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The Skilful Use Of Water To Promote Health

The Chinese character 活 ‘huó’ meaning ‘life’ reflects the profound need of all life forms for water. There are two radicals in this character 活 huó. The left radical ‘氵’ means ‘water’. The right radical ’舌’ is the ‘tongue’.

Water 氵+ Tongue 舌 = Life 活

The body is eighty-five percent water. The basic component of our blood, and our cells, is water. When the water in the body is in balance, the skin is soft and glowing and the body is strong, supple and resistant to injury. The joints are well lubricated so that they function smoothly. The mouth produces plentiful saliva, like drops of clear, fresh liquid, there is no sensation of thirst and the appetite and bodyweight is well regulated.

Modern healthcare promotes high-tech, high-cost solutions to treat problems. I prefer to focus on the proactive, low-tech, low-cost solutions to promote health. With sufficient interest and motivation, you will achieve a superior result.

These days we often use Chinese medicine within a modern healthcare framework, that is to focus on treating problems and disease. In fact, the greatest practitioner of Chinese Medicine over the last 2000-years, 孫思邈 Sūn Sīmiǎo emphasises,

‘Only when your diet and lifestyle fail, should you use herbs and acupuncture’

It is my belief that his approach is correct and the true power of Chinese medicine is in the preventative.

Chinese medicine is a treasure trove of techniques and methods to support the underlying assumption,

‘When the human body is kept in harmonious balance, health and wellbeing will naturally be maintained’

In this article, our focus is on the skilful use of water.

I have experienced so many clients, as well as myself, benefit from these low-tech, low-cost solutions to promoting and maintaining health on a daily basis. Many of these points you will recognise from everyday Chinese culture, or perhaps your own traditional culture, and they are all associated with Chinese Medicine.

Let’s explore how the Chinese traditionally use hot and cold water to promote health.:

1. Water as a precious medium

 In Chinese medicine, water is considered the perfect medium for life and nutrition. Water embodies ‘yin’ as fire embodies ‘yang’. Water is seen as nourishment and a most precious vehicle that possesses the ability carry the essence and spirit of the plants, animals and minerals into our own human-body essence. We could simply eat those plants, animals and minerals, like other animals, however, the cooking process and using water as the medium is uniquely human and considered far more effective.

There is an ancient saying from Book of Rites, which dates back to the Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE-256 BCE), referring to the history of human beings which states, ’man discovered how to control fire and the sages arose’. I believe this is about how humans discovered how to cook and the consequent development of their cerebral cortex. Agricultural humans learnt, by building rhythm in their stomach’s with cooked food, greater levels of order and consciousness arose. Think about a herbal decoction. Now, think about a soup or porridge. Think about a cup of tea. The water absorbs the spirit of the ingredients, that infuses in your body better than eating the ingredients with less trouble for your digestion. Think bone broth, Scottish broth, minestrone, vegetable soups, herbal tea, stews and porridges. Think about their place in your cultural tradition. The ancients considered drinking plain water almost like we are missing an opportunity to fuse the spirit of animal or plant matter into our being. 

2. A glass of hot water in the morning

 There is a saying from the Chinese countryside, ‘a glass of hot water in the morning is worth more than any medicine money can buy’. This is an essential part of Chinese daily routine. Have you noticed whether you are at an Asian airport or in a countryside guesthouse besides the Great Wall, there is always hot water available to you. It rehydrates the body after a nights rest, hot water promotes ‘yang qi’ in the morning, both encouraging a bowel movement and preparing the body for the most important meal of the day. Availability of hot water is a sign of human civilisation for the Chinese. Try what we call yin-yang water, 50:50 ratio, room temperature water:boiling water. Sip it first thing in the morning. 

3. Learn to treasure soup, stew and porridge

 It is much better to take the majority of your liquid with proper and regular cooked meals, rather than between meals. I believe all of our cultures share this dietary wisdom – three proper meals a day, on time, that include moist foods. When I say, ‘proper meal’, I refer to eating until you are full and satisfied, without over doing it. The meal should contain mostly cooked grains, cooked vegetables and small amounts of meat and spices for enjoyment. The meal either includes porridge, traditionally breakfast, or a soup with lunch and dinner, will maximise digestive function.

For proper digestion, the ingredients, the volume and moisture content all contribute to outcome. Think of a chemical experiment and how the quantities, the liquid ratio and the heat all affect outcome. It is important the liquid is warm to maximise digestive function. It is nutritionally best to ingest liquid with plant or animal essence. An even higher level is to round the meal with soups that fill in missing flavours or ingredients to ‘complete’, or ‘round’, the meal. If you eat irregular dry meals and lots of liquid in between, your digestion, your body and your life will fail to reach optimal performance. 

