The Traditional Chinese Approach to Digestive Problems

Do you suffer from digestive difficulties? The age-old philosophies of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) offer some unique insights into how your digestive system works and how you can keep it in tip-top shape.

The Stomach and Spleen drive digestive function

Traditional Chinese herbalists view the processes of digestion differently to the way we think about them in Western medicine.

According to this ancient system of medicine, consumed food is initially processed by the Stomach organ-meridian (OM), where it is 'ripened' or broken down into its useful (‘pure’) and waste (‘impure’) components.

Of these, the useful parts are directed upwards to the Spleen organ-meridian system, where they're transformed into the nutrients, energy (Qi), Blood and fluids the body needs, while the wastes are directed downwards to the Small Intestine and ultimately the Large Intestine for excretion.

Chinese digestive tonic herbs

Many gastrointestinal problems can be attributed to disharmony in the Stomach, the Spleen or both organ-meridians, which may lead to symptoms such as indigestion, nausea, burping, bloating, constipation, abdominal pain and loose bowel movements.

In TCM, these issues are traditionally treated with digestive tonic herbs such as Chinese Yam (also known as Mountain Yam), Wild Cardamom, Atractylodes and Codonopsis, which work together to harmonise Stomach and Spleen functions and improve the breakdown of food, uptake and transformation of nutrients and Qi, and elimination of wastes.

When reflux and indigestion are present, they are said to indicate that Stomach Qi is moving upwards rather than in its usual downwards direction. Specific Chinese herbs that are indicated to regulate this movement and restore the downwards flow of Qi include Magnolia Bark, Pinellia and Evodia.

The Liver and Gall Bladder keep things moving smoothly

In Western medicine, we usually think about the liver and gall bladder in the context of their roles in the metabolism of fats and the detoxification of toxic compounds the body is exposed to.

However, in TCM, the Liver organ-meridian is attributed with additional functions, which include governing the smooth flow of Qi and Blood to other parts of the body.

In this capacity, healthy Liver function is vital to the digestive functions of the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridians, so any issues that compromise the Liver may have knock-on effects for the upper digestive tract, ultimately resulting in symptoms such as indigestion and nausea.

Similarly, since the Gall Bladder is responsible for the transportation of bile, any imbalances or disharmony in that organ-meridian may have negative effects on the functioning of the Small Intestine, which requires bile in order to perform its role in the digestion of fats.

Chinese liver and gall bladder tonics

In TCM, Liver disharmony is often treated with Liver and Gall bladder tonic herbs that help to regulate the flow of Qi and Blood, stimulate the production of bile, and enhance the body's processes of waste elimination, such as Chinese Dandelion, Bupleurum and Chen Pi (Citrus Peel).

The Small and Large Intestine remove wastes

In the final part of the digestive process, the Small Intestine organ-meridian system continues the breakdown of food that was initiated in the stomach, and directs any useful matter to the Spleen for transformation and distribution, and the wastes to the Large Intestine for excretion via the faeces.

If these organ meridians aren’t in balance, you may experience bowel problems such as diarrhoea, abdominal pain and flatulence.

In addition, if there is too much Heat in your system, you may experience constipation or dry stools (as a consequence of the intestinal fluids being dried up by the Heat). Conversely, if you’re affected by excess Damp, as often occurs when liver function is sluggish, you may experience loose bowel movements.

Chinese herbs to relieve constipation

In TCM, herbs that are regarded as having cooling and lubricating effects on the Intestinal organ-meridians have traditionally been employed to relieve constipation and promote bowel movements. Examples include Rhubarb, Rehmannia and Tricosanthes.

Probiotics provide extra support for healthy bowel function

Many gastrointestinal issues are caused or accompanied by disruption of the population of healthy bacteria that are naturally present in the human bowel.

Taking a probiotic supplement may help to support healthy intestinal function, including helping to normalise the frequency and characteristics of bowel motions.

Probiotics are well-suited for use in conjunction with Chinese herbs, and special formulations are available for children and infants.

Diet and lifestyle tips for digestive health from Chinese medicine

Taking a common-sense approach to your diet will help to optimise your digestive health.

These additional suggestions from TCM may also be beneficial:

  • The right diet for you will depend in part on your constitution. For example, if you have a slow metabolism and a tendency to feel lethargic, you may benefit from eating lots of spicy foods, but the same diet might make a person with a hotter, faster constitution feel irritated and agitated
  • Your environment and the local weather also play a role in determining optimal eating habits. Choose cooling foods such as salads when it's hot and humid, and warming, heartier dishes when it's cold
  • Go easy on dairy foods, refined flours and fatty meals, all of which may contribute to excess Dampness in the body (a common contributor to sluggish liver function)
  • Try to stick to a regular eating schedule and don’t skip meals, or eat more than you need. Overeating makes it difficult for the Stomach and Spleen to effectively digest your food and transport it around your body, while infrequent meals (as seen in many fad diets and detox plans) may contribute to constipation by reducing the moisture levels in the Intestines
  • Avoid eating when you’re stressed or agitated, and instead make meal times calm and relaxing
  • According to the principles of TCM, a balanced diet incorporates the five flavours:
    • Sweet foods like honey that provide nourishment and have moistening properties, making them particularly beneficial when excess Dryness is present, as may occur during constipation
    • Sour foods like lemons that have drying properties and promote contraction in the digestive tract, and thus may be beneficial (in small quantities) when excess fluids are present (e.g. to help remove excess fluid from soft stools)
    • Hot, pungent foods such as ginger, garlic and chillies, which have warming properties that stimulate the appetite and promote the circulation of Blood and Qi around the body
    • Bitter foods like rocket, kale and green tea have a cooling effect on the body and help to dry Dampness; they help to stimulate the gut and may be particularly beneficial when liver function is sluggish
  • Salty foods like prawns, pork and seaweed, which are considered lubricating to the intestines and may aid the removal of accumulated wastes