment to appreciate the meal is great for our total wellbeing and digestion.
Do it. A lot.
You don’t need to go to Crossfit five days a week, or start running marathons or climbing 20,000 foot peaks. There’s a more moderate path to keep our bodies fit and our joints lubricated. Exercise must be done almost every day, but it doesn’t need to be strenuous – it could be a slow twenty-minute walk to the store, a swim in the ocean, or a chatty bike ride with a friend. On this topic, I would say use your intuition. If you need a long hard run, go for it. If restorative yoga seems to be the best for your body and it’s time to regroup and relax, then do that.
For those who spend too much time in their heads, exercise reconnects us to our bodies and the physicality, strength and flexibility we possess. It’s grounding and empowering.
In the short term, exercise can smooth the flow of chi in the body and reduce energetic blockages. It treats the symptoms of stress, agitation or lassitude. It generally does not get to the root of the problem, but exercise is a great band-aid is almost guaranteed to make you feel better. Exercising is just part of maintaining the body we were given; we were not designed to sit all day.
This is one of my favorite subjects. I love to sleep. Lucky for me, neuroscientists have proven that getting a generous amount of sleep helps the brain. By sleeping, we strengthen the neuropathways of important information and erase the minutiae that we don’t need to integrate into our long-term memory.
Sleep allows us to consolidate memories and allows us to clean house of the clutter collected. So, how much is enough? I think 7-9 hours is about right. Six is too few and 10 is too many. It is possible to have too much sleep. An adult that consistently needs ten or more hours a night and has trouble getting out of bed may consider getting thyroid levels checked, or speaking to someone about showing signs of depression.
Many people have trouble with sleep. It’s an increasingly common topic of conversation, and one glance at the CVS shelf of sleep aids is enough to know that this is something many people deal with. I often hear people say they can’t fall sleep, can’t stay asleep, or can’t get back to sleep after waking in the night. Here are my suggestions:
Give yourself time to wind down and turn off all the technology. That means it’s best not to watch TV before bed, or spend lots of time on your phone. The aim is to decrease brain stimulation, slowly letting yourself drift into a more relaxed, calm place. Ideally you have a cup of herbal tea and even maybe get into a warm bath to cleanse the stresses of the day with some aromatic oils or candles. Many people find that massaging the feet after the bath and before bed brings the energy out of the head and improves sleep. Try to have the lights out by 11pm and get up by 7am or so. If you’re on an unusual schedule, consistency is key: try to get to bed around the same time every night.
The most important advice I can give, both to my kids and yours, is to love and appreciate their bodies and minds. To listen to our bodies and treat them well is the most important way to ensure long, happy, healthy lives.