Posts filed under ‘Digestive’

It’s not so much WHAT you eat…

A number of years ago I took a nutrition class taught by a macrobiotic counselor. He told us a story about two women who were so excited about their results with macrobiotics that they gave gift certificates to their husbands, whom they were sure would feel so much better if they just ate better.

These guys were hard-working McDonalds and Taco Bell kind of guys. They were not going to touch steamed pumpkin, barley and hijiki seaweed with a ten foot pole. So the counselor told them this: Eat whatever you usually eat. Just do two things. First, eat at the same times every day. Second, when you’re eating, sit down and just eat, nothing else.

Two weeks later they came back raving about how good they felt. Their energy was great, they were sleeping well, their digestion had improved, and they were both in great moods.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it does kind of speak to the mystery of how we can make a good effort to eat healthier foods, and still not feel that much better (or still not lose weight). There’s so much more to eating than just what we eat.

Chinese dietary therapy does have a lot to say about what we should eat — based on body type, season, and any symptoms or imbalances in the body. Interestingly, though, it has even more to say about when and how we eat (see the next post for more on this).

On a physiological level, the logic behind this is pretty simple. All the energy we use to function comes directly from food. If the digestive system is tense and contracted when we’re eating, or overloaded with too much food, or doesn’t get a steady supply of nutrients, the process doesn’t go so well and we don’t feel good.

I think it’s so much more than that, though. Often, the way we feed ourselves reflects (and affects) the way we nourish ourselves in other ways. If we act like feeding our bodies isn’t worthy of time or effort or enjoyment, it’s quite possible we’re doing the same thing with other needs — like rest, creativity, love, intimacy, or celebration.

It’s so easy — believe me I know it’s easy — to give this stuff short shrift. We’re under a lot of pressure out there. But making the space to eat in a way that is really relaxing and nourishing can be a way in — a way to practice allowing ourselves to be human in other ways too.

And that is even better for our health and balance than a big plate of steamed kale. 🙂


February 22, 2011 at 10:26 am Leave a comment

Worrying, Studying, Sugar, and your “Spleen”

Apparently, they had stressed-out students in ancient China, too.  Chinese medical theory devotes a good amount of attention to how learning and thinking affect the function of organ systems, and vice versa.  The organ system most affected by academic activities is the Spleen (in ancient texts, thinking was not really attributed to the brain; in fact, the brain was considered a “curious organ” and not given much credit at all for doing anything!).

Physically, the Chinese Spleen is primarily connected with digestion; mentally, it is associated with the emotions of sympathy and “pensiveness” (which I never thought of as an “emotion” before studying Chinese medicine!).  Pensiveness encompasses a range of mental activites, including brooding, worrying, and even studying. Intense thinking and learning draw heavily on Spleen energy, as does prolonged worrying.

It also works the other way: excessive worrying, and repetitive or obsessive thinking, are common symptoms of a depleted Spleen. Insomnia can also result, especially the kind where you can’t stop thinking long enough to fall asleep. If you find yourself in these patterns, first of all don’t take it personally; it’s just a sign that you need to take care of yourself. At the same time, do make an effort not to add fuel to the fire (it’s remarkably easy to worry about worrying!).

Other signs that the Spleen needs attention include digestive issues, especially bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, or loss of appetite. Spleen depletion can also cause fatigue, typcially with a foggy-headed feeling and/or a heavy feeling in the legs and arms. And, sugar cravings are a dead giveaway of Spleen imbalance. Any of these signs are a reminder to take good care of your Spleen!  Try some of the suggestions below.

Here are some suggestions to keep your Spleen healthy and in balance:

Take time to eat in a relaxed manner. This can be hard when you’re preoccupied and/or pressed for time, but it’s especially important at those times. It truly is amazing how much better you can feel just by setting time aside to nourish your body without distraction. Chinese texts specifically recommend the following:

  • sit down to eat: don’t eat while standing up or moving around (this includes eating while driving)
  • relax at mealtimes: don’t eat when very upset or stressed
  • don’t read or study while eating (efficient though this may seem)

For sugar cravings, add some naturally sweet foods
into your diet. Sweet vegetables such as winter squash, sweet potato, carrot, onion, and parsnip help nourish the spleen and balance blood sugar. A limited amount of fruit is also fine (whole fruit is much better than juice, since the fiber helps the body absorb the sugars more slowly and evenly).

Avoid artificial sweeteners. Research shows that these can actually increase sugar cravings; the sweet taste signals the body to get ready for sugars, and when they don’t come the body continues to expect them. It’s better to eat small amounts of sugar and slowly taper off than to substitute “diet” drinks or snacks.

Gentle exercise helps: it relaxes the Liver and harmonizes the close relationship between Liver and Spleen. This can increase energy, clear fogginess, regulate the appetite and digestion, and calm the mind.

Acupuncture and herbs can help restore balance and resolve symptoms including insomnia, fatigue, poor digestion, sugar cravings, and anxiety. If you need support beyond these self-care tips, consider coming in for some treatment.

