Many people are surprised to learn that Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and Chinese herbs, can treat numerous digestive complaints, including stomachache, acid reflux, constipation, loose stools, gas and bloating, and digestion-related abdominal pain.
Healthy digestive function is important as it provides the energy necessary to fuel all your cells with glucose. The digestive system is also critical for detoxifying the body by providing an exit route for unwanted waste material. This is why poor digestion can quickly lead to other illnesses, including rashes, eczema, and psoriasis; fatigue; low immunity; depression; and insomnia.
So what are the hallmarks of a “healthy” digestive system? To begin with, we should have a good appetite, and when we eat, we should feel energized from our food. The ability to eat without acid regurgitation, bloating, belching, or gas are other signs of a well-functioning digestive system. Finally, regular elimination of a formed stool shows that your body has made good use of the food you’ve consumed.
So how does digestion “go wrong?”
- We eat the wrong foods at the wrong times
- We eat foods that are too rich, sweet, salty, or sour because they taste good
- We eat processed foods that the body does not recognize as nutritious; these foods make us feel full but don’t provide nourishment
- Emotional stress impairs the digestive function…and often our thinking around food!
We are often so confused about what to eat that we rarely think about how to eat. Thankfully, Chinese medicine has a lot to say about this.
Here are 10 ways to dramatically improve your digestion by changing the way you eat.
Choose warm, cooked foods
You’ve probably heard of digestive fire, right? Digestive fire is basically your metabolism, or how your body uses the food you’ve eaten to fuel your cells.
Cold foods, like ice cream, cool down the digestive fire, causing your metabolism to become sluggish. Similarly, raw food, like salad, compromises the digestive fire. How? Your body draws heat away from the organs of digestion to “cook” the food you’ve ingested before it passes through the digestive tract.
If you are low in energy already, these foods will increase your fatigue, lower your immunity, cause you to gain weight, and could even give you loose stools. If you suspect your digestive fire is weakened, switch to eating warm, cooked foods right away.
Not sure if you have weak digestive fire? Place your hand on your abdomen. Often patients with weak digestion will have an abdomen that is cold to the touch. If this is you, assist your metabolism by placing a heating pad on your abdomen, sitting in a warm bath, or soaking your feet in warm water…after you’ve switched to warm, cooked foods.
Eat a good breakfast
The digestive system is at its peak during the morning hours. Why? Because we need a full meal in the morning to function throughout the day after sleeping through the night. Eating a good breakfast will kick-start your digestive system, giving it something to do when it’s primed for action.
Similarly, your digestion is at its weakest in the evening and throughout the night, except for the liver, which is at its peak while we are asleep, detoxifying the body for the next day. We’ll look at that a bit later.
So what if you aren’t hungry in the morning? Eat something light. Soup is an excellent breakfast food and is eaten throughout Asia as a morning meal. I almost always recommend protein, too, such as eggs, to give your breakfast staying power and eliminate the need for a mid-morning snack.
Avoid iced beverages
Just as with cold foods, cold beverages constrict the stomach, making digestion slower. This includes drinks that come straight from the refrigerator and those served over ice.
But what about during the summer, especially on those ninety-degree days? Chinese medicine always acknowledges the role of environment in health. So although it is easier for your body to handle cold beverages in the summer, don’t overdo it. It is always better to have drinks at room temperature, or warmer, whenever possible, and palatable.
Incorporate exercise daily, especially walking
Exercise encourages gravitational movement in the digestive tract. Walking is particularly effective in gently supporting this downward motion. Also, the rhythmic breathing of exercise massages the large intestine through the fluctuation of the diaphragm. Not only will your body use food more effectively when you exercise, your organs will be less stressed.
Light exercise is particularly important if you are constipated. Mild constipation can often be relieved through gentle abdominal workouts, such as yoga. While walking facilitates gravitational movement downward, the twists and turns of yoga massage the internal organs and stimulate elimination. If you suffer from constipation, add a little yoga to your routine, especially movements that involve squeezing, twisting, and stretching your torso.
Eat dinner before 6 p.m.
The stomach is at its weakest from 7-9 p.m. at night and doesn’t regain full power until 7 a.m. the next morning. Eating too late can cause food to sit in your stomach and intestines, creating gas, bloating, heartburn, and even insomnia. Many patients find their sleeplessness is directly related to when they eat their final meal of the day.
To optimize your digestion, and ensure a good night’s sleep, aim to eat your last meal before 6 p.m. If you must eat late, try to make dinner a light affair. A small amount of protein, vegetables, and a complex carb will fill you up and reduce the possibility of having a late-night sugar crash.
Limit Universal Irritants, including sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods
Sugar is a highly refined form of energy that puts unnecessary pressure on the body. It increases phlegm and mucus production and irritates the lining of the blood vessels by forcing excess insulin into your bloodstream. Refined sugar should always be minimized. Even in ancient China, doctors recognized the life threatening danger of diabetes.
