Imagine you are about to cook something. Assuming you have already prepped your ingredients, what is the first thing you do? You turn on the stove. Fire is a necessary component of cooking. Likewise, from a Chinese medicine perspective, fire is needed in the body in order to properly break down the foods we eat in order to utilize the nutrients they contain.
Before we are born, we receive all the nutrients we need to sustain us through the umbilical cord. Once that cord is severed, our digestive system becomes fully responsible for manufacturing all the qi/energy and blood we will need each day for the rest of our lives. Having a strong Earth element/digestive system is the foundation to leading productive, optimal lives. It is so fundamental, there is even a school—called the Earth school—dedicated to it. The Earth school views all disease processes as having their original root cause in digestive dysfunction.
How Does Chinese Medicine View Digestion?
There are several main organs involved in digestion. The pathway begins at the mouth, where mechanical and some early chemical breakdown of food creates a bolus. Digestion of simple carbohydrates is first on the to-do list, with salivary amylase beginning its enzymatic process as soon as food enters the mouth. Then, traveling down the length of the esophagus, the bolus enters the stomach where it encounters hydrochloric acid and more mechanical breakdown. The spleen/pancreas (in the Chinese medicine view, the pancreas is part of spleen), liver, and gallbladder provide enzymes and bile, respectively, to continue breaking down key components such as proteins and fats. The vagus nerve then signals the stomach to begin contracting in order to move what is now called chyme into the small intestine, where most of the absorption of the broken-down nutrients occurs. The small intestine is said to “separate the clear from the turbid”—what serves us is taken in, and what we do not need gets shuffled off to the large intestine. It is here that fermentation occurs, and excess water is reabsorbed from the forming stool. Finally, the stool moves into the rectum and is expelled once the rectum is full and stretch receptors send the signal that it is time to contract.
Proper digestion, like everything, involves a dynamic and delicate balance of yin and yang. Fire is considered yang in Chinese medicine. After our food has been sufficiently broken down and there is no further need for yang, the stomach yin (which Western medicine would call probiotics) tempers the yang back to its appropriate base level until the next time we eat. This would be equivalent to turning the burner off, something we often worry we didn’t do, and for good reason!
Signs of Digestive System Issues
The liver sits adjacent to the stomach and spleen, and when it gets bound up it takes it out on those around it. When the liver acts upon the stomach, you may experience acid reflux. With unchecked stomach heat, it could even turn into recurrent nosebleeds over time. Stomach qi should move downward, and this bullying from the liver upsets the proper directionality of the stomach qi, causing it to rise and resulting in symptoms that flow upward.
When the liver overacts on the spleen you will see signs such as loose stool and bloating, especially after meals. Spleen qi normally moves up to hold things in its proper place. When spleen function is damaged, things start moving downward. You may notice other signs of what we call “spleen qi fall,” such as hemorrhoids, hernias, or varicose veins. If spleen qi continues to malfunction, it could even contribute to herniated discs in the spinal column, which Chinese medicine would view as a type of prolapse.
The spleen is highly reactive to greasy, cold, fried, overly spicy, and raw foods. Cold foods produce more damp (along with sugar/simple carbs) and therefore hinder the spleen’s task of transforming dampness in the body. Give it more work for the same amount of pay, and you will definitely hear complaints! Raw foods are physically tougher to break down than cooked foods are. According to Chinese medicine, those who have weak digestive fire should not eat a raw, vegan-type diet, because they will not be able to break down all that vegetable cellulose into useable energy. You will end up feeling sluggish, tired, and undernourished.
It is important to remember that there are both constitutional causes and environmental/lifestyle causes for digestive issues. If one or both of your parents struggle with digestive issues, it is likely that you will also struggle, as you cannot receive energetics that were unavailable at the time of your development. Other lifestyle factors such as eating just prior to bedtime, eating on the run, skipping meals, and the inability to manage stress can all play a role in throwing our digestion off the rails.
How Does Stress Impact Digestion? Can Acupuncture Help?
It is important not to eat when you are rushing. You are nourishing yourself, and this should be done mindfully. Proper digestion happens when the parasympathetic state is dominant—you may have heard the phrase “rest and digest.” When we are rushing, we are in a sympathetic state of arousal, and therefore we have triggers being sent to our muscles to prepare for fight or flight. This shuts down processes not essential to immediate survival, which means the stove gets turned off. Food that sits in a pot on the stove with the burner off will most certainly begin to putrefy.
Similarly, you should not eat when stressed. According to Chinese medicine, the liver is the organ most susceptible to stress. The smooth flow of qi in the body is managed by the liver. When stressed, our qi stagnates. Think of the stress knots you get in your upper trapezius—those can also happen in the intercostal muscles that line our flanks. This is significant because qi needs to move downward for proper digestion to occur. Acupuncture can help by opening special “gate” points in the rib, which are meant to ease this diaphragmatic tension to allow the qi to once again move down freely.
