Symptoms such as swelling, numbness, fatigue, a sense of heaviness, aching muscles and joints, and a ‘muzzy’ headache, among other things, are often regarded as indicative of what Traditional Chinese Medicine calls ‘Dampness’, the over-retention of moisture within the body. Many people who come for acupuncture treatment are affected by this condition – for example it is often involved in chronic diseases like multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Where does this Dampness come from? Traditionally it is associated with climatic dampness – someone working outside in persistent wet weather, and who is not sufficiently protected from the elements, is liable to be affected, as is someone living in a damp house. But another factor is diet – certain foods, among which are dairy products, are regarded as Damp forming, at least if not taken in moderation. So people afflicted with Dampness are often advised to cut down on dairy products, or even to cut them out altogether, at least for a while.
But what about calcium? Dairy products are widely regarded as a prime source of this mineral, which is thought to be important for a number of reasons, one of which is the maintenance of bone health. Cutting out dairy might be regarded as counterproductive, especially perhaps in people who are at risk of osteoporosis, such as menopausal and post-menopausal women. Fortunately dairy is not the only possible source of calcium, which is also found in some green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage, soya beans and tofu, nuts, and in fish where you eat the bones, like pilchards and sardines. Some dairy substitutes like soya milk are often calcium enriched.
So it is quite possible to get enough calcium without consuming much or any dairy, and indeed there are numerous peoples around the world who don’t consume dairy products and whose bone health does not seem to suffer. This latter fact might make us question just how essential dairy products are for bone health, and a look at some of the research does nothing to allay such doubts. For instance, a study of 72,237 postmenopausal women followed over an 18 year period showed, amazingly, no reduction in the risk of an osteoporotic hip fracture either by drinking milk or by taking calcium supplements(1) . A meta-analysis published in 2007 found no significant association of calcium intake with hip fracture either in men or women(2).
At any rate, even if calcium is one of the nutrients required for healthy bones, it is not the only one, and it would be a mistake to think that all you need to do to keep your bones healthy is to drink some milk. It might be instructive to cast a glance at the traditional Chinese medical approach to the matter. In Traditional Chinese Medicine bone health is dependent on something called ‘Jing’, often translated as ‘Essence’. Jing is like a more condensed version of Qi and is the essential foundation of human life. To some extent it relates to our idea of ‘constitution’; someone with abundant Jing will have a strong constitution. Jing is in part inherited from our parents, and is what we pass on to our children, if we have them. Jing is also closely related to fertility; abundant Jing means we will tend to be fairly fecund.
As we pass through the stages of life, our Jing will gradually become depleted, so that in old age we will become more vulnerable to disease, less able to reproduce, and our bones will lose some of their strength. However, the extent to which this happens , and this is the crucial point, depends very much on the way we live. The Jing we have from our parents ls like the hand of cards we are dealt; a hand may be a good or bad one, but it is up to us to play our cards well, or badly. Even if we inherit a relatively poor supply of Jing, we can learn to manage that supply wisely, so that we live longer and healthier than someone who starts out with strong Jing but fritters it away in a life of foolishness and excess.
Traditionally Chinese people have aimed to live lives which conserve Jing into old age, by living in harmony with the natural world around them, and with the internal, emotional world within, maintaining an harmonious balance between Yin and Yang. For instance, this would involve finding an appropriate mix of activity (Yang) and rest (Yin). Excessive activity over a period of time – and what is excessive will vary from person to person, and from one time of life to another, so that we need a certain amount of self-knowledge and awareness – will mean our Jing becoming depleted more quickly than it should be. Too little activity, on the other hand, is just as bad. This harmony may be enhanced by specific mediation and breathing exercises designed to help maintain and restore Jing.
How we nourish ourselves through food will also of course play a part in our conserving Jing into middle and old age. A balanced and healthy diet, one appropriate indeed to our individual characteristics and circumstances, will be important, but in the specific matter of conserving and even restoring Jing, certain foods are particularly useful. Seeds, for instance, which contain all the nutrients necessary for the growth of a plant or tree, are useful in nourishing Jing, as are foods from the sea such as seaweed and algae. For meat eaters, animal bone marrow is a good source of Jing, and soups and stews made from animal bones are a traditional Jing tonic. More detailed advice on nourishing Jing can be found in Daverick Leggett’s book, ‘Recipes for Self Healing’.
This traditional Chinese approach suggests that simply focusing on the idea that calcium is what is needed for strong bones is simplistic, and that even thinking solely in terms of diet is not enough. What is needed is a way of life which cherishes and conserves what is most precious within us – not for nothing is Jing, along with Qi and Shen (spirit, or mind), referred to as one of the three Treasures – so that we can grow old gracefully and maintain strong bones, amongst other things, despite the advancing years. Simply drinking more milk or popping a calcium tablet seems rather inadequate by comparison.
1. Feskanich D. et al (2003) Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Feb;77(2):504-11
2. Bischoff-Ferrari HA et al (2007) Calcium intake and hip fracture risk in men and women: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies and randomized controlled trials .Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Dec;86(6):1780-90