10 Ways to Improve Your Digestion with Chinese Medicine

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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.

Prioritize sleep

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.

How Does Acupuncture Work? Part II

acupuncture meridiansIn Part I of How Does Acupuncture Work? we discovered how qi, blood, yin, and yang interact. Let’s take a deeper look at the way these forces merge to create the major organs of the body.

The Organs in Chinese Medicine

The primary organs in Chinese medicine include the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lungs, and Kidneys. Each of these organs has a “sphere of influence,” meaning it impacts the function of other aspects of the body and can offer diagnostic clues leading to treatment possibilities based on deep-seated relationships.

Here are a few examples of internal imbalances leading to external signs and symptoms:

The Liver impacts the eyes in Chinese medicine. Virtually all eye symptoms can be traced back to Liver disharmonies. This may sound absurd in Western medicine, but we know that by treating the Liver in Chinese medicine, we can impact eye health.

The same is true for the Lungs. In Chinese medicine, the Lungs are responsible for the skin. Unlike the example of the Liver, the relationship between lung health and skin health is well-documented in allopathic medicine. For example, we know patients with asthma and allergies are more likely to develop eczema.

Through questioning patients about subjective symptoms, the acupuncturist is able to work backward to diagnose imbalances deeper in the body.

Investigating in this way yields many clinical benefits. For one, acupuncturists pay attention to signs and symptoms that may be overlooked by other practitioners. In fact, many acupuncture patients are surprised by the specificity of our diagnostic approach. We often ask questions other healthcare practitioners do not ask.

The next time your acupuncturist rattles off a list of strange questions, know they are gathering important information that will result in a customized treatment strategy designed specifically for your condition.

The relationship between all these disparate signs and symptoms can be confusing to Western patients. But rest assured, it’s the acupuncturist’s job to discover these relationships, not yours.

 

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Acupuncturists also gather objective information on a patient’s health by examining the body.

One of the primary ways we get information about what is happening internally is by feeling the radial pulse in your wrists.

Each wrist offers a window into your internal environment. I feel the pulse bilaterally at a superficial level and deeper, closer to the bone. This technique tells me about the state of each of the organ systems mentioned above, as well as the vitality of qi, blood, yin, and yang.

Acupuncturists also investigate the tongue. Believe it or not, your tongue tells a story about your inner climate. Do you run hot or cold? Do you have phlegm in your intestines or lungs? The tongue will often reveal these conditions. (If you are curious about tongue diagnosis, check out Why Does My Acupuncturist Look at My Tongue?)

We also physically examine the body. We may feel for changes in skin texture, how pain responds to pressure, or if the area is hot or cold. All of these signs and symptoms give us clues to what is happening internally. Once we decide on a diagnosis, we treat these imbalances by influencing the meridian system.

 

Qi and the Meridians

In Chinese medicine the human body is a connected system of relationships. Electrical and metabolic information is sent through the body via a network of invisible channels called meridians.

Meridians connect all parts of the body in a continuous network of impulses. This is why we can insert an acupuncture needle in the foot to affect the hip or one in the hand to halt sneezing. In fact, qi moving through the meridian system is the real “secret” to how acupuncture works. It is how information is conveyed.

When this system of communication is disrupted or blocked, we experience pain and dysfunction. Also, when the body is weak, the signals being sent through the meridians become weak. Acupuncture revives this signal by stimulating the qi and blood. It also directs the qi to correct the flow of these impulses so that the body functions in a healthy way.

Without the meridian system, and the theories of qi, blood, yin, yang, and the organs, there would be no Chinese medicine as we know it. If we ignore the idea of qi, throw out the theory of the organs, and simply stick a needle in a muscle, we will not be able to address truly complex health issues. Patients may experience temporary pain relief, and even a sense of relaxation, but to unravel deeper problems, such as asthma and heart arrhythmias, the ancient Chinese theories are indispensable.

As an acupuncturist and an acupuncture patient, the theoretical scaffolding beneath acupuncture has always made sense to me. It is what differentiates it from practices like dry needling or trigger point therapy, techniques that employ acupuncture needles but abandon Chinese medical theory.

As acupuncture treatment evolves in the United States, it is important that we not forget the importance of balancing qi, blood, yin, and yang, which are the basis of health. Acupuncture helps thousands of people every day all across the world because of its foundational theories, not in spite of them. Ancient Chinese doctors understood this.

We are lucky to have inherited such a profound vision of human health, one that is both applicable to modern illness and flexible enough to accommodate new knowledge. Even as we seek to explain how acupuncture works in contemporary language, we can appreciate its roots in the dynamic balance between yin and yang.

