Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Tuesday 18 June 2013

On Chinese Medicine...in China

Heilongjiang University of TCM
I have just spent two months studying at the Heilongjiang University of Chinese Medicine in the city of Harbin, up in the North Eastern corner of China. It all happened out of the blue, I heard about a scholarship to do clinical practice in China, applied for it, and forgot about it. Next thing, I was trying to work out if I could go to China for the whole 6 months or not! To be perfectly honest, apart from Chinese Medicine, I had never felt a great urge to go to China. What with Tibet, environmental issues, the largest population in the world, and the lack of freedom of speech, and then there was the language. As Chinese Medicine was literally taking me to China, I took off with little knowledge of what China really is like and, being aware of my ignorance in this respect, no expectations as to what I was going to find. I have to say, I was mostly pleasantly surprised by what I found there: the people, the food (apart from MSG!), the history, and seeing Chinese medicine alive and kicking!

Harbin itself was not the most exciting place but being in a university dedicated to the study of Chinese Medicine with its own bustling university hospital, and surrounded by people who did not think that what I do is out of the ordinary was exciting enough. To top it all up, my interest in neurological conditions was well catered for as Harbin turned out to be a centre for the research into the use of Acupuncture and scalp acupuncture for the treatment of neurological conditions. 

Outpatient neurology department
The University hospital outpatient unit consisted of hundreds of rooms laid out over several floors, dedicated to different medical disciplines - dermatology, neurology, gynaecology and so on. Here, highly experienced TCM doctors of each speciality would see their patients at the same time as teaching their university students. The more experienced the doctor, the more patients there would be in front of his or her door, and the more students there would be crowding the room.  

I certainly felt privileged receiving information that had been passed down several generations of doctors, and often refined by our doctors’ 20 or 30 years of clinical practice. 

Despite the big clusters of people outside, and often inside, the rooms; most doctors took the necessary time to get all the relevant information off each patient. Many patients were sent off for clinical tests - which they had to pay for - before the doctor decided on the necessary treatment. Within half an hour, they would come back with their test results, scan or x ray, and the doctor would proceed to write their herbal prescription or administer acupuncture. 

Acupuncture&rehabilitation ward
The “big” university hospital, which was outside the campus, was even more exciting. Whole wards of inpatients receiving daily acupuncture and herbal formulations, often in combination with conventional drugs, seemed almost surreal to the Western students. In the neurology ward, dozens of acute-stage  patients, most of whom were there due to recent strokes, welcomed us as the main doctor did his rounds sticking needles all over their scalps and the affected limbs before leaving them for the students to look after as he moved on to the next patient. Patients received twice-daily acupuncture treatments, herbs, massage and, when appropriate, also exercise sessions. On another floor, the “rehabilitation” unit consisted of a large and light room filled with exercise devices and couches bustling with people working on the machines or receiving physiotherapy and massage, often with their scalps covered in acupuncture needles. 

Needless to say, not everything was a bed of roses: hygiene for a start was hugely disregarded in the hospitals, as was privacy, although the latter was shocking to us mostly for cultural reasons. In China many people still share large dormitories and communal showers so talking about symptoms -even embarrassing ones- in front of people or exposing body parts is not as difficult as it is to us. There was also talk of the tendency of some doctors to prescribe tests and extra medication or herbs to increase their own profit. This is a direct result of “capitalism” as these days the basic salary of a TCM doctor is nowhere near that of a Western one within China itself. However, although I did see some over-prescribing of herbs and antibiotic over-use, I mostly saw dedicated and often overworked practitioners who gave their whole attention to each patient and who seemed to endeavour to make him or her feel better.

East&West meet shopping
China is going through very rapid changes in its economy, 
infrastructure, and values and it is quite tangible that in many ways this is destabilising its people and culture. Traditional ways of living and thinking are fast being lost and where in the past the traditional wisdom concerning food, exercise and living seasonally kept people strong into a ripe old age; the increased exposure to Western ways paired with the growing consumer power, economic pressures, and an eagerness to enjoy the joys of capitalism are also bringing increasing amounts of Western diseases such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, infertility etc. 

