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Don't Wait Till You're Thirsty to Dig the Well

Too often, patients come in for acupuncture as a last resort, desperate to feel better. They have tried “everything” and call me up saying that they’re “willing to try anything” to ease whatever is plaguing them (often it’s chronic pain, but can be anything from depression to hormonal imbalance to fatigue). The unfortunate reality is that usually patients don’t seek care until they are in pretty bad shape.

According to the CDC, in 2012, approximately half of all adults suffered from one or more chronic health conditions. And one in four adults had two or more! These numbers are on the rise and are responsible for the rapidly rising costs of healthcare.

According to these same statistics, chronic diseases are also the most preventable of all health problems!

There are many factors contributing to the widespread decline in health. Most notably a dearth of healthy, affordable food choices, quality preventive health care, and the time and resources to properly nourish self and family. These are real and complex problems, and I certainly don’t pretend to know how to solve them.

I do know that access to complementary and alternative health care is also on the rise, with some insurers covering some or all of acupuncture, chiropractic and other services. Additionally, more and more people are looking to holistic modalities as they find western medicine unable to meet their complex needs.

Don’t get me wrong, western medicine is great for certain things, but the current healthcare system leaves little room for prevention and wellness-based care. The next step in the evolution towards natural medicine is taking better care of ourselves before things get so bad that there are one or more chronic issues at play.

I know from experience that this is really hard. We are a society plagued by busy-ness, with high stress jobs and unreasonable work hours celebrated and aspired to. Because of the highly demanding lifestyle of so many Americans, self-care is often pushed to the back burner until our bodies really start to give out. Unfortunately many people ignore early symptoms because they feel they have no choice but to keep pushing themselves, OR they are given medications that manage symptoms but may make things worse in the long run.

I believe we can each take a role in preventive health even within the context of complex lives. Here are some ways:

  • Become mindful of the messages your body is sending you. Common issues like pain, tiredness or low grade anxiety are never “nothing,” especially from the standpoint of Chinese and other holistic medicines. They are the body’s way of telling you that something isn’t working. Simple awareness of these symptoms can be a great first step towards prevention.

  • Identify small changes that you can comfortably make to improve your health and quality of life. These should be reasonable goals within the context of your life. If it feels like added stress, find something that feels easier and actually inspiring!

  • Support others in your life by insisting that they take care of themselves. Don’t let family members go to work sick, or co-workers stay at work if they are sick or too exhausted to function.

  • Be nice to yourself. If eating better or exercising more feels like a difficult, stressful burden, it’s probably not going to lead to more balanced health and a more easeful life. Often people become anxious and crazed trying to do everything “right.” If this sounds like you, give yourself a break. Flexibility and patience are key.

  • Consider getting acupuncture or another form of holistic healthcare that feels right to you. Although acupuncture can be great at dealing with disease, it actually works better as preventive medicine. As one of my teachers likes to say, “acupuncture is my health insurance.”

I’ll leave you with this quote from the Yellow Emperor’s classic, one of the foundational texts of Chinese Medicine, written in 240 BC: “In the old days the sages treated disease by preventing illness before it began, just as a good government or emperor was able to take the necessary steps to avert war. Treating an illness after it has begun is like suppressing revolt after it has broken out. If someone digs a well only when thirsty, or forges weapons only after becoming engaged in battle, one cannot help but ask: Aren’t these actions too late?”

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