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The Digestive System and the Earth Element

September 28, 2015
Earth Element

Happy Monday! Did everyone enjoy their weekend and get to see the super blood moon eclipse yesterday? It was quite a site. Last week, I started talking about our digestive systems, represented by our spleen-pancreas-stomach and the earth element. Our gastrointestinal systems are a central part of our overall health and well-being as this is the system that transforms what we take into our bodies into usable energy, namely qi. Our digestion equates to the earth element (e.g. the soil/earth absorbs nutrients, minerals, and water for plants to grow and thrive, as our digestive systems absorb and transform nutrients from food and water for our bodies to thrive). When our digestion does not function and absorb correctly, our physical bodies cannot be nourished, and as a result, our emotional and mental health also suffers. Let’s take a look at some of the things that affect our digestion and the earth element.

Clarification of the Spleen-Pancreas as our Digestive System

Before I move any further, I need to clarify the “spleen” as part of the digestive system. This was mistranslated in the Chinese texts as the spleen actually refers to the pancreas in digestion. The texts have continued to use the term Spleen and Stomach to represent the digestive system for continuity, but the spleen as we define it in modern physiology is a part of liver function since, like the liver, it deals with blood-storage. Our actual spleen is seen as a separate lobe of the liver in Chinese Medicine, as it was traditionally thought that the liver was on both sides of our bodies. So when I ever talk about the Spleen in a Chinese medicine context, I am referring to the pancreas. While the Liver, in Chinese medicine, is the liver and spleen. Make sense?

The spleen-pancreas is in charge of extracting qi energy and other nourishment from food in our digestive tract. Most intestinal herbal remedies are directed towards the spleen-pancreas since the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the intestines for proper nutrient absorption. The healthier the pancreas, the better the quantity and strength of the enzymes, which directly affects how well nutrients are absorbed in our small intestines.

Spleen-Pancreas Syndromes – Spleen Qi Deficiency, Spleen Yang Deficiency or Deficient Digestive Fire

The most common digestive syndrome is Spleen Qi Deficiency. When our Spleen Qi (or Pancreas Qi) is weak, we generally see symptoms of loose stools, general weakness, fatigue, and a pale tongue with a thin white coating. Spleen Qi deficiency can cause food sensitivities (allergies), indigestion, anemia, chronic diarrhea, ulcers, and pain in the upper abdomen.

Additionally, those with weak spleen qi may also suffer from weak limbs and muscles, as spleen qi, also called “middle Qi”, moves to the periphery of the body to nourish our arms and legs. The stronger our spleen qi, the stronger our arms, legs, and muscles are. The middle qi also holds our internal organs in place, so prolapses like hemorrhoids, prolapsed uterus, kidney, stomach or intestines are often caused by inadequate amounts of middle qi.

If spleen qi deficiency continues to worsen, it can progress into Spleen Yang Deficiency or “deficient digestive fire”. Deficient digestive fire will manifest as coldness or cold symptoms such as watery stools (rather than loose), aversion to cold weather, cold hands and feet (sound familiar?), clear urine, weight gain, prolapse of organs, a pale complexion, and a pale tongue that is swollen, wet, with teeth marks on the sides (teeth marks on the tongue are very common especially in women or those who think or worry too much).

Dampness, Mucus, and Bacteria

Dampness is a yin disorder defined by overly wet or moist conditions in the body. This concept consolidates many separate mucous, bacterial, viral, and yeast imbalances in the body. It may be caused by the environment we are in or due to poor diet or internal organ weakness. Excess dampness in any of our body systems manifest as:

1) Mucoid deposits or moist accumulations like edema, cysts, tumors, and cancers.

2) An overgrowth of yeasts, viruses, putrefactive bacteria, amoebas, or parasites.

The two conditions above are related since almost all chronic mucous conditions are a result of over-proliferation of microorganisms. Dampness can invade the joints and our acupuncture meridians. When this happens, it is difficult to move, numbness may appear, and when there is pain, it is localized in a one position (i.e., arthritis).