As far as I saw, these conditions were treated with a combination of Western drugs and Chinese herbal medicine and/or acupuncture. This is a direct result not only of the real need to complement a health care system that would not be able to cater for the medical needs of such massive population with Western drugs alone, but of the awareness based on the country’s experience that Western medicine is most successful at treating acute, life threatening conditions, and Chinese medicine is at its best treating chronic, slow changing illness. Nevertheless, new generations may be less inclined to go for the “traditional” ways and who knows if in the next few decades Chinese medicine will continue being as popular in China as it seems now.

When I asked people if they thought that TCM was in peril of dying out, I got promptly replied “never, because TCM works for things that Western medicine can’t treat”. I was given as an example the bird flu outbreaks in China where only Chinese herbs have seemed to provide some hope of survival to sufferers. There have been many reports of this but you never know who to believe. What I do know though, is that I saw people who despite their very severe diagnoses and conditions - cancer, liver cirrhosis, hepatitis B, hemiplegia, cerebral palsy, etc - seemed to manage to have a relatively normal life thanks to the successful use of conventional and Chinese medicine together. That this alone will be enough to make a traditional medicine survive the game of investment and profit, or how intact might it survive, remains to be seen. We cannot begrudge the Chinese for wanting the comforts that we ourselves have always had. We can only thank them for developing such complete medical system and hope that the seeds of Chinese medicine planted all over the world and the strength of its ancient and adaptable theory will help it carry on thriving for the benefit of all.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Spring lifestyle

Spring is finally upon us with its expansive energy of growth and its rich tapestry of life. After such a long winter, it is only natural to feel heavy, unfit, and sluggish. While in winter we concentrate on staying warm and consuming the necessary nutrients to maintain a strong immunity and  prevent the elements from harming us, in spring the focus is on cleansing the body and returning to a more active lifestyle to help us get rid of the cobwebs and the extra weight and toxicity accumulated during the months of less activity and of richer foods.

Our modern society -with its unchanging timetables, supermarkets stocked up with every possible food throughout the year, and artificial room temperatures- tends to make us unaware of the real impact of the seasons on the workings of the body. However, failing to observe the changing needs of our body according to seasonal changes often results in lack of balance and disease. 

Different seasons bring different crops, temperatures, and amount of daylight which should naturally be accompanied by a change in diet, activity, and sleep patterns. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), like the Chinese culture, observes seasonal changes and considers that adapting our diet and lifestyle to the seasons plays an important role in the maintenance of health and vitality. 

Spring in TCM

A return to life, growth and expansion

Spring is associated to the Wood element which in turn relates to the TCM Liver organ. It is a time of coming back to life, of expansion and growth, and of the arrival of new life. The energy stored throughout the winter months serves as a propeller of new life and makes seeds sprout, animals reproduce, and our energy levels rise to make us feel vital again.

In spring we also see the arousal of Wind which not only refers to the climatic factor but is also considered by TCM as the potential carrier of many diseases which can cause rapid onset acute illnesses such as colds, headaches, allergies, neuralgia, and palsy;  as well as symptoms that move from one part of the body to another.

The expansive energy of spring can also bring up excessive heat or illnesses that started to develop before or during the winter but which did not manifest during those months due to the contracting effect of the cold which produces an inward movement of our energy during that season. This is one of the causes of allergic symptoms that may suddenly develop during this season.

How to be healthy in spring

Spring is here: time to come out of hybernation
When we have a strong constitution or make a point of conserving our energy and health throughout the cold months by following a suitable winter lifestyle, our vital force will be naturally re-awakened by the spring and we will feel more alive, motivated, and able to make plans and undertake new projects. However, as pressing family and work responsibilities can make it difficult to attain the ideal amount of rest, exercise and nutrition during the winter months, many of us may instead feel heavy, sluggish, and unhealthy when the spring comes. Those suffering from allergies may even find this season unbearable as their symptoms start to get triggered by the blossoming trees, and the awakening plants all around.

These are the most important steps to feel healthy and vital at this time of year:

Look after your Liver
Because of the close relationship between the spring and the organ of the Wood element - the Liver- we need to make an extra effort to keep this organ healthy at this time of year. To learn how to do this visit my 
post on the TCM Liver.

