No, You’re Not “Just Getting Old”

birthday candlesYears ago, my co-worker’s daughter turned 17. For some reason this was a hard birthday for her and she complained to her mom that she felt really old. My friend couldn’t help laughing, but her daughter looked her straight in the eye and said, “Mom, I know it doesn’t seem old to you. But this is the oldest I have ever been in my whole entire life!!”

I love this story. And I love it because she spoke the truth. That sentence is, in fact, true all the time for all of us — we are always older than we’ve ever been before.

Against this backdrop, our health is constantly changing. In very subtle ways, from day to day, our bodies are different; and sometimes the changes from health to illness and back again are very dramatic. Whenever things get worse, we are also getting older. But when we get better, we’re getting older too.

A 54-year-old woman, an avid gardener, came into my office with knee pain. “I guess this is just what it’s like in your 50s”, she said. I told her I was treating a 22-year-old with debilitating knee pain, and an 80-year-old who knelt in her garden for hours without any trouble at all. It was her knees, not her age, that were the problem. (She was back to gardening, pain-free, in about 6 weeks).

Aging and Chinese Medicine

Of course, aging is real. Our bodies do mature, change, and decline over time. Chinese medicine describes this in terms of “Kidney jing” – the life force energy we are born with, inherited from our parents, that we draw on throughout our lives. Many of the common signs of aging – gray hair, loss of hearing, back pain, decreased sexual energy, urinary problems – are directly tied to the Kidneys in Chinese medicine.

There is also an issue of accumulated wear and tear. Our bodies suffer various insults all the time, from car accidents to sleep deprivation, long hours at the computer, intense emotional stress, and run-of-the-mill bumps and bruises. In many cases, it’s not so much that our tissues are old, more that we’ve been around long enough to rack up a lot of minor compromises to the body.

Chinese medicine has all kinds of ways to support and nourish the “Kidneys”, repair tissues, improve circulation and healing, and boost energy levels. Often this is done in the context of a specific injury or health complaint, but is equally effective as a way to support overall well-being.

I feel sad when I hear people write off their suffering by saying “I’m just getting old.” At every age, the body is capable of a great deal of healing. If anything, the challenges of aging call us to take better care of our bodies, and give them more support, rather than giving up.

How to Refill Your Own Reserves

tai chiWe live in a culture that emphasizes action and productivity, and leaves little room for rest and rejuvenation. This imbalance can cause us to burn out and age faster than necessary. Here are some ways to replenish your reserves on a day to day basis:

Meditation, Tai Chi, and Yoga

These activities tap into a deeper state of focus and relaxation that nourishes and rejuvenates the body and spirit. They know this in China, and in the early mornings you will see groups of older people practicing tai chi in parks all over the city.

Other Kinds of “Active Relaxation”

By this I mean a leisurely walk, a fun cooking project, making music or listening to music, dancing, or a relaxed dinner with friends. Unfortunately, watching TV doesn’t count. It’s true, you’re doing nothing, but TV is overstimulating and doesn’t nourish you in any way.

Make Sure You are Getting Enough Rest

This is obvious, but we forget it: the primary way the body heals and restores itself is through sleep. Make sure you’re getting enough. If you’re having trouble sleeping, here are some suggestions.

Find an Effective Stress Management Technique For Yourself

Nothing burns us out faster than constant stress and tension. Whatever your stress relievers are, make them a priority, whether it’s exercise, time with friends, support from a therapist, or spending time in nature.

Get Some Help

Acupuncture, massage and reiki all help your system reach a place of deep relaxation that refuels your tank. You can do a lot for yourself, but it’s wonderful, once in a while, to turn the job over to somebody else.