The Care and Feeding of the Common Digestive System Part II

Part I of this post covered principles that, if followed, could allow a slightly impaired digestive system to recover. This post will go over some steps to take if your digestive situation is more serious. Signs and symptoms of this degree of impairment would be abdominal fullness after even small meals, a sensation of cold in the abdomen, abdominal cramps that are worse with eating and better with fasting or having a bowel movement and very loose or watery stools especially if they contain bits of undigested food.

Mama's Congee by Giovanni JL via FlickrPrinciple #1 The middle jiao likes bland food. Bland food is very easy on the digestive system. Overly-spiced food, particularly hot or pungent flavors (mustard, hot peppers, chilli, etc) can increase peristalsis in the intestines, moving food through the system much more rapidly. If the digestive system is already having trouble with nutrient absorption, passing food through it more quickly will only worsen the situation. Additionally, this extra movement is very energy intensive and taxing to the system. Think of it like being forced to sprint with an injured leg muscle. To rest and recover, the digestive system needs foods that will allow it to work at its own pace—not force it to over-exert itself. The classic Chinese recovery food is congee, or rice gruel. Here is a basic congee recipe.


¾ cups plain white rice

9 cups water


Rinse the rice in cold water 3-4 times until the water becomes clear.

Put the rice and water into a large pot and bring it to a boil.

Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally until the texture is thick and creamy (1-1 ½ hours)

The congee can be eaten plain or served with some well-steamed vegetables such as cabbage, spinach, carrots or root vegetables. Avoid adding onions, peppers or other pungent ingredients.

Principle #2 The middle jiao likes simple food. With the digestive system functioning poorly, we want to make its job of extracting nutrient as easy as possible. Try to eat meals with only a few ingredients. Three to four ingredients per meal should be the maximum. This will mean that most pre-prepared or pre-packaged foods are off limits. Even a loaf of store-bought bread has at least a dozen ingredients, many of which have nothing to do with nutrition but are simply added to improve the appearance, taste or shelf-life of the product. If the middle jiao is hardly able to perform its basic functions we don’t want to add the burden of having to sort out and process the extraneous, useless ingredients.

Principle #3 The middle jiao loves ginger. Many people are familiar with taking ginger tea or ginger ale for an upset stomach, but ginger’s usefulness to the digestive system goes far beyond its properties as an anti-nausea herb. In Chinese medicine, herbs are classified by their temperature and the location of the body they effect as well as by their clinical indications. Fresh ginger (Sheng Jiang in Chinese) is a warm herb that influences the Stomach, Spleen and Lung. Its functions are, among others, warming the middle jiao and reducing toxicity. As part one of this post mentioned, the middle jiao likes being warm. Fresh ginger can be added to the warm water you drink before and after meals to increase the warming effect. You can also add a slice of fresh ginger to a bowl of congee to aid in its digestion. It gently supports the function of the digestive system without being over-stimulating. One word of warning about the use of ginger, however. Since it is a warm herb it should only be used in cases where the digestive system is operating below normal levels. If the digestive system is operating above normal levels, with symptoms such as heart burn; urgent, burning diarrhea, bloody stools or ulcers then ginger should be avoided.

These principles are excellent to follow when recovering from a serious illness or after finishing a course of antibiotics. Making sure that the digestive system is functioning well is of great importance in the treatment of any disease as it provides the resources the body needs to heal and fight off infection. A poorly-functioning middle jiao can lead to slower healing, longer recovery periods or even conditions becoming chronic rather than resolving.

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