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AS I MENTIONED IN LAST MONTH'S ARTICLE ON AUTUMN HEALTH, an important part of my evolution as an integrative physician came from the discovery and study of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) beginning in the mid 1970s, after I received my Western Medical training. The integration of this Traditional Healing Philosophy and practice aligned with natural therapies and conventional Western medicine was the subject of my first book Staying Healthy with the Seasons, originally published in 1981.

I was also influenced by the stories of the barefoot doctors of ancient China whose primary goal was to keep people well, to live in harmony with Nature, to encourage and teach ways of health, and not just treat disease. Today, 40 years later, these ideas still are part of my medical practice and teaching.

Central to TCM is the concept of the Five Elements—Wood, Water, Fire, Earth and Metal (or Air). Everything that exists is seen as comprised of these elements and each one has multiple correspondences such as a season, a color, a body organ, one of the five senses and so on.

This concept of the Macrocosm and the Microcosm—"as above, so below"—sees the human body as a small universe, a reflection of the larger universe, and the correspondences and harmony between the two are the keys to this traditional philosophy and practice of health and healing.

In my most recent book Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine, which is really the next octave of what I presented in Staying Healthy with the Seasons, I have further developed some of these ideas and created The 5 Keys to Staying Healthy—with the acronym NESSA—Nutrition, Exercise, Stress, Sleep and Attitude—as a simple and practical guide for taking our health care into our own hands on a day-to-day basis. These five lifestyle aspects are what create our health and maintain it.

While these two five-fold systems are not exactly equivalent, for instance Nutrition cannot be directly equated with Earth, or Exercise with Fire, I was certainly inspired by the ancient Chinese model of five essential and interrelated elements in creating the 5 Keys. The Chinese elements relate to each other in both creative ("cheng") and "destructive" ("ko") or controlling ways: for example, it is said that Wood (as fuel) "creates" Fire, or that Fire "destroys" Metal (by melting it to a liquid).

In the same way each of the 5 Keys can either help and support the others, or undermine them, and thus enhance or diminish our health. For example, good nutrition and regular exercise can lessen stress and improve sleep while on the other hand stress can negatively impact digestion and sleep, creating more stress, poor sleep, diminished vitality and increased susceptibility to disease.

Now let's look more closely at each of the 5 Keys to Staying Healthy.

The First Key—Nutrition

I believe that Nutrition is the foundation of health and we have more potential control over what we eat than in any other area of our lives, so this is a good place to begin, even though eating in our world today can be quite a challenge. Food can bring us much pleasure and sustenance and it's certainly part of sharing our lives with others. The key here is to eat healthy, nourishing foods and to avoid toxins whenever possible. We can do everything right and still get sick, so another part of this key is to learn how food and supplements help us recover and heal when symptoms or illnesses occur.

What can we do?

  • Eat mostly fresh foods packaged by Nature, not manufactured
  • Focus on vegetables and good quality proteins, plus fresh fruits
  • Know what you're eating and understand food labels (avoid artificial ingredients and toxins)
  • Minimize SNACCSs—Sugar, Nicotine, Alcohol, Caffeine, and Chemicals/toxins

The Second Key—Exercise

A consistent and balanced exercise program is crucial to Staying Healthy. Exercise, in its varied forms, stimulates metabolism, circulation, oxygenation, lymphatic activity, and neurological function, lessens inflammation and strengthens our immune system. Regular daily exercise can help more than the body; it can help improve mood and energy, promote better sleep, and reduce anxiety, stress and depression.

People often ask, "Which exercise is best for me? And my answer is, "The one that you'll actually do!" When people are given suggestions that are beyond their capability, or try to do too much, they often end up doing nothing. So this key begins with motivation to be or stay fit and requires a commitment to a realistic program. Set goals that allow you to achieve some measurable outcome, such as losing five pounds, be more flexible or gain more arm strength.

What can we do?
  • Some exercise daily with a goal of 7—10 hours of physical activity each week
  • Stretching—for flexibility, also good before and after aerobics and/or weights
  • Aerobic activity—running, hiking, biking, dancing or swimming, for endurance, cardiovascular health and detox (sweating). Cardio activity also supports the feel good, mood enhancing "endorphins"
  • Toning—using weights or resistance exercises, for strength and muscle mass
  • Energy balancing—like yoga, qigong, and tai chi—especially helpful for elders
  • Find a buddy to exercise with and make it fun

The Third Key—Stress

One definition of stress is the perception that we don't have the resources to handle a given problem or situation. There are many types and sources of stress, especially in our modern lives; how we manage our reactions can have serious positive or negative consequences for our health and our ability to heal. Stress reduction is a skill we all need to learn. It's good for each of us to have some relaxation techniques, mediation practice, and stress reduction exercises in our life activities. Calming the mind when it gets too wild is crucial to managing stress.

