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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Taking a common-sense approach to your diet will help to optimise your digestive health.
These additional suggestions from TCM may also be beneficial: