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Tips to Strengthen and Stabilize Your Digestion (the Earth Element)

October 1, 2015
Pumpkin (Winter Squash) excellent for digestion@

Happy October! I hope everyone is having a great week! I’ve been focusing on our digestion and how the spleen-pancreas and stomach work together to digest and transform what we eat into usable energy (i.e., qi, blood, and fluids – read here and here to review these concepts). Our digestive systems thrive on an intricate balance between extremes. In order for plants to grow and thrive, the earth that nourishes them cannot be too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold. Our digestion works on the same principle. A healthy digestive system has just enough fluid and enzymes to digest properly (it is not too damp/wet or too dry). Our stomachs are the strongest when its internal environment is not too cold or too hot. Like the late summer season and the earth element, our digestion represents being balanced and centered. So what do we do when our digestion goes out of balance? Here are some tips to strengthen and stabilize your digestion.

1) Healthy eating habits = healthy digestion

Our digestive systems become weak with poor eating habits. Eating too quickly, skipping meals, eating too late at night, overeating, eating too many rich or sweet foods, eating when you are angry or stressed, and eating with people you don’t like, all contribute to poor digestion. If you are guilty of any of these habits, the best way to begin healthier eating habits is to first set regular times of the day to eat, make sure to chew your food enough for easier assimilation, and eat food that is at least moderately well-cooked (not too raw and too overcooked).

2) Eat warm foods (thermal nature and temperature wise)

Foods that strengthen digestion are generally either warming or neutral in thermal nature. Cold foods and food cold in temperature weaken digestion. The rule of thumb is to choose foods that are not too warming or too cooling but in between and balanced in nature. Are you getting the theme here? Balance, balance, balance!!!

The spleen-pancreas doesn’t like the cold. Foods that are cold in temperature (raw and chilled foods) weaken digestion (i.e., cold foods “extinguish [or put out] digestive fire”) requiring more digestive energy to secrete enzymes and absorb nutrients. The raw food diet is not for everyone. If your digestion is weak, it’s best to moderately warm/cook food to make digestion easier. Be careful not to overcook as this can leech out nutrients. Also, drinking iced drinks expands the stomach, and if done chronically, will injure the digestive system in the long run.

3) Eat sweet flavored foods

Foods with sweet flavor (review The Five Flavors here)  strengthen digestion. I am talking about full sweet (real whole foods) and not empty sweets (e.g, refined foods usually full of sugar like cookies, cake, ice cream, candy, etc). The sweet flavor is abundant in our foods because it is the core or central food for our bodies and digestion.

  • Begin with complex carbohydrates – Carbohydrate rich vegetables include winter squash (pumpkin, butternut, acorn, spaghetti to name a few), carrots, rutabaga, parsnip, turnips, garbanzo beans, black beans, peas, sweet potato, and yams. Avoid simple carbohydrates such as sugar, refined grains, flour, pasta, and white rice. Simple carbs are the carbs you want to “cut”, as they break down fast in the body, causing blood sugar spikes. The more complex the carb, the slower it takes the body to breakdown, which helps to stabilize blood sugar.
  • Whole grains all have a sweet flavor. Again, eat grains that are neutral or warming in thermal nature such as buckwheat, rice (long grain, short grain, black, brown, or red rice), quinoa, millet, spelt and amaranth.
  • Root vegetables are neutral to warming in nature and very sweet like beets, carrots, parsnips, yams, sweet potatoes, and potatoes. Some are also complex carbs also mentioned above.
  • Lentils and legumes (all beans and peas included) are sweet and complex carbohydrates.
  • Whole fruit are full sweets with varying degrees of sour and bitter (as opposed to fruit juices which tend to be more empty sweet without intact fiber). Most fruits are more cooling to neutral in nature. Peaches are slightly more warming. Berries tend to be sweet and sour (which is also good for the liver), while apples are sweet and slightly sour, and bananas are sweet.
  • Add small amounts of sweeteners and cooked fruits like barley malt, molasses, cherries, and dates to help stimulate digestion.
  • Meats, (yes meat!) are sweet and most have a warming thermal nature. Use beef chicken, turkey or lamb, with minimal seasoning in soup or congee (rice and water) especially if you are having GI issues (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea). This helps to soothe digestion. Always remember to chew meat more thoroughly to aid digestion. Seafood such as mackerel, tuna, halibut and anchovies are also good sweet sources of protein.
  • Nuts and seeds are all sweet and neutral to warming in nature. They are also very good for heart health (review here).

