Andres Vergara, L.Ac., M.Ac. and Michele Collins, RH (AHG), MPH
The food we eat is important not only as a fuel for our physical bodies, but it is also an important resource that can enhance our health and well being. Traditional healing systems such as Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine classify food according to their healing properties, and some, like walnuts, certain vegetables, fruits, and legummes are even included in the materia medica and used in formulation with other herbs to treat various health concerns. In this article, we will describe how you can support your digestion and assimilation with the foods you choose and prepare. Click here to tune in to our episode of Holistic Healing with Herbs and Chinese Medicine titled, Our Food Can be Our Medicine to hear more about this topic.
What Happens During Digestion and Why Is It Important?
Digestion is an alchemical process. Food is literally transformed into energy and fuel we can use to sustain our physical, mental, and emotional, health. Digestion is also the one of the most important jobs our body performs. It is a complex process that involves many different anatomical organs and structures, including the stomach, the liver, the gall bladder, the small intestine, the large intestine, the pancreas, the esophagus, and the mouth, to name the most prominent. The mouth, for example, is a extremely important part of digestion, as it is the location where food is subjected to an alkaline medium and a salivary enzyme (ptyalin) that helps digest starches by as much as 40%. Practically, speaking, chewing your food thoroughly is key to starting off the digestive processes.
In the Chinese system, the spleen/stomach pair are the organs responsible for transforming and metabolizing food and water into qi and blood the body can use to regulate and sustain itself. The liver/gall bladder plays an important role too, because it detoxifies and filters everything, including any toxins that may be in our food or our environment. In the instance of food poisoning with symptoms like bloating, nausea vomiting, diarrhea, rib side pain, or cramping or pain in the liver area, and/or alternating sweating and chills, the body’s reaction or pattern of disharmony is considered an imbalance between the liver and stomach/spleen.
There is a Chinese saying that provides a lot of information – the spleen likes to be warm and dry, that provides a lot of insight into how to best maximize digestion and assimilation. Any foods that dampen or cool the body’s ability to transform and metabolize foods and thus, weaken the spleen and stomach. Foods that have a cooling and dampening effect on the body can reduce the body’s ability to digest and assimilate your food. These foods include: raw foods such as fruits and vegetables, ice cream and frozen foods, sugar (especially white refined sugar), soy products (unfermented), floury products, and dairy products. Simply put, food has to be cooked somewhere, either before you put it in your body
How Do You Know What Foods Are Right For You?
Chinese medicine classifies food exactly as it does herbs, which is by the organ system it supports, by the energetic effect it has on the body, and by it’s flavor. Foods and herbs both can have a specific affinity for an organ system. For example, milk thistle (silybum marianum) is a tonic for the liver in that it helps improve the liver’s functioning, as well as reduces fibrosis and inflammation of the liver. Lamb is a food that is restorative for the kidneys, particularly the yang aspect (the warming function that also represents a sense of will or purpose) of the kidneys.
Foods and herbs are classified by the energetic effect they have on the body, either a food or herb is dampening (as in dairy products), drying (job’s tears or coix), warming (cinnamon), or cooling (mints like lemon balm or spearmint). You tend to want to treat with opposites, meaning if there is a cold condition like weak digestion (tired after eating, diarrhea, gurgling stomach) you want an herb like fresh ginger, which is warming and stimulating. If the condition is a hotter- natured one like red and inflamed muscles, you would want to pick a cooler herb like yu jin (turmeric rhizome or curcuma longa).
Foods and herbs are also classified by their flavor – salty (kidneys), sour (liver), bitter (heart), spicy (lungs), sweet (spleen). Each of these flavors has an affinity to a certain organ system, offering another way of assessing what organ the herb of food has an affinity for. In a healthy diet, foods with more of a neutral to sweet flavor comprise the majority, while foods with extremes in flavor or temperature are eaten in lesser amounts. However, if there are specific health conditions, foods that tend to be more drying, moistening, cooling, or heating may be incorporated into the diet to re-establish balance.
