6 steps to a happy tummy and improved overall health
The path to wellness doesn’t have to be a complicated one, and this is especially true when looking at a simple idea that lies at the heart of Oriental Medicine: food, sleep and breathing are three basic, yet essential, aspects of our daily lives that can be used as potent forms of medicine for healing, balance and strength. In this article, we will be taking a look at nutrition and our digestive system aspect.
FOOD AND DIGESTIVE HEALTH IN ACUPUNCTURE
Across many, if not most cultures and systems of medicine around the world, our diet, appetite and digestion have provided important tools in both the diagnosis and treatment of poor health. Food has for thousands of years been regarded as having strong therapeutic effects. This is especially so in Oriental Medicine, which has developed a very precise understanding of the function, influence, interactions and processes by which food and the digestive system can help us achieve strong physical and mental health.
In acupuncture theory, the Stomach and the Pancreas/Spleen are the principal organs and acupuncture channels targeted either directly or indirectly in the treatment of gut health issues. They are collectively known as the organs of the Earth Element, which is associated with late summer and harvest time. This is a time also when there is an abundance of yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, such as sweetcorn and pumpkin, which are considered beneficial for the health of the Earth Element’s associated organs.
Emotionally, health in these organs ensures we feel nurtured and balanced, and supports our power of thought, our concentration and ability to study. At a physical level, their job is to make sure that food can be received, transported and transformed from the moment it enters our mouth, connecting with our sense of taste, until it has reached our blood and given strength to our muscles and limbs. The changes food undergoes as it works through our bodies result in different forms of ‘Qi’ (pronounced Chi). ‘Qi’ is often translated as ‘energy’, although it is perhaps better seen as the building blocks of the human body: our cells.
Having responsibility for such important functions in our body, we can easily see how an impairment in these organs could lead to symptoms linked to our digestive system, such as nausea, bloating, stomach cramps, lack of appetite or heartburn, but also to wider physical issues such as muscle weakness, chronic fatigue, or anaemia. A dysfunction in the Earth organs could manifest at a mental level too, with for instance excessive worrying, circular thinking, obsessiveness, lack of integrity, mental confusion, brain fog, anxiety, or a sense of dissatisfaction with life and others, which may lead to bitterness.
GOOD GUT HEALTH = GOOD PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
Given the physical and emotional functions attributed to these organs in acupuncture, we can also see the link between mental imbalances and our eating patterns, and vice-versa. Sugar cravings, lack of appetite or chronic digestive problems, such as IBS, often occur when we are feeling low or stressed in some way. This relationship between our gut and both mental and overall physical health is perhaps the one area of health and wellbeing where Western and Oriental medical thinking are increasingly aligning. The ‘gut microbiome’ (the collection of bacteria, fungi and viruses found in the GI tract) is increasingly seen in conventional medical circles as having the potential to reduce the risk of developing, and in some cases reversing, wide ranging, even serious, conditions and diseases.
Research in the field suggests that among other things, an imbalance in our gut microbiome may be a contributing factor to health concerns that are increasingly associated with life in the 21st century, including difficulties losing weight, obesity, diabetes, hormonal problems, certain types of cancer, poorly functioning immune systems, auto-immune conditions, food intolerances, allergies, and even acne. Common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are also said to be strongly influenced by our gut health, a relationship known as the gut-brain axis. Eating the right foods may therefore influence our mood.
WHAT SHOULD I EAT TO KEEP MY TUMMY HAPPY?