What can we do?

  • Exercise—physical activity with a regular program is a great de-stressor
  • Learn some stress reduction techniques like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
  • Spend time in Nature—take a 10 minute walk, and breathe deeply
  • Learn how to practice ‘rethinking'—seeing the situation differently
  • Create social support—find a listening and caring friend or family member
  • Maintain a sense of humor—watch a funny movie or TV show, read a book that helps you laugh
  • Herbs and supplements—support your Adrenal glands with nutrients like B vitamins, C, and minerals, plus herbs like Licorice root, Ashwaganda, and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticocus)

The Fourth Key—Sleep

Sleep is perhaps our most under-appreciated health resource and we often don't recognize its importance to our overall wellbeing until we're not sleeping properly. This is a national problem—at least 75 million US adults have sleep disorders and more than 25 percent of adults take a prescription medication to help them sleep. Even low levels of chronic fatigue can create reduced performance and accidents, particularly while driving.

So I encourage you to make sleep a health priority.

What can we do?

  • Cut back on Caffeine, Alcohol and Sugar especially late in the day
  • Avoid big evening meals
  • Be quiet about an hour before bedtime, dim the lights, and turn off computers and TV. Listen to calming music or meditate
  • Make your bedroom a comforting environment that gives you a sense of peace and relaxation
  • Herbs and Supplements—try Melatonin taken 30 minutes before sleep, serotonin supporters like L-tryptophan and 5-HTP help with deeper sleep or try herbs like valerian, chamomile (not for people with ragweed allergies) and catnip, or formulas like Sleepytime or Nighty Night teas

The Fifth Key—Attitude

The inclusion of Attitude as the fifth Key was definitely inspired by my studies of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where the personal realm of our thoughts, feelings and beliefs plays an important role in both our basic health and healing from any problems—with the goal of aligning inner and outer worlds. An important point: When we develop an "attitude of gratitude" for our life and love our body, this helps us care for ourselves better in the areas of diet, fitness, stress management and sleep. This is an area that is often ignored in conventional Western medicine.

What can we do?

  • Seek out friends or practitioners who will support your healthy attitudes and who can help you change your unhealthy ones
  • Exercise your motivation muscles. Set a goal for yourself that you can commit to and complete, such as "This week I am going to walk for 30 minutes every other day." When you keep that commitment and see that you can, your attitude will shift to believing in yourself more and being more positive
  • Learn and practice meditation, yoga, qigong or tai chi
  • Contribute to someone else's healing through your support. Give of yourself by helping others less fortunate and you get more back

In conclusion—we need to review each area of our lifestyle and address them together, as an integrated whole. Remember that our health is much more in our own hands than we realize.

The 5 Keys Self Survey
On a scale of 1 to 10 how do you rate your Health and Habits in each of the following areas? (10 being the best possible)

  • ___ Nutrition
  • ___ Exercise
  • ___ Stress
  • ___ Sleep
  • ___ Attitude
Ideally, we are seven or above in all of these areas. If not, the low spots are a good place to begin.

Let's take an honest look and assess where we stand. Then make a simple plan of action that is attainable. One of the biggest mistakes in attempting any lifestyle change is to be too ambitious, thus setting us up for failure.

Use these 5 Keys and you can add years to your life and life to your years!

I am excited to announce a free online course that my team and I are creating on The 5 Keys to Staying Healthy, which will be available soon! Check my website to see the availability of this program, and more coming soon as well.

If you'd like to be one of the first to benefit from this free course—please join my email list at: and receive a free PDF copy of The 5 Keys to Staying Healthy from my book Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine.

Elson M. Haas, MD

Elson M. Haas, MD is a medical practitioner with nearly 40 years experience in patient care, always with in an interest in natural medicine. For the past 30 years, he has been instrumental in the development and practice of Integrated Medicine at the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (PMCM), which he founded in 1984 and where he is the Medical Director. Dr Haas has been perfecting a model of healthcare that integrates sophisticated Western diagnostics and Family Medicine with time-honored natural therapies from around the world.

This educating, writing doctor is also the author of many books including Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine, 21st Century Edition, The NEW Detox Diet: The Complete Guide for Lifelong Vitality with Recipes, Menus, & Detox Plans and more. His latest book is Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine which integrates Natural, Eastern, and Western Approaches for Optimal Health. Visit his website for more information on his work, books and to sign up for his newsletter.