Chinese Approach to Digestive Health

Chinese medicine is based on the concept of balance and harmony between “yin” and “yang.” Chinese medicine has a different approach to digestive health.

In Chinese medicine, the liver stores the blood, that is, it regulates the amount of blood in circulation. Hence, the health of the liver is dependent on the sufficiency of blood for nourishment.

Additionally, the spleen, in contrast to Western medicine, also plays a pivotal part in the circulation of “qi” and blood. “Qi” is the internal life energy that courses through the body through the meridians to different organs and parts of the body, thereby instrumental in bringing oxygen and nutrients for nourishment and maintenance of digestive health. Blood is responsible for the circulation of body fluids within the body.

Because Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is about movement and transportation of food and drink in the digestive system, the spleen therefore has a critical role in the digestive health with respect to digestion and digestive disorders.

In addition, sufficient spleen produces constructive spleen for nourishing the muscles and flesh, especially in the four limbs, and therefore conducive to mobility and body movement, which facilitate digestion.

In Chinese medicine, pensiveness or over thinking affects the general health of the spleen, resulting in loss of appetite, abdominal bloating after meals, and indigestion in general.

In Chinese medicine, “dampness” (both internal and external) may damage the spleen and weaken its functions. For example, foods, such as sugars and dairy products, create internal “dampness” in the spleen.

According to Chinese medical theory, the spleen’s main function in the digestive system is to separate the pure from the impure part of the food and drink. Specifically. on the one hand, it transports the pure part of the food and drink upwards to both the lungs as “qi” and to the heart as blood; on the other hand, it also transports the impure part of the food and drink downwards to the stomach and the small intestine for elimination to optimize digestive health.

When the spleen and the stomach are healthy, the spleen “qi” moves upwards, while the stomach “qi” moves downwards in a balanced and coordinated manner. Chinese medicine places much emphasis on the importance of balance — the balance of “yin” and “yang,” which is the basis of Chinese medicine.

However, if there is imbalance in the upward movement, belching, constipation, epigastric distention, and nausea may result. Concurrently, the imbalance may also affect the downward movement, leading to abdominal distention and diarrhea.

The liver may play an indirect but, nonetheless, critical role in digestive health. The liver is affected by our emotions. In life, we cannot do everything we want to do and when we want to do. Delaying gratification is tantamount to emotional distress: when we cannot have what we want to have, our liver becomes unduly stressed. An obvious sign of dysfunctional liver is anger or irritability.

Overwork and improper diet, too much thinking or worrying, inadequate physical activity (sedentary work) may weaken the spleen.

According to Chinese medicine, the root cause of IBS is disharmony between the liver and the spleen. Accordingly, the liver controls the spleen because the efficient functioning of the body’s “qi” mechanism is dependent on the free flow of liver “qi.” Therefore, if the liver becomes depressed, the spleen is adversely affected; conversely, if the spleen is weakened, it may cause the liver to become depressed too. In other words, they are inter-dependent in terms of digestive health and overall wellness. In conclusion, it is important to optimize the health of the liver and the spleen to maintain good digestive health.

Cooking is predigestion of food outside the body. In Chinese medicine, the majority of all food should be cooked. This is the reason why you do not find salad bars in Chinese restaurants. Although cooking may destroy some vital nutrients, cooking facilitates the absorption of the rest of the nutrients. Frozen foods and drinks impair the health of the spleen, and hence detrimental to digestive health.

Sugars and sweets directly damage the spleen, because “dampness” is damaging to the spleen, and sugars are dampening agents. They do harm to digestive health.

Flour products, such as bread, noodles and pasta, are dampening, because wheat (as opposed to brown rice) is dampening by nature.

All oils and fats are also dampening by nature, and hence spleen-damaging. By the same token, all milk products are dampening. They do not benefit digestive health.

Avoid dampening foods that damage the spleen. The best diet for the spleen is a clear, bland diet of unrefined grains, such as brown rice and beans, and low-fat meat, with lightly cooked vegetables. Good digestive health is optimum overall health.

Copyright (c) 2009 Stephen Lau