Sweets Flavor, Sweet Foods, and Sugar Cravings
We want to say a word here about cravings for sweets and for sugar because the concept of sweet that we tend to think of in the west is very different from the way traditional systems classify sweet foods. Sweet foods in any traditional system are nearly all vegetables, meats, and whole grains and legummes. This is the basis of a healthy diet.
In our culture, we tend to equate sweet with sugar and with empty sweets like cakes or desserts, but sweet is really deep level nourishment in the body. It is amazing to witness, but when you have that deep level nourishment you find that you don’t crave sweets like sugar and simple carbohydrates. Also the natural flavor of foods, like fruits and vegetables, tends to be enhanced. Remember that sugar and simple carbs are instant energy and an important way our body communicates with us and lets us know that we are not being nourished, by our food or by our life in general. They represent the easiest and simplest way your body can convert food into energy. We recommend that if you crave sweets, make sure you are eating deeply nourishing foods, particularly fresh vegetables and protein (like sardines or whey protein).
We Don’t Just Digest Food But Life Experiences, Emotions, and Knowledge
The Chinese system does not just address the physical body, and the organs do not just have a physical function. Rather, the organs are the gross manifestations of larger functions of your whole self. The organs are the manifestation of that function that your whole self is performing as part of it’s dance on the physical plane and communication with the life force. So for digestion, the spleen is not simply digesting food, but it is digesting life experience, emotions, and knowledge. For example, when a person is grieving the loss of a loved one, they may feel sad or depressed and have a lack of appetite. Lack of appetite occurs because your being is busy digesting this new life experience, leaving less room and less energy to digest food.
If you are craving sweets or feeling a need to eat to balance emotions, it is important to look at other life practices as well and see where are we feeling malnourished. We call this inner sweetness. Michele has written about her experience quitting sugar and finding inner sweetness and the tools (besides food) that she used. To read more click here.
Seasons Matter in Choosing and Preparing Food
There is old herbal wisdom that says that what your body needs is often growing outside your back door. Recently this wisdom can be seen in the slogan eat locally. Knowing which food and herbs grow in your geographic area during a specific season offers a way for each of us to translate nature’s wisdom to maximize health. Interestingly enough, herbs that help common ailments tend to be ready exactly when those ailments tend to be most likely to occur. For example cooling and sedating herbs, such as lemon balm (melissa officinalis) and catnip (nepata cataria) are profusely available in the summer season while root herbs such as Siberian ginseng (eleutherococcus senticosus) are ready for harvest in the winter.
The food you eat will vary throughout the year according to the season. This is an intuitive knowledge that makes sense. Cooling foods move the body’s fluids and energy outward and upward toward the surface of the body. Warming foods move the body’s fluids and energy inward and downward much as plants move their energy down into their roots during colder months. Therapeutically warming foods are used in small amounts during hotter months to cool the body down. During colder months, larger portions of warming foods are used to increase the body’s energy and overall warmth.
The warming and cooling properties of foods vary with different factors. How and where foods are produced and harvested, along with how they are prepared and served, and even which parts of the plant or animal are used influence these properties. For example, plants that grow quickly (lettuce, summer squash, cucumber) tend to be more cooling than plants that take longer to grow (cabbage, carrots and other root vegetables). Raw foods require more energy to transform or cook than those that have been cooked and spiced before eating. During the hotter months, we tend to choose more salads and raw foods such as fruits and melons, which are cooling and in season. When the season changes and the temperature shifts, we tend to eat fewer raw foods and gravitate to more soups, stews and baked items, which are warming. These natural instincts are our body’s attempt to harmonize with the changing natural cycles.
Some Simple Tips to Support Digestion
1. Consume neutral, nourishing foods. The majority of food consumed should fall into the neutral range of the continuum, which means vegetables and proteins like legumes, whole grains and some meats. Most of the foods in this category have a “sweet” flavor according to traditional healing systems classification of foods. Sweet flavored foods are deeply nourishing (and are often what the body needs instead of sweets or carbohydrates like breads or pasta).
