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by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Friday, January 7, 2011

The New Year is the time for making all your resolutions to improve your life.  And especially, for the New Year, people resolve to take better care of their health.  Health and fitness club memberships skyrocket, and everybody really goes at it, and hits the weights, or the treadmill, or whatever it is that they’re into for exercise, really hard.

But within a few weeks, many have fallen by the wayside, and the great resolve with which they began the New Year has all but petered out.  Why? Of course, there are those who, through some inner defects of character and persistence, find it hard to keep any New Year’s resolution.  But far too often, their New Year’s health and fitness resolutions fail because they have set unrealistic goals for themselves which are unattainable, or unmaintainable.  If they are not under the guidance of an expert physical trainer, and suddenly embark on a regimen of exercise that is too strenuous or unbalanced, they may even wind up injuring themselves, and putting themselves out of commission for quite a while.

In Greek Medicine, resolutions, or efforts we make to improve our health, fall under the heading of the Six Hygienic Factors. Hygiene is the art of health maintenance and self care, and concerns six different areas that we must keep an eye on if we are to improve our health:

1)  Ambient Air
2)  Food and Drink
3)  Exercise and Rest
4)  Sleep and Wakefulness
5)  Retention and Evacuation of Wastes
6)  Perturbations of the Mind and Emotions

Notice that, built into many of these Six Hygienic Factors is the idea of moderation and balance.  Exercise and physical activity must be tempered with, or balanced by, rest.  A good night’s sleep is one of the most important things to get if one is to have good health, but even sleep, when carried to extremes, becomes somnolence, which is a destroyer of health if it is not balanced or complemented by a good healthy dose of purposeful and dynamic wakefulness, or waking activity.  And even the organs of elimination must maintain a healthy and appropriate balance between retention on the one hand, and evacuation on the other.

The ancient Greeks were great ones for moderation and balance in all things.  Aristotle said that the foundation of all personal happiness was contentment with the Golden Mean in every area of life.  The Greek God of health and physical culture, Apollo, had two great mottos:  Know Thyself; and Nothing in Excess.

Knowing oneself includes, of course, knowing one’s own limitations, whether it be in terms of exercise and physical activity, diet, sleep, or any other health concern.  It also means knowing your body’s needs, and what is good for it, and what is harmful.  In Greek Medicine, knowing oneself means knowing one’s constitutional nature and temperament.  By knowing one’s individual constitutional makeup, one knows one’s inherent strengths, as well as one’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and how to take care of oneself in such a way that one cultivates the former and compensates for or remedies the latter.

So, here are examples of New Year’s health resolutions that pertain to each one of the Six Hygienic Factors:

1)  Ambient Air: Cleaning house more often, and keeping it cleaner does a lot to improve the quality of the air we breathe, and eliminates potential pathogens from our environment, such as dust, mold, mildew or bacteria.  Getting outdoors more often, taking in more sunshine, or even moving to a healthier climate for you will also make a great difference in your health.  If you live and work in a polluted city, and can’t do much about the rather poor air quality, at least you can do pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises; the deep and vigorous breathing will cleanse all the stagnant tidal volume of air out of your lungs, and promote a sense of greater energy and alertness, as well as a feeling of wellbeing.

2)  Food and Drink: Obesity is probably the #1 health problem in the USA, as well as in many other countries around the world.  And so, many people are often going on a diet.  But all too often, these starvation diets are doomed to fail, because they are too extreme or unbalanced.  Simply cutting out offending items of junk food is often a good start, and will do much more than expected to help you feel better and get you closer to your ideal weight.  Or even becoming more aware of the food you are eating and its effect on your health by listening to your body and how it is reacting to what you eat is a good start.  Greek Medicine recognizes that moderation and the Golden Mean are essential in the domain of diet, and food should be healthfully yet tastily prepared.  Over two thousand years ago, Hippocrates, the founding father of Greek Medicine, warned against diets that were too restricted or extreme, and now, modern medicine and nutritional science fully accept the wisdom of his sage advice.

3)  Exercise and Rest: For most people, this means hitting the health and fitness clubs and getting back into an exercise regimen or routine.  But, particularly if you are in middle age or beyond, you should be cautious about pursuing an exercise regimen, and err on the side of caution and moderation, especially if you have been excessively sedentary, and have gotten yourself out of shape.  In addition to balancing exercise and physical activity with rest and recuperation, which also includes things like yoga stretches to wind down after a workout, every effort should be made to make the exercise routine as enjoyable as possible.  As with diet, exercise regimes that are too spartan, stoic or self denying are bound to fail over the long term.

4)  Sleep and Wakefulness: The great American statesman and founding father, Benjamin Franklin, coined the wise proverb:  Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.  And so, going to bed earlier and keeping more regular, disciplined hours will go a long way towards improving one’s health and feeling of wellbeing.  The ancient Romans said, “Carpe Diem”, or “Seize the Day”, and going to bed and rising early helps you do just that.  But even if you are an incurable night owl, there are still ways that you can find to make your daily routine more disciplined, efficient and productive, which will go a long ways towards increasing your feeling of self worth and self esteem.

5)  Retention and Evacuation of Wastes: Of course we need to exercise enough control over the functioning of our eliminative organs to urinate and defecate at the right times, and in this way, maintain a healthy and appropriate balance between the retention and evacuation of wastes.  But when it comes to the chronic degenerative diseases that modern man is so prone to, these are most often caused by what Hippocrates called autointoxication, which is the excessive retention of wastes in the body, which goes on to slowly poison the whole organism.  And so, going on fasts or cleansing diets, or taking herbal teas to cleanse and detoxify oneself, periodically, when there is a need for it, is a good New Year’s resolution to make if you want to increase your general level of health and wellbeing.  In undertaking such a cleansing and detoxification program, it’s always best to be under the guidance or supervision of a holistic healthcare provider.

Ayurvedic medicine is famous for its Pancha Karma, or Five Cleansing Actions, or therapies.  Greek Medicine goes one better, and utilizes Six Hygienic Purification Therapies.  These are:

1) Diaphoresis:  sweating
2) Diuresis:  urination
3) Emesis: therapeutic vomiting
4) Purgation:  evacuating the bowels through laxatives, purgatives, enemas
or colonics
5) Venesection:  bloodletting
6) Derivation:  drawing out toxins through the skin

Again, I would advise you to stick to the milder forms of cleansing therapies, and err on the side of caution and moderation, and only use the more radical or extreme therapies under the guidance of a holistic healer or physician who is trained in their administration.  In my experience, there is a lot of good cleansing and detoxification that can be accomplished just through the regular and sustained use of gentle cleansing herbs and dietary measures.

6)  Perturbations of the Mind and Emotions: New Year’s resolutions in this area can often be quite subtle, or require a degree of self control or self abnegation that can be quite a challenge for the individual.  Everyone knows that it’s all too easy to slip back into  bad emotional, mental and behavioral habits.  Curbing one’s anger would be a good example of a New Year’s resolution in this area which, if implemented successfully, would go a long way towards raising one’s level of mental peace and wellbeing, which would then have far reaching positive repercussions on one’s health.  Because behavioral resolutions of this type can be so hard to implement and stick with, I suggest that you find a counselor, therapist, or a support group that can guide you and help you find better ways of implementing the desired changes.  Other examples would be resolutions to seek more happiness and fulfillment in certain areas of life, such as one’s marital relations.

So, that’s it – these Six Hygienic Factors cover just about every way in which hygienic measures can be used to improve one’s personal health and wellbeing.  I wish you good luck in this coming New Year in finding health resolutions to adopt, and to follow through with them.

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