PREVENTION - better than cure - is one of those things that begins at home. Think of the herbal soups that grandmother (especially if she's Cantonese) or mother boiled for the family to fortify the body. These days, with the more accepted notions of aromatherapy - thanks to the proliferation of spas - and increasing awareness of specialised health systems like Bach flower therapy, it's much easier to practise healthy living at home.
With spas and massages for relaxation or therapy becoming a familiar concept, almost everyone is familiar with the idea - if not the scents - of aromatherapy.
Like its name suggests, this is therapy using scents. And it's not just about scenting up your room or perfuming your body. 'Essential oils are distilled from plants - they're not made in the laboratory. That's the difference between fragrances and essential oils, which have different health qualities to them,' explains Jon Tay, a certified aromatherapist and the South-east Asian representative for the International Federation of Aromatherapists.
Knowing more about the different types of essential oils is also useful. Lavender is known to help with de-stressing and insomnia, but using the right type of lavender is important, says Mr Tay. 'The right type is lavendula augustifolia - that's the one that puts you to sleep,' he points out. Lavendula lactifolia is a cheaper version, and its inherent citrus scent will perk you up in a couple of hours after it relaxes you.
A good-quality essential oil should list its latin name, says Mr Tay. A 'starter kit' of four to six oils that are useful in the home includes lavender, tea tree (an antiseptic), eucalyptus, citrus oils like grapefruit or lemon (good for mental alertness), and citronella, which is useful in keeping away mosquitoes and insects, he says.
If you're burning oils for inhaling, then put eight to 10 drops into room temperature water in a burner and have a tealight heat it up for about 10 to 15 minutes. 'You don't want to overburn the oils,' says Mr Tay.
His main safety advice for aromatherapy is not to use the essential oils directly on the skin, but always blend them with a base oil - that is, sweet almond, jojoba, grapeseed - or an unscented lotion for shampoos or body washes. Another tip for checking quality: good jojoba oil will solidify in 15 to 30 minutes if you put it in the fridge. If it doesn't, then most likely it isn't pure jojoba oil.
As for the number of drops, it's usually three to four in 10ml of oil or lotion. 'But because the weather is more humid in the tropics, and oils are highly volatile, you can increase that to six to eight drops per 10ml,' says Mr Tay.
As for pre-mixed oils, Mr Tay affirms that rose hip oil is good for anti-ageing, and mixed with a drop of frankincense and lavender each, its effect is enhanced. St John's Wort oil, meanwhile, is useful for joint pains, he says. And there are specialised massage techniques to make sure the essential oil blends really get absorbed into the skin during massage.
Mr Tay recently trained therapists at the SK-II Boutique Spa in the Marguerite Maury technique, which uses essential oil blends.
Bach Flower Therapy
If you subscribe to the notion that health can be affected by emotions and one's mental state, the Bach Flower therapy may make sense to you.
'While you can't practise homeopathy at home, the Bach Flower system is something that can be used easily at home,' says Neeta Kapoor, a trained pharmacist and homeopath who practises at Healthpoint Homeopathy Clinic. This system - with 38 remedies plus an all-situation 'Rescue Remedy' - treats the emotions, she explains. 'Bach's system treats the emotional plane rather than the physical, and that's one of the reasons why it's different from homeopathy.'
The system is based on the positive energy of flowers and was devised by Edward Bach, a British physician and homeopath in the 1930s who intuitively felt different healing energies from different flowers.
Apparently there's little scientific evidence for the efficacy of the Bach Flower system, but if you're one to believe in the power of the mind, there's little harm in using Bach's flower dilutions. Bach is most famous for its Rescue Remedy, which is used by a number of Hollywood celebrities - to calm those stage butterflies, no doubt. 'You can take a few drops every 15 minutes or half an hour or just once a day. It's basically very safe,' says Ms Kapoor.
Traditional Chinese herbs
Just like homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) gives individualised treatments - meaning there's no one prescribed medicine for one condition. But there are two basic categories of body conditions - yin and yang, which are the terms to describe body deficiency or excessiveness respectively.
'So when we prescribe herbs as a tonic, we have to take the body's condition into account,' says Chew Say Yeow, a physician with Eu Yan Sang's Chinese clinics. The common tang gui, for example, might not be good for those with yin, or a high deficiency.
But some common herbal tonics that are good for general health conditions are registered in TCM's archives. Some of these tonics come pre-packed at the supermarket even, as fixed blends of herbs that have been passed down through generations. For example, Du Zong Bu Yiao is a common herbal formula which is good for general health and the kidney system - in TCM, the kidney system is seen to be a source of one's energy and doesn't refer to the kidney itself.
'The formula is a blend of seven different herbs and can be taken once a week as a soup. It has a tendency towards the yang, or heatiness, although it's suitable for all,' Mr Chew explains. For women, Dang Gui Yang Xue is a tonic for nourishing the blood after menses. 'It's nourishing and generally taken three days after you complete a menstrual period.'
Mr Chew says there are five systems in the body, which include the kidney system and the liver system, then the spleen and stomach. 'In TCM, these five systems are interlinked and counterbalanced so there's a balancing effect,' he says. 'If your liver system is too hyper, then it might upset the stomach. So the issue is to balance the yin and yang. In modern terms, it means that the immune system is strong.'
Enhancing positive energy and dispersing negative energy - fu zhen qu xie, as the Chinese call it - can be done through herbs, acupuncture and exercise, he points out.
Other common herbal formulas include Shen Mai Shan, which is meant to increase vitality and enhance breathing. For those new to TCM, Mr Chew recommends that they see a TCM physician first to better under-stand their body condition.
This article was first published in The Business Times on Nov 1, 2008.