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Healthy Aging: Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective

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Although the risk of disease and disability clearly increase with advancing age, poor health is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Throughout the middle and later years, people gradually develop signs and symptoms of aging, like graying and thinning of the hair, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, infertility, diminished sexual function, menopause, forgetfulness, urinary and bowel incontinence, pain and weakness in the lower back, hip, and knees, reduced bone density, and increased risk of fractures.

Western medicine attributes some of these symptoms to deficiencies in sexual hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, which is why hormone replacement has become a focus of "anti-aging" medicine. However, Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) offers a different perspective that is energy-based. From a TCM standpoint, aging is a process of losing kidney qi and essence. We refer here not simply to the organs in our lower backs but to an energy subsystem called the kidney meridian.

Kidney qi and essence, according to the Yellow Emperor's Classics, dating back to about 200 B.C., is responsible for brain development and function, including hearing, bone matrix, and function of bone marrows, sexual function, and capacity to conceive, and regulation of the urinary tract and the bowels. This meridian reflects the mental functions of willpower and motivation and emotions derived from fear.

The primary interventions of TCM to balance meridians include acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and qigong. A brief discussion of a couple cases from our patients is provided to illustrate the TCM approach.

Amy, 40, reported feeling like she was 90. She had stopped menstruating 10 years ago and lost sexual drive nine years ago, which is about when she began to suffer from urinary incontinence and osteoporosis. In addition, she had severe seasonal depression and insomnia. She was assessed by classic Chinese medicine techniques and was diagnosed with severe kidney qi deficiency. After three weekly acupuncture sessions and a course of Chinese herbal supplements, her symptoms improved significantly.

Cathy, 65, complained of difficulty concentrating and memorizing. She attributed these symptoms to side effects from the four depression medications she was taking. She was evaluated to have kidney qi and essence deficiency and liver stagnation. Twice a week, she received acupuncture and took Chinese herbal remedies. In addition to improvement in cognitive function, she reported less lower back and knee pain, more sexual satisfaction, reduced urinary incontinence, and better mood. With her physician's guidance, she also was able to decrease her psychotropic medications.

To age healthfully, people need to protect their kidney qi and essence as early as possible. Things that will help include getting regular and enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, regular physical activity, having a healthy sex life, and living with less fear.

Foods that are thought to replenish kidney energy: grains, dark green leafy vegetables (cooked), black soybeans, black sesame seeds, black mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts, fish, shrimp, seaweed, lamb, and duck. Herbs thought to support kidney energy are ginseng, Rehmannia root, and lychee nut.

Many relaxation techniques and energy exercises can positively affect meridian balance. We particularly recommend mindfulness-based meditation, Tai Chi, and qigong. Chinese medicine-based cultivation systems like Falun Dafa go beyond anti-aging and aim for spiritual enlightenment and eternal life.

Aging is a natural process of life, and healthy aging is achievable, particularly through integrating the best of Eastern and Western medicine. Therefore, it is advisable that you consult with a well-trained TCM doctor to discuss an individual plan that uses ancient Chinese wisdom. However, you should do so in addition to the care you already get from your doctors of conventional medicine.

Dr. Yang is a board-certified psychiatrist and is a fourth-generation doctor of Chinese medicine. His website is taoinstitute.com.

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