Strengthening Your Immune System(This article was originally published in the Winter 2001 edition of New Life Journal by Cat Finks)
Our immune systems are being challenged more than ever. The modern American lifestyle is, let's just say, not very healthy. We have some of the poorest eating habits on the planet, we're stressed out, and our environmental pollution is growing on a daily basis. It's no wonder we're seeing more and more allergies, recurrent colds and flus, Chronic Fatigue, environmental sensitivity, etc., etc. Be it underactive or overactive, immune system dysfunction is on the rise.
So how can Chinese Medicine (CM) help us? What are the ancient Chinese secrets for building immunity? Well, I'd like to be able to give you a list of a few herbs, a special recipe, and maybe some little-known Chinese technique to practice and, boom, you'd have a healthy, strong immune system, but I can't. It doesn't work that way in CM and I'll tell you why.
First of all, CM doesn't even have an immune system. There is nothing in CM that is identical to the Western medical concept of an immune system. There are aspects of CM that have similar functions as the immune system, but CM has a very different perspective on health than T-cell count.
CM views the body as a dynamic system of interrelated parts working together as a whole. It is when this system is working in a harmonious and balanced way that a person is considered to be healthy. Disease arises when balance is lost.
There's a lot we can do to promote and maintain healthy balance in our lives, but there is no "one size fits all" answer in CM. Everyone is absolutely unique and has his or her own individual challenges. First of all, everyone is born with inherent constitutional strengths and weaknesses. It comes from your parents. Secondly, everyone's childhood was different and the diet you were raised on, the climatic environment you lived in, and the emotional challenges you endured have had an incredible influence on what your health is like now.
There are definitely basic guidelines for good health that everyone can follow, but to create true balance in your body, you need to find out what your weaknesses are. At that point you can determine which herbs are appropriate for you, what sorts of food would serve you the best, and even which style of exercise would be most helpful. This is the strength of Chinese Medicine. With a completely different system of diagnosis and a holistic approach, it can help you learn what your imbalances are (and we've all got 'em, folks!). Then you can learn what your right tools are. Use them and you're on your way to a healthy immune system.
But let's briefly talk about something you can start to work with today: food! Guess what everybody, food is probably the most important healing tool we've got. If you haven't heard yet, westerners (that's us) have some of the worst eating habits on the planet. It's no wonder we don't feel good, physically and emotionally! The truth of the matter is that for a great many health problems, an improved diet is often all that's needed to restore balance.
A wonderful analogy to help us understand the basics of Chinese food therapy is to think of the stomach as a cooking pot. The stomach works very hard to turn everything you eat into a warm stew. Introducing foods that make the stomach's job harder can impede and even impair digestion. With this simple idea in mind, we can understand some of the basic guidelines of Chinese food therapy.
- 1. Cooked is better than raw. Surprise! Ok, maybe raw foods have more nutrients than cooked foods in the petri dish, but since they're harder to break down in your stomach, you're not getting as much out of them. Lightly cooked is the way.
- 2. Cold food and drinks aren't good for your digestion either. Remember the stomach needs to make warm soup. Help it out. Try to have food be at least room temperature before you eat it. And let's work on our obsession with iced drinks. Don't forget that refrigeration has only been around for less than a hundred years. Does it help us live in balance with nature?
- 3. Dampening foods gunk us up. Dampness is a hard concept to explain but you can think of it as sticky sludge that accumulates in the body. It comes mostly from rich, hard to digest foods and causes a lot of health problems. What are the worst dampening foods? Sugar and dairy. Tough luck, gang. This is where we have to start facing our addictions! But believe me when I say, if we can cut refined sugar and dairy out of our diets, a fantastic percentage of our health problems will disappear.
There's plenty more to be said. Like choose fresh foods over frozen or canned. Eat organic food, (pesticides, preservatives, hormones, and chemicals in our foods are having a heyday with our immune systems!). Eat with the seasons. Eat locally grown foods. Eat more vegetables!!! Sit down and focus on your meal. Eat slowly. Give thanks.
Check out these books for more info on food therapy:
Healing With Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford.
Arisal of the Clear, by Bob Flaws (short and sweet).
The Self-Healing Cookbook, by Kristina Turner.
Now I want to talk about something that doesn't have anything to do with CM. It has to do with human nature. Or maybe it's American human nature. Or maybe it's not human nature at all, but something that's happening to us in this crazy modern world we live in. I'm noticing a strange phenomenon going on amongst us. We don't take good care of ourselves. Plain and simple. And in my opinion, this is the crisis our immune systems are facing! (Please forgive vast generalizations; I know a lot of y'all take great care of yourselves and more power to you!)
One of the most important lessons CM brings to our culture is that of preventive medicine. In China, the best doctors are considered to be those whose patients never get sick. In fact, in ancient China, if the emperor became ill, his physician was executed! In the west, we take our health for granted in a lot of ways. Often we don't even consider what it means to be healthy until we get sick.
We all want to be healthy. Or do we? Now some folks honestly don't know what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, but most of us know we need to eat well, balance work and play, get enough exercise and rest, not smoke cigarettes, etc., etc. However, even when we do have basic understandings of what's "good for us" and what's "bad for us," we continue to make unhealthy choices. What's this all about? Now I know this is an article about the role of Chinese Medicine in building immunity, but even CM isn't going to help us if we can't help ourselves. Please reflect on this, dear friends. We have got to learn how to love ourselves.