“It’s just stress,” is a diagnostic platitude commonly heard by patients when relaying either to friends or their doctor about some odd or non-immediately fatal symptom that lacks any conventional, empirical treatment.
It would be an over-simplification to label this stock response as wholly or always dismissive—in my opinion it is more often a result of the listeners’ lack of knowledge of physiological nuances, disease spectrums, and of course the entire internal paradigm of Chinese Medicine.
The mind is en vogue in the past generation, so much so that people jump at the opportunity to sound mentally acute even while being mentally lazy in its default citation as a scapegoat for everything, the way fat was in the 20th century or sugar is now. It makes them feel aware of the more mysterious, all while maintaining an orthodox adherence to conventional medicine’s present understanding of things. I picture people picturing themselves as if sipping a small cup of whiskey wearing Coke bottle glasses and a bowtie in their reply: “It’s (probably just stress),” then putting their cup back down and nodding their head as if they’d just cured HIV.
While no one could dispute that stress is an important variable in the etiology of most illnesses, it is also just that: One important variable. So why when we have curious symptoms that conventional medicine has no explanation or treatment for do they never say: “It’s just diet?” “It’s just your sleep hygiene?” Or: “It’s just your exercise routine that needs refinement or reduction, or simply needs to exist?”
Why when one person experiences incredible stress does it show up as digestive issues, while for another it does as insomnia, and another as hives all over their skin? “People are different,” idiots might shrug and say, which isn’t untrue, but is an egregious oversimplification. People are different, which means if we each consumed diets and partook in exercises suitable to our own individual constitutions, we’d likely be able to ward off the ill effects of short or even medium-term life stressors.
If stress causes you low back or neck pain we know there is “dampness trapped on the exterior layer of the body.” If stress causes stomach issues we know there are already stomach issues, since most or many people can endure stress without such symptoms. If stress causes headaches or migraines then there was likely already some dysregulation of cerebrovascular flow in particular neurological pathways
In this way stress can be invaluably informative, by tipping our internal scale and showing us where we are weak, where in our bodies we are retaining pathogenic fluids, so we can properly treat, instead of dismissing it. Because odd, inexplicable symptoms are never nothing. They are not “all in our minds” or insignificant. Instead, from a Chinese Medical perspective, sadly they are potential coming attractions—foreshadows of diagnoses to come.
I apologize if this sounds dark or ominous. My intention is the opposite, to offer optimism and agency to those of us who have been repeatedly implied to that we must resolve all of our internal turmoil in order to be free of a particular problem. While I am all for a daily practice of meditation, prayer, community, and anything else that reduces stress, we should be able to also rely on medical providers to step in with something more to offer during periods where our practice of psycho-emotional work and discipline just is not enough.
If food is medicine then creating each meal should be a bit like writing your own herbal formula. Whenever possible, it should be as agreeable as possible with our unique physiology, though this is admittedly challenging when cooking for a family where everyone has different body types. Nevertheless, one part of each meal should complement the other parts, either through synergistic benefit or offsetting its potentially detrimental qualities.
As a longstanding, traditional example, any time we get Thai or Mexican food, it is served with cucumber or radishes, respectively, which are there to mitigate the side effects of the spice.
Most foods are good, but almost all of them have “side effects.” Red meat nourishes the body’s blood, yin, and qi, but if it were an herb it would be a bit warm and damp. Too much red meat and/or red meat that is not harmonized by the remainder of the meal can create damp heat, or inflammation in the stomach and intestines. Then again too little red meat can cause a deficiency of blood, yin, and qi. Ideally red meat (and pork) would be consumed alongside steamed vegetables, then followed by hot green tea, either after the meal or the following morning (green tea at other times and/or for vegetarians is thought to have a bit too cooling, or vasoconstrictive effect on the microbiome—for them black teas are preferable).
Carbohydrates are settling for both the stomach and the mind—probably why they give us such immediately pleasure—but they are obviously stickier foods, “damper” foods, which are more difficult to digest. For this reason whenever possible, it is best to eat them warm and cooked, and alongside more acrid spices in the meal, such as basil, rosemary, ginger, garlic, or onion. While I am Jewish and from New York, and love a great tuna on a bagel, there is a remarkable difference in the physiological response to cold tuna on bread versus cooked pasta with garlic and oil, maybe vegetables and cannelini beans. Yum!
Salads. Oh boy, do westerners love salad. Frankly, if you tend to any digestive problems whatsoever, raw foods should be avoided as much as possible, but if you must:
Consume salad more in summer—less in winter—and always alongside some cooked protein and/or ginger tea. The acridity of the ginger should help to warm the stomach to digest the raw foods. The protein should provide warmth, plus some much needed calories, or “qi and yin.”
Cooked vegetables, allergies notwithstanding, are probably the only perfect food that wholly lack side effects, which is probably why they are also the one food that nearly every paradigm of medicine agrees upon. If you don’t consume cooked vegetables daily you are on a dangerous path, in my opinion. They are nearly always harmless and beneficial… yet still ultimately inadequate, as we can only imagine the metabolic fatigue and inevitable illnesses to come were someone to consume exclusively vegetables.