When dampness invades the spleen-pancreas or the intestines and digestive system in general, you will see feelings of heaviness (especially in the head), no appetite, abdominal bloating, watery stools with a thick tongue coating (yellow or white). Digestive dampness is caused by the deficient qi, yang, and fire syndromes discussed above.

The earth element hates dampness/wetness and coldness as this bogs us down (hence the feeling of heaviness) making us slow and sluggish hindering our focus and concentration. This is why you may see excessive weight gain in those with too much dampness in their bodies, digestive problems, or sugar imbalances (as seen in diabetes). Dampness manifests on a spectrum from mild dampness such as water retention to more extreme dampness such as phlegm, cysts, and in severe cases masses and tumors. Damp syndromes include edema, cough with phlegm, rheumatic conditions or arthritis, diabetes, sinus infections, yeast, ADD/ADHD, and chronic pain conditions.

Stomach Syndromes

While the spleen-pancreas deals with proper absorption of nutrients, the Stomach digests our food or literally “rots and ripens” what we eat. Our stomachs need Yin energy in the form of enzymes and fluids in order to digest. The stomach does not like to be hot or dry (as the earth also does not like to be hot or dry), and this happens when we eat too many hot and spicy foods causing us to become dehydrated. At the same time, it is important not to overwhelm the stomach with too much fluids either as this will dilute the gastric enzymes needed to churn and digest food. (Remember how I talked about late summer and the earth element last week as a time and element of balance? This is the same concept. The earth cannot be too wet or too dry otherwise the roots of vegetation will either rot from too much water or dry up from insufficient water. The same holds for our digestive systems. There has to be a proper balance of fluids and enzymes for our bodies to digest and be healthy.)

The stomach syndromes most commonly seen are:

Stomach Yin deficiency – This will manifest as GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disease), ulcers, or heartburn. When there are insufficient enzymes to digest, our food regurgitates back up our esophagus.

Stomach Qi deficiency – This manifests as slow digestion, gas, bloating, and a full sensation in the epigastric or upper stomach region. Those who have weak digestion will often feel bloated and pre-maturely full in the stomach. Anyone have this issue?

Phlegm fire – This is a more severe stomach condition seen in those with prolonged or chronic stomach qi and yin deficiency. Without enough qi to digest, phlegm forms. With insufficient yin or fluids, fire or dryness results. One will see more mental and emotional problems like manic personalities (similarly seen in Heart-Fire conditions – review Heart Fire here).

What you need to know:

  • Our digestive system comprises of the spleen-pancreas (or pancreas) and stomach.
  • The earth element represents our digestion and needs to be in constant balance in order to work properly. Too much wetness/fluids will bog digestion down, while too much dryness will prevent digestion of foods.
  • The spleen-pancreas does not like the dampness or coldness.
  • The stomach does not like heat or dryness.
  • Spleen-pancreas syndromes include qi deficiency, yang deficiency, and deficient fire.
  • Stomach syndromes include qi deficiency, yin deficiency, and phlegm fire.

Up next, I’ll talk about tips on how to keep our digestive systems healthy and happy!

In health and wellness,

Dr Elain

References:

Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford

Contact Dr. Elain
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Eastern Medicine & Natural Healing, Health for the Body, Nutrition, Traditional Chinese Medicine

Tips to Stay Healthy During Summer

June 22, 2015
Bright Summer Day

Happy summer everyone! I apologize for the lack of blog posts lately. Work has been super busy, which hasn’t allowed me any time to blog, but I promise I have a lot of practical and useful information coming your way! Summer is finally here and I wanted to share some tips on how to stay healthy during the summer season.

Summer Basics

Summer, like spring, is also a yang season and represents tremendous abundance, energy, and growth. It is a time for activity, movement, expansion and creativity. Nature also reflects this activity where plants continue to grow from the spring season and flowers are blooming more than ever. It is a light and bright season. To keep in harmony with the summer season, it is still important to wake early, but it is also a season where you can go to bed later. The days are longer, giving us more time to get things done. It is really a time to work, play, travel, and be happy!

