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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


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

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

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


Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford

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