3) Use pungent vegetables and spices moderately in your diet

Add onion, leek, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, fennel, garlic, and nutmeg in your dishes. The pungent veggies all have a warming thermal nature that warms the stomach, strengthens digestion, and clears phlegm. You will see a lot of Chinese restaurants use garlic and ginger with their green vegetable dishes to balance out the cold of the veggies. The key word is use them moderately.

  • Warming pungents include onions, cabbage, brussel sprouts, mustard greens, bell peppers and spices like lavender, rosemary, oregano, basil, tarragon, and sage.
  • Some root veggies are neutral pungents like sweet potato, taro, and turnips.
  • Garlic and horseradish are hot so use sparingly as the stomach doesn’t like to be too hot or dry. Limit hot and spicy foods as well.

4) Avoid damp and phlegm forming foods

As mentioned before too much raw, cold, sweet, or mucus-forming foods cause dampness. Excess raw food including too much raw fruits, veggies, sprouts, and juices can cause a thin, watery mucus or dampness. Too much cold food (in temperature) will have a similar effect. Food should normally be room temp or warmer.

Other factors that increase dampness in the body:

  • Highly refined/processed or chemically treated foods
  • Too many ingredients in a meal (poor food combining)
  • Late-night eating and overeating
  • Foods that cause dampness and form phlegm include anything with refined sugar, refined carbohydrates, excess gluten, dairy products, cheese, greasy and fried foods. Damp foods cause the digestive system to be sluggish and slow. Too much dampness in the system also affects our minds, causing decreased mental clarity.

Foods that can dry dampness include rye, amaranth, corn, aduki beans, celery, lettuce, pumpkin, scallion, alfalfa, turnip, kolhrabi, white pepper, and raw honey. The one dairy product that will not usually contribute to dampness in the body is raw goat’s milk.

5) Exercise

The digestive system and earth element do not like to be inactive. In fact, inactivity will injure digestion in the long run. Keep active and moving so that your digestion keeps active and moving. Tailor your exercise regimen to fit your needs. Whether you like walking, jogging, swimming, kick-boxing, dancing, yoga, or sports, staying active will ensure your digestion is in good shape!

6) Supplement yourself

One of my must-have daily supplements is an effective pro-biotic to ensure the healthy flora (bacteria) of your digestive system is is not deficient. This is not only important for digestion but your immune health as well. Digestive enzymes may also be necessary for those who tend to have weaker digestive systems. I will focus more on digestive supplements in later posts.

Have a great weekend!

In health and wellness,

Dr Elain

References:

Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia by Rebecca Wood

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Fitness, Health for the Body, Herbs, Men's Health, Nutrition, Supplements, Women's Health

10 Things To Do To Stay Heart Healthy and Prevent Heart Disease

April 9, 2015
Avocados to prevent heart disease

The follow-up post to our discussion on cholesterol and heart disease is here! To sum up what we last talked about, cholesterol and saturated fats are not the “bad guys” that they have been portrayed to be in the 80’s and 90’s. In fact, it plays a number of essential roles in our bodies. Low cholesterol levels would not only prevent our bodies from functioning properly, but we could potentially get very sick. Sadly, it has also been used as the scapegoat for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the world. Now, more and more research on people taking statins to lower their cholesterol has refuted this “lipid hypothesis” where dietary fat and cholesterol are the culprit of heart disease. There has already been a movement in Sweden (which started several years ago), where people were getting healthier (and more fit) by stopping their statins and eating high fat and low carbohydrate diets. It is time to relearn what we know about preventing heart disease! Here’s what you need to do to.

