Have you ever noticed how some people can eat raw onions, beans, or habanero peppers with nary a problem, but for others the minute they eat a piece of bread they spend the rest of the evening in the bathroom? Or what about those people who travel to places like China, drinking the water and eating food from street vendors, and never get sick? Those people—the ones with an “iron stomach” —have very good digestion.
Some people are fortunate to have naturally good digestion; it’s just a part of who they are. But for others, digestion can be a life-long struggle. Some people develop autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, early in life. Others slowly develop food sensitivities over many years, and they discover that their favorite food is increasingly making them feel bad each time they consume it. And for almost everyone, what we can and cannot eat simply changes as we move through life.
When digestion is not functioning well, a host of issues can arise: weight gain or weight loss; loss of appetite or excessive appetite; abdominal pain; low energy; irregular bowel movements; constipation or diarrhea; chronic pain; sleep issues; anxiety; increased phlegm production; skin problems. And the list goes on. All of these decrease quality of health, and can impede our ability to function as well as we’d like. Not to mention that it is difficult to enjoy one of life’s great pleasures—eating—if it makes us sick.
Digestion According to Chinese Medicine
In Chinese Medicine, the spleen and stomach are the two main organs responsible for the quality of digestion. If these organs are weak, digestion is suboptimal and other health issues develop. The stomach accepts food into the body and begins to break it down. Good digestion is partially tied to fully chewing food; the stomach works best if it doesn’t have to break down large pieces of unchewed food. When the stomach is weak, it may not readily accept food into the body. People may experience acid reflux, belching, nausea, pain, or abdominal distention after eating.
While the Chinese Medicine view of the stomach is similar to the western medicine understanding, the concept of the spleen is functionally different from the western view. In Chinese Medicine, the spleen is responsible for separating apart the nutritious aspects in our food and beverages from the waste aspects of the consumed food and drink. The spleen then distributes the nutrients throughout the body, while moving the waste into the kidneys and intestines.
However, the spleen is a sensitive organ. Although some people naturally have stronger spleens than others, the spleen can be damaged by certain foods and behaviors. Sweet, greasy, spicy, and raw foods all weaken the spleen. Therefore, a diet of milkshakes, hamburgers, fries, and salads (yes, even salads!) can negatively impact digestion. Also, the spleen, like a family dog, likes regular mealtimes. If you eat your meals at wildly different times each day, or if you skip meals, your spleen will weaken. In addition, stress and worry can hurt the spleen and impact your digestion. Do you ever get a knotted feeling in your gut when you’re especially distressed? That’s your spleen. And have you ever noticed how stress or anxiety can impact your appetite? Again, your spleen.
When the spleen is damaged, all sorts of issues may develop—low energy, low appetite, weight gain, loose stools, gas, water retention, puffy or dark circles around the eyes, sallow skin, acne, sugar cravings, muscle pain—it’s a long list, but you get the idea.
Taking Action to Improve Digestion
The good news is that you have many options for improving your digestive health. Consider changing the way you eat. Setting up regular mealtimes, and taking the time to sit in a calm place and carefully chew, taste, and enjoy your food will aid with your digestion. Eating with others, as opposed to eating in front of the TV or while driving, will also help your digestion. Paying attention to how stress and your emotions impact your eating behaviors and digestion may give you a lot of information about your relationship to food and patterns of digestive issues.
It may be appropriate to make modifications to your diet. Limit the amount of foods that are greasy, sweet, spicy, or raw. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have them at all; just eat them in moderation. Increase your intake of lean meats or protein, steamed or cooked vegetables, whole grains, and fats from plant sources like olive oil.