Prevention is always than treatment
I get off the plane, walk out of airport lounge, there is my mother waving to me. The next thing she does is to pass me a bottle of homemade Chinese herbal ‘cooling tea’. Then she tells me, “Ginseng (or birdnest or homemade chinese herbal chicken essence), is ready at home. You must take it as soon as you reach home” “Yes mom”
I have been living overseas for a very long time. Yet, for the past 20 years, every time when I go back to Malaysia for holiday, my mother never fails to do just that.
Arriving in a steaming hot weather, ‘cooling tea’ is to ‘cool down’ the heat shock in my body. My mother also knows that I will stuff myself with my favourite curry laksa (Malaysian curry noodles) and nasi lemak (Malay curry rice) during my stay. In Chinese Medicine, these are categorised as ‘heaty food’. I have the tendency to have ‘heaty’ symptoms like sore throat or mouth ulcers if I eat much of them. So, the ‘cooling tea’ served to prevent those symptoms.
Ginseng and birdnest are considered ‘super-tonics’ in Chinese Medicine. They are also rare and expensive. Chinese herbal chicken essence takes hours to make. She knows I won’t spend that kind of money or time myself, these are my ‘welcome home treats’.
Wise men don’t treat illness that has already occurred, they treat illness before any symptom appears
— HuangDi Neijing
Long haul flight, and the stress of getting work done before holiday, I am always extremely exhausted on arrival. The tonics are to rejuvenate me, boost my immunity.
Prevention is always better than treatment. My mother has considered all factors well before my arrival. This is my family’s way of life, our belief and how I was being brought up.
Eat and drink your way to wellbeing ?
While it might be true that my family is a little different because my father is a Chinese Medicine practitioner. I literally grew up at the back of our family owned Chinese Medicine clinic in Malaysia. My mother could use any herbs from our massive Chinese Herbal dispensary anytime. Yet, many people with Asian background most likely have experiences of this kind of tradition. Parents, especially mothers, always prepare something herbal for their children. This is how mothers show their care and love. In a way, how Asians eat and drink with Chinese herbs is more cultural than medical.
Many are recipes/remedies passed down from generations, many are shared amongst friends. With the rise of TV and internet, fortunately or unfortunately, there are endless information out there. While some are very useful, there is a danger that some could be misleading, misunderstood or misused. Nonetheless, there is a huge interest in this topic, especially many are looking for either more natural or alternative ways for better health.
Now that I am furthering my Chinese Medicine studies in Shanghai, I noticed the extend of uses of herbs is almost at a ‘different dimension’ in China ! Major skincare and cosmetic brands make their products from Chinese herbs. Many Shanghainese eat specially formulated ‘herbal jelly’ during winter with the goal to fend off illnesses during summertime. People love to soak their legs in herbal bath. Not to mention that Chinese Medicine Hospitals have their own copyrighted ‘secret formulas’ of all sorts of herbal products for medical uses. In China, there were times when Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was considered outdated. The government once wanted to strip TCM completely out of their medical systems. Thankfully, TCM stays on, and continue to thrive in its own unique way.
In this blog, I will not dwell into the complicated stuffs, I will focus on something simple that you could do at home. Something I considered safe or at least safer for everyday life. Only herbs that are gentle yet nourishing would be recommended. They are herbs you can source easily from nearby Chinese herbal shops. The recipes or methods shared here mostly are commonly used amongst Asian communities, some might be my own simple creation. Once in a while, I may mention interesting observation like above, to give you broader perspective.
Dao of Nurturing Life (养生之道，Yang Sheng Zhi Dao)
When one is free from wishes, ambitions and distracting thoughts, indifferent to fame or gain, the true energy will come in the wake of it. When one concentrates his spirit internally and keeps a sound mind, how can any illness occur ? — Huang Di Nei Jing, translation by Nelson Liansheng Wu & Andrew Qi Wu
However, taking Chinese herb is only a small part of a very important preventative healthcare philosophy in TCM. How and what Asians eat or drink, with or without Chinese herbs, is deeply rooted on this. Our lifestyles are guided greatly by it.