2. Be mindful of foods that dampen digestion. Foods that have a cooling and dampening effect on the body can reduce the body’s ability to digest and assimilate your food. These foods include: raw foods, ice cream and frozen foods, sugar (especially white refined sugar), soy products (unfermented), floury products, and dairy products. This is especially important in winter when your body is adjusting to the colder external temperatures or when you are sick or have diminished energy.
3. Give your food your full attention. Remember that the body has to digest everything your experiencing in that moment, including your food, your reading material, or your emotions. You greatly help your body by giving it a space to do the work of digestion and not distracting yourself trying to do too many things at once.
4. Have a moment of gratitude for food before eating it. Before you eat take a moment of gratitude for your food and welcome it into your body. We recommend simply smiling at your food before eating it. Everything loves a smile!
5. Limit flour products (anything with flour). Flour creates glue in the digestive tract. You can switch out pasta to quinoa or brown rice pasta.
6. Preparing Meat. To help your body assimilate meat, rub it with rock salt and cook with it fresh ginger root. For red meat be sure to soak it first in water for several minutes.
7. Use herbs to help with digestion. Herbs are a brilliant tool for helping your body assimilate food. Many contain minerals and vitamins or they may help stimulate or facilitate your body’s production vitamin’s or minerals, as well as stimulate the production of enzymes to aid digestion. Bitter herbs (like mugwort or burdock root) are taken before eating to activate the secretion of digestive enzymes. Many culinary herbs (such as ginger, garlic, thyme, cardamon, cumin, fennel, etc.) are carminatives (alleviate gas and bloating), as well as warming and stimulating to the digestive system.
Genetically Modified Foods and Eating Organic Foods
We support local organically grown foods because they have a greater life energy or qi to them, they have not been altered from their natural state and are considered to be more life nurturing than foods that have pesticides. Locally grown organic food is considered to be better as well because eating with the seasons is supposed to promote health, so eating seasonal vegetables will support the organs that have an affinity with each season. Most foods that do not have an organic label or a non-GMO label on them have genetically modified ingredients (GMO). GMO foods have been associated with a number of health problems including birth defects and sterility. They require more pesticides and encourage a food monopoly with Monsanto using “terminator” seeds to ensure that farmers have to repurchase seeds that don’t regerminate. They also have smaller crop yields despite being heralded as a solution to hunger problems. Also because GMO crops are resistant to pesticides they encourage the use of large amounts of pesticides that have negative effects on the environment such as the “dead zone” in the gulf. This type of large scale GMO monoculture agriculture also encourages dependence on fossil fuels.
A recent study shows that GMO foods cause grotesque tumors in rats and decrease their life span significantly (70% shorter for female rats), also caused mammary tumors in female rats. This is from a French study led by Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen, was the first ever study to examine the long-term (lifetime) effects of eating GMOs. The study was published in The Food & Chemical Toxicology Journal and was recently presented at a news conference in London. These rats had 200-300% increase in large tumors from eating GMO corn which is the same corn in our breakfast cereal, snack chips and corn tortillas. This food also caused the rats to develop kidney and liver damage.
Here are some quotes from the researchers who authored this study:
“This research shows an extraordinary number of tumors developing earlier and more aggressively – particularly in female animals. I am shocked by the extreme negative health impacts.” – Dr Michael Antoniou, molecular biologist, King’s College London.
“We can expect that the consumption of GM maize and the herbicide Roundup, impacts seriously on human health.” – Dr Antoniou.
“This is the first time that a long-term animal feeding trial has examined the impact of feeding GM corn or the herbicide Roundup, or a combination of both and the results are extremely serious. In the male rats, there was liver and kidney disorders, including tumors and even more worryingly, in the female rats, there were mammary tumors at a level which is extremely concerning; up to 80 percent of the female rats had mammary tumors by the end of the trial.” – Patrick Holden, Director, Sustainable Food Trust.
Here are some resources if you would like to read more about traditional uses of food as medicine.