Diet as a Doorway to Change By Andrew Sterman

We don't need to live in illness. pain, disharmony, and dysfunction-these can be alarms to wake us, to inspire us to change. Tomorrow, when we wake up, we can set our feet on the floor in a new direction, learning, preparing, and beginning action for real change, like walking through a door to reclaim your real being. Here we are not talking about a slightly better version of where you are, with illness intact and symptoms more controlled.

We are talking about real change.

But there are innumerable reasons not to change. Improving health is uncommon in our culture; we are taught a terrible un­ truth that life is good while we're carefree and young but after that it's steadily and inexorably downhill. This myth is so strong that it can be self-fulfilling. Others cling to illness as if it's a belief system, like a religion. At some point in our lives, it's time to look within and see what beliefs are holding us back. It runs in the family. I've always been like this. There's no cure for what I have. I've tried everything (which is usually only about two or maybe three "things").

In general, the many personal experiences of resistance fall into three types, often playing in combination:  denial, compulsion, and rejection.

Denial says, " There's no problem here, I eat like everybody else. My grandfather lived until 78 and he ate anything he wanted! That proves that it's all the same, and besides, I don't want to be one of those food freaks who watches every little thing. Anyhow, everything is okay in moderation, right?"

Compulsion says, “I try to make some changes, but life isn't worth living without my chocolate! And I read in the paper that coffee is good for you, and wine, and I don't believe there's anything wrong with sugar, it's been around forever and it's a natural plant! I try to cut down on fried things, but they're so good, and I'm supposed to stay away from a few things because of my heart, but I LOVE them, and they make me happy... :•

Rejection says, "This is all nonsense, nothing can improve any­ thing, don't spend time on self-care, just see your doctor once a year and when you get sick. I'm tired of people telling me what to do, and everyone tells me something different anyway. I know what my body wants. I don't need to listen to anyone. And there are no studies that prove change is possible. This is all nonsense!"

Our diets affirm who we are. The overall energetics of our diet exert powerful influences upon us, conveyed through taste, in­trinsic thermostatic and directional characteristics of the foods, and cooking methods. Our food choices confirm our  identities and inner comforts. This is neither good nor bad, but if we have chronic illness or simply feel stuck in life, maintaining our current diet will hold us in place. Our dietary habits  are strong pillars of continuity, for better or otherwise. This provides an invaluable opportunity. If we are not fully well, we can change direction by changing diet. Making small changes can improve us in comfort ­ able ways, but when chronic complaints hold us in a rut, like a car with its wheels off the road, we need strong measures, we need enough force to jump out of the ditch. We need to make clear and profound changes. Without meaningful dietary change, neither Western nor Asian medical treatments can offer anywhere near their fullest possible benefits.

A powerful way to structure change is by honestly looking at how we are doing on the three fundamental levels of health as de­ scribed by classical Chinese medicine: the levels of constitutional health status (yuan  qi), nutritive or digestive health  status (ying qi) and active-defensive health status (which includes immune competence, or wei qi). These are three internal pillars upon which our lives depend. With a clear assessment of our individual health status of the three levels of qi we can sensibly enact change with diet, exercise, and any other healing modality.

Let's look first to the deepest level of health, the constitutional or yuan qi level. This level of health governs bone health, the status of marrow, and therefore crucial components of blood and brain integrity, hormonal harmony, reproductive health and the stability of our internal genetic replication. The yuan qi level of health extends all over the body but is anchored in the lower belly and is governed by the energetics of the kidneys.

To enact real change at this deepest level of health is to truly com­ mit to our essential existence. All aspects of health ultimately rely upon the pillar of yuan qi. We can be born with strong or fragile constitutional health, but what is more important is what we do with this inheritance. Like the endowment of an institution, it can be well-tended or squandered.

