The Mother of All Diseases: Stagnation (Part One)

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Usually this time of year I write about resting more, doing less and in general, relaxing to replenish your vital kidney energy. Yet, it’s also important to balance rest with movement or exercise. Lying around too much or doing too little can be just as harmful as overdoing; being sedentary causes congestion.

stomachacheCongestion, or stagnation as it’s called in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is one of the major causes of all illness, particularly chronic and degenerative issues. Quite often when someone doesn’t feel good, feels ‘off’ in some way, has low energy, gets sick easily, or can’t heal an illness no matter what they try, the underlying cause is stagnation.

Have you ever wondered what was causing someone’s illness when they didn’t appear to be sick or the normal treatment didn’t work? I often see people with low energy who obviously have an Excess condition and it’s not appropriate to tonify (build or nourish them with herbs and foods). These conditions are caused by stagnation.

Stagnation is much like bad traffic during rush hour, heavy rain or a traffic jam when cars slow down, pile up, or stop altogether. In TCM, stagnation arises when there is "too much" of something in any given area for whatever reason – poor circulation, lack of movement, over-eating, bad diet and all types of stress. In and of itself, stagnation is considered an Excess condition, yet there can easily be stagnation co-existent with any type of Deficiency.

The Five Stagnations

There are five different types of stagnation: Qi, Blood, Fluid, Cold and Food stagnation. Any of these can stop moving and congest. Heat may appear to stagnate, yet it is considered and treated as one of the five types of Excess Heat. In addition to the abovementioned causes of poor diet, lack of exercise, emotional, and mental or physical stress, any one of the five stagnations can eventually cause another type to happen.

According to TCM theory, any substance that is in excess or not moving is potentially toxic and injurious. That means that to treat the Five Stagnations is ultimately about clearing toxicity. Because stagnation is so pervasive in our culture, many TCM practitioners first clear toxicity and only then give tonics if necessary.

In future blogs I will discuss how to identify and treat each type of stagnation. In two weeks I’ll give you two formulas that treat all five types together. In the meantime, here are some simple things you can do now to release and prevent stagnation this winter.

General Treatment for Stagnation

1) MOVE! The number one treatment for all stagnation is to move. This can be something "formal" such as exercise, tai chi, qi gong, or yoga, yet dancing, swimming, bicycling, hiking, and gardening are just as effective. In fact, choose a form of movement that nourishes you emotionally and mentally and you’ll be even more effective in releasing stagnation.

2) DIET AWARENESS: Along with lack of movement, improper diet is the next cause of stagnation. Definitely avoid over-eating (you know that post-holiday meal feeling of stuffiness and discomfort? That’s food stagnation.) As well, shun cold foods and drinks, raw foods, excessive meat intake and foods that are too spicy.

3) WRITE: Writing in a journal is one of the best ways to express and release emotional issues. Stuck emotions is one of the major causes of stagnation, yet because they subconsciously influence our thoughts, health and behaviors, they are not accessed by just thinking about them, emoting or dwelling on them over and over. Rather, we need to access the subconscious in order to release them. Writing and speaking out loud do this, which is why journal writing is so emotionally productive. When you access the subconscious through writing, linked connections arise such as past memories, cause and effect relationships, realizations or understandings. This is what allows them to truly release.

4) LIFESTYLE HABITS: Other useful techniques include massage – overall body massage or abdominal or foot massage; moxibustion or other heat applications through salt packs, heated stones, or hot buckwheat "pillows" (those wonderful cloth rectangular bags you can find in stores and heat in the microwave); and skin stimulation through scraping (gua sha), dermal hammer, electric "thumpers," or massagers, and even small buffers with cotton covers.

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