Traditional Chinese Medicine Causes of Illness

Poor Dietary Habits

Consumption of cool                              liquids can disrupt the                                            digestive process.
Consumption of cool liquids can disrupt the digestive process.

Poor dietary habits are a major cause of disease. Since food is the medicine we take most often, many illnesses can be quite difficult to treat unless changes occur in a person's diet. Some of the eating and drinking habits that can lead to disease are explained below.

Irregular Times and Amounts: It is important to consider the time it takes food to pass through the stomach. Simple fruits and vegetables can leave the stomach after about 20 minutes, while more concentrated proteins, starches, and fats may take 4 to 5 hours. If the stomach contains partially digested food when the person eats another meal, the digestive process can be seriously impaired. This would be similar to getting a small fire started with kindling and then dumping a load of logs on the fire. Even though logs are good fuel, the fledgling fire was not ready for so much fuel.

Conversely, if a person waits too long between meals, secretion of digestive juices stops. This would be akin to letting the kindling go out before putting logs on the fire. We need to eat when the stomach signals true hunger. Consumption of liquids is also an important cause of imbalance. If a person drinks a large glass of cold water after a meal, the digestive juices become diluted. (The stomach secretes just enough enzymes to digest a particular meal.) Also, the stomach needs a certain amount of heat for the chemical reactions of the digestive process to take place; cold liquids slow the reaction. It is best for the contents of the stomach to be a soup-like consistency, since too much dryness can also disturb digestion.

Achieving this consistency can be accomplished by sipping liquids, preferably warm, along with a meal. In China and other Asian countries, it is common to serve soup with almost every meal. If a person desires cool water, the water should be consumed at least half an hour before a meal or three hours after a meal, when the stomach is empty.

Consuming the Wrong Types of Food: Foods have different energetic qualities; something appropriate for one type of person or climate might be unhealthy for another body type or weather pattern. For example, cold and raw foods are very healthy in hot weather or for a person who has too much internal heat. Conversely, these foods can deplete the spleen qi and yang and cause dampness in cold weather or in persons who have too much internal cold. In coastal California, for example, residents experience all four seasons in a twenty-four hour day. It might be foggy and cold in the morning, making a breakfast of hot grains or soup an appropriate choice. By midday, it can be sunny and hot, a good time to consume fruits and salads.

Similarly, spicy food is appropriate for cold weather or persons who are yang deficient, but it can cause imbalance in hot weather, especially in persons who have internal heat. This goes to show that no food is always healthy; it is a matter of choosing foods that match the internal and external climates. Certain foods, such as sweets or alcohol, are meant to be used infrequently and in small quantities; overconsumption can cause a wide range of problems.

Overeating or Undereating: Malnutrition due to undereating can lead to a chronic deficiency of qi and blood. While more common in developing countries, this condition is also seen in developed countries in conditions of poverty and in persons who suffer from emotional imbalances and substance abuse. Treatment includes herbs that tonify qi and blood, along with an improvement in nutritional intake. In the West, overconsumption is a far more common problem, leading to a high incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is used to reduce cravings; dietary and lifestyle counseling are also important.

Food Cravings and Addictions: The human body is designed to process a wide variety of foods to meet our needs. Fad diets or addictions to a narrow range of foods can be debilitating. Some essential nutrients are likely to be missing from a narrow diet. By eating a wide assortment of different-colored vegetables, whole grains, and proteins, we can receive the nutrition we need to function at a high level of wellness.

Contaminated Food: Although more common in developing or tropical countries, parasites are a problem all over the world. They can wreak havoc on the digestive organs, damaging the qi of the spleen and stomach. Herbs that kill parasites are quite strong, so it is important to have an accurate diagnosis through a stool test before beginning treatment. Other sources of contamination are toxins produced by bacterial contamination in the course of processing food. Meats are especially susceptible to this sort of pathogen; you should always cook meat thoroughly to kill virulent microorganisms. Water-borne pathogens are another source of disease, and water of questionable quality should always be boiled.

Treatment of pathogenic microorganisms depends on the type of pathogen involved. In general, gastrointestinal distress caused by microorganisms can be treated with herbal medicines. Although herb formulas can be remarkably effective, they should be considered a first-aid measure until a person can see their health care practitioner.

Go to the next page to learn about the effects of lack of exercise in traditional Chinese medicine.

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