Travis Cunningham MAcOM LAc
To listen to the audio recording of this article, click below.
The Curse of Aging
Does it bother you to think of yourself getting older? It bothers me. I can feel the aches and the pains already. I can feel the slow but definite decline in energy, flexibility and strength of my body. I can sense the descent of my intellect and the clouding of my memory. Fewer adventures and more routines. More trips to the doctor’s office and more need for my friends and family to take care of me. But that’s the reality, isn’t it? I mean, I guess we’re all going the same way, so why not just accept it?
If the above narrative doesn’t sit well for you, then you have made it to the right place. Somehow in the vast expanse of internet land, you made it here. Congrats!
Everything I have seen in my short but lively career as a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner suggests that most of the negative experiences we associate with the aging process need not come to pass. But in order to understand how our experience may differ from the common definition of aging, we must look at why suffering is a possibility as we age. Once we understand the problem, then we may understand its solution.
Why We Suffer When We Age
Chinese medicine relates good health to the principles of change and transformation. When we can change and transform, we can grow. And as long as the possibility of change exists within us, the opportunity for growth remains. Each new experience provides opportunities to create and re-define ourselves. And when we do so, our lives become works of art.
When we cannot change, we get stuck. When stuck-ness exists in a person — in our bodies, in our organs, or in our emotions, problems inevitably occur. Because life is dynamic and ever-changing, when we are stuck and cannot adapt to those changes, we find the spontaneous movements of life turn to hazard and harm. We coil around and protect the stuck parts of ourselves hoping that they will not be touched. We try to control our experience and keep it from changing. And when the tender places within us are inevitably approached, we suffer the reminder of dis-ease that sticks within them.
Stuckness can occur in many forms within humans. Aches and pains in our muscles, joints, and bones result from poor circulation and blood supply. Our bodies may have a hard time regulating our temperature resulting in fever and chill sensations. Or we may have shallow sleep and have less energy throughout the day. We can think of these symptoms as a kind of hormonal stuckness. We may feel our thoughts becoming sluggish or foggy with a decreased desire to learn and understand which is a distinct type of mental stuckness. Even our hearts may stop pumping so well, and we resort to medications in order to remedy organ stuckness.
Luckily, There is Hope!
The Remedy to Stuckness Is Simple…
As we move through the years of our lives, collecting a wide variety of experiences across the entirety of the emotional and physical spectrum, we have the continual opportunity to cultivate wisdom. Wisdom requires the discernment to know which actions help us toward our goals and which actions are less supportive — a key skill harvested from our life experience. However, in order for wisdom to truly form, discernment must partner with a second quality: grace.
Grace comes from the ability to be soft and open to new ways of perception and action. Grace is a fluid quality, reaching into both the physical and psychic aspects of our lives. It comes easily to us as children when we are less certain and more trusting of our innate experience. But as we age and form belief structures, grace must be continually practiced or it will begin to fade.
As we age, we tend to lose touch with our sense of grace. We move less physically and do fewer new things. We stick to our routines, eat the same foods, and see the same people. The newness of our lives lessens, and so does our flexibility in managing it. This nascent rigidity is the root of future health problems.
While it’s true that there are natural consequences to the aging process, many of the aforementioned fates need not come to pass. With simple and gradual adjustments to a person’s lifestyle, the woes of aging can be lessened or avoided by a more graceful form of living. If grace can be adopted, then we may see the benefits of aging truly shine!
The Benefits of Aging
(What No One Talks About)
The benefits of aging lie within the possibility of cultivation. Because human beings have the opportunity to cultivate wisdom through life experience, we have the potential for greater levels of happiness, satisfaction, and discovery as we age. As our years pass, we can learn to harmonize the stability and creativity of human experience. We can become healthier this way, knowing ourselves in great depth and channeling the power of this depth to serve ourselves and others.
While our physical bodies become less abundant in mass, they may become more refined in quality. We may learn to require less in order to give more. Smaller amounts of food and fewer hours of sleep may be the result of this refinement, so long as does not cost us energy and clarity. Aging well gives the possibility for our minds to open, enhancing our contemplative powers as well as our spiritual ones. As middle age passes, the possibility of becoming not just old but an elder, arises. What a fantastic opportunity indeed!
In order for humans to see the benefits of aging, we have to participate in the things that make us human. In Chinese medicine, these areas of participation are the things that we must do in order to survive - breathing, eating, sleeping, moving, and resting. Participation may be thought of as a kind of rhythm, for when activities are practiced consistently, a power comes through them that begets more significance than that of a single beat. These activities compound in their effects and give strength to one another like links in a bond. They are the basis of good health, wisdom, and grace.
Building A Foundation
In traditional Chinese arts, the foundational practices are where you start and often where you end. No matter how advanced you get within the art, good can always come from refining the fundamentals.
