Digestion, a story
We see people in our clinic with digestive troubles all the time. I cannot think of a day that has gone by recently without treating someone with IBS, Crohn's Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, nausea, vommitting, diarrhea, or heartburn, or some other disease that has a complicating factor of digestive trouble (some types of headaches, body aches, menstrual problems and others.) They get better with acupuncture and sometimes herbs, but I felt something was missing. Always, they would fall back into unbalance, which would lead them into a flare up of problems we had already dealt with. They keep falling back into their problems because it is their diet that is hurting them. So, lately, I have been discussing diet a bit with them.
In community acupuncture I do not have time to discuss diet with everyone that comes in. The high volume-low price model means that everyone who comes in gets low priced acupuncture, but the free therapies (diet, exercise and adequate rest) seem to slip. I think diet is very important, so I am turning to the internet to help me reach out. I can put the basics here and then I can fine tune it in person for people after they have read it.
The first idea that I want to get across is how we think of digestion in Chinese medicine. Think of this as physiology, just different from the physiology you learned in high school or university. Remember, Chinese medicine was conceived of and practiced before the invention of the microscope. Our fore-fathers used observation and metaphor to translate ideas. (*Please note, the following words in italics are meant to convey very specific ideas in Chinese language. I am using them in the Chinese sense of the word, which the meaning may differ slightly from English)
Digestion is the act of dispersing and transforming the food we eat into the the parts we keep (Clear) and the parts we excrete (Turbid). A simple idea, with some even more interesting metaphors. They talk about the Stomach as being a pot on a stove. The Stomach's job is to turn what we eat into 100 degree (F) soup. The heat source and the mechanism for the dispersion is the Spleen. Here, I am using the Stomach and Spleen as Chinese ideas, not the western physiological ideas. When we eat, the food goes into the Stomach and the Stomach and Spleen go to work. So as the food is "cooked" in the pot that is the Stomach, the Spleen upbears or raises the Clear qi and Clear liquids and the Stomach sends downwards the Turbid qi and liquids.
When a person's digestive system is already in trouble, (usually it is if they are in to see us) one of the things we want to do early in their treatment is make their digestive system not have to work so hard. We want our patients to be able to get the most nutrition from their food without making the system spend all its energy transforming it. The easiest way to make it really easy for the digestive system is to eat as close to the 100 degree soup as possible. Sometimes this means eating soup. Sometimes this means having a bit of warm water with your meal. It usually means don't load the Stomach with cold fluids and foods and raw foods.
Cold fluids and foods (right out of the fridge) make the Spleen and Stomach work that much harder to warm the food up. If these organs are already weak, they may not do this efficiently. And if they aren't doing that efficiently, how are they supposed to transform the food so you get all the good stuff out of it, and then disperse it to where it is supposed to go? The answer is, they won't. So you get less than perfect transformation that leads to less than perfect dispersion. This leads to a decrease in qi and blood in the body, which then leads (eventually) to problems elsewhere. Raw food (vegetables) is difficult to digest as all the nutrients are encased in indigestible cellulose walls. Unless you chew a lot, there is little access to all the wonderful things in it. So by cooking veggies a bit to help break down the cell walls, you gain nutrition, and the Spleen and Stomach do not have to work so hard. Just don't cook them to mush. That isn't helpful either.
I have had several patients in the past few months come in with stomach pain. If they followed those two suggestions, the pain went away and stayed away. If they continued eating what and how they were eating before they came in to see me they did not get pain free very quickly or at all.
Diet is one of the free therapies (diet, adequate rest and exercise) that is easy to manipulate and is one of the best ways to get and stay healthy.