1) Eat a heart healthy diet. 

a) A heart healthy diet is high in healthful fats and low in processed carbohydrates and sugars. Healthful fats include:

  • monounsaturated fats like olives and olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds (macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds and almond butter, cashews and cashew butter, pistachios). Food fact: Adding one avocado per day to a moderate fat diet lowers LDL more than a moderate fat diet without the avocado.
  • polyunsaturated fats which include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3’s are turned into anti-inflammatory hormones in our bodies to decrease inflammation. Foods with high levels of omega-3’s include salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, flaxseed, chia seeds, butternut, and walnuts. Food fact: Eating four walnuts a day raises α-Linolenic acid, or ALA, and improves your lipid profile.

A note on omega-6 fatty acids: The essential omega-6 fatty acid that our bodies need in small amounts is linoleic acid, or LA, (not to be confused with α-Linolenic acid, or ALA, the omega-3 precursor of DHA and EPA). I know, I get confused with these terms too. Omega-6’s are turned into pro-inflammatory hormones in our bodies to increase inflammation when we catch a cold or sprain an ankle. This acute inflammatory process is basically turning our immune systems on to fix a problem. So inflammation is necessary! However, problems occur when our bodies are out of balance and our immune systems cannot shut off, resulting in chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease. Ideally, we should be eating an omega-6:omega-3 ratio range of 1:1 to 5:1, but the American diet’s ratio range is more like 20:1 or 50:1. This is because processed and deep-fried foods are rampant with omega-6 fatty acids so we will rarely be deficient in omega 6’s.

Food fact: Nuts, such as walnuts and pine nuts, also contain high concentrations of omega-6 fatty acids. Potato chips contain omega-6’s because they are fried in vegetable oil. You want to eat more of the nuts and less of the chips, because the omega-6 oils from the potato chips have been oxidized and damaged in the frying process, while nuts contain their own antioxidants that protect the oils from damage. Think of oxidation when you peel an apple and it starts to turn brown from being exposed to the air. Make sense?

b) The low-down on saturated fats:

  • Saturated fats or cholesterol laden foods such as egg yolks, fatty meats (including red meat), poultry (chicken with skin), full-fat dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese), butter, coconuts, coconut oil, and palm oil are not bad for you. In fact, including them in your diet can decrease the risk of heart disease by lowering lipoprotein a, Lp(a), which correlates with a strong risk for heart disease.  Some research has even concluded that it may be to our advantage to include fats in as much as 50% of our diets. (Not ready for that yet? It’s ok, baby steps). It’s not a far-fetched notion since breast milk, the ideal diet for developing infants, has been found to average anywhere from 41-46% saturated fats, based on mothers from different cultures.
  • The saturated fats you do want to stay away from are those produced through hydrogenation of vegetable oils. If the label says “hydrogenated,” then steer clear.

Note on meat and dairy: you want to choose grass-fed beef that is not injected with added hormones or antibiotics rather than corn-fed beef. If you’re going to eat bacon (one of my favorites =) choose bacon that is nitrate free (uncured). And sorry for those of you who love Popeye’s chicken (my husband included), deep frying chicken in trans-fat oils will negate the effects of saturated fats. Also, eating too much dairy has been linked to allergies as well as increased dampness (phlegm and mucus) in your body. Dampness is one of the external pathogenic factors in Chinese medicine that I will discuss soon. If you are someone who tends to have more phlegm and mucus, or is more allergy prone, I would minimize dairy products in your diet.

c) Trans-fats are what you want to avoid:

  • Trans-fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, shortening, and margarine were previously used by companies in processed and fast foods (for deep frying and re-frying) because they were easy to use, inexpensive to produce, and had long shelf lives. A study published in 2009 found that “in 87,000 U.S. women followed over 26 years, trans-fat intake was linked to increased risk of sudden cardiac death among those who had underlying coronary heart disease. In this group, the women eating the most trans fats were three times more likely to die of cardiac arrest!” Yikes!

d) Increase the amount of organic or locally grown fresh vegetables. A great way to do this is visit your local farmer’s market at least once a week. A recent study done in 2014 showed that eating 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables per day had a 36% lower risk of dying from any cause.