Another “sugary” food is alcohol. Alcohol is energetically hot and damp; too much of it irritates the digestive tract and puts stress on the liver, the organ of detoxification. Ever notice it’s difficult to sleep through the night if you’ve had too much to drink? There are a couple of reasons for this. One, the stomach gets hot and irritated from alcohol. Its close proximity to the heart causes you to feel restless due to that excess heat. Second, the liver is working on overdrive to clear your system of alcohol during its peak hours, making sleep all the more difficult.
Caffeine impacts the heart and circulatory system; a little bit goes a long way. How do you know if you’ve had too much caffeine? Watch for shaking, sweating, insomnia, and heart palpitations. This applies to coffee, chocolate, tea, and mate.
Processed foods, including GMO foods, contain ingredients that have been synthesized to make new foods or prolong the shelf life of perishable food. However, the more processing a food has gone through, the less vitality it contains. Chinese medicine encourages eating food with adequate qi, not foods devoid of life energy. Before ingesting a food, ask yourself how long ago that food was cooked, picked, etc. Whenever possible, choose foods that are minimally processed and close to their original condition.
Address emotional stressors
Digestion is also an emotional process. Remember the nervous system responses Fight, Flight, or Freeze VS. Rest and Digest? Digestion requires rest. As a mentor once explained to me: rest allows the blood to flow toward the digestive system and away from other parts of the body, such as the brain.
You may have heard the phrases “I can’t stomach it anymore,” or “Let me chew on it.” There is an undeniable relationship between thinking and the organs of digestion. Common digestive ailments caused by stress include stomachaches, IBS, diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating. Poor digestion is also directly related to low immunity, weight gain, and depression.
The organs of digestion can also be damaged through food and drink choices made during times of stress. (Think of how many times you’ve “stuffed” your feelings with food.) Stress eating, emotional eating, bingeing, under-eating, and chronic overeating always have an emotional link—and a negative impact on your health.
If you suspect emotional upset is contributing to your digestive issues, get mental health support as well. Focusing solely on what you eat will only eliminate a portion of the discomfort. And since how we deal with stress tends to become habitual, symptoms like stomachaches and bowel issues will inevitably come up again when the stress is on.
Detoxification occurs at night when the liver, the mighty powerhouse of the digestive system, is at its peak. Aim to get to bed no later than 11 p.m. when detoxification begins. The liver works through the night and continues to detox until the wee hours of the morning, ending around 3 a.m.
Eating heavy meals at dinner and over-imbibing will aggravate the liver during its detox cycle. While drinking alcohol may help you fall asleep, it almost always causes us to wake during the middle of the night. This is because the liver is working doubletime to clear the system of alcohol. This is not good rest!
To get a real night’s sleep, hit the pillow before 11 p.m., avoid too much alcohol, and eat a lighter dinner, preferably finishing your meal early in the evening.
Avoid overuse of unnecessary supplements and medications
Any medication or supplement you ingest must pass through your digestive tract. Some have a strong impact on the stomach, others on the liver or kidneys.
If you are not sure if a supplement is helping you, consider stopping it. Herbal medicines, though stronger than food, are biologically closer to food than synthetically derived supplements, making them a bit easier to digest. Above all, allow your digestive function to be your guide. If a supplement or herb gives you chronic gas, diarrhea, or constipation, it is not helping you heal, no matter what its touted claim.
The same is true of medications. All medications, including over the counter meds, should be monitored by your doctor, but be sure to tell your doctor if you see negative changes in our bowel habits, experience abdominal pain, or see changes in your urination. Your doctor may recommend a different medication altogether or change the dosage.
Eat fresh, whole foods that are in season
Finally, what to eat!
Chinese medicine supports eating animal protein for adequate nutrition. If you don’t eat meat all of the time, consider eating it when you are weak, fatigued, overcoming an illness, or during the winter when your immune system is at its lowest due to cold weather.
Grains can be life-giving; experiment with what works with your body. China, where acupuncture originated, is a rice culture. We rarely see prohibitions on eating grains in Chinese dietary theory. As with all foods though, some people will exhibit more inflammation when eating grains, especially in excess. Patients who are diabetic, or pre-diabetic, should be especially careful with grains.
Fruits can be eaten in moderation, but remember, fruit is fructose and will act like sugar in your system. As with most approaches to diet, vegetables are wonderful. They keep your stools regular and provide lots of energy, minerals, and vitamins. Raw vegetables are best eaten during the summer months (remember to protect your digestive fire), but cooked vegetables should be a part of your diet year-round.
Digestive health is challenging for many modern Americans. If you suffer from digestive complaints, you are not alone.
Much of the food we consume is aggressively marketed to us. Whether it’s a new superfood, a fad diet with “ancient” roots, or a “gotta-have” convenience product, much of the sanity we need to navigate the world of food goes out the window once we become hungry, stressed, or sleep deprived. However, negative digestive symptoms are a clear sign that something is wrong, and no amount of advertising can change how we feel in our gut.
My goal is to help clients become a little less obsessed with what to eat and more open to exploring how to eat. I encourage you to listen to your “gut instinct” when it comes to food. This sense of curiosity can bring a change in habit, which is the very best way to develop a healthy relationship with food and keep your digestion working smoothly for life.