This philosophy is called ‘Dao of Nurturing Life’ (养生之道, Yang Sheng Zhi Dao). It is originated from ‘Inner Canon of Yellow Emperor‘ (黃帝內经 , Huang Di Nei Jing), an ancient book written/compiled about 2000 years ago. This book is considered the fundamental doctrinal source of TCM . In a nutshell, this philosophy is about how to nurture good health through balancing the Yin/Yang and by living a life that is in harmony with the rhythm of the universe, especially seasonal changes.
Let’s look at this word by word first.
Yang 养 — means nurturing (Note: for friends who don’t know Chinese, this ‘Yang’ (养) is not the same ‘Yang’ (阳) in ‘Yin/Yang’ . They are different words in Chinese)
Sheng 生 — means life
Zhi 之 — means ‘of’ or ‘ ‘s ‘
Dao 道 — means ‘the way/the path’, or some might be familiar with the word ‘Tao’. They are the same words in Chinese. The correct pronunciation of this word in Mandarin is ‘Dao’.
Some translated it as the concept of ‘Health maintenance’. While it is not wrong, I prefer to call it ‘Dao of Nurturing Life’. It is ‘Life’ that we are trying to nurture, which has a much broader aspect than ‘health’. In order to have good health, Nei Jing explained that it is only when you cultivate from within that true health will emerge to without. It placed great emphasis on character development, mental health, spirituality, exercise, lifestyles in harmony with the rhythm of the universe and etc.
Let’s use my case above again, ‘cooling tea’ and tonic can only do so much. I am responsible for my own wellbeing. Since I already know that I would react to overeating of curries, I should eat less and stop eating curries if symptoms start appearing. My body is already exhausted when I arrive. So, at least for the first few days, it would be better if stay home to recuperate before go out partying with friends.
Similary, herbal recipes here can only help you ‘halfway’, the other ‘halfway’ to better health require your own effort.
Listen to your body attentively and practise common sense
All these are common sense, aren’t they? Yet, how often do we listen to our bodies attentively?
Do what we can, and say No to things that we know is not good for us, or don’t over-exhaust ourselves unnecessarily. Please take times to learn your own pattern or tendency too. For example, my ‘tendency’ is sore throat when I overeat curries. I get very grumpy when my throat is painful, then I can’t sleep well. It is a vicious cycle. All I need to do is discipline myself a little bit better when it comes to curry !
What is yours ? Do you notice how your body react to different food, weather, emotions? Everybody is different. Note down the symptoms, their causes and find a pattern. Once you get a better feeling what is your pattern, then you can take steps to prevent.
Having said that, our bodies will change too. I often hear my patients complain that, ‘I never have this problem before, why I am having it now?’ Our bodies may change after extreme stress, emotional times, seasonal/weather changes, aging, relocation to different areas, changes in diet and many other factors. So, it is important that we continuously listen to our bodies, accepting that the only thing that is unchanged is change.
We are not sage as Neijing described who can be completely free of desires. I don’t have to stop eating curries all together. I try to find a ‘middle way’ that reduce the severity of my symptoms, and yet would support my wellbeing, which I believe include simple pleasure of eating my favourite food! The ‘middle way’ is I eat less spicy curries, only eat it once or twice a month, and drink ‘cooling tea’ after I eat it.
While it sounds simple, it needs effort, a little planning, letting go and acceptance.
Last but not least, I hope you would enjoy learning with me as I am going back to re-read the ancient TCM classics. I hope you are as excited as I am as I already have a list of recipes that I want to try out. I would love to hear from you too, your family recipes, your experiences or suggestion. Please share with us here by leaving comments at the end of each article. Thank you and have a wonderful Easter holiday !