In modern culture, the value of healthy digestion is severely underestimated. Digestive imbalances such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating and gas and often overlooked and considered to be collateral damage from “normal” eating habits. The truth, however, is that healthy digestion is one of the foundational principals to staying well. Many people attempt to make healthy lifestyle changes but can become confused of where to start: Diet? Exercise? Meditation? Supplements? It can become overwhelming but a good gauge of how well we are achieving health is through our digestion and bowel movements. (Kind of gross, but true)
From a traditional Chinese medical standpoint, digestion is how we are able to create qi (energy) and blood on a daily basis. The quality of qi depends on the quality of food we eat. As most of our patients know, the spleen is responsible for this transformation of food and drink into qi and blood. In order for the spleen to function correctly, it prefers to be warm and dry. When the spleen becomes deficient, it becomes cold and damp. Thus in order to maintain the healthy function of the spleen, warm foods should be eaten more frequently than raw, cold foods. In addition, foods that are “dampening” in nature should be avoided. These foods are dairy products, cold foods (think frozen smoothies), sugar, processed foods and some citrus fruits (oranges being a major culprit!) Digestive disorders that are common to a deficiency of spleen qi include bloating, gas and diarrhea. If the spleen’s function is protected and maintained over time, digestion will function properly.
Constipation, on the other hand, is another detriment to a healthy digestive system. Bowel movements are a means to rid the body of waste products. If these waste products are retained in the body for long periods of time, it is likely that some waste products will eventually contaminate the healthy tissues. There are a few different Chinese medical patterns that can lead to constipation. First, is a lack of moisture in the bowel. (The classic adage is the requirement to “float the boat”). This is another reason to make sure to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Another pattern for constipation is stagnation of qi. The best example of this is when people become nervous or angry and tend towards constipation. The best remedy for this type of constipation is movement and exercise. Gentle twisting yoga postures can be very useful to stimulate the digestive system as well as gentle cardiovascular exercise. Of course, whether for constipation or general health, it is important to incorporate plenty of fiber into daily dietary habits. The best way is to eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Some people may find that a healthy diet is not enough to maintain quality bowel movements, in which case supplementing with ground flaxseed or a probiotic may be more helpful.
As always, acupuncture and a thorough Chinese medical diagnosis is the best way to ensure that you are making the correct dietary and lifestyle choices for your own unique pattern. The healthy movement of food and its waste through the digestive tract is the first and one of the most important body functions to asses and maintain wellness!