What damages our constitutional health, our yuan qi level, is fatigue and over-taxation. Sleep and truly restorative leisure is essential; anything that interferes here will tax the yuan qi system (think of overtaxing the adrenal glands). It may be exciting, but if we are familiar with the idea that we can be tired in ways that even sleep doesn't resolve, then we know constitutional qi taxation. Things that overtax our constitutional health status include too much caffeine, too much sugar, too much sexual activity, too much work (including hyper-fueled ambition), stress and fear, experiences of trauma, and drug use (recreational or pharmaceutical).

The decision to enact real change at the yuan qi or constitutional level starts with adopting a sleep practice, that is, respecting sleep as a foundation of all health (in particular, for hormonal rebalancing). Choose from the following list to strongly support your own yuan qi health status:

  • Take a caffeine hiatus. Reducing to a small amount per day is useful, but a full cessation of caffeine, for perhaps several months, sends a dear message of renewal to the deepest level of personal health.
  • Rest when tired. Use weekends or vacations to begin intention­ ally resetting sleep habits. Timing of sleep is significant; eight hours from 10pm-6am is the most restorative for yuan qi and constitutional hormones, whereas eight hours from 2-lOam is in­trinsically less restorative. Less sleep is, of course, less supportive at a deep level.
  • Take a sugar hiatus. Reduction is good, but all sugar (and alcohol) taxes the adrenal glands (along with the interconnected hormonal glands in the body such as pancreas, thyroid, etc.) To send a strong message of renewal to the constitution, eliminate sugar and other sweets entirely for several months, then permit only small amounts back in the diet.
  • Avoid squandering sexual energy. Romantic love and physical embrace is one of the profound joys of humanity, but many relate to sex in a negative or obsessive way. Seeing this clearly is a crucial component of protecting the yuan qi treasure.
  • Avoid eating much when exhausted. Eat to replenish, but not too much.
  • Hydrate with water, wet, cooked foods such as breakfast por­ ridges, soups, and stews, and include healthy oils such as olive oil, butter, avocado oil, sesame oil, seafood and cold-water fish that are high in oils, etc.
  • Include foods that have a natural affinity for the kidneys and yuan qi, including nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, chestnuts, sesame seeds, etc.), mushrooms, seaweeds, beans (lentils, black beans, azuki beans, black-eyed peas, etc.), eggs, shellfish and high-fat fish (including salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, black cod, and so forth), duck, and pork (not bacon, it's too processed). Pick from that list and other yuan qi level foods; no need to have any you don't like, or what doesn't digest well for you due to weaknesses of the other two levels of qi.
  • While deep improvements at the yuan qi or constitutional level be­ gin with a real commitment  to  rest  what is overtaxed  with focus on the kidneys, the decision to enact real change at the ying qi or nutritive/ digestive level starts with adopting a dietary practice; that is, respecting digestion as the foundation of all good health, and understanding that everything we eat needs to be processed by digestive organs that have finite capacities for energy and secretions. Overwhelming digestion can't lead to anything but the degenerative illnesses that are so common today. Since the energy to run digestion ultimately comes from the yuan qi level when we commit to change at both the yuan qi and ying qi levels we are supporting our­ selves on two of the three fundamental pillars of our health. And since all food comes from farms and the complex interconnected­ ness of the modern economy, by committing to good food practices we send clear signals that gradually benefit society overall.

When we skip meals we are asking our bodies to function without incoming energy. We won't lose weight this way; our bodies will feel stressed and shift into preservation mode, and most people overeat at the next meal when they do have it, whether lunch or dinner. If we skip meals, we are functioning on stress hormones (often amplified by caffeine). All these further taxes the lower burner, that is, the yuan qi level and the associated organs (kidneys, reproductive system, adrenals, bones, etc.) But if we eat simple and appropriate meals, a wondrous process takes place: our yuan qi and kidneys send enough energy to the organs of digestion to get going on that meal. Digestion breaks down the foods, sorting and separating what we need from what is needed by the microbiome in our gut, then our mid gut transforms and transports nourishment up to the chest and over to the liver for further development and transportation, and the energy released not only nourishes our bodies in metabolism and substance but the kidneys and lower burner receive back the energy they spent in beginning the digestive process. In this way, we live on new energy from foods we eat rather than tap­ ping our reserves without replenishment.

