CHRONICALLY ILL: THE RISE OF CHRONIC DISEASE AND HOW TCM FITS IN
Prevention Is Key, But Eastern Medicine Can Help
We’ve got bad news–chronic illnesses are on the rise. Across the world and in the US, more and more people are being diagnosed with things like autoimmune diseases and diabetes.
Thanks to advances in healthcare, we’re living longer. But that also means that we’re facing new issues as we age. Plus, many of us work 9-5s behind a desk and live a pretty sedentary lifestyle, and obesity has been steadily rising for decades. Thanks to these factors, it’s more likely than ever that you’ll end up dealing with long-term health problems from chronic diseases.
Western medicine doesn’t always have a good answer to chronic illnesses, but that doesn’t mean you should accept a lower quality of life, which is why many people are turning to the East.
What Are Chronic Diseases?
Chronic illnesses are conditions that are usually preventable but once you have them, they’re nearly impossible to get rid of. The most common chronic diseases in the US are:
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
Here in the US, chronic diseases are a major killer. In fact, they’re the number one cause of death and disability, and 60% of US adults have one or more. Every year, more than 1.7 million Americans die from chronic illnesses or related complications. And even those who don’t die from chronic disease aren’t off the hook–every 30 seconds someone with diabetes has a lower limb amputated because of the illness.
Clearly, chronic illnesses are no joke. But luckily, there’s a way to stop them in their tracks.
How Can You Prevent Chronic Disease?
For chronic diseases, prevention is key. In fact, according to the CDC, most chronic illnesses could be delayed or totally halted just by making some simple lifestyle changes. Here’s what causes most chronic diseases:
- Smoking or vaping tobacco products, or inhaling secondhand smoke.
- Eating an unhealthy diet that is high in processed foods and low in fresh fruits and veggies.
- Living a sedentary lifestyle.
- Drinking too much alcohol.
- Insufficient deep sleep.
By eating a more balanced diet, moving your body regularly, and cutting out tobacco and alcohol, and sleeping more, you can have a dramatic effect on your health when it comes to chronic illness.
Eastern Medicine and Chronic Disease
But what if you’ve made all those changes and still end up dealing with a chronic illness? Once you’ve addressed the root causes of these problems, it’s time to focus on treatment and alleviating uncomfortable symptoms.
Western medicine offers pills, surgery, and physical therapy to deal with the fallout from chronic illness.
But when it comes to prevention and less invasive treatment, more and more people are turning to complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.
Did you know that stress can actually make your body more susceptible to chronic disease and make symptoms and flare-ups worse? It all comes down to inflammation. When we’re constantly stressed, our body goes into fight or flight mode, activating internal inflammation. The stress hormone, cortisol, shoots up along with our blood sugar levels, and our arteries shrink, making it harder for our heart to pump blood. High levels of inflammation can lead to Rheumatoid Arthritis and heart disease.
High stress levels are linked to many diseases, chronic or not, including heart disease, depression, and diabetes. But there’s plenty of research that shows when stress levels go down, so do health issues like chronic illness. And both yoga and meditation, techniques from eastern medicine, have been found to be particularly effective at lowering stress levels.
To help lower stress, you can also use herbal remedies like Ashwagandha, an adaptogen herb from Ayurvedic medicine. It helps the body deal with stress and inflammation, lowering cortisol levels by a third!
Cancel Chronic Pain
Often, chronic diseases come with chronic pain. You might get achy, sore, or have intense shooting pains in certain parts of your body, depending on what chronic disease you struggle with. While western medicine might encourage you to pop a pain pill to deal with it, eastern medicine has a more holistic, less invasive approach.
If you have back pain, Ayurvedic massage is a great option. Ayurvedic massage, known as abhyanga, uses different oils to help release muscle stiffness and drain lymphatic fluid. It’s a little different than a typical massage, which works out the kinks and knots in your muscles. Ayurvedic massage is more focused on relaxation and helping your energy flow better. And studies show that it’s an effective treatment for pain. It also lowers stress levels and heart rates, so it can even help address underlying causes of chronic illness.
Acupuncture has also been found to be an effective long-term treatment for chronic pain, though researchers aren’t exactly sure why. According to TCM belief, acupuncture targets specific pathways that your qi or energy travels through. Stimulating certain points on the body with acupuncture needles can remove blockages and boost your energy and circulation.
Most Americans get 5-7 hours in bed, which translates to at most 4-6 hours of sleep, since no one typically hits the pillow, falls right asleep, and does not wake up till morning. As little as one hour makes a huge difference. Case in point, if you track heart attack rates during daylight savings, you can notice a distinct rise due to the lack of sleep as we ”spring forward”, with a corresponding decrease in the fall. Studies have shown a decrease in just half an hour affects rates of death from automobile accidents and suicide. We need deep REM sleep, where our body destresses and makes repairs to our physical tissues. So, invest in your sleep and give your body time to get rebalanced.
And for more immediate pain relief, there’s always herbal options, like Corydalis (Corydalis yanhusuo), a type of poppy flower. It’s been used for centuries as a pain reliever in TCM, and a study at University of California, Irvine found that it can help with many different kinds of pain, including chronic neuropathic pain–which is particularly tricky to treat. And it doesn’t lose its effectiveness over time, so you won’t build up a tolerance to it. Before you start taking Corydalis, just double check with your doctor that it won’t interact with any of your medications.
When it comes to chronic illness, prevention is key. But once you’ve got a chronic disease, alleviating symptoms is key. Eastern medicine is a holistic, natural way to ease chronic pain and prevent future flare-ups without adding another prescription to your day or putting you on the operating table.