Spring clean your body and mind
An excess amount of toxicity and fat is likely to have accumulated in the body during the slow months of winter when we exercised even less than usual, ate heavier and richer  foods and perhaps consumed more alcohol to keep us warm and to cope with the darkness. This accumulation may cause blockages in the various systems of the body and may easily result in symptoms when the strong outward spring energy results in more active circulatory system and detoxifying functions of the Liver.

A good spring detox followed by a balanced diet that keeps toxicity to a minimum will have a positive impact on any symptoms caused by accumulation. If toxicity is high, the beneficial effects of a good diet could be rendered minimal unless it is preceded by a good detox. You could say it would be like pouring fragrant water into a blocked drain, it will mix and be corrupted by the pre-existing stagnant water unless the blockage is cleared first. 

Follow the weekend detox plan suggested on my previous post or other plans preferably under the supervision of a nutritional or TCM practitioner.

Spring diet
If you follow the cleansing weekend detox, try to continue eating healthily and keeping toxicity to a minimum after you have finished so your Liver and your body can have space for renewal and bodily functions can attain greater balance. Make a conscious effort to have a balanced a diet, adhering as much as possible to the TCM concepts of diet and nutrition.

In addition, in spring it is useful to:

1) Start the day with a cup of hot water with the juice of half a lime or lemon. Alternatively add a shot of apple cider vinegar and a small amount of raw honey. This enhances Liver function and creates an alkaline environment which is conducive to health.
2) Keep hydrated throughout the day by drinking at least 2 litres of preferable warm (or at least not chilled) water or even better chrysanthemum, or fresh mint tea. Nettle tea is also a good choice.
3) Avoid alcohol, excessively spicy food, greasy food, and caffeine as they tend to create too much toxicity and overheat the Liver which may result in symptoms such as acid reflux, headaches, eye problems, high blood pressure, etc.
Step up the greens in springtime
4) Keep up the intake of green leafy vegetables and include slightly pungent spices and herbs in your meals such as onion, garlic, chives, basil, coriander, parsley, cumin and mustard seeds. Have plenty of asparagus and artichokes which are particularly good for the Liver and in season at this time of year.
5) Use light cooking methods such as stir frying and steaming which are best in spring as they keep the cooling quality and moisture of foods. Small amounts of raw foods can also be beneficial at this time, provided you don’t have a weak digestion or feel constantly cold and tired.
6) Consume small amounts of honey or molasses which are highly nutritious and whose sweetness can soften the Liver and prevent problems due to Liver Qi stagnation (for more on this refer to my post on the TCM Liver)

In springtime we are are likely to feel more energetic and motivated to do exercise . If you still feel heavy and sluggish, it may be useful to start by doing a gentle detox like the one recommended in my previous post before you start any kind of exercise regime so that you avoid the extreme aches and pains produced by the heavy release of toxins after the first work outs.

If you haven’t got a preferred form of exercise, have a go at different types of moderate outdoor exercise such as brisk walking and cycling. Swimming is also a good choice. Try exercising for at least half an hour 3 times per week and combine with some gentle stretching, pilates or yoga. This way you will be both fit, strong and flexible, three very important factors in good overall health and in having a good flow of Blood and Qi and a healthy Liver.

Protect yourself from the Wind
In many cultures the idea of not trusting the weather in spring is reflected in warning proverbs such as: 'Ne'er cast a clout till May is out' or “hasta el 40 de mayo no te quites el sayo” -don’t take your tunic off till the 40th May-.

Spring is the season of rapid changes and strong winds so we need to be prepared for sudden drops in temperature, rains, and strong winds that may make us unexpectedly cold, shivery, or soaking wet. This exposure to sudden changes can make us ill particularly if we are out of shape and with lowered immunity after the long winter. TCM considers the Wind a carrier of other disease factors which combined with it can cause chills, fevers, headaches, palsy and many other symptoms. For this reason it is advisable to always carry a light scarf and a light jacket or waterproof cover to protect us from the elements when the weather conditions rapidly change.