With regards to the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), summer is represented by the fire element. Do you remember which element pairs with Spring? (Read here to review Spring basics.) The fire element governs the heart and small intestine. It also controls our ability to feel love and joy. When the heart is in harmony and our emotions are in balance, this joy should translate to an overall enthusiasm for life. However, an excess of the fire element and an excess of joy can cause restlessness and hyperexcitability, while a deficiency in fire may cause decreased joy and even apathy or depression. In Chinese medicine, the heart not only regulates blood circulation but controls our consciousness, spirit, sleep, memory, and houses the mind. Hence, it is also very much related to the nervous system and brain. We will talk more about how to tell if your fire element and heart is in balance.

The following are basic concepts to remember about the Summer Season:

  • Five elements: Fire
  • Organs: Heart/Mind and Small Intestine
  • Sense Organ: Tongue/Speech
  • Tissue: Blood vessels
  • Emotion: Joy
  • Voice Sound: Laughing
  • Fluid Emitted: Sweat
  • Paramita (Way to correct imbalance): Wisdom and Concentration
  • Enviromental Influence: Heat*
  • Development: Growth
  • Color: Red
  • Taste: Bitter
  • Direction: South

*Note: We have discussed the external pathogenic factor of wind associated with Spring here, but we have not talked about Summer heat yet. Summer heat in the body is caused by extreme heat during this season that can later manifest into heat signs and symptoms in the body.

Summer Foods and Preparation

Foods to cook during summer should be brightly colored fruits and veggies. Cooking should be light and short while regularly adding a small amount of spicy and pungent flavors to the food. Spices and pungent flavors can induce sweating, which help to cool the body, especially if you are prone to being hot. The key is not to overdo it with the spicy foods. In the same vein, don’t eat too many cold foods either as it weakens the digestive organs and causes contraction which can hold in sweat and heat. Similar to spring, foods should be sauteed as quickly as possible and also steamed and simmered in a short amount of time.

When it is really hot, the best cooling fresh foods to eat are salads, sprouts, fruit, and cucumber. Cooling teas include chrysanthemum, mint, and chamomile, while common cooling fruits are watermelon, apples, lemons, and limes. As I mentioned above, dispersing hot-flavored spices are also considered appropriate for hot weather, as long as you don’t overdo it. While the initial effect is to increase warmth in the body, the spices should ultimately bring body heat to the surface (our skin) to disperse as sweat. Examples of dispersing hot foods to include in the diet are red and green chili peppers, cayenne red pepper, fresh (and not dried) ginger, horseradish, and black pepper. Again, I can’t stress enough, eating too many dispersing foods will result in body weakness and actually a loss of yang, decreasing your ability to stay warm during the cooler seasons. This is why hot and spicy foods should usually be added in smaller quantities.

It’s best to minimize or avoid heavy foods during hot summer days as this can cause sluggishness. These foods include excess meats, eggs, nuts, seeds, and grains. In general eating less and eating light on a hot, bright summer day will keep you healthy and energized through the season.

Cooling fruits, veggies, and herbs to keep in mind during the summer:

  • Apples
  • Apricot
  • Cantaloupe
  • Lemons/LImes
  • Orange
  • Peach
  • Watermelon
  • Asparagus
  • Bamboo
  • Bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Corn
  • Cucumber
  • Mung Beans
  • Seaweed
  • Snow peas
  • Spinach
  • Sprouts
  • Summer squash
  • Watercress
  • White Mushroom
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Mint
  • Peppermint

Summary of tips for the summer season:

  • Wake up early.
  • Rest in the middle of the day.
  • Go to bed later in the evening.
  • Stay hydrated with water. Drinking water infused with lemon and cucumber throughout the day will keep you cool.
  • Add pungent flavors to your diet.
  • Eat in moderation as overeating, especially during the hot weather can cause indigestion and sluggishness.
  • Avoid heavy, greasy foods such as dairy and fried foods.
  • Try not to get angry or irritated over things and instead stay calm and even-tempered. (Anger and frustration can also increase heat and stagnation in your body).

Enjoy your summer!

In health and wellness,
Dr Elain

References:

Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford

Contact Dr. Elain
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