World of wellness
We delve into the ancient medicinal practices of indigenous cultures around the world
Healing techniques created by ancient civilisations can still benefit our health even in this modern era. We take a look at some age-old practices – from traditional Chinese and Indian medicine to Māori and Native American remedies – and gather a few simple principles to support wellbeing.
The Maya have a lot to teach us about wellbeing. This civilisation, which once thrived in parts of Mexico and Central America, has ancient roots and started to develop cities from around 750 BC. For the Maya, health was about balance, and disease was a sign of imbalance. To maintain good health the Maya consumed a cold chocolate drink made from cacao seeds pretty much with every meal.
Clearly they were onto something as cacao is packed full of antioxidant polyphenols which we now have evidence to suggest may have heart-healthy effects. A team at Yale University gave people a daily dose of hot cocoa for six weeks and found it improved their circulation. There are even studies that have linked a daily hot cocoa with smoother, more elastic skin.
The Maya invented drinking chocolate. They made it with crushed cacao beans, water and chilli pepper – sugar and milk were introduced later, in colonial times, and at some stage it was heated up. Along with smoothies, this is still one of the healthiest ways to consume cacao. Or choose a dark chocolate – the higher the cocoa solids, the more polyphenols and the less sugar so go for at least 85 percent for heart health.
Developed more than 3000 years ago in India, Ayurveda is based on the belief that three life forces or energies, known as doshas, control how the body works and influence the health conditions you are prone to developing. They are vata (air), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (water and earth) and you can take online quizzes to check your predominant dosha.
Diet is a key part of Ayurveda for all three doshas as improper digestion is seen as the root cause of many disorders. While natural, unprocessed, mostly plant foods are the foundation of Ayurvedic eating, the way meals are prepared and when they are consumed is also important. Freshly cooked food is considered easier to digest than raw. That means salads and raw vegetables are eaten earlier in the day so there is time for the body to process them. And dinner should not be too heavy or eaten too late.
Use lots of delicious spices to aid digestion and support your natural immunity – turmeric, cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron and ginger are all considered healing.
Keep hydrated by drinking water at room temperature – if it’s ice cold it’s believed to slow blood flow and the action of digestive enzymes.
Avoid over-eating because a third of your stomach should be left empty for the digestive processes. And after meals do some sort of gentle activity such as walking.
Traditional Māori healing is known for its use of plants and herbs, but there is far more to it than that says Auckland practitioner Donna Kerridge. It’s a holistic system, treating the whole person rather than the symptoms of their condition. “The goal of rongoā is to lift the life force within people so they can live full lives despite disease,” she explains.
Native plants such as kawakawa, kūmarahou, mānuka, harakeke and mamaku have always been a part of this and were used to provide relief from a wide range of symptoms. Today their therapeutic potential is going mainstream.
Kawakawa is an extremely important plant to Māori. Traditionally it was used for soothing all sorts of inflammation including treating cuts, burns, skin disorders and stomach pain. Today you will find extracts of this native tree in eczema balms and moisturisers.
Local skincare brands such as Evolu and Living Nature have also embraced the native shrub kūmarahou. This is known as ‘gum digger’s soap’ since rubbing its flowers creates a natural lather.
“The goal of rongoā is to lift the life force within people so they can live full lives despite disease”
Antimicrobial and non-drying, it was once used by Māori as a dermal wash for healing skin conditions. It was also taken internally to treat bronchial complaints and support liver function.
Here is Donna’s recipe for a kūmarahou tonic to support respiratory and digestive function:
Place 1 handful fresh kūmarahou leaves in a stainless-steel pot and cover with about 1.5 litres water. Bring to boil and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes. Strain leaves from water using a clean cloth or muslin. Once cooled, store the liquid in the fridge and return the used leaves to the earth (not the bin). Mix ½ cup cold liquid with ½ cup hot water and drink.
Donna says you’ll get used to the bitter taste.
In traditional Chinese medicine two opposing forces – yin and yang – must be maintained in harmony for good health. Also, qi or chi, a vital energy, flows through the body along the meridian lines.
The proper flow of qi can be encouraged with tai chi. Often described as meditation in motion, this form of exercise is gentle enough for people of all ages but there is research to show that it has powerful benefits for the body and mind. A study at Harvard Medical Centre found that patients with chronic heart failure experienced a better quality of life, sleep and mood when practising tai chi. This system of slow, easy movements also improves balance and flexibility, maintains muscle strength, lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation and helps control depression, stress and anxiety.
You can’t visit a park in China without noticing groups practising tai chi, and in New Zealand classes are held all around the country. Find one near you with the Taoist Tai Chi Society of New Zealand, taoist.org/nz.
Many Native American tribes believed that illness could have both natural and supernatural causes so purification rituals were often used to bring in good spirits and clear away anxieties, dark thoughts and unwanted energies. The most common shamanistic cleansing ritual is called ‘smudging’ and this is still popular today. Traditionally, it involved burning herbs and plant resins in a clay bowl and fanning the smoke around the home using a feather. One of the most common herbs used was white sage and you can now buy ready-made white sage smudge sticks (check online). Even though its supposed effects can’t be proven, there may well be a psychological benefit to performing the ritual and clearing the way for more positive thinking.
Oldies but goodies (clockwise from top left) Antioxidant-rich dark chocolate, healing manuka, sage to banish dark thoughts, and life-enhancing tai chi.