Plan and make decisions
The spring is traditionally the season of changes, decision making, and new beginnings. In TCM, it is the Wood element that rules our decision making, and ability to see detail, organise and plan ahead and the organs of the Liver and Gall Bladder are regarded as the rulers of these mental abilities. When in health, the Liver and Gall Bladder will power our creativity and vision and will enable us to make quick decisions and effective planning.

Because in TCM all functional relationships are reciprocal, this also means that taking time to organise our ideas, weigh the pros and cons, and project into the future before jumping into new waters or embarking on big projects may help power up the Liver and Gall Bladder functions.

Spring allergies

Allergies are rife in spring
Allergic rhinitis, hay fever, and other allergies are the most common problems directly associated with the spring season. Because allergies are an expression of an exaggerated reaction of the immune system to a stimulus, one of the most important things to do is to be as toxin-free as possible. This not only means extra care with general hygiene, air quality and the products that may affect our skin, but also with what we put inside the body.

If our system is already dealing with high toxicity and acidity in the form of alcohol, greasy food, tobacco, drugs, chemical additives, etc.; we are more likely to react to external allergens as our immune system is already burdened from the inside. The reason for this is that a large part of our immunity is found in the digestive system and the health and strength of our immune system as a whole is inextricably linked to what we eat and drink.

TCM can be very effective at treating hay fever and other allergies. Acupuncture helps relieve inflammation and pain, improve circulation, and decongest the nasal passages; while specific Chinese herbal remedies can be used to treat more stubborn or severe symptoms. In addition, a good TCM practitioner should provide suitable dietary and lifestyle advice to help enhance the effectiveness of treatment and prevent the recurrence of symptoms. Visit my previous post on hay fever to learn more about TCM views and treatment of this condition.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Spring detox for body and mind

Toxicity accumulated during winter can cause spring allergies
After such a long winter when the low temperatures and darkness most probably made us exercise less than usual, eat heavier and richer foods, and perhaps consume more alcohol to keep us warm and to cope with the cold; we are likely to have accumulated an excess amount of toxicity and fat. This accumulation may cause blockages in the various systems of the body and may easily result in symptoms when the strong outward spring energy starts to speed up our circulatory system and the detoxifying functions of the Liver. Some conditions such as common spring allergies may actually be an indirect result of our winter habits which burden the body and can result in an over-reactive response to allergens.

A good spring detox followed by a balanced diet that keeps toxicity to a minimum will have a positive impact on any symptoms caused by accumulation. If toxicity is high, the beneficial effects of a good diet could be rendered minimal unless the body has been cleansed first. You could say that it would be like pouring fragrant water into a blocked drain, it will mix and be corrupted by the pre-existing stagnant water unless the blockage is cleared first.

Weekend detox plan

Raw food detox plans can weaken our digestive energy
This is an easy-to-follow, gentle detox plan which is suitable for anyone wishing to cleanse the body without taking expensive supplements or starving the body of nutrients. Raw food detox plans and juicing can be very effective but they should only be done under supervision of a nutritional adviser as they may have a detrimental effect on the overall health of those with weaker constitutions. According to TCM theory, eating an excessive amount of cold and raw food can have a detrimental effect on our ability to digest food and consequently in our strength and vitality (for more on this click here). For this reason it is recommended to consume small amounts of raw foods with larger amounts of lightly steamed fruits and vegetables which will be easier to digest and still contain plenty of water and nutrients.

If you have a chronic illness it is best to consult a practitioner before embarking on a detox plan, so that it can be adapted to your specific needs. A good TCM practitioner can help you with this.

In order for the detox to be the most effective at clearing your body and mind of winter toxicity and negativity, it is best if you can choose a weekend you can spend in solitude, rising and going to sleep early, and able to practice meditative exercises or going for gentle walks without having to perform any strenuous activities or feeling under pressure.

