One of the things that has struck me as I’ve been studying different approaches to health and well-being: different understandings of health and sub-health (or sub-optimal health).  What would be considered an ailment, condition, or otherwise merit treatment in one medicinal tradition, is nothing more than regular course of life in another. I’ll give a number of examples to illustrate.

Appetite: Both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) place high importance on the presence of appetite. They take it as a key indicator of the person’s overall health and correct digestive processes. It is my feeling that in the West we don’t have the same emphasis on appetite, if we recognize it at all.

Loose or watery stools: In the U.S., while I suspect many people would envy this ‘problem,’ truth be told, this person may exaggerate the situation and mis-characterize it as diarrhea (I know I have). The person may start worrying he has food poisoning, the stomach flu, an intestinal parasite, or some other infectious disease, and needs to go to the doctor, take bed rest, or dose up on Pepto or Immodium.  By contrast, in Ayurveda, if it truly is just soft or loose stools and happens regularly, that is a normal, defining characteristic of specific type of constitution, Pitta. In Chinese medicine, which in evaluating the situation is more similar to the US, says stools should be formed and come out one-by-one. Therefore, TCM doctors typically offer herbs or acupuncture to dry the bowels some.

Menstrual cramps: When I first started integrating into Chinese culture, I was astonished by how completely debilitated girls would get, missing work, avoiding many types of foods and drinks, using heating blankets, etc around that time of the month. Later when I started studying Chinese medicine, I found that TCM regards menstrual cramps as an ailment to be dealt with preemptively (restricted diet) and with on-going treatment (herbs or acupuncture). It’s not for me to say whether menstrual pain is any worse for Chinese females than Westerners, but I think the notion that cramps can be treated contribute to a ‘poor me’ attitude. By comparison, in the US, we see Midol commercials which tell us to pop a pill and get on with our active life, completely writing off menstrual symptoms as a non-event. Ayurveda falls in the middle, explaining that menstrual pain is due to Vata (one of the three doshas) acting up, which while not a problem, can be calmed and remedied.  It also advises diet restrictions similar to TCM, namely no cooling, frozen, nor raw foods up to 5 days before.

Traveler’s diarrhea: When I had Bali Belly including vomiting, swollen lymph glands, and a host of other symptoms, I went to see a Balinese healer. He looked at me and said, ‘you, no problem. You healthy. Why you here?’ Woah, if that is ‘no problem,’ I don’t want to see what a problem looks like in his book.

While I can’t say which is the chicken and which the egg, since Chinese medicine works in subtle and often slow ways, it has a finely cultivated notion of sub-health, and therefore regards many issues as treatable conditions or ailments. The West has only recently started to understand the concept of sub-health as a state in which disease and illness is not present, but yet the person doesn’t feel totally well either, otherwise thought of as sub-optimal health. Surprisingly, Ayurveda has no concept of sub-health, only imbalances or vitiation of doshas. (But perhaps one is just Ayurveda technical speak for the other.)

I’m interested in your take on all this. How do you define health? What is considered a health issue in your culture that may not be one in others’ minds? Leave a comment below and let me know if anything caught your attention in the post.