e) Eat organic foods as much as possible to avoid exposure to harmful agricultural chemicals such as glyphosphate.

f) Avoid genetically modified ingredients (GMO’s) that are detrimental to your health and have been linked to chronic inflammation, heart disease, cancer, and infertility.

g) Decrease sugar and eliminate processed foods. Diets high in sugar and processed foods increase insulin resistance and the risk of diabetes. This is a hard one for me too! I have trouble strictly adhering to this and have been known to eat the occasional Krispy Kreme donut or Egg McMuffin and hashbrowns for breakfast (it just brings back childhood memories for me =).

h) Avoid food or sugary and/or diet drinks loaded with artificial sweeteners such as Equal, Nutrasweet, Splenda, Sweet N Low, and high fructose corn syrup. Opt instead for the stuff nature intended – cane sugar, raw sugar, or raw honey. (Diet drinks have also been known to cause severe neurologic problems).

i) Try eating one third of your food raw and avoid cooking foods at hot temperatures to maintain nutritional integrity of the food for absorption (read more about how the different ways of cooking affect foods here).

j) Drink plenty of water. This article explains very well how to tell if you are not drinking enough water. Signs and symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and/or mood swings
  • Hunger even though you’ve recently eaten
  • Back or joint aches
  • Dull, dry skin and/or pronounced wrinkles
  • Infrequent urination; dark, concentrated urine, and/or constipation

2) Supplement yourself to bridge the nutritional gaps

  • Omega-3 lower triglyceride levels and raise HDL levels. Find a high quality fish, krill, or algae oil (for vegetarians) with high concentrations of DHA (at least 300mg) and EPA (read more on Omega-3’s here).
  • Vitamin D – A recent study in 2014 has shown that supplementing with only 400 I.U.’s of Vitamin D improves serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in menopausal women which improved their lipid profiles (increased HDL, decreased LDL and triglycerides). Supplement with enough Vitamin D to get your levels between 40-60ng/ml (read more on Vitamin D here). See how everything is coming together?
  • Multi-vitamin mineral use has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in women. In the study, women, but not men (sorry gentlemen), who took a multi-vitamin mineral supplement for at least three years had a 35% lower risk of dying from heart disease. (This doesn’t mean that men should not be taking one either.) Look for a whole food based multi-vitamin rather than synthetic, for obvious reasons. The brand I like to take is MegaFood. Whatever you choose, make sure your multi-vitamin does not contain sodium selenite or selenate, which have been found to be carcinogenic and genotoxic.
  • Magnesium is a mineral that is important because calcium depends on it to function correctly. In addition, magnesium deficiency may result in many cardiac symptoms such as angina, arrhythmia, and hypertension. I will talk more on how to determine whether you are magnesium deficient and what to do about it.
  • Herbs – Chinese herbs that have been found to improve lipid profiles include Reishi Mushroom and Gynostemma which I will also discuss in more detail later.

3) Exercise Regularly –  Exercising is beneficial for heart disease and diabetes because it can help normalize your blood sugar, insulin, and leptin levels. It releases endorphins, which gives you that high afterwards and is a great stress reliever. It also helps you sleep better, maintain a healthy weight if done correctly, and optimizes brain function.

If you are not used to exercising regularly or are overweight, the best exercise to start with is walking. It is recommended to take 10,000 steps per day, which can easily be tracked using a pedometer. Start slow and begin walking 5-10 min per day if you are out of shape. The key is to be consistent and listen to your body. Don’t push yourself beyond your limitations. As you build endurance you can increase length and intensity of training. Incorporate strength and resistance training with weights. Again, start with lighter weights and increase as you improve your strength. A study has shown that doing 1 set of repetitions (or reps – the number of times any muscle or group of muscles is used) is just as effective as doing 3 sets of reps. Building core strength to prevent back injuries and stretching are also important aspects to add to your fitness program.

Note: Studies show that endurance type exercise, such as marathon running, may damage your heart and increase your cardiac risk. This is because running long distances may increase inflammation and trigger a cardiac event. For those with documented heart disease or heart failure, it is imperative not to overdo it and add extra stress on the heart, as it is already decompensated and weakened.

