I have been seeing Greg* off and on for the past several years. Greg is an outgoing guy in his early thirties who runs his own printing business. He has several employees, but it seems that every day Greg is at work from early in the morning until late at night. He also spends many of his evenings entertaining executives from his larger accounts. By his own admission, Greg works 70 or more hours a week.
Recently Greg was in my office because he was feeling burnt out. He was complaining that he had no energy and couldn’t focus, he wasn’t sleeping well, he was gaining weight, and most important to Greg, he had lost all joy for his work.
In Chinese medicine, the source of Greg’s problem is something called overwork. In the West, we may know people who are considered workaholics, but may not consider this a health issue. However, the Chinese concept of overwork is one that springs from too much physical or mental work and is a source of ill health. Studying for long periods, too many hours at the office, or working at a stressful and demanding job all qualify as overwork.
In Chinese medicine, overwork depletes the Kidney organ system. The Kidney is responsible for many body functions, including growth, fertility, and how we age. The Kidney is also home to Essence, one of the most important substances in the body, and is the foundation for all other substances—Qi, Blood, Yin, Yang, and Fluids. Essence is behind many of the functions of growth and development that are attributed to the Kidney.
You inherit one kind of Essence from your ancestors at the moment of conception, called Congenital Essence, which is responsible not only for growth and maturation, but also for genetic traits and body constitution. When you work too hard and become stressed out, and as you age, Congenital Essence becomes depleted. When this Essence is completely used up, according to Chinese theory, you die. While Congenital Essence cannot be replenished, it can be used judiciously through good lifestyle habits, and it can be augmented by another kind of essence, called Acquired Essence.
Acquired Essence is made up of nutrients from the food you eat combined with a healthful lifestyle, and can be built up by eating well, getting adequate sleep, and acting with moderation in all things, including work.
After treating Greg during a series of acupuncture appointments, he realized how damaging his work habits had been to his health. He ultimately decided to leave his business in the capable hands of his employees and take three weeks off to regain his health and reassess his work habits.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.