Things to avoid:

  • Anything that is toxic to the body such as: alcohol, tobacco, drugs, chocolate, coffee and any type of caffeine, chemical additives; and processed, greasy, and excessively spicy foods.
  • Foods that make our bodies prone to accumulate mucus and waste products such as dairy products, bread and anything containing yeast, sugar (especially refined sugar), processed and pre-packed foods, table salt, tinned foods and fruit juices from concentrate (particularly orange juice)
  • Acidic foods: Excessive acidity can cause a number of symptoms that involve inflammation, indigestion, and an inability to shed waste products from the cellular to the systemic level. Thus, in order to cleanse the body, we need to create an alkaline environment inside us. This can be easily achieved by avoiding the consumption of acid-forming foods and increasing the amount of alkaline foods that we eat. Alcohol, tobacco, dairy products, wheat, sugar, tea, coffee, and yeast are to blame for most of the acidity of the common UK diet. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergines (all from the nightshade family), kiwis, citrus fruits (but not lemons and limes) are also best avoided during a detox programme.
  • Even if you enjoy horror and action movies, heavy metal, and other types of entertainment that keep you on the edge of your seat, you will benefit much more
    Violence in any shape-best avoided during a detox
    from your detox if do not expose yourself to anything so intense. This also includes the news, as news can trigger a load of emotions without us being aware of them. Just as we need to put gentle and cleansing food into the body, we need to put gentle and cleansing thoughts into our mind so that we can have a clearer and purer perspective afterwards.

Before you start your detox stock up on the following:

  • Fresh fruit: apples, pears, and black grapes and other fruits that you fancy apart from citrus fruit
  • Fresh vegetables: Particularly  leafy green veggies like curly kale, spring greens, spinach and also broccoli, onions, garlic, carrots and salad vegetables such as celery, watercress, lettuce, and bean sprouts. All of these aid detoxification and are great sources of vitamins and antioxidants. Get any other vegetables that you enjoy.
  • Limes or lemons: A cup of hot water with the juice of a lime or a lemon is the best way to start the day because it helps the liver flush out any waste products.
  • Herbal teas: Nettle tea is highly detoxifying for the whole system, while chrysanthemum flowers, fresh mint, and dandelion teas are excellent to cool down the Liver and flush out toxicity. Fennel tea is excellent after meals as it promotes digestion. If you feel nervous get some chamomile tea to help with anxiety and to aid sleep. Avoid black tea.
  • Herbs for cooking: thyme, basil, bayleaf and any other herbs you enjoy, avoid spices for the time being, you can use liberal amounts of fresh parsley and coriander instead.
  • If you cannot live without milk get some soya products but use them sparingly. Get the milks that only contain organic non-GM soya beans and water. Other milks are full of unwanted artificial vitamins that your body will understand as toxins.
  • Porridge oats, dried (unsulfured) fruit, seeds and honey can make lovely breakfasts. If you find any unprocessed sugar-free breakfast cereals they are ok as well.
  • Tahini (sesame seed  paste)
  • Lean organic chicken, fresh fish, fresh tofu, sprouted beans, fresh green beans, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are all good sources of protein for your detox.
  • If you miss bread too much get some sourdough rye bread which doesn’t contain yeast, also try rye crackers (check that they don’t have yeast) or rice cakes
  • Brown rice and millet make excellent staples for any meal, also get some sweet potatoes for baking, they are highly nutritious, alkaline and delicious.
  • Essential oils: Lavender for relaxation-can be burnt in your bedroom or added to your bath
  • Some inspirational reading and films. Biographies of people you admire, books on
    Cleansing the mind is as important as cleansing the body
    spiritual matters that concern you or that you are curious about, or self-help books related to how you feel at the moment and films with positive messages that are not full of violence or anything upsetting.
  • Beautiful gentle music, such as JS Bach Brandemburg concertos or cello music, classical Indian music, traditional celtic music, or anything that makes you feel calm and relaxed 
  • A meditation or relaxation cd may also be helpful to guide you into a relaxed state of mind.

The detox

Start preparing for the detox on Friday by avoiding toxins during that day and going to bed early that evening. Spend Saturday and Sunday by yourself if you can not only eating foods to nourish and cleanse your body but also keeping your mind quiet and your whole being calm and relaxed.

