Eastern medicine is no stranger to plagues. Epidemics have been a major contributing factor to the evolution of traditional medicines for at least the last two thousand years. There are numerous treatises on the nature of pathogens, how they invade and travel through the body, and how to treat the body so it can push them back out.
Just as traditional and modern doctors are doing today with COVID-19, ancient doctors learned the hard way the qualities of a pathogen, how to prevent it from invading the body, and how to treat the body if it does successfully enter. In analyzing this coronavirus, experienced Chinese medicine practitioners have classified it as a cold damp plague. What this means is that it has a congealing, constricting, sticky, fluid, and vitality-blocking action in the body.
Usually pathogens are looked at as being either hot or cold in nature, but this added element of dampness is truly unusual, especially since the dampness is presenting as dryness and leading to heat in most people who develop symptoms. It sneaks in and hides out, all the while replicating and wreaking havoc over the respiratory and digestive systems, manifesting in a myriad of ways according to one’s personal constitutional strengths and weaknesses.
Creating A Less Habitable Internal Environment
Constitution is a person’s unique mind-body make-up. Instead of only viewing a pathogenic microbe as an enemy to be eradicated, traditional medicine practitioners recognize that there are some environments that are more habitable for some microbes. What we want to do is understand the nature of a pathogen and then create an internal environment that is less habitable for it based on what we know about it and what makes it replicate or thrive. In this case, a less robust, damp environment is optimal for this virus to wreak havoc over a person’s body. What we want to do to prevent it is to strengthen ourselves, our vitality, while at the same time preventing the accumulation of dampness and eradicating any existing damp in the system.
In Ayurveda, this dampness is known as ama or toxicity. When you stick out your tongue in the mirror, you can see if there is damp in your system by noting if your tongue is big compared to the size of your mouth, and if there’s a thick white, thick yellow, or all over coating on it. A healthy tongue should be a pinkish red color that is visible through a thin white coating that doesn’t cover the sides. If it does cover the sides, there is dampness or ama present in the system. If it is so thick that you can’t see the body of the tongue through it, there is dampness. So what can we do to eradicate the dampness that this cold damp pathogen likes to proliferate in?
Eradicating The Pathogen's Preferred Environment
Eastern medicine practitioners understand that the human body operates according to the same rules as the rest of existence. It is made up of the same materials as the rest of matter, and it harbors a unique mix of environments and living beings that inhabit an individual’s collective ecosystem. These beings, that fall into definitions of agni, prana, qi, or spleen qi, are what we now know to be the beneficial microbes that make up the microbiomes of the body. They play a pivotal role in both immunity and inflammatory response and, equally as important in this time of uncertainty, in a healthy mental and emotional outlook through the gut-brain axis.
Thankfully, the roadmap to understanding and balancing our internal ecosystems has been distinctly laid out for us to follow so that by cultivating our microbiomes, we can strengthen our resistance to pathogens and become less habitable environments for them to take hold while better coping with stress.
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Dampness In The Body
When dampness is in abundant in the body, there is a stagnancy that fosters microbial imbalance, or what is called dysbiosis. Microbial dysbiosis is linked to pretty much every disease state that’s been studied and has a relationship to chronic and autoimmune conditions and decreased stress tolerance.
We know that stress has a weakening effect on our immunity, and this happens in part through the immune system’s relationship to the beneficial microbes in the gut. What we want to do right now is follow the dietary and lifestyle recommendations that have been laid out for us by Eastern healing traditions so that we may minimize dampness in the system, correct dysbiosis, and experience greater vitality.
Recommendations For A Healthy Body and Mind
One of the primary recommendations for a healthy body and mind is to avoid eating while upset. Before you eat, sit for a moment, take a few breaths, and settle into your seat. Reflect on the spaciousness within and allow a sense of peace to surface. This may be fleeting or only partial, but at least you’ll have calmed enough to properly metabolize the meal.
Studies have shown that eating while upset or shaming oneself for what one eats dramatically reduces the digestive efficiency. No doubt this happens in part by the effect of fight-or-flight on the microbiome.
When we eat while we’re angry or fearful, we are telling the body to do something other than digest food and that it may be in danger. This completely changes the physiology. One way ama or dampness forms in the body is as a result of digestive insufficiency, which easily occurs as a result of chronic upset eating habits as well as overeating.
What Time We Eat Is Important
The microbes in the gut metabolize best in the early part of the day. Eastern traditions insist on the largest meal being eaten for breakfast or lunch, and a lighter meal at dinnertime. Dinner should be finished by dusk, or at 8 pm the absolute latest.
After dark, the body goes into fat-storing mode and becomes more insulin resistant. This is not ideal metabolically, so eating after 8 pm should not be habitual. It is looked at as a form of self-harm to unnecessarily tax the beings that live within us by eating heavy meals late at night.
What We Eat Is Important
In addition to how we eat, what we eat is important to the health of the mind, body, and microbiome. Many of you have probably heard of probiotics. Probiotics are supplements that contain live beneficial microbes that people take in order to calm the mind, improve digestive function, balance immunity, and reduce inflammation. The thing is, we are probiotic factories.
What the ancients recognized is that there are foods and medicinal herbs that help shape the environment on and in the body so that our own personal beneficial microbes have a good home and their favorite foods to eat. Once they are able to nestle in and eat well, they can make products that are distributed all over the body. These products, called metabolites, do everything from feeding our own human cells to decreasing inflammation to regulating our hormones. Without a diverse, healthy mix of happy beneficial microbes we won’t feel good emotionally, mentally, or physically.
The Fiber We Eat Is Important
A diet rich in prebiotic, or food for the microbiome, is key to our good health. Also, a range of fibrous foods is ideal. This means that if there is no solid medical reason for abstaining from a food group, we shouldn’t do it.
All carbohydrates contain fiber, but refined and processed carbohydrates like white sugar and white flour can generate dampness in the system. What we want to do is incorporate a variety of whole grains, beans, legumes, whole fruits, seeds, nuts, and cooked vegetables into weekly meals.
You can still eat meat in moderation, but try to eat at least thirty different plant foods each week. This helps foster a healthy, diverse microbiome and can not only lead to better health but a greater sense of well-being.
There are many other natural practices that help to soothe the mind, nourish the body, support the body’s ability to detoxify itself, increase respiratory health, and enhance immune function. I discuss many of them in Handbook of Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda: An Integrated Practice of Ancient Healing Traditions. For more information on healing the gut and creating an optimal internal environment for beneficial microbes, check out my new book Cultivating Your Microbiome: Ayurvedic and Chinese Practices for a Healthy Gut and a Clear Mind.
©2020 by Bridgette Shea.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Healing Arts Press. www.InnerTraditions.com
Book by this Author
Handbook of Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda: An Integrated Practice of Ancient Healing Traditions
by Bridgette Shea L.Ac. MAcOM
A comprehensive reference tool for maximizing healing of the mind, body, and spirit through a holistic synergy of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. * Details the foundational principles of each tradition and the many concepts they share, such as qi and prana, meridians and nadis, and energy centers and chakras * Provides tools for self-assessment including a primer on tongue diagnosis and a mental, emotional, and physical constitutional questionnaire * Offers breathing exercises, dietary regimens, herbal recommendations, and guides for detoxification, including safe and gentle at-home cleansing
About the Author
Bridgette Shea, L.Ac., MAcOM, is an acupuncturist, Chinese medicine practitioner, and Ayurveda educator whose private practice is an integration of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. She writes and teaches workshops on Ayurveda, energy medicine, and healthy breathing. Visit her website at https://www.bridgetteshea.com/