4) Don’t Smoke – Smoking is all-in-all a bad habit for your health. It can lead to so many devastating diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke, which you won’t see until many packs per day later. If you smoke, try to quit and make sure that your diet is in good shape before you quit as health problems from poor diet may actually be worse than smoking.

5) Alcohol in Moderation – This means 1-2 drinks/day for men and 1 drink/day for women. There have been studies done on mice that show the antioxidants from polyphenols, called resveratrol, found in red wine may benefit the heart by protecting them from obesity and diabetes as well as lower LDL. But to get the same dose of resveratrol used in mice in these studies, a person would have to drink 1000 liters of wine every day. Ahem, this is not advisable. My thinking is if you don’t have alcoholic tendencies or liver disease, and a glass of wine a day makes you happy and helps you wind down, do it. (See #10 below)

6) Avoid Statins and also Diabetic Medications – I discussed this in my previous post. If you must take statins, make sure you add at least 100mg (if not 200-300mg) of CoQ-10 to your supplement regimen. Anyone over 40, take the ubiquinol (most reduced form) of Co-Q10 as your body’s ability to convert CoQ-10 to ubiquinol decreases with age. The ubiquinol form is also more bioavailable.

A recent study published in Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology showed that patients who manage diabetes with drugs that lower glucose or blood sugar, may be at higher risk for heart failure. The study was also presented in March 2015 at the 64th Annual Scientific Session of the American College of Cardiology in San Diego, CA. What?! Looks like I will have to dedicate a different post to this subject.

7) Get enough sleep – I mentioned in the previous post that our brains make cholesterol when we sleep. Sleep is so important to recharge your brain and give your body the rest it needs to replenish itself. A recent study showed that poor sleep may lead to brain shrinkage and may even accelerate Alzheimer’s onset. Here is the most recent recommended sleep guide from the National Sleep Foundation:

Age GroupRecommended # of hours of sleep needed
Newborns (0-3 months)14-17 hours
Infants (4-11 months)12-15 hours
Toddlers (1-2 years)11-14 hours
Preschoolers (3-5)10-13 hours
School-age children (6-13)9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17)8-10 hours
Young adults (18-25)7-9 hours
Adults (26-64)7-9 hours
Seniors (65 and older)7-8 hours

8) Manage your stress – There is not doubt that emotional stress affects you physically. I have not expounded too much on the mind-body connection yet, but there is a clear correlation between emotional stress and physical disease. This is actually one of the tenets of Chinese Medicine. We are spiritual souls connected to a physical body. Emotional stress from anger, frustration, depression, grief, worry, fear, and anxiety cause mind-body blockages, a disconnect between our spirit and our bodies which can lead to physical disease if not promptly addressed. So besides exercising to relieve stress, what else can you do? See #9

9) Get regular body tune-ups – If you take your car in for tune-ups and oil changes every few thousand miles, why would we think that our bodies don’t need the same maintenance? The tune-ups I get are the treatments that my father and I give to our patients on a regular basis. The treatment we do is a powerful form of acupuncture, which my father coined Neuro-BioEnergetics Treatment or NBE. In short, we combine the Chinese Medicine principle of acupuncture with Western anesthetic injections or trigger point injections. We inject acupuncture points with a diluted solution of anesthetic and clear these mind-body blockages that occur in your body from stress in your life, emotional or physical trauma, eating wrong, not exercising, not sleeping enough, drinking too much, smoking…the list goes on. I will expound on this more in future posts, but you can check out what we do on drtong.com

10) Do something every day that makes you happy or makes you laugh – Finally, to be heart healthy, you have to be happy. Why is this? The emotion associated with the heart in Chinese medicine is love, joy, and happiness. A blockage in these emotions, can also cause blockages in your physical heart. Whatever makes you happy, whether it is watching a comedy, taking a dance class, cooking, or reading a book, try to do it daily. There is something to be said about laughter being the best medicine.

What makes you happy?

In health and wellness,
Dr. Elain

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