As the most essential and immediate ingredient for health and vitality, breathing should be a priority. From time to time, check in with your breath and make sure it isn’t being held. Let your mind settle and let your breathing come naturally from your belly. Get out in nature by trees whenever possible and breath in that fresh air!
Keep eating as simple and as enjoyable as possible. Eat with people you love when you can. Eat at regular times. Slow down and chew your food. Eat lots of vegetables, with moderate amounts of grains and/or meats. Figure out what works and feels good in your body. Minimize overly heavy and sweet foods (but enjoy them when you do eat them). Breathe easy when you eat. Cook the majority of your foods (especially vegetables). If you have a digestive weakness, cook everything.
Go to bed as early as you can with consistency. Ideally, you would be asleep before 10:30 PM every night. Do the best you can with this. Sleep through the night, and make time in the day for a short nap (if possible). If you have difficulty sleeping through the night, try soaking your feet in hot water (described in greater detail below) before bed, and limit your food intake late at night.
Move every day without question. Do as much as feels good in your body. A little bit of pushing yourself in movement is good; alot of pushing is not good. Moving promotes circulation for the body and mind. Moving in natural environments is even better. Find something you like to do, and do it with regularity.
Throughout your day, plan periods of rest from your activity or work. These may be momentary at first - lasting 5 to 10 seconds. But hopefully will expand to a bit longer (15-30 minutes is about perfect). Do very little in your periods of rest. Avoid social media and mind stimulation. The basic idea for resting is to rest - not to be doing something. This practice will conserve your energy throughout the day and hopefully allow you to recycle it at night. This will both extend your life and enhance its quality.
Get your relationships in order. No, seriously! Good relationships can hold you together when you have no strength left. Bad relationships can demolish you even when you feel high and mighty. You can’t do this life all by yourself! Developing good relationships is essential to being a healthy human. If you don’t know where to start with people, try nature or animals first. Nature/Forest Therapy is an excellent place to start. Conventional therapy is also great and not only for advanced mental/emotional problems. If you need help, get yourself some help. You are a pack animal, you deserve to be with your pack.
Humans need something to do in order to be happy and healthy. This need can be satisfied with something as elaborate as creating a non-profit to as simple as knitting a scarf. But you need something to do. And the more people feel that their work has value, the happier they tend to be. If you don’t know what your life’s purpose is, don’t worry about it! You don’t have to know all the secrets to be happy. Just start with today and do something that’s valuable to you.
Creating healthy habits in life without internalizing guilt and shame in the process is an art form.
Be easy on yourself, but do the best you can :)
How to Refine Your Health
Get Back Your Health
(When You’ve Lost It)
Step One: Build Your Foundation
As stated in the previous section, building a foundation of positive participation in life is essential for both getting your health back and maintaining (as well as improving) it. This can be done in the smallest of ways to begin, and it will compound and multiply as you continue. Follow the guidance in the above section to get started. If you feel you need assistance or further evaluation before you begin, make an appointment with a qualified healthcare practitioner. You can schedule an appointment with one of our experts here.
Step Two: Increase Your Circulation
Far and away the biggest problem I see in the clinic when people come in with age-related complaints is lack of circulation. As we age, we move less and the parts of our body that rely upon circulatory actions (like the heart) get tired. These organs work less efficiently the more tired they get, and the obvious problems of blood pressure, cholesterol, and fatigue, arise.
Poor circulation robs organ systems of their health by withholding the precious resource of nutritionally-dense blood. Anxiety, depression, and insomnia are only the beginning of the list of problems that can result. Similarly, old injuries with damaged tissues receive fewer resources because of this lack of fresh blood in supply. The tissues become achy and malnourishment or even form calcifications and masses which lead to further problems.
To stop this increasingly damaging cycle and begin turning the wheel in the opposite direction, you can start by working on your circulation in fun and simple ways. The most popular way to do this is by gently increasing your activity. Traditional exercises for circulation include walking, running, biking, swimming, lifting weights, playing sports, and other like activities. Softer methods can also be useful especially when the energy of the body is low. These allow for an increase in circulation without employing a taxing effect on the body’s resources. Yoga, tai chi, or traditional stretching are excellent places to begin.
To supplement your circulation even further, you can try one of my favorite time-tested treatments for the regulation of all human cycles: soaking your feet.
Soaking your feet in warm water helps the blood to flow all the way down to the furthest part of the body from the heart. During this transit, the blood passes around and through vital organs, cleansing and nourishing them before finally settling in the feet. Afterwards, the blood returns by way of the veins and a gentle pump for the whole body has just been created.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, transferring heat to the lower extremity is considered highly beneficial and allows the Yang Qi of the body to go into storage, making it easier to fall asleep and allowing for more restful sleep. This knowledge may even have served as an inspiration for the Chinese adage, “Keep your feet warm and your head cool.”
How To Soak Your Feet
A) Choose A Basin
Use a container large enough to accommodate both your feet and deep enough to cover your ankles. Wood is best, plastic works as well. Do not use copper or iron containers.