A daily plan can be as follows:
  1. Go to bed early so that you get up early and follow the natural rhythm of your body.
  2. On Waking: Drink a small cup of hot water with lime or lemon juice. This helps the body flush out waste products and aids liver function (the liver is the organ that gets rid of toxins)
  3. This is the best time to do some meditation and gentle stretching. If you have no meditation practice you can try the breathing exercise from my post on how to breath consciously followed by 15 minutes of gentle yoga, pilates or stretching exercises. Be careful not to push yourself too hard, remember the weekend is for helping the body cleanse not for punishing yourself.
  4. Have a big glass of warm water at least 15 minutes before breakfast
  5. Have some breakfast of porridge with pumpkin and sesame seeds, some raisins and apricots and a little fresh juice, soya milk or soya yogurt. Alternatively you can have sugar-free cereal with dried fruit and a little honey with warmed up soya milk. Stewed or steamed fruit such as pears served with cinnamon, dried fruit, seeds and honey can also make a good detoxifying breakfast. Follow with a herbal tea such as nettle or dandelion.
  6. Go for a gentle stroll around a nearby park to aid digestion, calm the mind, oxygenate the body and put you in touch with nature, or you can spend the morning reading something inspirational or doing something creative.
  7. Drink a large glass of warm water or a large mug of nettle or dandelion tea.
  8. If you fancy a mid-morning snack have a large apple or a pear. If you are hungrier than that have a couple rye crackers or rice cakes with tahini
  9. Have another large glass of warm water at least 15 minutes before lunch.
  10. Have an early lunch no later than 1 pm. Try steam-fried veggies: just toss some onion, garlic and varied veg onto the dry wok, stirring constantly until they are a bit brown, add a little water and herbs for flavouring and put the lid on to steam them for 2 minutes. Towards the end add some bean sprouts or grilled chicken and serve with brown rice. If the weather is warm a warm salad combining cooked and raw vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, fish or tofu and served with millet or brown rice can be a good option. Follow with a herbal tea such as fennel or nettle.
  11. If you didn’t go for a stroll in the morning you can do so half an hour or so after lunch. Altenatively, read something inspirational or pursue your artistic interest such as playing a musical instrument, painting, knitting, etc.
  12. Have another large glass of warm water or a large mug of herbal tea such as chrystanthemum, nettle, dandelion, or fresh mint.
  13. Afternoon snack can be more fruit, rice cakes or a smoothie made with fresh fruit, honey and either water or a little soya milk or soya yogurt
  14. Have another large glass of warm water at least 15 minutes before dinner.
  15. Have an early dinner no later than 7 pm. It can consist of steamed veggies with grilled chicken, fish or tofu with a baked sweet potato; or a large bowl of freshly made vegetable soup seasoned with thyme and bayleaf and served with sourdough bread. Follow with a herbal tea such as fennel.
  16. Have a glass of warm water or a large mug of chamomile tea around one hour before going to bed.
  17. Go to bed early, no later than 10 pm.

When you finish your weekend detox, try to continue getting to bed and rising early as well as eating healthily and drinking plenty of fluids as well as keeping toxicity to a minimum for at least a few days. If you wish you can repeat the detox after a few months and even try it for a whole week. 

Having a balanced diet will in itself prevent the accumulation of toxins and prevent disease. For tips on how to have a healthy diet refer to my previous posts on TCM concepts of diet and nutrition.

Friday 29 March 2013

What real food is and why we need it

The recent scandals involving edible products that we are being sold by supermarkets in the UK and Europe -horse meat being sold as beef (1) and cheap fish varieties presented as more expensive ones (2)- are only the tip of the iceberg of a massive problem that affects us all. At the centre of this problem lies the food industry which, thanks to the blind eye of the law-makers, has managed to put into our food chain things that are hardly fit for
From healthy corn to sugar-laden flakes?
human consumption, let alone nutritious. This is just one example of the damaging consequences of a profit-driven world where entire industries are prepared to go to any lengths to maximise profits. In the case of the food industry this means making the most money out of the cheapest ingredients. Although this is appalling behaviour and those behind the misleading information given to consumers should be held accountable, the responsibility of what we put into our mouths ultimately lies on each of us. If we willingly stop exercising our power of discernment in respect to our food and render ourselves easy prey to clever advertising, then we cannot put the whole blame on the system, the food industry, or the supermarkets.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a country where local ripe fruit, fresh vegetables, and meats taken directly from the animal were cheaper than anything processed or pre-packed. When I first came to the UK over 18 years ago, it struck me that the opposite was true: Canned vegetables and fruit were cheaper than their fresh counterparts and anaemic-looking meats that had been packed for who-knows-how-long populated the supermarket shelves while chocolates, biscuits and crisps always seemed to be the most affordable products. People around me could not seem to do without the crisps and chocolates even for one day but fruit and vegetables did not seem that essential. Sadly, little has changed since then.

