I recently spent a week backpacking in the Grand Canyon with a group of friends who, like me, are of a “certain age.”
As a group, we have hiked together for decades. Fifteen years ago, we could throw on a backpack and head off into the wilderness without a second thought. This last trip, however, we were all hiking slower, paid more attention to our knees and feet, and spent way too much time talking about recent colonoscopies.
I realize that our pace has slowed out of physical necessity.
I also realize that, as a group, we’re in pretty good shape for geezers considering the physical challenge of the hike.
After a trip like this, I can’t help but think about the reality of aging, and how the Chinese view this process of getting older.
Aging and Chinese Medicine
Basically, in Chinese medicine, how you age in your later years depends on your lifestyle in the preceding years. There are many factors, some you can control and some you can’t, that affect how you will feel as you age.
To understand aging from the traditional Chinese framework, it’s important to understand the Kidney organ system.
In Chinese medicine, organ systems encompass not only the physical organ, but also a system of functioning and body processes.
The primary functions of your Kidney, according to the Chinese, are the formation of urine and the storage of Essence. Essence is one of the most important substances in your body, and is responsible for birth, growth, development, fertility, and aging.
It is also the foundation for all other substances in your body, such as Yin and Yang.
You inherit one kind of Essence at the moment you are conceived, called Congenital Essence, which is not only responsible for your rate of growth and maturation, but also your genetic traits and body constitution. As you age, Congenital Essence becomes depleted, and when this Essence is completely used up, according to Chinese theory, you die.
While Congenital Essence can’t be replenished, it can be used judiciously through good lifestyle habits, and it can be augmented by another kind of essence, called Acquired Essence.
Acquired Essence is made up of the nutrients from the food you eat, and can be built up by eating well.
Good health, strength, and high levels of energy manifest an abundance of Acquired Essence. Any excess of Acquired Essence is also stored in your Kidney, along with Congenital Essence.
Your Kidney is also responsible for your bones and by extension, your teeth. It also governs marrow, which relates to actual bone marrow, but also to your brain, which is considered the “sea of marrow.”
In Chinese medicine, each organ nourishes one of the senses, and the sense associated with your Kidney is hearing.
The gradual depletion of Kidney Essence is the mechanism responsible for aging.
It can be seen in weakening and brittle bones, loss of teeth, hearing loss, confusion, and memory problems—all manifestations associated with your Chinese Kidney. Weakness and lack of energy is also a common condition of depleted Kidney Essence, along with lumbar pain, as your Kidney is located in the lower back.
So how, according to Chinese Medical theory, can you preserve Kidney Essence to age well?
While there are many factors, good diet is the most obvious. Chinese dietary therapy is a whole discipline by itself, and many books have been written on the subject. One focus of Chinese dietary therapy is on eating and preparing foods in a way that they are easily digested. Foods that are difficult to digest use up your energy, or Qi, and over a long period of time can deplete your Essence.
Some guidelines for eating well include:
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, especially those ithat are local and in season. Choose those that are darkly colored for the greatest health benefits.
- Avoid rich, spicy, or greasy foods.
- Avoid very cold foods on a regular basis, such as ice cream or iced drinks.
- Lightly steam or stew vegetables and fruits, especially if you have digestive problems, as raw foods can be difficult to digest.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol.
- Talk to a practitioner of Chinese medicine about what foods are best suited to your specific condition or constitution.
Manage Your Stress
Managing stress is another way to protect your health as you age.
Unfortunately, many of us find stress an acceptable by-product of the busy, and often overwhelming lives we lead. Some of us don’t even realize that we are under incredible amounts of unrelenting stress because we are so busy trying to get everything done.
In either case, stress exhausts us physically, disrupts relationships between organ systems, creating unhealthy imbalances, and it depletes your Essence.
Equally exhausting to your internal organs is overwork.
This translates into long hours spent working or studying without adequate rest. Damage due to overwork can also be caused by excessive exercise. Therefore, working in moderation and getting adequate rest is essential to preserving your Essence.
Moderation is also key with regard to your sex life.
Because your Kidney is responsible for reproduction, according to Chinese medicine, your sexual practices can also affect Kidney Essence. Having too many children too close together, or having sex too frequently can deplete your Essence and cause premature aging.
By adhering to the principles of Chinese medicine, some of the symptoms of aging can be delayed and sometimes even avoided. Proper diet, adequate rest and moderation in all things can go a long way toward aging with energy, vitality and good health.