Let’s face it. Most of us grew up in an era of a food system that has left many of us with systemic inflammation, compromised metabolism, and food that is contaminated with chemicals and deficient in nutrients.
Even if you eat mostly organic and healthy food now, your gut may still have a hard time if your foundation was riddled with processed, compromised foods. If you have been through stressful periods or are going through a challenging time, your gut also can also be burdened with stress. Studies have shown howstress and depression can reshape the gut bacteria’s composition through stress hormones, inflammation, and the gut bacteria composition.
The gut is basically the digestive tract. Some sources say it starts at the mouth, goes to the pharynx, esophagus, the Stomach, Pancreas, Spleen, Large and Small Intestines, rectum and ends at - yup, your anus. Others only count the tract extending from the stomach to the anus - where the microbiome is concentrated - with over 40 trillion microbes.
In Chinese Medicine, several organ systems affect gut health the most - in addition to the obvious Spleen and Stomach (which govern the digestion of food into usable energy) there is the Liver, Gallbladder, Small Intestine, and Large Intestine. Yet in a way, because all of our organ systems influence each other, there is actually not one organ system that is not also influencing our gut in some way. For example, the Lungs and Large Intestine actually have an intimate connection as a Yin and Yang pair in Chinese Medicine. They both represent the season of Fall and metal energy, and when one is off balance, the other will very likely go off balance too. One way to notice this is that if the Lungs become dry, the Large Intestine does not receive sufficient yin, or moisture, from its partner - and therefore can suffer from dryness too. If you have suffered from a chronic, lingering dry cough and ended up with dry poops after a while, you know what we mean. (Reminder - there is no such thing as “TMI,” or too much information, in Chinese Medicine).
And though some would say that most of the gut is in our Large Intestine, the most predominant organ pair that influences our gut health on the everyday is arguably, the Spleen and Stomach organ system. These two function pretty much as one system, governing the “transportation” and “transformation” and ¨rottening and ripening" of food, creating energy that is available for the rest of all of our vital functions. The movement of peristalsis as well as efficiency of food absorption in the intestines are all fueled by the energy or “Qi” provided by the Spleen and Stomach. Imagine all your trillions of cells and bacteria living in your gut - they are all energized and fueled by the energy manufactured by the Spleen and Stomach. In fact, some modern-day Chinese medicine researchers may refer to the microbiome as part of the Spleen and Stomach system.
How do you know if your Spleen is having a hard time? Spleen Qi deficiency - which pretty means that the Spleen is pretty much tired and/or weak. Some signs to look out for in terms of Spleen Deficiency are bloating, poor appetite, constipation, sloppy and loose poos, low energy, slow digestion, borborygmus, food retention, eating or craving sweets, having many food allergies, puffiness in the face and water retention, worrying often, ruminating and overthinking, bruising easily, feeling sluggish and slow, feeling foggy-headed. Just as many would say that gut health is a primary factor for everyday health, in Chinese Medicine, we consider the Spleen Qi to be a primary factor for all health because it provides the source of energy for all of the body’s everyday activities.
When it comes to keeping your gut healthy, Chinese medicine has a whole set of practices to help ensure that the Spleen and Stomach organ system - and therefore gut - is functioning happily.
1. Eat warm, cooked food
In Chinese Medicine, the Stomach is viewed as a pot that needs to ‘cook’ the food in order to extract the nutrients (separate the clear from the turbid). The ability to transform food into nutrients for the cells is dependent on the ‘digestive fire’ to ‘cook’ the foods to ensure this transformation is completed. Eating raw and cold foods requires the body to use more Qi to heat up and “cook” the food, and too much of this can injure the Spleen and Stomach.
In nature, just as in our bodies, warmth speeds things up and cold slows things down. Our bodies naturally work best at the body’s optimal temperature at 98.6 degrees F. Our best digestion will actually occur at a slightly higher temperature - about 100 degrees at the core. In Chinese Medicine, we refer to this heated core as the “Middle Burner.” Prolonged or excessive use of chilled or raw food weakens the ‘digestive fire’ and makes the Spleen deficient. Think of it this way - your food is either going to be cooked inside your body, or outside your body. Either way, it has to be cooked in order to be digested. Requiring your body to cook your foods and literally putting cold into your body means that you are using up your Spleen Qi, and possibly injuring the digestive fire that needs to stay stoked.
2. Eat slowly and mindfully
Studies show that slower eating supports better metabolism and cancontribute to lower weight and higher satiety. There is a Chinese saying - “The last one at the table will be the last one alive.” What this means is that the one who takes their time eating will enjoy better health, and live longer. Because our digestion starts at the mouth with chewing, eating slowly and with intention is a practice that optimizes your absorption - which is ultimately, what is most important. When we absorb better, we feel fuller faster, and feel better in general.
3. Relax while you eat
Chinese medicine recognizes the intimate relationship between emotions and physical well-being. The Spleen and Stomach are especially affected by worry, anxiety, and overthinking. Stressful conversations, watching news or consuming inflammatory social media while eating, working while eating - all can make your Spleen work twice as hard to digest. In addition to eating more slowly, relaxing and enjoying your food with gratitude can contribute to better gut health.
4. Drink water separate from eating, and drink it warm
Although there is no modern scientific evidence that shows that drinking water during meals causes health problems, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that chugging water during meal times does not necessarily support digestion. Sipping water during meals can help moisten food and help digestion of dry foods - but chugging glasses of water - especially ice water, is literally - pouring cold water on your digestive fire. In terms of drinking warm water, both Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine, as two of the oldest systems of medicine on the planet, both advocate drinking warm water. This claim is based on thousands of years of human observation of the effect of warmth on the body and the difference between hydrating with cold and with warm and hot. While cold causes constriction and slows things down, warm and hot beverages increase blood circulation, relaxes the muscles, and detoxifies the body.
5. Eat real, uncontaminated food
When it comes to eating, we have to get real - meaning, eating real food that is whole, unprocessed, and not contaminated with artificial ingredients and chemicals. Processed foods are linked to not just digestive problems, but higher risk of obesity, depression, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and early death. In addition, processed foods can actually contribute to a larger number of destructive bacteria in the gut. Astudy with 1,425 people in the Netherlands showed that those who consumed a diet high in processed and animal-derived fatty foods had greater levels of destructive bacteria. These harmful bacteria produce toxins that can cause inflammation in the gut, resulting in issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. On the other hand, those whose diets consisted of more plants and fish had higher levels of healthy bacteria with anti-inflammatory effects. You can bet that getting your food from farmers markets where whole and organic food is abundant, will make your gut exponentially happier. Here is to our local and organic farmers who are keepin' it real, supporting a brighter and gut healthier future for all. (photo credit - Hawaii Living Blog).