There is obvious confusion around what “food” is and is not, and a lack of understanding as well as abundant misinformation about what we actually need to eat in order to not just curb our hunger but be healthy human beings. Although plenty of studies show us that what we eat affects our health and there is talk of “we are what we eat” everywhere we look, this knowledge does not seem to have become part of our collective consciousness yet, or maybe we cannot be bothered to think about it? 
What food IS

Provided an expecting mother has a balanced and varied diet herself, her baby can obtain nourishment that will provide all the essential nutrients needed to form every cell and tissue of the body and promote growth and healthy development. This happens because during gestation we get our nourishment directly from our mother through the umbilical cord. After birth, it is our mother’s milk that provides all these essential nutrients until we are ready to receive food. From this point onwards and for the rest our lives, our development and health will depend on the nutritional content of what we eat and our capacity to extract goodness from it. Every cell and tissue of our bodies will then be made up of the nutrients received from what we ingest.

Animals are programmed to play their particular part in the food chain and instinctively know what to eat. Human beings are no different, we too carry the instinctive knowledge of what to eat and also of what is good and bad for us.  What happens to us when we override this instinct with “acquired knowledge”? What we are seeing all around us: obesity, devastated immune systems, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease reaching epidemic levels. An example of this “acquired knowledge” serving us wrong is seen in people who despite being lactose-intolerant have been consuming milk throughout their lives because it is “good for you”, and as a result have always suffered from indigestion, gas, allergies, etc. When I see a case like this in the clinic, it invariably turns out that even though the person did not “know” about their intolerance, they can recall feeling sickened by milk during childhood and being force-fed dairy products until it became a habit to consume them. More often than not, symptoms markedly improve after cutting out dairy from the diet. When we pair this willingness to override the messages from our body with marketing strategies designed to convince us that this or that food is great for us, then we are in even greater trouble. But I am straying here from the point, we now need to go back to basics. 

So what makes something a food?  I would say that for an edible product to be classified as “food” -i.e. a good source of energy and nourishment to make healthy cells - it must be:

1. Nutrient-rich: By this I mean natural nutrients which are necessary for our sustained energy and health such as complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, etc. “Added” chemicals resembling vitamins or proteins do not necessarily count as nutrients any more than what our clever food industry calls “natural” colourings or flavourings. We are genetically programmed to eat stuff of vegetable and animal origin, not chemicals forcefully extracted by man from something that was once natural, or produced in a lab to mimic something natural. These substances may end up clogging up our whole system as they cannot be dealt with by the body.

2. Clean: Free from dirt, harmful bacteria and disease.

3. Fresh: When food is in its natural form, it is easy to tell that it is past its time as it will look withered and colourless or it will decay and decompose. Preservatives that stop food from “looking” old do not necessarily preserve its freshness or nutritional value, they simply prevent decay. A tasting session comparing fresh products such as bread from a good bakery and fresh carrots from the greengrocer’s with their long shelf-life counterparts may show this to you better than words.

4. Composed only of natural substances:  Real food is not riddled with chemicals, preservatives, colourings, flavourings or ingredients so far away from their natural form that they have no nutrients left in them (see No 5 below)

5. The closest possible to its original form: The fresher a food stuff, the more nutrients it will contain; and the longer a food has been lying around, the lesser its nutritional content. This also goes for processing, the more you do to a food, the more nutrients you will take out of it. Many techniques have been developed by man to transform food in order to change its potency or quality, prevent it from decaying so that it can be kept for leaner seasons, or simply to avoid the boredom of eating the same thing over and over.  These methods include blanching, freezing, drying, curing, fermenting, smoking, etc. Some of these techniques may actually infuse new nutrients into the foods when performed on very fresh food and in a natural way.  

