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