Digestion


by Mickey Nguyen

Around the holidays I often see more cases related to poor digestion, and it is no mystery why this occurs. The holidays can be a joyous time to share food with family and friends, but for some it can be a challenging culmination of weeks or even months of irregular food choices and overeating that often ends up throwing our digestive systems out of whack. Poor digestion can have a large effect on a person’s daily life. Most people have experienced bouts of stomach aches, indigestion, heartburn, or diarrhea at some point. To understand how food can affect our bodies, let’s briefly look at the key factors that are involved in the process of digestion from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) viewpoint.

In TCM, the Stomach and Spleen are responsible for processing the food and nutrients we consume and transforming them into Qi (vital energy) and Blood. Improper or overconsumption of certain foods can often lead to an imbalance in these organs. This can lead to inefficient transformation of nutrients, decreased absorption, retention of undigested materials, and the formation of excess byproducts such as gas. Common conditions that can occur are chronic diarrhea, loose stools, constipation, heartburn, vomiting, and nausea.

TCM also looks at food differently than a Western perspective. TCM considers each type of food and their energetic effects on each person as an individual. The energetic effects of food classify all foods into hot and cold foods. This not only pertains to their temperature but also the “energy” they possess. Certain tastes of foods can also contribute to digestion and disease patterns.

Hot foods can be described as those with warming properties. Foods such as alcohol, beef, ginger, garlic, chillies, and spices can all contribute to hot energy. Although these properties can stimulate the appetite and promote the circulation of Blood and Qi in the body, overconsumption of these foods can give rise to Heat symptoms in the Stomach and Liver resulting in conditions such as heartburn, acid reflux, vomiting, nausea, constipation, bloody nose, foul breath, and sleep disturbance.

Cold foods are considered cold energy and are comprised of raw vegetables and fruit as well as cold temperature foods such as iced drinks, ice cream, and salads. Although moderate consumptions of these foods can be beneficial for the vitamins and minerals, overconsumption or even regular consumption, depending on a person’s condition, can be harmful in the long run. Excess cold foods can harm the Spleen which in TCM functions optimally with dryer and warmer foods. A deficiency in the Spleen can lead to symptoms such as loose stools or diarrhea, chilliness, poor appetite, abdominal distention, chronic tiredness, and weakness.

Sweet foods can nourish and provide moistening properties which are beneficial in conditions where excess dryness is present such as constipation. However, excess sweets tend to obstruct the Spleen’s ability to transform and transport which results in an accumulation of dampness. This exacerbates the conditions we described above when the Spleen is damaged by excess cold foods.

Greasy foods such as deep fried foods, milk, cheese, butter, cream, and fatty meats are foods that most people understand to consume in moderation. Besides contributing to fat gain due to high caloric density, these foods can lead to excess formation of internal phlegm and dampness in the body. Similar to sweet foods, this impairs the function of the Spleen and can contribute to disease patterns such as sinusitis, nasal obstruction, headaches, and bronchitis.

Now that we have a broad understanding how food types and energetics can affect the body, it is important to stress that not every individual is the same. There are no one size fits all treatments in TCM and there are no one size fits all diets.  Some may benefit from cold or hot, sweet or spicy foods depending on the current state of wellness. The main takeaway is that achieving the proper balance in the Spleen and the Stomach is the key factor in an optimal digestive system. With consistent proper nutrition most can achieve this, however, if there is longstanding (habitual) or acute damage (holiday indulgence) a qualified herbalist can help you with the right combination of herbs and nutritional advice tailored specifically for your body to guide you to the wellness you deserve.

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