B) Prepare The Soak
Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a pot or kettle
Good Medicine: You can use hot water for your foot soak and receive many benefits.
Better Medicine: You can add medicinal ingredients to increase the effect of the foot soak. Simple medicinal add-ins are epsom salts or slices of fresh ginger.
Best Medicine: For an extremely potent foot soak, ancient formulas of herbs are used to increase and specialize the effect of the soak. To find out more of the specifics, check out our foot soak catalog here.
Place 1-2 herbal pouches (or, as directed by your practitioner) into a heat-proof, non-reactive vessel and add boiling water. Steep for 10 minutes. Pour tea bag and herb liquid into soaking vessel. Add hot water as necessary to cover your ankles.
C) Add liquid herbs to Foot Basin
Pour tea bag and herb liquid into soaking vessel. Add hot water as necessary to cover your ankles. Larger basins may require more water.
D) Confirm The Soak Temperature
Extremely important for those with impaired sensation in their extremities.The temperature should be between 105-112 degrees Fahrenheit (check using a thermometer). If this temperature feels uncomfortable when first starting to soak, it is ok to work up to this temperature gradually.
E) Sit & Soak
Choose a place where you will not be exposed to drafts and disruptions. It is best to avoid television or other electronics while soaking. Use the time to sit quietly, meditate, pray, or engage in pleasant conversation.
F) Maintain Soak Temperature
It is important to maintain the soak temperature in the therapeutic range of 105-112 degrees Fahrenheit for the duration of the soak (30-45 minutes). The easiest way to do this is to use an electric kettle to add small amounts of boiling water to the soaking basin every 5-10 minutes. Please Exercise Extreme Caution: Remove your feet from the bin when adding hot water and be very careful using electric appliances around water. Always confirm the soak temperature is below 112 degrees Fahrenheit before putting your feet back in the soak.
Other Helpful Treatments For Circulation
Perhaps acupuncture’s greatest asset as a treatment modality is the precision at which, it can encourage the circulation of the body. Bad acupuncture can alleviate pain and promote general circulation. Good acupuncture can harmonize the organs of the body, extract and eliminate deeply held pathogenic influences in the tissues, and clear the mind.
Chinese Herbal Medicine
Chinese herbal medicine has an entire collection of herbs that may be used to increase the circulation of the body in both micro or targeted, and macro or general, sense. While the vast majority of these herbs are plant substances, there are a few medicinals that fall outside of the traditional category of plant. My article, How Bugs Can Heal Chronic Pain & Disease is a discussion about one subset of these medicinals.
Whether you’re talking Osteopathic, Chiropractic, or more traditional massage therapy, a good body worker is worth their weight in gold. Good bodywork can pinpoint the problematic area in the tissues of the body and remove it, restoring flow and encouraging the health of the entire person.
Step Three: Find A Health Expert & Comrade
(Not The Internet)
While the internet is an incredible place for the sharing of ideas, it is a terrible place for editing out bad ones. I’ve seen more patients damaged by following bad internet advice than almost any other source of information or treatment out there. Please be careful when receiving advice from sources that you have no way of dialoging with. Health advice should come with a platform of participation on both ends. It should include clear directions and signs of progress or deterioration. If the advice you’re getting is vague or lacking this basic partnership, do not follow it.
On the plus side, the internet can be a great place to find health comrades or experts to work with directly. There are so many good practitioners that can assist you on your path to health, wisdom, and happiness. You just need to find them.
Which Type of Medicine Is Best For me?
Stay connected for a future article dedicated to describing the strengths and weakness of various modalities of medicine. But in the meantime, rather than focusing on the type of medicine to try, I would recommend focusing instead on finding the right person as a practitioner, for you. This person should be trustworthy, intelligent, and credentialed within the context of their given field. They should be able to communicate well with you so that you can adequately understand your situation and what they think about it. They should also have a referral team of other practitioners whom they trust, that do different kinds of work than they do. In this way, finding the right practitioner can mean finding the right network of practitioners who are available upon need.
The best way to find the right practitioner is often through the referral of others, so don’t forget to ask trusted friends and family members about who could be right for you. If you happen to live in the Portland area or in the Pacific North West in general, me and the members of the Root & Branch team would be happy to recommend a practitioner who might be good for you. Feel free to book a free conversation with one of our experts here or virtually contact us via email or phone, here.
Your Greatest Asset
One of the best things about being a human is not having to do it alone. In our culture we tend to think of our health as an individual thing, but it’s not! We exist in communities now as we always have. While it is, of course, important to cultivate the integrity of our health as an individual, it’s equally important to cultivate the health of ourselves as a people.
Please do not feel that you need to do this life alone. There are many humans as well as resources to assist you. And with such assistance, your journey of aging can be one of happiness and wisdom. Just give it some time.