Monday, January 6, 2014

Eating Healthy the "Chinese" Way

by Dennis Weigel, L. Ac.
The beginning of the new year is often a time to change old habits, and re-set the body and mind for the year to come.   For many people this involves new, healthier food choices and getting more exercise.  There are many different perspectives on how to eat healthy and can sometimes be confusing as to which foods are healthy and which ones should be avoided.   Chinese medicine offers a perspective which is less known and can be very effective at improving health, digestive strength and metabolism.   Before we list different foods that are considered healthy, let’s first look at the main organs involved in digestion, the spleen and stomach, and how they work in the body.

The Spleen and Stomach are considered the origin of “post heaven qi” or the main source of life force after birth.  This is because they work together to extract energy from food and drink, refine it, and distribute it to all organs of the body.  If the digestive system is not functioning properly, the rest of the body will suffer from lack of proper nourishment.   Some schools of thought in Chinese medicine consider this the primary area of treatment for all diseases.  “If the spleen and stomach are healthy there is health, if the spleen and stomach are unhealthy there is disease.”  The stomach’s role is to store the food after it is chewed and swallowed, and to break it down into a more digestible form.  The spleen’s role is to extract the “essence” or life force and nutrients from the food and to distribute it throughout the body to provide energy to all the organs and limbs.  If the spleen and stomach are healthy, the appetite will be good and the food will be broken down and transported efficiently.  If they are unhealthy, one may experience nausea, belching, or vomiting, or loose stools, and fatigue.  So what can we do to optimize the health of the spleen and stomach?  Let’s first take a look at what each organ “likes” and “dislikes” then we will be able to choose the foods that nourish each organ. 

The stomach is considered a yang organ because it is hollow and serves mainly as a reservoir, whereas the spleen is a yin organ because it is dense and provides the energy for digestion to occur.   Stomach qi descends, and spleen qi ascends, and the stomach likes wetness and dislikes dryness, while the spleen likes dryness and dislikes wetness.  If the stomach is too dry, stomach qi cannot descend and food cannot be moved down to the small intestine and if the spleen is too damp, spleen qi cannot ascend and fluids and food cannot be transformed, leading to an accumulation of dampness or phlegm.  The stomach likes cold, while the spleen likes warmth.  The stomach is damaged by excess and the spleen is damaged by deficiency.

The key to maintaining good digestive health is to eat foods with properties that are compatible with the spleen and stomach.  For example, eating too many foods that are drying such as chips, crackers, pretzels, etc. could damage the stomach, and an excess of foods that are moistening such as dairy, fats or oils, wheat, and sugar, can damage the spleen.  This is not to say that these foods should be avoided all together, but to be mindful about what your body can handle and what feels excessive.  If someone has nausea, or GERD, they might benefit from avoiding foods that are too dry and if someone has an accumulation of phlegm or dampness they would likely benefit from avoiding the foods that tax the spleen which are mentioned above.  An accumulation of fluids can lead to weight gain and is treatable by choosing foods that strengthen the spleen, and its ability to transform fluids.  Potatoes, yams, chicken, nuts, ginger, warm tea, steamed vegetables are some examples.  Also, the spleen likes warmth and the stomach prefers cold.  Extremes of temperatures of food or food properties can therefore damage each organ.   For example, hot, spicy foods in excess can damage the stomach, and too many cold foods such as frozen smoothies, ice water with meals, and even raw vegetables can weaken the spleen.  Mild use of spices, room temperature water, and lightly steamed vegetables would benefit the digestive system and harmonize the spleen and stomach.

Whether you are trying to lose weight or control nausea, bloating or any other digestive ailments, these tips can greatly improve your success over time.  Regular acupuncture treatments can jumpstart or re-enforce your efforts by balancing the body’s energy pathways assuring a smooth flow of nutrients to all areas and strengthening the spleen and stomach.  Again it is important to remember that these are guidelines and not absolutes, just suggestions on how to re-balance your system if it is out of balance, moderation is the key.  Happy New Year!

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