Chinese Herbs in Digestion
There is a known correlation between leaky gut and autoimmunity. The first step for patients is to secure the integrity of the gastrointestinal lining to promote optimal absorption in order for herbs to be an effective treatment strategy. It may be that acupuncture, diet/lifestyle modifications, and supplements should be considered first before being able to employ herbal therapy. Often, instead of asking what we can add, first we must ask what can be eliminated that may be contributing to the problem. Less is more, as adding things will have a systemic effect on all body systems. Therefore, it is important to be conservative when it comes to herbs.
When it comes to the aforementioned constitutional legacies—your mother’s IBS; your father’s heartburn—this is where herbs shine. Herbs can make up the difference in what we would need for each organ system to be healthy enough to not present with symptoms of disease. Whereas most pharmaceuticals are used to squelch invading critters, Chinese medicine’s approach is to make individuals themselves more optimal and resilient, so we are able to adequately fend off invading factors and pathogens—we can actually target and strengthen specific organs.
Herbal medicine turbo-charges your acupuncture sessions, and the strategy is usually short term. Once the pattern shifts, the herbs are no longer needed, and the new balanced state is maintained with acupuncture, diet, and lifestyle changes. Our ultimate aim is for a system to be in charge of itself, functioning optimally all on its own.
What Do Cravings Mean?
There are five “tastes” in Chinese medicine: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and bland. Cravings for salt means dehydration, or accumulations; the salty taste dissolves hardness. Cravings for sweets/damp-producing foods like sugar and refined carbs can often mean that there is some kind of internal heat that the body is attempting to put a wet blanket over to mitigate scorching. Cravings for dark chocolate almost certainly point to magnesium deficiency. If you are the type to get calf cramping in the night, this might be a craving you feel more often than others. If you are ravenous at night, you most certainly did not reach your calorie quota for the day.
What Should I Eat, and When?
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all diet. People have vastly different constitutions, and therefore, there should be as many diets as there are people. In fact, the same people may need different diets depending on their age, their activity level, or even the season of the year we are in. Animals forage and eat what grows at that time in the environment. Deer along the Connecticut coastline eat rose hips before the first frost. These are high in vitamin C, and they do this at the turn of the season so that they can stave off illness.
Humans tend to forget that in nature, we are animals
too. Chinese medicine is simple in that way—it is governed by observing the world around us. If we eat what is growing seasonally, we will be provided with the exact nutrients we need to support us. Therefore, as the winter months approach, we need to ensure we have enough yang to fortify us against the external influence of cold. We should generally be eating more soups with bones, lamb and beef stews with root vegetables, and incorporating herbs and spices such as garlic, turmeric, and chai. Those who have internal heat patterns or yang rising patterns may find that their symptoms worsen if they eat these types of foods. These are the same people that look forward to the winter months, because the cold tempers their internal fire.
Time of day is also a consideration when balancing yin and yang. Yang corresponds to day and yin corresponds to night; as such, there are certain activities that are meant to be done during the yang, or active, part of the day, one of these being digestion. The stomach yang is most active around noon, so it is best to eat a big breakfast, a hearty lunch, and a modest dinner, not much later than 4 pm.
Is Working with a Chinese Medicine Practitioner Right for Me?
We are dynamic beings constantly in flux. As such, there is always room for movement in any direction at any time. This underlying premise of Chinese medicine results in the most important factor I believe that contributes to wellness—hope. Getting acupuncture once a week is one opportunity a week to shift your pattern. Herbs can be 14 opportunities each week. Diet can be 21 opportunities, assuming you eat three meals a day.
Finally, it is vital to work with someone who understands your specific needs, as well as to do your own homework to determine how certain foods make you feel. Food diaries can be laborious, but a good 2–3-week, consistent effort pays out large dividends. This may be especially true for those suffering from migraines, as many foods, such as nuts and bananas, can be triggers. Many problems could be avoided if we have the awareness to make the appropriate choices for ourselves. Having an objective Chinese medicine guide on your side might just be the advantage you need to get that digestive system back into shape.
Kathlene Emond, LAc, is a board-certified acupuncturist/herbalist, and a diplomate of Asian medicine as granted by the NCCAOM. She is dual licensed in CT and NY state, and completed her Chinese medicine training at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, now Pacific College of Health and Science, in Manhattan. She belongs to the CTSA, Connecticut Society of Acupuncture, and practices in Glastonbury near her hometown of South Windsor. She is passionate about educating her patients and the general public about the modern applications of ancient Chinese medicine. Her own personal healing journey led her to developing a more holistic approach. She specializes in digestive health, autoimmunity, anxiety/stress, women’s health, and fertility. Call 860.633.6022 for more information or to schedule a consultation.