Healthy Eating Perspectives from Chinese Medicine
Healthy Eating Perspectives from Chinese Medicine
The British Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy Eating Week takes place from the 12th to the 16th of June 2023. This year the focus is on providing free guidance and support for everyone who wants to eat a healthier diet and to be able to do so in an affordable manner.
Ancient Chinese physicians took a great interest in the diet as one of the key components of their sophisticated medical system. It could almost be viewed as an extension of or addition to herbal medicine, in that several times daily ingested substances are clearly going to exert an influence over the workings of the body and mind.
The strength of the digestive process and quality of food equals good nutrition. There are many conversations about the nutrient content of food in the endeavour of eating well, but much less spoken about, is the health of the digestive system itself. A case in point would be the popular paleo, raw or high-protein diets, where the preservation of enzymes and other nutrients is a priority. However, when someone has diminished digestive function (an epidemic in the modern era), their ability to absorb those nutrients is compromised anyway. High protein, raw and cold foods are very challenging to the digestive process and Chinese dietary therapy would seek to provide the least challenging foods and in doing so, allow the digestive system to repair, prior to prioritizing nutrient content.
The 3 components of healthy digestion are;
Healthy Stomach Fire. This correlates to healthy levels of hydrochloric acid. If there is too much or not enough; both can lead to pathological Stomach Fire.
Descent of Stomach Qi. In Western terms, this would be peristalsis.
Healthy Stomach Yin. The mucosal lining of the stomach and small intestine. When it is too thin, typically involves inflammation (heat) and when too thick, causes phlegm and dampness. In both cases, the ability of the body to absorb nutrients becomes impaired.
By improving these 3 components, acupuncture can help improve the strength of a person’s digestion. The quality of food ingested is the responsibility of the individual and treatment will be more effective if attention is given to this. Descent of stomach qi and rebuilding healthy stomach yin cannot be addressed until stomach fire is rebalanced. Here are some ideas on how best to maintain a healthy stomach fire.
Eating breakfast supports a healthy stomach fire; in the morning the embers are quite burnt out, so we add kindling in the form of gentle, simple foods like congee or well-cooked porridge. The value of well-cooked foods is that they are easy to digest and hydrating.
Intermittent fasting or skipping meals leads to the stomach expecting food and creating more fire in anticipation of food coming. Symptoms of too much or too little stomach fire/heat include nausea, headaches, indigestion, toothache, sinus problems, chronic ear infections, bleeding gums, halitosis, osteoporosis, depression and thirst.
With excess heat in the stomach (also caused by eating heating foods like chilli, caffeine, alcohol and too much animal protein), the body sends substances to try and put the fire out. This can be done by leaching calcium from bones, drawing serotonin from the brain to calm inflammation, or building up dampness in the area. (Approximately 95% of serotonin is secreted in the gut and sent to the brain). Dampness has the effect of smouldering the fire, which affects nutrient absorption and can lead to IBS, Crohn’s, leaky gut, abscesses, polyps and colitis. In the case of intermittent fasting, weight loss may be observed but eventually, the stomach yin (mucosal lining) will be consumed as the heat has to consume something!
Consuming anything of a cold nature (temperature or energetically cold) provides an enormous challenge to the body. Ingesting cold drinks or foods, too many fruits and anything raw can shock the stomach, which then requires extra energy to warm those substances to a suitable temperature. Many people suffer from “cold digestion” which can manifest as diarrhoea, constipation, griping or contracting pain, often passing undigested food in their stools. Over time, cold foods make the digestive system sluggish which also leads to further accumulation of dampness.
Mid-morning snacks are important; as the stomach fire becomes stronger, we should feel hungry a couple of hours after breakfast. Lunch should be the most complex meal as noon corresponds with the most yang (active) time of day. Some schools of thought recommend that the most complex meal be eaten between 7 and 11am as these are when the most energy is within the digestive organs according to the Chinese clock. The evening meal is advised to be the lightest and simplest of the day and could be broth, soup or stew. Overly complex meals eaten late in the day run the risk of affecting both digestion and sleep.
In summary- Top tips for healthy stomach fire from a Chinese dietary therapy perspective
Avoid eating or drinking anything straight from the fridge.
Drink hot water, not cold or room temperature.
Avoid too many raw foods and fruits (including smoothies), especially in Winter, Spring and Autumn.
Eat more cooked and “convalescing” foods to remove challenges from the digestive system and allow it to repair and rebalance.
Reduce animal protein, sugar, refined foods, chilli, caffeine and alcohol as they create excess heat (inflammation) in the stomach which pulls on calcium, fluids or serotonin from elsewhere in the body.
Avoid overeating. As a rule, eat to 70% fullness only.
Reduce excessively rich, challenging foods like dairy, gluten and fried foods which are damp forming and obstructive.
Eat more vegetables.
Bin the chewing gum! Chewing is the first stage of digestion, and the stomach starts to build an excess fire in anticipation of food.
Simplicity is king in the kitchen! Simple, non-challenging meals can be made up of well-cooked whole grains, lots of lightly cooked vegetables, healthy fats (coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, butter) and a source of protein (Lentils, beans, nuts, tofu, tempeh. Animal protein in small amounts can be eaten occasionally, providing there isn’t excess heat in the stomach)
Bland foods are healing foods.
The stomach is referred to as “the origin of fluids” and providing it with warm, wet foods (at least 2 wet meals a day) provides timed released hydration. Wet foods are more hydrating than water which tends to have a clearing effect.
Never miss breakfast or skip meals.
Leave at least 3 hours between your last meal and bedtime.
Reduce stressful activities; find time to de-stress- stress causes the stomach to increase fire production.
If you would like to learn more about how Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture can help build your digestive fire, please contact our acupuncturist Anna Wells via her profile https://centreforintegralhealth.com/about-us/our-practitioners/anna-wells-1/
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About the Centre
The Centre for Integral Health was started in 2013 by director Ben Calder after studying Integral theory since 2011 and over 10 years of professional practice of kinesiology and Bowen fascia Release Technique, coupled with the desire to explore the application of the Integral Model in relation to health.read more