4. Saliva as a measure of health:

 Saliva is considered natural ginseng of the body. Qi Gong and ancient longevity regime use daily exercises like clicking the teeth together sharply to encourage a greater flow of saliva. The condition of the body can be determined by inspecting the mouth for saliva. If the saliva clean and clear, like a healthy baby, good news. If the saliva is thick and sticky or has an unhealthy smell, then the body water is not clean and there will be associated imbalance. Such saliva, as well as phlegm from the nose, throat or chest should be spat out (politely). 

5. Use hot showers wisely

 Hot showers are great for cleaning yourself and slowing you down. Long hot showers drain Qi, forcing the pores open allowing the Qi to leak out. Cold showers are invigorating and stimulating and firm the pores of yours skin. In the past cold bathing referred to immersion directly in pools, rivers and lakes where the water temperature was usually less than 20 degrees celsius (68F). According to Chinese medicine, this makes this makes the body surface firmer and enhances resistance from external pathogens. Long-term benefits of taking cold baths include preventing headaches, insomnia, colds and flu, cardiovascular and airway diseases. They also promote mental function, stimulate digestion and improve the condition of the skin.

I recommend having a short hot shower and finish with 10-seconds of cold. The cold helps to stimulate internal activity and refresh your mind. Be cautious of frequent hot showers, especially in winter, as it robs the body of oils and moisture from the skin and makes you more vulnerable to the elements (cold-flu-stiff neck, etc), referred to as ‘wind’ in Chinese medicine. 

6. Avoid icy drinks

 In fact, there are only two occasions when ice water should be drunk. The first is when internal heat has become excessive due to hot weather and the second is to detoxify the effect of alcohol. Drinking ice water at other times can cause the blood vessels of the stomach to constrict, harming the Spleen and Stomach. At mealtimes, especially the blood supply to the stomach needs to flow freely and iced water inhibits the process of digestion. 

7. Drink more water if not feeling well, but be careful

 When you are not feeling well, drink more water to flush your body. This is useful as in many imbalances there is a pathological heat built up and flushing this through and clearing heat through urination is helpful. Be careful, as I find many of my clients suffer from dampness in the body and drink far too much water between meals and not enough moist foods with proper meals. Try switching this out and see for yourself. 

Don’t believe me or not believe me, try it for yourself! Remember, with wellness-orientated ideas, you do achieve superior results but they do take time and rely on repetitive input. Give it a go for three-months before you make an assessment.

For more Ancient Chinese Water Cures

Water is an important ingredient in Chinese medicine. The ancient Chinese believed that water had various effects, as its nature can be changed by seasons, environmental conditions and artificial means. The well known pharmacopeia , the 本草纲目 běncǎo gāngmù (Compendium of Materia Medica – 1578 ACE) has classified water into different types that provide a reference for clinical application.

Rainwater collected in spring is suitable for diaphoretic (sweat promoting) and Qi remedies. Water collected in summer is suitable for washing skin sores and intestinal cleansing; and that collected in winter is suitable for decoctions to get rid of parasites and relieve stagnated conditions. natural flowing water such as that from rivers and streams is suitable for decoctions treating limb problems and promoting urination and bowel movements. Water flowing upstream or against the current is beneficial for strokes, headaches, and throat problems.

Dew water collected in autumn has a lubricant nature, is good for decocting lung tonics and is used for topical applications. It also has particular effects based on the source of collection. For example, dew collected from flowers can enhance the complexion. Frost and snow water counteract conditions caused by excessive heat, such as fever, hang-overs, prickly heat and skin sores. If suffering the effects of a big night out, it is advised to put an ice cube in the midpoint between the breasts to help relieve symptoms of hangover.

Spring water is rich in minerals that help strengthen the body and slow ageing. Hot spring water is pungent and unsuitable for drinking. Bathing in it is beneficial for skin diseases, hair loss and limb and joint problems. Hot spring baths should not be taken too frequently, for too long or at too high a temperature.

Sea water helps relieve itchiness, and fungal infections if used in a hot bath. It can also be used as an emetic in case of poisoning.

It is well accepted that bathing can aid in healing or health maintenance. A hot bath (above 38°C/100°F) quiets and soothes the body by slowing down internal activity, which aids relaxation and promotes rest.

On the other hand, if you are too tired to work, you may try a warm (36-38°C/95-100°F) bath or shower followed by a short cold shower. The cold helps to stimulate internal activity and refresh your mind.

TCM physicians usually prescribe bathing or washing in conjunction with other approaches such as hot compresses, soaking and massage. They are some of the cheapest and safest remedies for common ailments and a number of those techniques, can be done at home. 

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.