A healthy digestive system is one of the major cornerstones of a healthy body. The nutrients our digestive systems extract from the food we consume provide us with not only the energy we need to lead our daily lives, but also the resources the body needs to heal and renew itself. While our digestive systems certainly do a lot for us, we tend to do remarkably little for them. Most people think of their digestive system, if they think of it at all, as a simple tube. Food goes in one end, waste comes out the other. Many of the medicines available over-the-counter for digestive complaints—antacids, laxatives and antidiarrheals—simply mask the symptoms of a digestive system that has been abused, strained and overworked to the point where it can no longer function efficiently or effectively.
Traditional Chinese Medicine ascribes a great deal of importance to the digestive system. In Chinese Medicine, the major organs of digestion are known collectively as the middle jiao. The Chinese herbal pharmacopeia contains literally hundreds of formulas designed to strengthen the middle jiao and correct its various disorders. Clinical observation has also provided many insights about how to correct these disorders before they became serious enough to warrant medical attention.
According to Chinese Medicine, if the middle jiao is functioning well bowel movements will be well-formed and easy to pass. Both constipation and diarrhea are indications that something is amiss, as are heartburn, abdominal fullness or lethargy following meals, belching and nausea. By following TCM principals, however, we can give our middle jiaos the care and support the need to recover.
Principal #1: The middle jiao likes warmth and dislikes cold. TCM holds that cold drinks, as well as raw and cold foods impair the middle jiao’s ability to function. From chemistry, we know that reactions happen more efficiently at hotter temperatures. The process of breaking down food into its component nutrients is essentially one very long and complex chemical reaction. If the digestive system is chilled by cold food or drinks, the body has to expend extra energy warming things up to the temperature where digestion can happen efficiently. To give your middle jiao a break, avoid drinking iced beverages with your meals and stay away from raw vegetables. Warm water or tea just before or after a meal will actually aid digestion and lightly steamed vegetables are significantly easier to digest while still preserving much of the plant’s nutritive value.
Principal #2: The middle jiao hates stress. The human body’s autonomic nervous system is composed of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the body’s fight-or-flight response and activates in response to stress; the parasympathetic system, on the other hand, puts the body into rest-and-digest mode. When the sympathetic system is active, the body prioritizes blood flow to skeletal muscles and away from the digestive system. This is why it is important to make mealtimes as relaxing as possible. Try to avoid eating on the go while running errands. If your job is stressful, find a place to eat away from your work environment. Also consider taking a short, relaxed walk immediately following your meals. As the Chinese saying goes fan hou bai bu zou huo dao jiu shi jiu “Taking one hundred steps after a meal will lead to a life of ninety-nine years.
Principal #3: The middle jiao can only handle so much at one time. Just as muscles can be damaged by trying to lift too much weight at once, the digestive system can be damaged by being overloaded with too much food at once. The key to following this principal is simple in concept, but can be tricky to put into practice. Hara hachi bu “Eat until your 80% full.” The reason this is so difficult to put into practice is that most people have no idea what “80% full” feels like. Here in America we often let the amount we eat be determined by the amount of food we are served—and restaurants are serving up more all the time. We also have a habit of eating while distracted by television shows or movies—our attention is on the screen, not our stomachs. It takes practice to put this principal into practice, making it a habit to ask several times during a meal “how full am I?” and “how full will I be if I eat this next portion.”
Following these principals will go a long way towards keeping the middle jiao happy and healthy and can even correct mild middle jiao disorders. Part two of this article will discuss principals to follow if the middle jiao is more significantly impaired.
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