Chinese Medicine for Optimal Digestion

Written by Alana Foeller

Last month we talked about the coming of Spring and how to balance the Liver according to Eastern Medicine practices. Today, I want to take a small step back and talk about the transitional season Chinese Medicine calls “Late Winter – Early Spring.” This time frame between April 26 – May 15th is an important transition according to the Lunar Calendar where we are not quite done with Winter, and Spring has not yet arrived. In Colorado, this feels much more accurate than the arrival of spring at the end of March. During this transitional time between the two seasons, we focus on nourishing and strengthening the Earth Element designated to the Spleen and Stomach organs in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). According to TCM, the Spleen and Stomach are the primary organs responsible for digestive function. First, I want to clarify what we mean by Spleen. This is not the equivalent to the Western anatomical organ that stores blood and helps our immune system function, but rather “Spleen” function means our body’s ability to break down, absorb, and assimilate the nutrients we take in so we can turn these nutrients into usable energy or Qi. The Spleen in TCM could more accurately be compared to the functions of the pancreas and small intestine from a Western Medicine point of view. Now that we are on the same page regarding the Spleen and its function according to TCM, let’s talk about the importance of the Spleen and Stomach as they relate to our digestive function and how to optimize function.

Both Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine hold optimal digestion to be the cornerstone of health and vitality. Optimizing digestive function is often the first place we start as practitioners when we treat many chronic health conditions. Signs that our Spleen Qi is not functioning optimally can include loose stools, poor appetite, feeling tired after meals, generalized low energy and fatigue, brain fog, bruising easily, and a swollen tongue with teeth marks on the sides. If there is Stomach disharmony, we see symptoms such as belching, heartburn, reflux, bad breath, indigestion, nausea, mouth ulcers, excessive hunger, and epigastric pain. Not everyone will experience all these symptoms. The Liver also plays a role in digestion. When the Liver is not functioning optimally we see digestive symptoms such as bloating and distention, gas, sluggish digestion, and poor digestion made worse with stress. The main tenets of Chinese Medicine used to bring harmony to the digestive system include Acupuncture, nutrition therapy, and herbal medicine.

Acupuncture works by correcting the flow of Qi. If Spleen Qi is moving down when it should be moving up, we get loose stools. If Stomach Qi is moving up when it should be moving down, we get nausea, acid reflux, and belching. Specific acupuncture points are used to harmonize the flow of Qi so that each respective organ can move Qi, food, and fluids in the appropriate direction.

Nutrition Therapy is always essential to address digestive issues. Some basic dietary recommendations to support optimal Spleen function include:

  • Eat warm, cooked, easily digestible foods. Avoid cold, raw, and uncooked foods that are harder to process.
  • Use warming spices like ginger, cardamom, fennel, cumin.
  • Don’t overeat at any given meal or throughout the day. Aim for 3 meals a day without snacking in between which gives our digestive system time to process the previous meal.
  • Make lunch the largest meal and dinner the smallest as our digestive metabolism slows towards the end of the day.
  • Ideally, eat by 7 pm and avoid eating within 3 hours of bedtime
  • Relax during meal time. Avoid multitasking and distractions, as well as stressful conversations.
  • Walk for 10 – 15 minutes after meals, this will help prevent overeating and will help optimize blood sugar (more Ayurvedic than TCM philosophy)
  • Avoid cold drinks altogether which slows digestion, and especially avoid immediately before, after, and during mealtime. Ideally, drink warm or room-temperature beverages in between meals.

To optimize Stomach function:

  • Avoid overly spicy food especially if you suffer from reflux or heartburn
  • Prefer cooling spices such as coriander, dill, basil, fennel, and parsley
  • Avoid alcohol which is heating in nature and will further add heat to the system
  • If you know you have low stomach acid, you can take a tsp of Apple Cider Vinegar before meals.

This is a short list of how to nourish the Spleen and Stomach, but will hopefully be helpful if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms. Often times digestive disturbances require an elimination diet to rule out problematic foods causing digestive symptoms. The most common food intolerances include, gluten, dairy, and sugar, but many people also have problems with other grains like corn and soy, as well as eggs. There is no 1-size-fits-all approach. An elimination diet should be tailored to your symptoms and food preferences, and is best done in a strategic manner. As with a tailored dietary approach, herbs and supplements may be very beneficial for some, but should only be taken under the supervision of an experienced and qualified practitioner.

If you have been struggling with digestive issues, I encourage you to give some of these recommendations a try. If you feel like you need more support, Acupuncture, personalized nutritional recommendations and herbal medicine may be the next step. I am happy to help get your gut back into balance and get you feeling your best.