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Aging Well with Chinese Herbs

by Shihan Mary Bolz
Licensed Acupuncturist
Master of Science Oriental Medicine
Master Martial Arts Instructor

In most of Asia, elders are respected and even revered. In Japan, there are many programs on television that interview people who are very skilled and respected for their work or their art. Most all of these people are 65 years old and above. It is at this time of life that they are in their prime as far as knowledge and experience goes. Even though Japan has gotten very Westernized, especially Americanized, there is still quite a large difference in how the Japanese treat the elderly as compared with the United States. But now that the United States is experiencing a boom in this age group, that may change. The purpose of this article is to advise people of some optional methods of health care that can enhance the aging process so people can live full lives that are still productive and happy until the very end. Why not? That is the way nature intended.  When illness arises, it is because preventive measures have not been taken and we can all learn what those are to enhance our life.  There is a preponderance of diseases related to aging recently, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, osteoporosis, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, arthritis, and hearing and vision loss, just to name a few.  Since 1985 the average number of pharmaceutical drugs prescribed per person has increased 33% and older patients are 6 times more likely to receive the new and heavily marketed drugs than other age groups.  According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease tops the leading causes of death in the United States, at approximately 40%, followed by cancer and cerebral vascular accidents, commonly known as strokes.  On the other hand, life expectancy has increased. The number of people who smoke has decreased and more Americans are lifetime abstainers from alcohol. Along with proper daily living and eating, herbal supplementation during various stages of life can lay an essential foundation for supporting longevity and health.

The tradition of Chinese herbal medicine has long been immersed in the pursuit of formulations to prevent, or at least slow, loss of vitality and essence.  The kidneys are essential and are at the root of youth and vigor. When the kidneys are in a state of decline, the physical, mental and spiritual effect of time are experienced. Some symptoms related to kidney decline are poor bone development or deterioration, loose teeth, weakness of the knees, tinnitus, dizziness, impotence, infertility, premature graying of the hair and poor concentration and memory. Deterioration of the kidneys and heart can cause stress that may lead to difficulties of the spirit on a psychological and emotional level. When the kidneys are depleted, the proper interaction of the kidneys and lungs can be disturbed creating respiratory insufficiency often associated with aging. The kidney essence naturally declines with age, and to prevent its untimely loss, it is necessary to encourage balance of Yin and Yang in the body while a person is still in good health.  There are many traditional and modern Chinese medicine formulas developed by renowned Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners for diseases related to the aging process. It is important that a person is evaluated by a qualified Chinese Medicine herbalist before taking herbs.  One size of shoe does not fit all and neither does one formulation of herbs or single herb fit all. The underlying pattern and condition of each person must be carefully evaluated. Going out and buying herbs on oneʼs own without knowing all the ins and outs of herbal pharmacology is not wise. Some herbs may even make the condition worse or just be a waste of money, although not harmful.  There are herbs that come under the classification of adaptogenic herbs.

An adaptogen is defined as a substance that assists the organism to react to stresses, as well as increases the bodyʼs nonspecific resistance, or ability to cope with internal and external stresses, and normalizes the functions of the bodily systems. Adaptogens can assist the adrenals to recharge, stabilize hormone production and regulate blood sugar levels. Much of the research on the herb Eleuthero root, formerly known as Siberian ginseng (ci wu jia), has been done in Russia, where it is used to increase resistance to colds, flu and stress. It also offers protection from radiation and environmental toxins. Eleuthero root is an important ingredient in one famous anti-aging tonic along with Cordyceps, (dong chong xia cao in Chinese, tou chuu ka sou, in Japanese). Cordyceps also can eliminate cough and phlegm because it affects the Lung channel as well as the Kidney channel.

Ginseng was revered by ancient herbalists as “strengthening the five viscera and extending oneʼs life.” In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we say that it supplements Qi, strengthens the five viscera, benefits the Heart and calms the Spirit. It is especially useful as a tonic for weakness and debility after an illness or long period of stress. Chinese ginseng is more hot while American ginseng (xi yang sheng) is a more cooling type of ginseng.

Ganoderma, (ling zhi, in Chinese) or reishi (Japanese word), is known inancient China as the “immortality herb,” and was ranked by scholars as more valuable than ginseng. Recent studies have stressed its immunomodulatory activity in cancer research for radiation treatment and anti-tumor activity while enhancing the bodyʼs own immune system. The terpenes in reishi help counter bacteria and viruses and have been found to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities that can lower blood pressure and blood lipids and generally slow down the aging process. It is used extensively in Japan for the treatment of cancer. Reishi is also reputed to be a natural mood elevator. It is important, once again, to be evaluated by a qualified TCM practitioner before using these herbs. The herbs can have the opposite effect if taken in certain body types and conditions. Given that, herbal medicine can be a very wonderful preventataive and treatment, that is all natural without any side effects if taken properly for the right condition. In certain cases where a person has an intolerance to the herbs or is taking too many medications that may react with the herbs, the way to go is acupuncture. Acupuncture is completely neutral and will not react with any type of treatment, whether Eastern or Western. Usually, most TCM practitioners recommend both, but there are certain cases where only one of these modalities is chosen. Some food for thought. You may want to explore your options.

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