Most of us have a pretty good idea of what is ‘healthy’ eating and what is not, but it is worth pointing out that according to the principles of Oriental Medicine, it is not just what we eat but also how we eat that matters. What is more, if our bodies are not receptive, even the right foods may not be able to have a beneficial effect. While a trained acupuncturist will be able to put together a treatment to help address any underlying digestive and emotional issues, as well as recommend, based on your diagnosis, which foods may be prioritised and which should be kept to a minimum, there are a few steps you can follow to keep your tummy happy on a day-to-day basis:
1. Go with your body clock: It is well known that we all have an internal body clock, and in acupuncture, every two hours a specific organ is said to be at its peak. The Earth organs connected to digestion are most receptive between the hours of 7am and 11am. A nutritious, balanced and satisfying breakfast is key therefore to give us a strong start to the day, lessening the likelihood of overeating at lunch and of feeling sleepy in the afternoon. Stick to a light dinner which needs to be eaten early enough to allow the gut to get a full 12 hour overnight fast to reset itself.
2. Stay hydrated between meals: Water, ideally at room temperature rather than ice cold, is best drunk between meals as, according to Oriental Medicine, we should avoid flooding the stomach with cold water at mealtimes. Other options include drinking either slightly cooled boiling water with a slice of lemon, which is said to assist the Earth organs, or a miso soup at the start of your meal to help prepare your digestive system for eating.
3. Keep your Yin and Yang in balance with the right foods and cooking methods: Acupuncturists are always looking to work out how and why someone is showing signs of imbalance in terms of Yin (cold) and Yang (heat). While some foods are rich in vitamins, they can be a contributing factor to patterns of excess heat or cold. For example, tropical or fruits grown in hot countries have a cooling and hydrating effect. While this effect will be beneficial for anyone living in such climates, eating excessively such foods in cooler places, especially during the winter months, could mean overloading the body with cold both externally and internally. Eating local seasonal foods, including fresh vegetables and fruits, is not just better for the environment, it is good for our health too.
It is also important, especially for anyone suffering with a weak digestive system or who is showing signs of lacking ‘Yang’ or ‘heat’ in their system (ie. feeling cold or lethargic), to avoid eating too many cold foods, such as raw salads, as these are said to have a cooling effect. Different cooking methods can be used to provide different levels of heat to our bodies however – steaming food is considered the most neutral of all, stir-fry and stewed have a gently warming effect, whereas roasted and grilled are more heating.
4. Some foods have a special kind of ‘Qi’: When you eat something like an apple, you are benefiting not just from eating the fruit but from the sunshine and the moisture that has gone into growing it. When choosing your foods, think about how they have been made and what energy this could be creating in your system. This might not be a tangible type of energy, but something some people notice: ever experienced something quite different when biting into a home-baked bread or cake, compared to something mass produced? This is what I like to call the special ‘Qi’. Some people find that organic food tastes better, and it could be that it is this special kind of ‘Qi’ that they are picking up on, something that could apply to many food types and farming practices used, such as free range.
5. Taste matters too: Recognising the movement associated with particular food types may help you work out what foods you may need at that point in time. For example, there may be times when the grounding sensation of eating something sweet like honey or a small piece of chocolate may be beneficial, whereas at others you may be looking to kickstart your energy with the upward movement of wasabi.
6. How you eat: Creating a relaxing space in which to eat, taking time to really taste your meal, chewing properly and enjoying it, whether alone or among friends, may change how receptive we are to the food we take in and how easily it will be processed in our system to nourish us. Think how different you feel after that rushed sandwich at your desk compared to even the same food eaten quietly on a sunny day in the park.
FEED YOUR MIND, BODY AND SOUL
All too often we see food as functional but eating well is an opportunity to really look after ourselves and to support so many vital aspects of our health. It can also provide enriching experiences and memories, while allowing us to connect with ourselves and others. Acupuncture with its understanding of nutrition provides an easy and enjoyable way to make wellness part of our daily life, helping us feel grounded and deeply content. And that really is a nice thing to experience.
Lisa Lee, Lic.Ac. PhD, is a fully qualified Five Element acupuncturist who works from her clinic on Harley Street. She treats patients looking for help with a wide range of health and wellbeing issues and has specialist interests in fertility, anxiety, and cancer support. www.lisaleeacu.com