How Does Acupuncture Work? Part I

During graduate school I was part of an acupuncture education outreach effort. When I told our program director the topic of our presentation—how does acupuncture work—she laughed.

“Good luck figuring that out!”

She was right. Acupuncture is not easy to explain—and I watch it in action every day.

Despite this challenge, I’ve learned that educating people about how acupuncture works is important. We are curious beings, after all. Also, patients and practitioners, not to mention insurance providers and medical doctors, all want to understand how acupuncture provides relief.

In this post I hope to shed some light on this difficult question by giving you a short-and-sweet primer on the theory behind this powerful medicine.

 

The Roots of Acupuncture

The answer to “how does acupuncture work?” is embedded in a cultural perspective that is different from Western medical science. While Chinese medicine is based on observation of nature—with humans being an inextricable part of their environment—the ancient Chinese were not conducting double-blind placebo-controlled studies. Nor did they have the concept of germ theory or the endocrine system.

Even still, Chinese medicine is highly empirical, meaning it developed based on visible changes in wellbeing after implementing certain therapeutic techniques. Acupuncture and herbal medicine are not just theoretical—or superstitious—forms of medicine. In fact, Chinese medicine is the oldest and most contiguous body of textual medicine in the world, meaning what we use today has been refined through clinical practice and passed down in books over millennia.

Chinese medicine is also highly adaptable to modern illness, which is why it remains so clinically relevant and important to modern healthcare. Many theories and treatment methods used in the contemporary clinic were discovered over 2,000 years ago and are still applicable to patients with iPhones and Facebook accounts.

So just what was in these ancient texts?

The history of Chinese medicine began with the first herbal medicine text, the Shennong BencaoThe Divine Husbandman’s Classic of Materia Medica. This book was compiled 2,500 years ago and includes many well-known herbs that are still in use today, including ginseng and ginger.

The first acupuncture text was the Huang Di Nei JingThe Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, compiled 2,200 years ago during the Warring States Period in China. This manuscript introduced the ideas of yin and yang into medicine, concepts that could already by found in the religious philosophy of Taoism.

These ideas were flexible in that they could be applied to broad scenarios, such as weather and climate, or minute workings in the body, like growth and development, death and decay. The flexibility of Chinese medical theory is really what keeps it clinically effective even today.

 

Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang: Navigating the Inner Ecosystem

Much like an ecosystem, Chinese medicine is based on patterns and relationships that are visible in the natural environment.

We think of the outside world as a complex system of elemental interactions: water, soil, wind, sunlight. Similarly, the body is its own ecosystem. However, the primary relationships in your body occur between qi, blood, yin and yang.

Yin and yang are opposites, yin being dark, moist, heavy, cool, and receptive, and yang being light, warm, expansive, and generative. An important thing to remember about yin and yang is that these terms only have meaning in relationship to one another; they are inextricably connected. If we say a person who is cold lacks yang, we can only determine this by weighing it against the yin qualities present in their body.

Qi and blood have a similar relationship. Qi is life-force energy in Chinese medicine. It permeates and animates everything. I like to think of it as the electrical impulse that is always present in living organisms. Blood, like yin, is dense and nutritive. It moves all over the body, feeding the cells of the muscles, brain, and all the internal organs. The qi carries the blood around the body, pulling it forward with a magnetic force.

When qi, blood, yin and yang are in a state of balance, people feel good. When these forces are out of whack, disease comes about. The job of an acupuncturist is to determine what is imbalanced and adjust it through sending a corrective message through the needles.

 

Diagnosing Imbalances of Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang

But just how does an acupuncturist diagnose disease? First, we need to know how the yin, yang, blood and qi are interacting.

As an acupuncturist, I use many methods of investigation to determine what is out of balance in my patients. Some imbalances are temporary, acute, surface-level disease states, such as a cold, flu, or injury.

Other problems run deeper and become a part of a patient’s constitutional makeup. They grow from the little things we do, or that happen to us, over months or years. Sometimes they are even with us from childhood. I often think of these imbalances as “body habits.” They are harder to interrupt and often require maintenance support, including acupuncture treatment or herbal medicine, over a longer period of time.

Your body’s symptoms are subjective messages sent to alert you that something is off. My role is to question you about these symptoms so that a pattern emerges.

Through interpreting the relationship between symptoms (subjective) and signs (objective), I then reach a diagnosis designed to address the imbalances of qi, blood, yin and yang.

Next time, in How Does Acupuncture Work Part II, we’ll look at the role the internal organs play in diagnosing and treating disease. We’ll also learn the theory behind why acupuncture needles impact the health of qi, blood, yin, and yang.

The mystery continues…