Wednesday, 2 January 2013


In ancient China, doctors were paid to keep people healthy. They were not paid if the patient became sick. That truly is preventative medicine. There is a fundamental difference between the Western approach to life and the Eastern approach. People like me with complex chronic illnesses can learn a lot.

I have a Chinese girlfriend who has taught me a huge amount about life and different ways to think about and deal with problems. She is extremely pragmatic and if there is a problem she always wants to know exactly what is causing it. She is incredibly observant. For her, “good” and “bad” are unhelpful labels. Just like Ying and Yang, things are never 100% good or 100% bad. Things which seem good in one context may be bad in another and vice versa.   

What matters is whether something is real or unreal, true or false and how you deal with it. She is fiercely realistic. She is also fiercely positive because she is very resourceful, adaptable and creative that she always believes she can figure out how to find a different way to achieve things.

In fact she completely changed my attitude to physio. Before I met her I was very self-conscious about it and basically tried to hide it. She had done a lot of research about CF herself when she first met me and she knew what I should be doing! She eventually persuaded me to show her what I did and share it with her. She watched me doing physio (in those days, postural drainage and active cycle of breathing) and she thought it was brilliant and even quite cool. She thought the whole thing was a bit like yoga. She thought it would be a good thing for everyone to do not just people with CF and she sometimes even does some of the techniques herself when she feels the need.

Her attitude and support helps me enormously; she has helped me to let go of vanity, forget about how things look and focus on the results. She has been great for my health and my sense of self.

In addition to all this confidence-boosting and pragmatism, she has also taught me a lot about Chinese medicine and philosophy. I have been to China several times, I have done business in China, I speak a little bit of Chinese and I have got to know lots of Chinese people.

Of course I am making some major generalisations here but I believe they are valid. In the West, people tend to think they can do whatever they want and when things go wrong they can just take a magic pill and everything will be okay again. We love the idea of quick fixes and avoiding responsibility for our actions.  The media and companies trying to sell us things (temptation followed neatly by redeeming cure) encourage this way of thinking because it suits their commercial interests.

We don’t like to think too much about the underlying causes of problems. We like to compartmentalise things; thinking about specific problems in isolation rather than as part of a whole. We are always fire-fighting rather than acting to prevent things happening in future. I believe this is how we think and, frankly, how the NHS and politicians operate too.    

The Chinese approach is different. They think about the body mechanically and as an integrated system. Much like a machine, the body is dependent on what you put into it. We wouldn’t put the wrong fuel in our cars so why are we so much less respectful of our own bodies.  For us, medicine is a sort of self-contained subject separate from everyday life - something doctors talk about and which happens in clinics and hospitals.

For Chinese, everything is medicine and everyone has a responsibility to know about how to be healthy and avoid illness. Things like exercise, massage, sleep, hydration, food and drink are all “medical” things in the sense they all have an important effect on health.  It is amazing how much Chinese people think about what is in their food, how different ingredients are digested and the “function” of the food on the body. This is a much more integrated way of thinking and it seems more grown up.

Food therapy is key aspect of Chinese medicine and the lungs are considered to be the primary driver of overall health. I tend to get a very dry, tickly cough and I have a fast cough reflex. Chinese believe this is caused by an excess of heat (Yang) in the respiratory system. They call this “lungfire” and one treatment is to eat certain Ying (cooling) foods to restore the balance.

Good Ying foods to nourish the lungs are: pears, apricot, black grape, grapefruit, orange peel, tangerine, water chestnut, radish, ginger, onion, yam, carrot, peppermint, chrysanthemum flower (in tea), honey, duck and pork.  

Garlic is generally recommended for its ability to kill bacteria, detoxify and promote digestion.

Drinking water which is around body temperature is believed to be better for you than drinking cold water. It is supposed to be much easier for your system to process. I find drinking warm water more soothing and it helps me, more than cold water, in getting coughing fits under control.

I would be very careful about taking Chinese herbal medicine as such and I would not do anything that might conflict with my normal regime of treatment. I would definitely talk to my doctor before doing anything with a “medical” aspect in the Western sense.

I am not saying the Chinese approach is perfect - far from it - but some aspects of it do seem more sensible than the Western approach. After all, they have been around for about 4,000 years, there are 1.4 billion of them and some of them live into their 120’s. I would love to see a new kind of medicine evolve combining the best of both worlds.


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