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Seven Ways to Boost Your Mental Health

May saw Mental Health Awareness week on the 10th to the 15th, so this post is all about how to keep our grey matter fit and healthy. First though, some background information about mental health...


In 2018 the Global Council on Brain Health identified a surprisingly simple test to assess brain health: whether someone functions well in daily life. As advisor to the group James Goodwin explained in New Scientist magazine recently “They found that the brain requires three vital functions to work together seamlessly: executive function, our ability to think and reason; social cognition, which enables us to interact successfully with others; and emotion regulation, through which we generate our sense of well-being.” The lifestyle choices that we make have a huge bearing on all of these functions and thanks to neuroplasticity it is never too late to make changes for the better.



Feed Your Gut Microbiome to Feed Your Brain

Our mental wellbeing is intrinsically linked to our gut health - as the expression ‘gut feeling’ implies. For example, consider that approximately 90% of the main mood stabilising hormone serotonin is produced in our gut and less than 10% in our brain, or that poor gut health has been linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.


When you eat, think how best to feed the microbes in your digestive tract because the health and diversity of that community affects your own health and wellbeing. They like fibre, so plant foods are good. They also like variety, so aim to eat a rainbow of different coloured fruits and vegetables each day (red, yellow, orange, green and blue/purple) and to consume at least 30 different plant foods in a week (definitely worth recording that for a week to see if your usual diet is on track - and the good news is that each type of fruit, vegetable, grain, bean, pulse, nut, seed, herb or spice that you use counts as one, no matter the quantity, you just can’t count the same thing more than once). And like us, our gut microbes like a rest, so avoid snacking between meals and try time restricted eating on a regular basis.  You can read more in my blog post from last year Nutrition as a Pillar of Health.



Learn a New Skill


Learning stimulates the production of new brain cells, prevents brain cell death and improves connectivity in the brain, so acquiring a new skill can boost your brain power and protect you from cognitive decline and dementia. It doesn’t seem to matter what the skill is, as long as it is new to you and once you have mastered it find a new skill to work on whilst enjoying the one that you have just acquired.



Nurture a Sense of Purpose


As GP, author and presenter Dr Rangan Chatterjee says “...the single best way of living a calmer, happier life is to do it with a strong sense of purpose… One way of thinking about it is as living your life on purpose.” In his book The Stress Solution he gives strategies for finding purpose and for living more purposefully, which I can highly recommend. He talks about purpose and meaning in his recent short interview with Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute. And of course, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl explains in his book Man’s Search for Meaning how a sense of purpose can be life saving as well life changing.



Socialise

We have all come to appreciate over the past year or so just how important social connection is to health and well being, and the statistics reflect that: people who report feeling lonely are 50% more likely to die prematurely than people who are not lonely. You can use acquiring new skills or your sense of purpose (as discussed above) to meet new people. If you feel too time pressured to meet the friends and family that you already have, try scheduling regular meetups in order to prioritise that time and to ensure that it doesn’t slip - it really is that important.



Get Moving

As someone who loves physical activity, I can vouch for its mood-boosting effects, not only from the endorphins that are released, but also from exercising outdoors and with others. Physical activity can also slow age-related cognitive decline and even reverse it!


Aim for at least 30-minutes of daily moderate exercise such as brisk walking or cycling. Even better if you feel up to higher intensity activities like running. Sitting down for too much of the day can counter the good effects of exercise, so aim to stand up, and even better move about, for 10 minutes in every hour. You can read more in my blog post from last year Movement as a Pillar of Health.



Sleep Well

Although still not fully understood, sleep is vital to health. We have all experienced the effect of just one poor night’s sleep on our mood, making us feel low, negative and irritable. It also affects concentration, memory and energy levels. A chronic lack of sleep can lead to other health problems that we are not even aware of in the short term, but that can have serious, even fatal, consequences in the longer term.


If you are unable to fall asleep or stay asleep when you want to, you are suffering from insomnia. Perhaps most commonly, a lack of sleep can be the result of not allowing enough hours in the day for sleep. If you are blessed with being able to sleep well, don’t short change yourself, give yourself at least eight hours of sleep opportunity every night. And if you don’t sleep well, please seek help. If you would like to read more about sleep, I can highly recommend Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep. You can also learn more in my blog post The Dos and Don'ts for a Good Night's Sleep.


