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Why Good Health Begins in our Heads!

“Its not the years in your life that count. Its the life in your years” Dr Edward Stieglitz

The Yangsheng or Nourishing Life tradition that developed in ancient China covers a wide range of practices, from diet to exercise to sleep and more, all designed to help people improve and maintain their health. What is perhaps surprising to us in the West is that the foundations of the tradition lie in practices that cultivate the mind and encourage positive emotions. So why does the tradition chose to start there?

In the first instance cultivating positive mental states such as friendliness, gratitude, generosity, humour and patience will, in the words of Dr Stieglitz, help to put more life in our years. But what the Yangsheng tradition suggests is that cultivating positive mental attitudes and emotional balance can actually help us remain healthy for longer. It can put more years in our life and who wouldn’t want that?

From the perspective of Chinese medicine powerful emotions, especially if they persist for extended periods of time, are considered to make one more susceptible to disease. This might seem a strange idea but at the most basic level it makes sense that its hard to stick to our diet or exercise regime, or dry January etc. if we’re constantly blown around by powerful emotions over which we’ve little control. And powerful emotional experiences can themselves be addictive leading to pleasure seeking behaviour that may be detrimental to our well-being. But the ancient Chinese thought there was a more direct link between emotion and health.

The classical texts list seven negative emotions and detail the effects they may have on our health. There’s not room to explain or explore all of these here but I’ll take one (Anger) and look at what Chinese medicine has to say about it, what modern research has to say and how we might engage with our anger in appropriate ways.

The 11th century philosopher Cheng Hao wrote;

Of all human emotions, anger is easiest to arouse but the most difficult to control.

I think this is something most people would instinctively agree with and there’s no doubt that fierce anger can land us in trouble; from saying something we later wish we could take back all way through to violent outbursts and even murder. Anger gets the better of people. But the classics list resentment and frustration alongside anger suggesting that repression of our anger can be just as damaging to us. For the Yangsheng tradition its the balanced and appropriate expression of our emotions that is most conducive to free flowing health. But that’s a fine line to tread.

In Chinese medicine anger is understood to generate heat in the body and to cause the Qi to ‘blaze upward’ into the chest and head causing such things as headaches, high blood pressure and even strokes. Such is the power of anger that Chinese medicine believes a single attack of rage can have profound consequences for the body. The repression of anger works more slowly and over time causes stagnation in the body, the gradual blocking of the free flow of Qi and Blood as the body becomes tight and rigid in order to contain the anger. This is understood to lead to a range of health issues and emotional disturbances, particularly depression.

A stroke is a serious (1 in 4 strokes are fatal) cerebrovascular event which is the result of either bleeding from or clotting in the blood vessels in the brain. We’ve already seen that Chinese medicine believes anger can cause Qi and Blood to rise in the body and in the 2nd century BCE the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic stated In the case of Great Anger... the blood is densely compacted above (i.e. in the head) which sounds like it could be describing the very conditions that create a stroke. What’s remarkable is that modern research is now beginning to find the same link between anger and stoke.

In 1999 a Finish study found men who habitually got the most angry were twice as likely to have a stroke as those who got the least angry. In another study stroke patients were interviewed within four days of their stroke and asked about significant events in the hours immediately before it. A bout of anger or negative emotion was the most commonly reported event.

Other studies have found links between anger and high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, with adults who are prone to anger significantly more at risk than those of more placid disposition. In older men the decline in lung function and rapid rates of physical decline has been linked to hostile emotions. Those with the most hostility decline fastest. This may be linked to the fact that anger and stress can lead to increased cortisol production, depressing immune function and leading to slower healing from injury.

When I first came across Chinese medicine many of its ideas seemed strange, many of the associations it makes between different areas of the body, between organs and emotions made little sense coming as I do from a conventional western education. However as I studied and then moved into practice I began to see these things playing out in the clinic and so was moved to revisit my studies. And now it seems that Western medicine is beginning to uncover the very same things. But its all very well knowing that our emotions can impact our health in significant ways. What I really want to know is how I can reduce the negative impacts and accentuate the positive and again the Yangsheng tradition offers advice that is increasingly supported by modern research.

When it comes to cultivating our minds the primary tool is probably some form of meditation. Meditation calms the mind and encourages the practitioner to dwell in the present moment, both of which help develop a detachment from powerful emotions without the need for their repression. For the Yangsheng tradition its this last part that’s most important because it allows us to experience our emotions without attachment. We can acknowledge when anger is present without having to ‘Be Angry’ and we’ve already seen that being angry may be detrimental to our health. What’s interesting to me is that modern studies are now showing that cultivating our mind through meditation can have positive impacts beyond those we might expect.

Meditation has long been proposed as a way of reducing stress and there are plenty of studies showing that meditation does indeed help people reduce their level of stress. But there seem to be more physical benefits to. A 2010 study found meditation reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke in patients suffering with coronary heart disease. Another study of patients with congestive heart disease found meditation led to dramatically reduced medication use and improvements in heart and lung function compared to a control group that met weekly in a support group.

Meditation has also been shown to produce changes in the brain, changes that can begin to occur after quite short periods of regular practice. In one study participants were found to have increased activity in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions after just eight weeks and also had improved immune function.

I know for many people a regular meditation practice might feel like more than they can or wish to commit to but that doesn’t mean that the Yangsheng tradition has nothing to offer. There are many ways to cultivate our minds. We can take time to cultivate gratitude, generosity and happiness. We can chose to smile more, to widen and deepen our social lives, immerse ourselves in music or the natural world. All these things have been shown to have a positive impact on health and longevity.

Cultivating our minds and positive emotions is considered the most important branch of the Yangsheng tradition. This not just because of the profound impact such cultivation can have on our health. The cultivation of positive emotions such as generosity, friendliness and compassion was also emphasised within the tradition because without such cultivation the pursuit of health can become a somewhat self-centred, even narcissistic endeavour. And lastly it was prioritised because no matter how well we care for ourselves our bodies will in time succumb to the inevitable. As we age and our bodies lose the vigour of youth, being able to engage with life with emotional equanimity and with a positive mental attitude becomes ever more important, allowing us to continue to grow and enjoy the life we have for as long as we have it.


Bruce Bell is an acupuncturist working from clinics in Midsomer Norton and Keynsham

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