If you have signs of dampness, see the posting on humidity and digestion
: Signs of dampness include sinus congetsion or phlegm production; bloating, loose stool, or nausea; water retention and edema; and feelings of lethargy, heaviness, or grogginess.

September 30, 2008 at 12:08 am 1 comment

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Acupuncture

Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is an increasingly common digestive complaint. People with IBS suffer from abdominal pain, cramping or discomfort, along with diarrhea, constipation, or both. They may also experience a number of other gastrointestinal symptoms. People often feel worse when under physical or emotional stress, before or during the menstrual period, although sometimes the disorder seems to have a completely illogical life of its own.

In Western medicine, IBS is considered a “functional disorder” – meaning there is no observable physical problem in the digestive system. It is thought to be some form of miscommunication between the brain, peripheral nervous system, and digestive organs, which messes up the regulation of digestive functions. This is actually good news, because functional disorders of this type usually respond very well to acupuncture.

In Chinese medical thought, IBS almost always involves an imbalance between the Liver and the Spleen.The Spleen is considered responsible for “transformation and transportation” of qi – that is, taking in food, converting it to energy, and supplying that energy to the body.The Liver’s job is to keep energy flowing smoothly through the body so that all organ systems can work efficiently.

There is a close relationship between the Spleen and Liver: when Liver qi is not flowing smoothly, its tendency is to build up until it lashes out sideways at the Spleen, disrupting the activities of digestion. (Most of us have seen this in our daily lives, whether it’s losing one’s appetite when depressed, craving sweets under stress, or experiencing anxiety that causes diarrhea, constipation, or both.) Chinese medicine devotes a lot of attention to balancing this relationship, a treatment strategy known as “harmonizing the Liver and Spleen”.

IBS is one of the most commonly treated conditions in my practice. I have found that nearly everyone responds very well to acupuncture treatment, even those with severe or long-standing symptoms. Many people also report improvements in anxiety or depression, sleep issues, fatigue, headaches, or menstrual pain, all of which may also be caused by a liver/spleen imbalance.

Besides acupuncture and herbs, other things that help are exercise, stress management, and regular eating habits. Here’s a great website with lots of information on this condition and how to manage it. Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders.

September 22, 2008 at 1:14 am Leave a comment

Late Summer, Humidity, and Digestion

The summer is flying by! In fact, in Chinese medicine land, it’s already a new season: Late Summer. In my estimation, Late Summer begins right around the time the 7-year-olds start practicing football in the field near my house. It’s an amazing thing, seeing these little kids fully decked out in football padding.

Late Summer in Chinese medicine is governed by the Earth element. In practical terms, this is the season when the earth offers us heaps of fresh, nutritious food and a general sense of abundance. Emotionally, this element is associated with nurturing, nourishing, and grounding. Late Summer is a good time for relaxing, eating fresh food, and being with family and friends.

In Chinese medicine, the organ system associated with the season of Late Summer is the Spleen. The Chinese Spleen is quite different from the anatomical spleen (an organ whose main function is to filter the blood). It is responsible for all aspects of digestion; its primary function is to convert food into the energy we use in our everyday lives.

The Spleen has an intimate relationship with humidity and dampness, conditions we often experience at this time of year. The Spleen’s functions are easily disrupted by excessive dampness, whether in our environment or within the body (internal conditions are often described in terms of weather in Chinese medicine).

Conversely, when the Spleen is taxed, symptoms of “internal dampness” are more likely to occur. These may include digestive symptoms, such as bloating, gas, decreased appetite, or loose stool; a feeling of lethargy, heaviness, or a foggy feeling in the head; or increased congestion, to name a few.

The digestive system is especially vulnerable this time of year.  Many people experience an increase in bloating, nausea, poor digestion, reduced appetite, and diarrhea or loose stool.  Chronic conditions, such as IBS, may be more difficult to manage.  Changing a few eating habits can help enormously in supporting your digestive system to handle the humid weather better.

If you are experiencing any stomach trouble, or any of the other damp symptoms listed above, try these suggestions. If that doesn’t help enough, consider scheduling an acupuncture appointment or two to help get back in balance.

Some Suggestions for Decreasing Dampness

  1. Eat fresh, nourishing foods. There is a lot available this time of year — try a farmer’s market for fresh, local foods.
  2. Be moderate with sugar, greasy fried foods, and dairy, all of which are taxing to the spleen.
  3. Cook your food. Lightly cooked food may be easier than raw food on your digestive system if you are having any kind of stomach trouble. Try blanching veggies in hot water for a minute or two — they retain their crunch, but are easier to digest.
  4. Eat some sour or pungent flavors, which help disperse dampness and regulate digestion. Examples include pickles, sauerkraut, lemon, garlic, and onion.
  5. Get some exercise: dampness tends to settle in the body, and make you feel lethargic, but it can be moved if you move!

August 15, 2008 at 11:16 am Leave a comment


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