Connect with Nature

Nature was the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year. One of the silver linings of the COVID cloud for me was moving classes from inside to outside. It is a wonderful way to sense the seasons changing (even if rain stops play sometimes) and it is hard to beat being serenaded by warblers whilst working together - pure bliss! As James Goodwin says "Many stress reducing activities benefit brain health, including yoga, meditation, tai chi, art, music and the moderate consumption of alcohol." Tai chi is a form of qigong, and the beneficial effects of the practice itself are boosted by being outdoors and with others, as is traditional. It is definitely my favourite way of working!


I hope that you have found inspiration here for improving your mental health in some way. We can get used to being below par and forget what well being really feels like.


For more about the qigong classes that I run, see the qigong section of my website. If you would like a massage or reflexology treatment to help you unwind, you can book through the Formula Health website or on 0118 418 1825.


Five Key Potent Points for Qigong

As I mentioned in a previous post about meridian theory 'Meridians Explained', the meridians can be influenced by pressure (known as acupressure), needling (as in acupuncture) or applying heat (moxibustion) at potent points along them. As Michael Reed Grach explains in his book Acupressure: how to heal common ailments the natural way "Acupressure points (also called potent points) are places on the skin that are especially sensitive to bioelectrical impulses in the body and conduct those impulses readily." There are hundreds of potent points, but here I will focus on five key points that we work with in qigong. As you will see, the points are poetically named to reflect their location or effect...

The potent point known as One Hundred Meeting Point (bai hui) is on the top of the head where there is a slight indentation just behind the highest point. As the name suggests, it is where several meridians converge. It is a key connection point for yang (or heavenly) energy and is linked to mood, concentration and memory. In qigong we imagine that we are suspended from a thread attached to this point, which helps to lengthen the spine and to improve posture.


At the opposite end of the torso from One Hundred Meeting Point is the Meeting of Yin (hui yin) potent point, which is at the start of the central meridian (also known as the conception or directing vessel), which runs from the perineum in the root of the torso up the frontline of the body to the crown of the head. We can feel the connection of this point with the earth in our standing practice, which is grounding and yin.


Palace of Toil (loa gong) is the eighth potent point on the pericardium (or heart protector) meridian, which runs down the middle of the inside of the arm. Palace of Toil (or as John Munro describes it in Between Heaven and Earth: qigong for the eight extraordinary meridians "the place where energy naturally comes to work") is in the palm of the hand where the tip of the middle finger falls when you make a loose fist. We are channelling energy through this point when we use our palms to connect with the external environment, such as pushing up (Pushing the Sky), pushing out (Separating East and West) or pushing down, or when we are drawing energy into the lower dantian by holding or circling the abdomen below the navel.


Bubbling Spring (yong chuan) is the first point on the kidney meridian, which runs up the inside of the legs and up the front of the body to just below the collar bone. Bubbling Spring is found on the sole of the foot about a third of the way down from the web of the toes to the heel, so just below the ball of the foot, and halfway between the inner and outer edges of the foot (between the second and third metatarsal bones). It is both grounding and revitalising. I like to imagine that as I breathe out I am putting down roots into the ground from this point and on the inbreath drawing up water and nutrients.

Ming men (the gate of life) is in the lower back opposite the navel and we often work this point in qigong, for example in the exercise ‘knocking at the gates of life’ in which we rotate the torso from side to side allowing the arms to swing feely and the backs of the hands to tap gently on the lower back. As Kenneth Cohen explains in The Way of Qigong “Ming men controls the proper functioning of the kidneys, and when stimulated, increases the body’s overall vitality and energy level.”


An understanding of these key potent points can help deepen our qigong practice by enabling us to focus our intention on them; after all, energy flows where intention goes. If you would like to experience working with potent points in qigong, do get in touch on 07528 708650 or email wendy@rookeholistic.co.uk. The Class Timetable page of my website shows when I run classes and 1-2-1s. Or if you would like to try acupuncture, which also works with meridians and potent points, my colleague Liz Lee provides the service at Formula Health. You can find out more about Liz and acupuncture on the Formula Health website.

The Three Treasures

Energy is known as ‘qi’ in Chinese. It is a binding force that gives form as well as being an animating one that gives movement, so it exists in everything. All animate and inanimate things possess qi. According to Chinese medicine, the quality that gives life is ‘jing’ (also known as essence). And that which gives consciousness is ‘shen’. Together these are known as ‘the three treasures’. It is similar to the 'body, mind, spirit' concept in the West. Qigong works with the three treasures to optimise health and well being: the body (jing), the breath (qi) and the mind (shen).