Food is a gentle medicinal. It will neither heal nor destroy us quickly on its own, however it will always do one or the other over time. I’ve seen firsthand, in myself, loved ones, and patients eradicate chronic symptoms by pursuing a more Eastern diet, though it took many months—in my case years! People should not get discouraged by eating well for a particular interim and not feeling dramatically better. Instead, pay attention to whether you feel worse (always a possibility), meanwhile recognizing that without internal medicine, diet alone may take a long time to cure disease. It is up to us to continue to better understand the nature of each food, so that we can wisely design the perfect “herbal formula” three times a day until the end of time.
Pictured above is an imperfect, but still great meal: Breaded chicken cutlet, sauteed spinach, and roasted acorn squash with roasted apples, cinnamon, and maple syrup. What is “imperfect” about it? First, fruit should be consumed at least 15 minutes apart from other foods so as to avoid creating its notoriously mucus-like congestion in the microbiome. Also, “natural” or not, let’s be honest: maple syrup is sugar; and chicken is healthier without breadcrumbs. On the other hand, breadcrumbs make up a very small amount of the meal, the apples are at least cooked, hence easier to digest, and the leafy greens with garlic should help to optimally process the meat and sugars.
Most blessings in life bring particular challenges, often in the form of implicitly required discipline—other times in the form of added responsibility and/or reliance from others. Think fame, wealth, or parenting. Most of us are familiar with the inverse Buddhist principle, that every challenge brings particular blessings, in the form of greater wisdom or opportunity for growth. Think… parenting again? I beg your pardon for my present tunnel vision.
Smart phones, technology, and even social media, in my opinion, have been enormous blessings in many ways. We no longer need to write down geographic directions or suffer the inconvenience and frustration of getting lost on unknown roads. We no longer need to get into unnecessary arguments with loved ones over “what year that album came out,” since every such debate can be easily and definitively resolved within seconds. As for social media, I’ve personally used it to reconnect and mend old friendships, as well as to further my Chinese Medical studies in groups online.
On the other hand, most of us are familiar with the troubles caused by modern technology, whether directly or indirectly, neurologically, psychologically, and/or socially. First, from a Chinese Medical perspective, staring at a screen for the better part of everyday depletes the body’s blood and healthy body fluids. From a neurological perspective, we know that frequently checking any device is a form of constant, miniature gratification, and that our brain’s neurotransmitters do not operate as well under constant stimulation. Not to mention the potential psychological and intellectual drawbacks of viewing the world largely through this particular filter, as opposed to good old-fashioned, interactive reality.
I’ve observed my own relative addiction to social media in the past, never spending much time scrolling, growing easily bored, nevertheless checking the apps quite often through each day. On my commute, on any elevator, upon waking up, even while watching sports on TV (I mean, how sad is it that it has become normalized to multi-task technological distractions? We are truly in the future); obviously it doesn’t sit well with my goals for self-discipline.
In many cases complete abstinence is a form of non-discipline and/or an emotionally induced over-compensatory response to a pathology. Moderation is often not only more logical, but more difficult. To that end, for some time now I’ve made it a point to turn off email notifications only on weekends, which doesn’t mean I don’t check my email at all, but my brain gets spared a couple of days of unnecessary constant dings.
Second, I make it a point while watching TV in the evenings, to not keep my phone within arms’ reach, but instead on the other side of the room with the ringer turned on. My rule is not orthodox, in that I might still occasionally bring it over to read or search something, but once finished I return it to its “station,” instead of mindlessly using it as another distraction.
I almost never text while walking (down the street), which I think is as irresponsible to our own neurology as drinking and driving is to the safety of others. With obvious exceptions, I try to keep my text and email responses to three times out of each day. My opinion and observation is, if you reply to everyone/everything as it comes in you’ll slowly lose your mind.
Finally, I’ve taken to abstinence from social media on Friday through Monday every week. This ensures that I look at it less than half the days in the week, but on those days I don’t restrict myself from popping on as much as is organic (although since self-implementing this restriction I genuinely think the urge or idea to check them comes up less frequently). There have been many times in these days that I note the proverbial light go off in my mind—“time to check Facebook”—reminiscent of when I once quit smoking—and much like my once nicotine victory I simply ignore the light until it perpetually pops up less and less. My wife’s taken a different approach, by requesting her phone limit the amount of time spent on certain apps in each day. You can do this under Settings – Screen Time – App Limits. Either approach makes sense.
I think smart phones and social media are or can be very positive things, but much like automobiles and animal protein, they should be used mindfully, cautiously, with the understanding that just as in medicine, anything that has the power to help also has the power to harm.
Just as we develop our physical muscles to gain strength and maintain our health, we also need to pay attention to strengthening our mental muscles. Learning to develop mental strength can help in many ways from overcoming challenging situations, to learning from and bouncing back from failure to viewing these challenges as opportunities for growth. Read on for six healthy habits you can develop to maintain your mental strength. continue reading