By Brian Huwe and Mary Beth Ladenheim
What we eat and how we eat it greatly influence how we feel. Understanding the process and preferences of your digestive system will help you to get the most nourishment from your food. In Chinese medicine, dietary therapy is often considered the first step of treating disease. It can help you to feel more energy, alertness, and overall health.
Digestion pertains to the earth element. It is the foundation on which overall health is built. The earth element signifies the possibility for a stable center, both in the body and in one’s life. This means having steady resources to support not only physiology but also how we think and feel. In one’s life, the health of the earth element is reflected in the state of one’s home and in how – or if – one cooks.
The organs and channels associated with the earth element are the spleen and stomach. Their job is to transform everything we eat and drink into nourishment. This process is not all that dissimilar to cooking a soup. If the stomach is likened to a pot, then the spleen (sometimes considered the pancreas) is the fire underneath, and the soup in the pot is the food to be digested. As the soup cooks, it changes, and the end product is very different from the various raw ingredients. So, too, the food in the stomach is transformed and made ready to be transported to nourish and energize the body where it is needed.
Digestion does not always go so smoothly. Sometimes the fire gets smothered, the soup gets burned, or the cook quits. Here are some ways to promote healthy digestion and overall health:
Enjoyment: Let eating be enjoyable and relaxing, not something to belabor with inflexible regimentation. The guidelines set out here are intended to help you get started in paying attention to your body’s needs because the best way to know your own optimum diet is to start noticing how you feel after you eat. Then you can fill your diet with the foods that make you feel best.
Chewing: The mouth is your one chance to break down food into the form that the spleen and stomach need. Inadequate chewing often results in poor digestion and upset to these organs. A good rule of thumb is to chew your food until you can no longer distinguish what you ate by its texture, i.e. when it no longer feels like what it was.
Environment: Pay attention to your eating environment and make any necessary adjustments so that it is relaxing, enjoyable, and suitable for assimilation. This means focusing your body’s energy on digestion by sitting and refraining from distractions like reading, watching television, or heated discussion.
Habits: Don’t stand and eat. Find a nice sitting spot and stay put until you’re finished. Be careful not to overeat. If your belly feels full after a meal, there may not be enough room in your stomach for the food to move around and be digested efficiently. Some say that this means stopping while the food tastes best. It also means eating regular meals and healthy snacks so that you are not excessively hungry at a meal. Your body does best if it has nourishment coming in regularly throughout the day. Also, eating a late dinner (after 7 p.m.) tends to strain the stomach qi.
Quality: Take a look at the ingredients listed on the foods you buy. Avoid trans fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils), artificial sweeteners, and high fructose corn syrup. The best way to ensure good quality is to cook your own meals.
When possible, it is best to use fresh, organic, local food. The benefits of this are too numerous to adequately list here. Here’s one of our favorite sources of information. And here’s another. And love this one.
Raw v. cooked: Because the stomach is the cooking vessel and the spleen the cooking fire, foods that are already cooked – or already soup-like – are more easily digested and assimilated. This isn’t to say you should only eat soups, but eating cooked meals is preferable over raw ones. Raw foods are excellent for clearing heat, which is why a salad is so appealing on a hot day. But asking the stomach to assimilate raw ingredients during cold weather – or in the absence of heat – is demanding. Eventually, the digestion will suffer.
Sources for additional reading:
- Chinese Nutrition Therapy, Joerg Kastner, MD, LAc
- Healing with Whole Foods, Paul Pitchford
- Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon
- The Tao of Healthy Eating, Bob Flaws, LAc