Jing

The reservoir of jing is in the lower dantian, which is the lower energy centre in the body, corresponding with the centre of gravity in the lower abdomen, just below the navel. The kidneys and lungs are the source of jing, so improving the health of these two organs will boost the store of this energy. Jing has a solid, earthy quality, so is considered to be yin (see my previous blog post Yin and Yang). Jing is said to circulate around the body via the bones according to Chinese medicine and is most closely associated with the reproductive system in Western medicine.


“In Chinese medicine, jing is the energy of growth and development, slowly increasing during childhood, reaching its peak at age twenty-one, and then decreasing, unless checked or supplemented with qigong training. For this reason, diminishing jing is associated with many of the signs of aging, particularly osteoporosis, less responsive immune cells, loss of libido, graying hair, slower reflexes, and poorer memory” (Kenneth Cohen in The Way of Qigong).



Qi

The reservoir of qi in the body is the middle dantian, which is in the chest and is the middle energy centre. Qi has both yin and yang qualities and, compared with jing and shen, is neutral in the context of the three treasures. It is the spleen that is the source of qi, and the energy circulates in the twelve meridians (see my previous post Meridians Explained). As you may have guessed, qi is associated with the respiratory system.



Shen

The upper dantian (the energy centre in the head) is where shen is stored and the liver and the heart are the source. If these organs are not healthy, the spirit may be disturbed. Being associated with spirit, shen has a heavenly, air-like quality, which is yang. The energy travels in the eight extraordinary meridians (see Meridians Explained) and is associated with the nervous system. Shen is commonly described as “The light that shines out of our eyes when we are truly awake.”



The concept of the three treasures is reflected in the qigong maxim: refine the jing to create qi, refine qi to create shen, refine shen and return to the Void. “The Void, the state of empty clear mindedness, remains both the goal and the source of practice” (Kenneth Cohen in The Way of Qigong). As with other meditative practices, less is more, don’t try too hard, relax into it and clear the mind, then the rest will follow, just as sleep is the foundation of health.

If you would like to put these ideas into practice, you are welcome to join me at one of my classes. For details, see the class timetable page of my website and the pricing is shown here. Starting Thursday 8th April, I am running an introductory course made up of four 45-minute sessions (one a week), which is an ideal way to try qigong for the first time or if you don’t have much experience of it. You can do as many of the sessions as you like. To book per session, click here or you can book all four at a discounted rate here.

Meridians Explained

Following on from my previous post about five element theory in which meridians got a mention, I thought it would be helpful to explain a little more about them. According to traditional Chinese medicine, there are energy channels in the body. Unlike blood vessels and nerves, energy channels (known as meridians or vessels) cannot be seen and they exist only when there is energy flowing through them, rather like rivers through the land or currents in the sea. To avoid confusion, I will stick to the term meridian here. The meridians can be influenced by pressure (known as acupressure, as in shiatsu), needling (as in acupuncture) or applying heat (moxibustion) at potent points along them. We can also stimulate the meridians with specific qigong practices to help harmonise the flow of energy in the body. There are two types of meridian: organ and extraordinary.


Organ Meridians

The organ meridians are like rivers and streams, with clearly defined pathways. They flow near the surface of the body in a set direction of flow, carrying smaller amounts of energy. There are twelve of them: kidney, bladder, liver, gallbladder, heart, small intestine, pericardium, triple heater, spleen, stomach, lung and large intestine. These are all linked to the five element theory explained in my previous post, so you can read more about them there.



Extraordinary Meridians

The extraordinary meridians are more like ocean currents in that they are larger and flow deeper in the body with less well defined boundaries than the river-like organ meridians. The direction of flow can change and, apart from the central and governing meridians, they have only potent points that are shared with the organ meridians. The eight extraordinary meridians are the: central, governing, sash, yin linking, yang linking, yin heel, yang heel and penetrating.


The central and governing meridians act together and are known as the microcosmic orbit, which circles the torso and head, going down the front of the body along the central meridian and up the back along the governing meridian, or up the front and down the back (remember that the flow of energy in the extraordinary meridians can change direction).