Choose from the following to begin supporting your health at the ying qi/ nutritive or digestive level:

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  • Avoid overeating.
  • Eat warm, cooked food.
  • Look at the food in front of you and ask yourself the question: Can my digestion really handle this well? If you're digging in any­ way, refer to the first point-avoid overeating. Just have some of it, share the rest or save it for later.
  • Eat dynamic foods, that is, foods that have clear directionalities: vegetables of different types including root vegetables and dark leafy greens.
  • Use spices wisely to promote movement rather than just to intensify taste sensation.
  • Eat varied grains, including some whole grains.
  • Problems of constipation or urination must be addressed. These common issues engage with functions of the entire body: lungs, sinuses, digestion, liver and blood... , all aspects of health are involved or implicated. Most problems can be solved by replacing refined and processed foods with more dynamic foods such as grains, green and root vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes, foods of all flavors including vegetables with bitter notes, and effective hydration. A skilled dietary clinician can help with specific problems that don't resolve with general advice.
  • Avoid fried foods, instant foods, and sugared foods except for very  occasionally; don't have "occasions" every day or multiple times a day!
  • Practice clear meals as needed (see Welcoming Food, Book 1 for more explanation of clear meals). Basically, to allow digestion to rest while still nourishing yourself, pick one meal per day (more if needed) and have meals that digest very simply, fully, and in a timely manner. One technique to use is separating carbs from proteins. In other words, have a vegan lunch (with grain) followed by a protein dinner with meat, fish, or chicken (with no grain). This strongly eases the digestive process for both meals, allowing the digestive organs to rest and gradually recover. Remember, sugar and alcohol are carbs; avoid the fallacy that there is benefit in avoiding grains such as rice, millet, buckwheat, or polenta while still consuming concentrated carbs such as sugar, honey, wine, or other sugar sources. Honesty is a process; as our health energetics begin to improve it becomes easier and more enjoyable to fine tune our diet and improve further. Be gentle while also firm with yourself.
  • Digestion does not like to be cold; avoid cold drinks, and, in order

to improve digestion, avoid raw and cold foods.

Digestion does not like heavy foods that sit within like a wet blanket, suppressing clear digestion. These foods very easily cause dampness which leads to weight gain, lethargy (especially just after eating), inflammation, and the lack of mental clarity often called brain fog. It is very important that this dampness process is identified and reversed for true health to improve. The foods that most easily cause dampness are sugar, dairy, wheat (particularly modern wheat), and overeating in general. In practice, this includes regularly having a piece of cake or other baked good, or foods like pizza: these foods include all three common culprits of dampness (sugar, dairy, wheat). Look at your own diet for damp-causing habits.

  • Inflammation naturally arises as the body tries to handle the dampness or cold/ raw diet by stoking more heat. Sometimes digestive fire is low, sometimes too high. Excess digestive fire leads to inflammatory conditions (swellings, joint pain, general tissue degradation, tooth and gum decay, heart disease, etc.) It is important to know how to regulate digestive fire. The simplest way is to adjust the relative amounts of meats and greens. Reduce excess digestive fire by consuming less meat, less coffee and spicy foods, while increasing cooked leafy green vegetables and healthy grains.
  • Digestion is complex. Although this general advice can take most people very far, more specificity can be provided by well-trained practitioners of Chinese medicine dietary therapy. The powerful, historically early method of working with the three levels of qi can be expanded to include organ systems with all the exquisite finesse of Chinese medicine. Personal diagnosis and individual dietary planning can be indispensable.
  • Digestion is the centerpiece of all health. As we enact real change not only in the foods we choose but our digestive functioning, we are supporting· the central pillar of longterm health and healing.

