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Live long, live well – lessons from the Nei Jing

The origins of Chinese medicine can be traced back at least 4000 years when the seminal text, the Neijing was written. Its wisdom and teachings are still just as relevant today as they were back then. At its core is the search for the formula for a long and healthy life – now, as then, we all want to live to a ripe old age in the best of health and avoid chronic illness. 

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In the opening chapter the Neijing discusses the lifestyles of “the ancient people” in contrast to the contemporary population. According to it, the ancient people lived for 100 years because they “understood the principle of balance”. The book notes however, that contemporary people of 4000 years ago, lived their lifestyle as follows:

“They drink wine as though it were water, indulge excessively in destructive activities, drain their… body’s essence…. Seeking emotional excitement and momentary pleasures, people disregard the natural rhythm… They fail to regulate their lifestyle and diet, and sleep improperly. So it is not surprising that they look old at fifty and die soon after” [p. 1, translation by M. Ni, 1995]

This could just as easily be the lifestyles of those living today. In our modern times, skipping meals or overeating, regularly going to bed too late, over or underdoing exercise and regular overindulgence are commonplace and contribute to many of the chronic pains and illnesses suffered today.

Prevention of illness and longevity is fundamental to Chinese medicine principals and is explained in the Neijing. People should look after their health by living a harmonious balanced lifestyle and thus avoid the need for acupuncture treatment or other medical intervention. This balance, followed by the “ancient people” was achieved by not overdoing anything (food, sleep or activity), by doing the right amount of exercise and relaxation, by eating a balanced diet at regular times, with a regular sleeping pattern, and the avoidance of excessive physical and mental stress. The need for exercise and a healthy diet is increasingly recognised in modern health advice but frequently it fails to mention the importance of balance within that.

Living a life out of balance can affect health in a huge variety of ways but similarly health can be improved by finding the right balance. There are four key areas where appropriate balance needs to be found to help optimise health.

  1. Nurturing of the mind

  2. Regulation of food and drink

  3. Nurturing of body through work, rest and exercise

  4. Regulation of sleep.

Examples of ailments due to imbalance that I often see in my acupuncture clinic are general feelings of stress which may be accompanied by symptoms such as insomnia or anxiety. When discussing their lifestyle it becomes clear that they are overdoing things. They may be working long hours and still squeezing in regular trips to the gym or jogging, they may be skipping meals, eating late and perhaps they are also checking emails and social media late in the evening. They often are not having enough true relaxation time where they allow their mind and body to be still. The result can be that the mind goes into overdrive, overthinking things and unable to switch off at bedtime. Acupuncture can help by helping to restore the balance and enable improved sleep as well as reducing the stress and help to calm the mind. This helps to reset things to build a renewed foundation of health. However, improvements will be better felt and longer lasting alongside adjustments towards a more balanced lifestyle that is more appropriate to the constitution of the individual.

There is a lot that can be understood about modern day afflictions and their causes and cures through the studying of ancient Chinese medical wisdom. Practitioners of the branches of Chinese medicine (including acupuncture) have a unique understanding of ill health and its deviation from optimal health through imbalance. Acupuncture treatments are carefully selected according to the individual’s diagnosis, to restore balance. This diagnosis is arrived at through understanding in what way different areas of normal function are out of balance and learning what in the individual’s lifestyle and constitution could have caused this. Acupuncture gets to the root of the cause by improving the balance and therefore improving the symptoms. However, part of the treatment will also include dietary and lifestyle advice, which will help the individual to maintain that balance.

Reference: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Neijing Suwen), translated by M. Ni, (1995), Shambhala, Boston, MA.

Jill Storstein is an acupuncturist and member of the British Acupuncture Council. She works at Offizone, Kenmore Street, Aberfeldy PH15 2BL. Website:, Tel: 07772 501810

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