Traditional Chinese Medicine Food Philosophy for Healthy Digestion

root,crops,,carrots,,parsley,root,,turnip,,onion,,garlic,,jerusalem,artichoke,

Written by Robyn Brush, LAc—Licensed Acupuncturist at Wiseman Family Practice

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the organ most akin to digestive health is called the spleen.  It is different from our anatomical spleen, which is part of our immune system and acts as a filter for our blood.  The Chinese medicine spleen system more accurately resembles the biological process of the small intestine. Its functions include the generation of energy (also known as Qi, pronounced chee), blood, and body fluids, and the absorption and assimilation of nutrients from the food we eat.

A strong spleen is central to good health. When our spleen functions well, we have regular bowel movements, a healthy appetite, we feel energized, and we think clearly. The condition of Spleen Qi Deficiency roughly equates to intestinal malabsorption and manifests with symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, abdominal bloating and discomfort, loose bowel movements or constipation, and can be observed by a pale, swollen tongue with teeth marks on the side.

Over time, a weakened spleen is unable to keep pace with the food we ingest and becomes overburdened. Poorly-processed food and fluid begin to accumulate into “dampness.”  The condition of dampness comes with symptoms of grogginess, a feeling of heaviness in the morning, pronounced bloating and gas, weight gain, elevated cholesterol, sinus and lung congestion, and a thick white coating on the tongue. Individuals with Spleen Qi Deficiency and/or dampness may suffer from gut dysbiosis, IBS, candida overgrowth, or leaky gut syndrome.

How to Care for Your Spleen

Take time to savor meals
Your spleen is profoundly impacted by stress and can be damaged by regularly eating on-the-go, or multitasking during meals. When your body enters a sympathetic “fight or flight” state, blood flow to the digestive system decreases and GI muscle movement slows [1].  Sitting down at mealtimes, without any disruptions, turns eating into a ritual of enjoyment and nourishment that can lead to improvements in digestion as well as greater attunement to hunger signals in the body. You can take this a step further and practice mindful eating — eating consciously with attention to the aesthetics, flavors, smells, and textures of food [2].

Limit consumption of damp foods
The spleen has a difficult time digesting foods that are “damp” in quality.  Damp foods can be identified as those that are heavy, dense, viscous, or sticky in nature.  Dairy products, especially cheese and butter, are particularly damp in nature. Other damp foods include peanut butter, bananas, animal products high in saturated fat, and fried foods. Sugars, sweeteners, and refined carbohydrates, especially wheat four, also contribute to the development of dampness [3]. It is not always necessary to swear off these foods entirely; however, be aware of their effects on your body and moderate your consumption of them accordingly.

Eat more cooked vegetables than raw

Large quantities of raw vegetables can also be challenging for the spleen to digest.  According to TCM nutrition theory, it is believed that cold foods “lessen the digestive fire,” or slow metabolism [3]. Considering that this adage was written well before the invention of refrigeration, we understand “cold foods” to mean uncooked fruits and vegetables. Cooking begins the digestive process by breaking down some of a vegetable’s fibers and tough cell walls [3].  Some individuals with IBS find that raw vegetables trigger their symptoms. If you find that eating salad often leaves you feeling bloated and uncomfortable, you may consider switching to more steamed, roasted, or sauteed vegetable dishes.

Choose foods that nourish your spleen
Root vegetables, especially sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and squash, are some of the most nourishing foods for the spleen [3]. These vegetables are rich in vitamin A and potassium. They also contain soluble and insoluble fiber, which promote regular elimination. Their prebiotic fibers provide nutrients that feed healthy gut bacteria. Beans, especially adzuki beans, are some of the best foods for resolving dampness, as they have a mild diuretic effect. Pungent, aromatic foods and spices — garlic, onions, fresh ginger, cardamom, peppermint, and citrus peels — are wonderful for adding flavor to meals as well as for preventing and alleviating symptoms of dampness. They stimulate digestion, disperse mucus, and inhibit growth of pathogens in the digestive system [3][4].

Try acupuncture to improve digestive health
Acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine sterile needles in specific locations on the body.  Acupuncture is understood to provide relief of digestive symptoms by regulating the speed of intestinal movement, decreasing pain thresholds of internal organs, altering levels of chemicals and hormones in the digestive system, and moderating immune response and inflammation.[ 5]  One cumulative review found that acupuncture combined with Chinese herbal therapy may produce more favorable outcomes in treating symptoms of IBS than some conventional treatments [6].  Routine acupuncture appointments can be a great addition to your wellness plan for improved digestive health.

We currently provide acupuncture services at Wiseman Family Practice and accept United Healthcare (UHC), Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS), and Aetna for our acupuncture services. We also offer a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation for established patients who are interested in starting acupuncture services at our practice. If you are curious about our acupuncture services, are an established patient, and would like more information, please message us through your Patient Portal.  If you are a new patient to the practice and have questions about our acupuncture services, please email us here.

Our licensed acupuncturists, Jillian Alsup, LAc (Cedar Park clinic) and Robyn Brush, LAc (Central and Westlake clinics), bring extensive knowledge of acupuncture, bodywork, and herbal medicine to their patients. For more about our Wiseman Acupuncture services, please visit Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine on our website.

Sources and References:

1. Browning & Travagli (2014, Oct 4). Central nervous system control of gastrointestinal motility and secretion and modulation of gastrointestinal functions. Comprehensive Physiology.
Retrieved on July 24, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25428846/

2. Nhat Hahn, T. & Cheung, J. (2010). Savor: Mindful eating, mindful life. Harper One.

3. Leggett, Daverick (2005). Helping Ourselves: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics. (2nd Ed.) Meridian Press.

4. Pitchford, Paul (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. (3rd Ed.) North Atlantic Books.

5. Ma, et. al. (2014). Acupuncture-moxibustion in treating irritable bowel syndrome: How does it work? World Journal of Gastroenterology. Retrieved on July 22, 2022 from https://www.wjgnet.com/1007-9327/full/v20/i20/6044.htm

6. Yan, et. al. (2019, Apr. 14). Acupuncture plus Chinese Herbal Medicine for Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Diarrhea: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Evidence-based complimentary and alternative medicine. Retrieved on July 24, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31110553/