Yuan qi and ying qi are two of the three fundaments of daily and lifelong health. The third pillar is the collection of functions called the wei qi level, which includes active-defensive health status. Wei qi is about survival. To survive, we need to be actively responsive to challenges in the world, including hunting/ gathering, running so as to not be hunted or gathered, and immune integrity to ward off infectious agents that could cause illness if wei qi is deficient. So, wei qi includes muscles, tendons, alertness, and the infinitely complex immune capacity that welcomes the positive microbes of the world while effectively protecting from dangerous ones. Wei qi relies

directly on good function of the yuan qi and ying qi levels. Particularly, the immune aspect of wei qi depends on sufficient hydration and sufficient rest.  In the careful terminology of Chinese medicine, strengthening immunity requires nourishing ying and tonifying qi. Fluids and rest. That's what any doctor recommends for recovering from various types of flu or other airborne infection.  Attempts to stimulate immune capability with garlic pills or other stimulants eventually taxes and depletes resources of yuan qi, fluids, and immune protection. A better strategy is to support immunity by nourishing fluids with diet and genuinely improve rest. Fluids are provided by a hydration-improved diet and qi is provided by deeply resting our fatigues.

Foods that support wei qi include wet, cooked breakfasts (see my Golden Flower article Congee and the Importance of Wet Cooked Breakfasts, 2015), soups and stews (including chicken soup, famous for immune boosting), grains, greens, and moderate amounts of protein. Fruits and nuts can support wei qi, as do moderate kitchen herbs and spices, eggs, mushrooms, and seaweeds. More important than adding special foods is avoiding food and drink that raise too much heat, lead to inflammation, deplete fluids, tax adrenals (see above), or lead to dampness (also see above). The way to support wei qi, including both moving energy and robust immunity, is simple: avoid taxing foods , support ying qi and yuan qi through appropriate foods, hydrate with water, healthy oils, and wet cooked foods, then rest well to alleviate adrenal exhaustion.

There is one more essential point needed to enact real change at this level, beyond the specifics of immunity and physical action included in the concept of wei qi. Just as yuan qi is anchored in the lower burner (but spreads influence to the entire body) and ying qi centers in the digestive organs of the mid belly (but also reaches throughout the body), wei qi is associated with the chest (even as it works with complex precision throughout the body). The chest is home to the heart and lungs. From a wei qi perspective, the chest opens to the senses of the head and our connection to the outside world. Beyond that, the chest is the locus of spirit in the body (even as what we call spirit or personal sacred consciousness connects with all aspects of our body and being). The essential pillar that is needed to complete our survey of enacting change has to do with spirit.

In order to open a doorway to genuine change, some kind of per­sonal awakening is required. A personal revolution, rather than merely benign shifts that don't challenge individual status quo. To be sure, gradual change can improve our diet in targeted ways, for example, a bit less sugar, a bit less fried food, less alcohol, a few more vegetables. Small changes can add up to welcome improvement, but to walk away from an unsatisfactory situation a radical shift is re­quired. To make a full-being shift, the most powerful method is to address the constitutional, nutritive, and active immune levels all at once. Find things to fast from, perhaps alcohol, sugar, meat, overly spiced meals, or refined foods, for at least a set period. Your body will read the signals and begin the necessary processes of cleansing, clarification, and renewal. To some this may feel restrictive and painful, as if the food police have delivered a dietary re­ straining order. Remember the three types of resistance mentioned above. With resistance in bloom, successful change will be difficult. Our efforts, then, are essentially preparatory. We work gradually, making helpful progress until we are ready to drop what holds us in place and walk through the doorway to a new diet, a new personal reality.  For this, a personal awakening of some kind is needed.  This jolt of new consciousness is not the goal, it is a beginning, an unfolding of opportunity that inspires sustained action.  And nothing is more powerful to support sustained, real change than a clear and informed shift in our way of eating.


Reposted with permission by Author Andrew Sterman, 

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