The flow of energy in the sash meridian is around the waist, as the name suggests, and again can go one way or the other. You could also think of it as a hoola hoop.


The flow of energy through the yin linking, yang linking, yin heel and yang heel meridians is known as the macrocosmic orbit. If you stand with your hands in the air, palms facing up, you can imagine it flowing down the front of your body all the way down the inside of your arms, the front of your torso and the front of your legs to your feet and then up the back of the body from feet to hands. It can also run in the opposite direction, so up the front of the body and down the back. It is similar to the microcosmic orbit, but includes the limbs too.


The penetrating meridian is like a skewer through the body from top to toe. When we work with this in qigong, we visualise a vortex through the centre of the limbs and body rather like a whirlpool.



Just as a restriction in a river or the failure of an ocean current can be damaging to an ecosystem, a change in flow in a meridian can cause poor health in the human body. The free flow of energy in the body is as important to human health as is the free flow of water to an ecosystem, and we can use therapeutic practices such as acupuncture and qigong to help optimise our health. We provide both at Formula Health in Pangbourne, so do get in touch if you would like to find out more or book a session.


Five Element Theory: the Energy of the Emotions

The yin/yang theory that I covered in my last post is ancient, spanning back thousands of years of Chinese culture, and it is linked to another more recent concept that dates back to around 300BC: five element theory, also known as the five phases or virtues. Many of the practices that we work with in qigong relate to the five elements in some shape or form, so I thought it would be helpful to elaborate on it here.


In traditional Chinese medicine the primary emotions are: fear, anger, joy, anxiety and sorrow. According to the five element theory, each emotion is associated with a pair of organs in the body and is linked to one of five elements: water, wood, fire, earth or metal. Excess of an emotion can cause disease in the associated organ. The elements are interconnected, so that an imbalance in one will cause disharmony in another.


Water

The kidneys and bladder are linked with the water element, which represents energy at rest or floating. It is therefore associated with winter and to dormancy, or rather the potential for growth (as water is essential to so many of life’s processes). This is called the ‘essence’ in traditional Chinese medicine and is effectively the life force that we are born with, which becomes depleted over our lifetime. People born with less essence need to work harder at looking after themselves to compensate.


Water is the source of life-force and will, so harmony in the water element results in strong willpower and endurance, whereas disharmony manifests as fear, which may inhibit growth (for example fear of making a decision or taking action on an issue). We can draw on wisdom and the confidence of inner knowing to overcome our fears.



Wood

The liver and gall bladder are linked with the wood element, in which energy is rising, like sap in the spring. In harmony, the liver is linked to motivation and the gall bladder to decisiveness and action, but disharmony leads to anger and frustration. Kindness to ourselves and to others is the best antidote to anger.



Fire

Four ‘organs’ are linked to the fire element: the heart, small intestines, pericardium (or heart protector) and the triple heater. The triple heater is not related to an actual organ, but represents the processing of food and waste in the upper, middle and lower regions of the body. The fire element represents energy expanding, the peak of activity and the season summer. It is associated with consciousness, and harmony in this element is expressed as sensitivity, love and joy, disharmony as being ‘on edge’, with insomnia and in more extreme cases as manic behaviour. Peace and orderliness help calm excitable heart energy.


Earth

The spleen and stomach are the earth organs and represent energy descending, as in late summer. The spleen is associated with thought and transforming ideas into action, also with empathy. Harmony in the earth element results in good concentration and analytical skills as well as compassion. In disharmony it results in overthinking, anxiety and becoming stuck. As Kenneth Cohen explains in his book Qigong: the art and science of Chinese energy healing “We are pensive when we are preoccupied with ourselves; we are overly empathic when we are preoccupied with others.” Trust and acceptance can help counter anxiety and over-empathising to bring balance in the earth elements.



Metal

The lungs and large intestines fall within the metal element and represent energy meeting (a balance between activity and rest). The related season is autumn. Metal is associated with the corporeal soul and our ability to take in and to let go. Harmony in this element leads to optimism and a childlike ability to live in the moment, disharmony to sorrow. Lung energy can be rebalanced by integrity and dignity.



I love how the five element theory links emotions to nature, and although I don't hold rigidly to it, I use it as a framework for exploring how I feel and what is going on around me. I hope that you have found this explanation interesting and that you get as much pleasure from this theory as I do.