Conversely, when a food is subjected to refinement or processing which extracts its nutrients until it is rendered empty of any goodness, it is no longer food. The best examples of these are white sugar (all its vitamins and minerals being left in molasses during refinement), white flour (all its protein, minerals, and fibre being left in the husks and wheat germ), and pre-packed meals (frozen or not) whose ingredients are so empty of flavour and nutrients that a whole load of flavourings, colourings, sugar and fats are needed to make them edible.

What food IS NOT

Not Food
If we follow the above criteria, many of us will find in horror that many of our favourite edible products end up in the "not food" list. There go the crisps, chocolates, biscuits, cakes, many of the pre-made sauces, all ready meals, puddings, soft drinks, and so on. This may sound quite extreme but a profound and radical change in our concept of food and what eating is about is actually needed if we are to promote and sustain our own health and well-being. Unless this is done, most of us - even the reasonably healthy ones - are going to suffer from at least one of the many chronic, often degenerative conditions that are becoming more and more common in the world: diabetes, heart disease, obesity with all the problems that it brings, cancer, dementia, chronic fatigue, etc.  

Before you panic, this does not necessarily mean we need to completely ditch all the products mentioned above, and the many others not mentioned. It just means that when thinking of what to eat we need to be aware that most things that come out of a packet - apart from natural nuts, natural dried fruit, reasonably fresh fruit and veg, and similarly un-tampered food - can be high in toxicity and comparatively poor in nutrients so if we rely on them to curb our hunger or cravings too often we are not only not giving ourselves a chance to have good energy but we are potentially encouraging the creation of faulty cells and disease in the future. 

Why do we need real food?

Food is the basic ingredient of every single human cell
Every single cell in our bodies goes through a cycle of development, maturation and death; and every second of the day new cells are being created. Not only does this amount of cell reproduction require a huge amount of energy, but also a good source of raw material is needed for each single cell to be made. The energy for cell reproduction and the quality of the raw material to make our cells both depend to a large extent on the kind of nutrition that we are getting from our food. In other words, the quality of our food will account for the quality of our cells. Failing to nourish ourselves properly will result in faulty cells, faulty tissues, and faulty bodily functions which may result in chronic diseases including Cancer (3).

It is not always easy to determine the freshness of a food as the food industry has developed ways to make everything look fresh and tempting. Whether you have access or not to a market or a greengrocer’s where vegetables and fruit tend to be fresher and more natural, you can use your senses to find out about the food you are buying. You can determine if a banana is healthy or not just by looking at it, if a tomato is good by gently squeezing it, if the greens are old by looking through them, if a pineapple is ripe by sniffing it, etc. You can then let your instinct guide you to buy the best produce.With our modern time constraints, we have understandably become accustomed to “easy” and “quick” food and the idea of always cooking meals from scratch using fresh meat, grains, and vegetables always seems like a steep demand. It is also now deeply ingrained in our culture that every desire must be satisfied for us not to experience a sense of lacking. This way of thinking only makes us more unhappy as it makes us override the inbuilt wisdom we have had from birth and which allows us to know what is good and bad in favour of instant gratification which can only bring more craving and dis-ease.

Rather than taking guilt trips about our eating habits or fretting about changing the way we eat from one day to the next, what we all need to do is learn to make better food choices. For example, if there is no time to chop up vegetables and cook them it may be better to go for frozen than for the anaemic-looking already chopped and peeled carrots that say “fresh” in the packet but look old. We can also train ourselves to identify a processed food that has no real nutritional value because it contains only non-food ingredients and instead choose something less harmful to our health, or, if we often resort to pre-packed meals, we may be wise enough to go through the list of ingredients to check how many non-foods are listed and choose the one that is better for us.

Let us not forget that the food industry is more interested in profit than it is in our health. They want to sell us things that we will later crave because they give us short-lived pleasure resulting from chemical enhancers, excessive amounts of sugar, or other substances. Unfortunately, the pleasure that feeling well on a regular basis can give us is not part of our picture until we start to feel really unwell. Only then we might realise that what we feed ourselves every day does make a difference to the way we feel both physically and mentally. Is our daily intake of sugar, soft drinks or pre-packed meals worth the risk of a life-time with an incurable illness, or is our own well-being worth a little readjustment in our habits? The answer is down to each of us.