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Traditional Chinese Medicine and Digestion

traditional chinese medicine

A great Chinese doctor once said that the superior doctor should first adjust the patient’s diet and lifestyle. Only if that does not eliminate the patient’s disease should the doctor go on to administer acupuncture or herbs. This statement shows how important dietary therapy is in traditional Chinese medicine. Without a healthy diet and lifestyle, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine alone cannot truly heal or prevent the reoccurrence of chronic disease.

Chinese medicine and digestion (the middle burner):

The middle burner in Chinese medicine is the heart of the digestive system. A vivid image of the middle burner is a wood-burning stove that heats a house. Digestion is the stove, and food is the fuel. The quality of the fuel determines the efficiency of the stove and therefore the warmth of the house, i.e., the health and energy of the body.

Is there a Western equivalent?

The equivalent of an efficient middle-burner in Western medicine is an effective metabolism. Good metabolism will “burn” the food cleanly, utilizing calories, burning fat, and assimilating vitamins and nutrients, giving the body energy for living. If your metabolism is appropriate for your activities and food intake, you will naturally maintain your optimal weight.

What benefits the digestive fire?

When you wake up in the morning the fire in your stove has reduced to embers. The fire must be stoked to carry out its digestive function.

Breakfast: To build a strong fire, the day begins with breakfast, which acts as kindling. In Chinese medicine, hot, whole grain cereal (congee) is an ideal meal to gently start your digestive metabolism for clean, efficient, warm burning.

Lunch: The digestive fire is strongest at lunchtime. Lunch should therefore be the biggest meal of the day, with the most variety. It should contain concentrated protein such as animal products, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Dinner: The last meal should ideally be the smallest. It is best if the meal is eaten before 7 p.m., and that the meal is cooked, such as steamed vegetables and grain.

What injures the middle burner?

A large, heavy breakfast would be like throwing a big oak log on a struggling, flickering flame; it might be snuffed. Cold cereal, milk, or raw fruit would be like throwing wet, soggy leaves on a tender little fire. Fried eggs and hash browns would be like green wood; it burns poorly and produces thick, noxious smoke. Not eating breakfast would certainly put the fire out for the day. Ice-cold drinks and foods like ice cream and salads also destroy the digestive fire.

If you tend to your middle burner as if you were tending a fire you will be able to achieve and maintain your health and ideal body weight.

Just as every medicinal herb and substance has its own individualized Chinese medical description, so does every food. In other words, each food has its own flavor, nature, direction, channel entering, functions, indications, and contraindications. If we know each of these various aspects of food, we can, according to both Chinese theory and 2000+ years of Chinese written and recorded clinical experience, know what effect that food will have on any given individual. In other words, if we know the patient’s Chinese pattern diagnosis, we can tell if any food will either benefit that person or make them sick or sicker.

a weak spleen or anything that we can explain can cause all sorts of complicated, obstinate, chronic diseases.

But say the spleen has become weak due to a faulty diet, fatigue, excessive worry, or lack of exercise. In that case, the spleen which is one of the main viscera involved in water metabolism may not transport and transform body fluids correctly. These fluids may then accumulate and transform into evil or pathogenic dampness. Dampness, because it is heavy tends to percolate down from the middle burner to the lower burner. The lower burner is the lower abdomen. Because dampness is yin, it obstructs the free flow of Yang qi. Because qi is Yang, it is warm. Warm qi backs up behind this accumulating dampness, the warmth of the qi may and commonly does transfer this heat to the evil dampness which then becomes damp heat.

Damp heat in the lower burner can cause a number of pathological conditions. In the bladder and urinary tract, it can cause cystitis, prostatitis, and kidney stones. In the intestines, it can cause hemorrhoids, diarrhea, bloody stools, ulcerative colitis, and rectal prolapse. In a woman’s reproductive organs, pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis, infertility, and vaginal tract infections. In a man’s reproductive organs, damp heat can cause infertility.

However, damp heat in the lower burner may also enter the liver and kidneys. Damp heat entering the liver and kidneys results in atrophy of the lower limbs. In terms of the kidneys alone, damp heat injures their source of transformation. In that case, kidney Yang loses its root in the lower burner or abdomen and tends to float upward where it further damages the spleen and stomach and collects in the heart and lungs. When this heat accumulates in the heart, it manifests as mental or emotional problems. When accumulates in the lungs, it manifests as respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies, and as skin diseases, such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis.

This upward heat associated with damp heat below was named yin fire. It is yin because of the dampness and fire because of the heat. It causes chaos in the up bearing and down bearing of the clear and turbid qi of the entire body and eventually affects all the organs and bowels of the entire organism. It is this scenario that best describes most of the chronic, and often life-threatening diseases which seemed so prevalent in modern Western society. These include MS, rheumatoid arthritis, aids, encephalopathy, diabetes, chronic sinusitis, endometriosis, infertility, and cancer. These conditions are tied to diet, for better or for worse.

Improper diet is the single most important factor in such diseases worsening. Conversely, a proper diet is a cornerstone in such diseases’ remedial treatment. Without such a proper diet, is difficult if not impossible for acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to achieve satisfactory or lasting results.

Here are principles for eating well according to Chinese traditional medicine

  • Try to avoid overly processed food. Eat naturally.
  • Eat seasonal vegetables and fruits.
  • Always make sure the vegetables are cooked.
  • Sit down to eat at a quiet place.
  • Chew the food well.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Pay attention to your eating, and get away from distractions*.
  • Do not skip meals.
  • After lunch, take a nap or rest for a while.

*Your mind plays a part in how well you digest food, so pay attention to the tastes of the food.

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