Is Your Digestive System a Swampy Marsh?
“You are what you eat!" This is literally true from a purely mundane physical perspective. We eat food, and from that food we extract micro and macro molecules that start traveling through our blood stream or down our intestinal track and elicit a cascade of biochemical reactions that determine the condition of our physical being. There are other influences on our physiology, of course, such as our thoughts and what we breath or absorb through our skin, which also make a big impact on our overall health. Yet food and drink really form and maintain the material basis of our bodies after birth. In this article, I’d like to talk about the Gut-Brain from a Chinese Medicine perspective, and expand for you the concept of the Gut-Brain beyond microbiota and serotonin. In Chinese Medicine, we use the term “Spleen/Stomach” to describe the digestive system, and most of us just call it “Spleen” for short. In order for the Spleen to be successful it has to have sufficient “Qi”. Qi is the word used to describe activity, force, and movement. Qi keeps all of the cellular transactions happening so that we can stay alive. Without Qi we would simply STOP.
With adequate Qi our body takes in substance and breaks it down into usable forms that are either sent into the blood stream to travel and support other areas of our body, such as our organs, muscles, nervous system, brain and sense organs, or it's sent down the path of the intestines to be eliminated (think fiber or toxins). When all is working well we feel great and get to live life to the fullest. When all is not working, a cascade of unfortunate events can happen leading to several health issues such as inflammation, anxiety, allergies, and autoimmunity to name a few. If our Spleen Qi is weak it stops breaking down the food and drink properly and we end up with a situation called “Dampness”. If healthy Spleen Qi is a rushing mountain stream, dampness is a marshy swamp. The old Chinese saying is:
“Dampness is the cause of the 10,000 diseases.”
Dampness can be the cause of issues such as weight gain and inability to lose weight, congestion and phlegm, weak immunity, fatigue, bloating, loose stools or diarrhea, growths such as fibroids, cysts and tumors, polycystic ovarian syndrome, headaches and dizziness. Indeed, it is the culprit in a multitude of health issues, more so in modern times than ever before. When I think about staying healthy, on the top of my mind is avoiding dampness.
Another ancient Chinese Medicine saying is :
“There is never dampness without heat, or heat without dampness.”
So the situation worsens over time as the marshy swamp continues to stagnate and warm up, which can be likened to inflammation. When this pattern occurs for long enough we end up with autoimmune diseases and cancer. From a Chinese Medicine perspective this is one of the major pathways to most modern disease. So how does the Spleen become weak in the first place? The most common cause of Spleen Qi Deficiency is, no suprise, a poor diet. Substances like sugar, refined grains, too much greasy food and alcohol injure this important organ system, and if the assault goes on for long enough, the Spleen putters out. Other factors like consuming cold food and drink and excessive spicy food can injure the Spleen, but the most common culprit is the high sugar intake, which of course is the basis of the American diet. Bread, candy, cookies, baked goods, cereal, pasta, crackers, tortillas and so on are all items that cause the Spleen to weaken.
One thousand years ago one of our great Chinese Medicine doctors, Sun Si Miao, noted that too much wheat causes dampness! So this gluten free thing is not just a fad, it was observed a thousand of years ago that this grain out of proportion could weaken our health. Another cause of a weak Spleen is too much worrying, anxiety and over thinking, which is also a result of a weak Spleen. This is very important and very relevant and I will touch on it in another post. So what can you do to increase your Spleen Qi besides cutting out the culprits mentioned above? Here are some simple ideas:
Drink ginger tea
Include spices in your diet like cardamom, cumin, coriander and fennel
Eat your meals at regular times to create some rhythm for the Spleen
Eat warm food and don’t eat or drink anything too cold
Never get too hungry or too full
And if you really want to improve your Spleen Qi, you should see an acupuncturist and start taking Chinese herbal medicine. For a listing of nationally certified acupuncturists in your town you can go to www.nccaom.org.