By Genevieve Boyer, R.Ac., B.Sc., FABORM
How Essence (Jing) affects our fertility and overall health and how to best conserve it, incorporating some modern research into epigenetics as well.
In Traditional Oriental Medicine each one of us is considered to have our own unique Essence (capitalized to signify the Traditional Oriental Medicine meaning). This Essence is acquired at birth, and refers to more than simply “the intrinsic properties that serve to characterize something,” which is the definition you would get from looking up “essence” in the English dictionary.
Though there is no direct Western equivalent to the Eastern concept of Essence, this Essence does refer, in part, to our genetic heritage. Pre-natal (before birth) Essence is acquired from our parents at the time of our conception, and Post-natal (after birth) Essence is derived from the quality of foods that we eat and our ability to properly absorb and assimilate them. We inherit a fixed amount of Pre-natal Essence, which becomes depleted throughout the course of our lifetime. When Pre-natal Essence is exhausted, we die. Post-natal Essence, on the other hand, is continually renewed, and helps to determine the rate at which our Pre-natal Essence gets used up. The more Post-Natal Essence we have, the more it benefits the quality and longevity of our Pre-Natal Essence.
Though in Western medicine our genetic material isn’t considered to get “used up” in the same way that is described by Eastern traditional doctors for Pre-natal Essence, there is nonetheless some support in Western research for the idea that there are limitations on the length of time in which genetic information can be properly expressed. In a recent article in New Scientist1, which describes what scientists have learned from studying the body of a healthy 115-year-old woman after she died, researchers describe finding that two-thirds of the white blood cells in her body at the time of her death originated from just two stem cells (scientists estimate that we are born with 20,000 blood stem cells and that at any time at least 1000 are concurrently active producing blood cells, so to have the majority of her blood cells originate from just two stem cells is quite amazing!). Another thing that researchers found was that the telomeres (the protective ends on chromosomes) of her blood cells were worn down, which is typically associated with aging. Longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and greater longevity, whereas shorter telomeres are associated with many aging-related diseases. Interestingly, a small pilot study2 suggests that length of telomeres can be positively affected by diet, exercise and stress management techniques. Both stem cells and telomeres are directly related to the extent to which our genetic material can express itself.
Why is Essence Important?
Giovanni Maciocia, an authority in the field of Traditional Oriental Medicine says that our Essence “determines growth, reproduction, development, sexual maturation, conception, pregnancy, menopause and aging.”3 In children, it also “controls the growth of bones, teeth, hair, normal brain development and sexual maturation.”3 So the influence of Essence is far-reaching and central to healthy development, reproduction and aging. Clinically, benefiting Essence can be important in the treatment of children’s developmental conditions, fertility and reproductive medicine, neurodegenerative conditions, immune deficiency syndromes, conditions related to aging, and more.
Some people are born with stronger Pre-natal Essence and have a stronger constitution, and other people are born with weaker Pre-natal Essence and are more vulnerable to environmental influences. This explains in part why some people can get away with overeating, overconsumption of alcohol, poor sleep habits or higher stress lifestyles with fewer immediate repercussions than others—they have stronger Pre-natal Essence and are inherently more resilient, to an extent (it does eventually catch up with them). Comparatively, someone with a weaker constitution will have to be more careful about having moderation in eating, drinking, sleeping and lifestyle. But ultimately, everyone can benefit from knowing how to conserve and optimize their Essence. Conserving our Essence can result in not only longer lives but also more fulfilling, health-filled lives as well.
So How Do We Best Conserve our Essence?
So if our Post-natal Essence, the Essence we derive from the foods that we eat, benefits our Pre-natal Essence, then how do we optimize it? Of course, eating a balanced diet with a variety of good quality (unrefined, preferably organic) foods is so important—it is hard for our bodies to extract the nutrients it needs from highly refined or chemical-laden foods. But the health of our digestive systems is also important—our bodies need to be able to extract the nutrients from the foods that we are eating.
So what can we do to optimize the health of our digestive systems? Well, the digestive system likes regularity, so it is important to eat on a regular basis, typically every three or four hours. And overloading our digestive systems with too much food at any given meal is also counter-productive. So skipping breakfast and/or lunch and then overeating at suppertime is not conducive to a healthy digestive system. Excessive sugars or too much cold, raw food (for example ice cream which is both cold and sweet) can also tax our digestive systems.
That said, even when doing everything right in terms of diet, people can still show signs of digestive weakness such as loose stools, gassy digestion, bloating, constipation, fatigue after meals, etc., which may be due to life stress or constitutional weaknesses. If someone is eating a healthy diet and has signs of digestive weakness, it is important to come in for acupuncture or herbal therapy treatment to strengthen the digestive system.
What else influences the quality and longevity of our Essence? Finding the right balance between work, rest and play is important. In our culture, we tend to work hard and play hard, but often we put a low priority on resting, and adequate rest is essential to the conservation of our Essence. One of my mentors defines rest as not only putting our feet up or getting enough shut-eye at night, but also to having unscheduled “free time” in our busy lives when we can do whatever we would find rejuvenating in the moment, whether it is going for a walk outside, engaging in art or other creative activities, baking, gardening, doing yoga, meditation, or other activities that benefit the soul and bring us pleasure. Also, exercises such as Qigong and Tai Chi have traditionally been used to enhance health and promote longevity.
Why is Essence Particularly Relevant for Parents and Couples Trying to Conceive?
The state of the parents’ Essence at the time of conception strongly influences the Pre-Natal Essence of the child, which we have seen can be very influential to their overall health. I often remind couples who are trying to conceive that by taking care of themselves and their basic physical and emotional needs, they are enhancing their chances of conception and benefiting their unborn children. In fact, modern research is finding that a woman’s diet before pregnancy influences gene expression in the early stages of embryonic development that can affect their susceptibility to certain diseases later in life4,5.
Also, when parenting our children, it is important to establish good life habits early, so that children can learn to conserve their Essence through good diet, adequate sleep, appropriate exercise, and by learning to manage their emotions in a positive, productive way.
3. Maciocia, Giovanni. 2005. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. Churchill Livingston, Philadelphia, USA.
Author Bio: Genevieve Boyer is a Registered Acupuncturist in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and is also a Fellow of the American Board for Oriental Reproductive Medicine. She enjoys educating the public about how Traditional Oriental Medicine wisdom can help people to live better, healthier, more productive lives. You can visit her website at wholefamilyhealth.ca