Your digestion plays a vital role in keeping you healthy. Stomach problems are not only uncomfortable and inconvenient, they can also negatively affect your mood, your energy, and even your immune system.
Signs and Symptoms of Poor Digestion
Almost everyone experiences digestive issues from time to time, such as abdominal bloating or indigestion. When these issues become chronic, it is time to dig deep and discover the underlying causes.
When people think of bad digestion and stomach problems, they tend to think of stomach pain, cramping, indigestion, reflux, burping, nausea, abdominal gas, and bloating. Bowel issues such as chronic constipation, loose stools, an itchy rectum or hemorrhoids are also popular complaints.
Digestive problems can show up elsewhere on the body as well, most commonly on the skin, hair, and nails. For instance, ridges in the nails can point to a protein deficiency.
Concerns About Stomach Problems
Occasional abdominal bloating can happen due to many causes such as overeating, drinking a lot of carbonated beverages, or ingesting a lot of carbs or beans whose high sugar content can create a lot of intestinal gas when broken down.
When bloating becomes chronic, severe, or in conjunction with other digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhea, or weight loss, then it is extremely important to go to your doctor; this can be a sign of a more serious condition such as inflammatory bowel disease or cancer.
Another concern of abdominal bloating is that the swelling can create micro-tears in the intestinal walls, leading to leaky gut syndrome. When undigested food particles pass through the intestinal walls into the bloodstream, they can confuse immune cells; these cells will go on attack and create more inflammation. Food sensitivities and food allergies can develop or become worse which, in turn, worsens leaky gut in what becomes a vicious cycle.
Over time leaky gut and the resulting antibodies the immune system produces can also set the stage for various autoimmune diseases such as Hashimotos thyroid, Lupus, or Rheumatoid arthritis.
Digestion in Chinese Medicine
In Chinese Medicine, digestive disorders are primarily viewed as an imbalance between the Stomach and Spleen (not the actual Spleen, but the name given to the functionality of the Stomach). These organs work together to transform food into Qi (nutrients and energy) and transport them throughout the body. The liver and gallbladder organs also play an important role in digestion by metabolizing fats and purging the body of toxins.
The Stomach and the Spleen drive many additional functions in the body. The Stomach Qi (or, energy) has a descending action, helping you to swallow food, keep it down, and excrete wastes from the body. If the Stomach is not working properly, then you can experience such unpleasant symptoms as belching, vomiting, or indigestion.
The Spleen’s Role in Digestion
The Spleen’s functions ascend, transporting nutrients to the Lungs to be transformed into energy with help from the Heart. Excess water is sent to the Lungs and Kidneys to form perspiration and urine. The ascending function also helps keep the body’s organs in place.
If the Spleen does not transform fluids correctly, then excess moisture – or dampness – develops. This can lead to a variety of symptoms including loose stools, discharge, bloating, nausea, and dizziness.
The Spleen manages blood vessels, preventing abnormal bleeding such as bruising, purple spots under the skin, or blood in the urine or stools. It also governs the flesh, helping to build muscle and energy. If the Spleen is not functioning optimally, you can feel weak, fatigued, or sluggish.
Finally, the Spleen supplies the brain with vital nutrients to keep it operating. Poor brain function can lead to loss of focus, brain fog, poor memory, and nerve issues. It can also affect your mood. In Chinese medicine, the emotion associated with the Spleen is worry.
The Lungs depend on Qi from the Spleen to work properly; when there is not enough Qi then asthma, spontaneous sweating, or a weak immune system can occur. Palpitations and poor circulation happen when the Heart does not receive enough Qi. The Kidneys also depend on Qi to ward off memory loss, hair loss, and weak or painful knees.
When prolonged dysfunction of the Stomach and Spleen occurs, many serious diseases can start to develop including hypothyroidism, diabetes, anemia, heart disease, and gastrointestinal disorders like Crohns or Irritable Bowel Disease.
What to Do if You Have Stomach Problems
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to improve your digestion:
- Eat small portions throughout the day, and do not skip meals
- Consume more cooked foods; when food is cooked the body can break it down faster, making the Stomach and Spleen’s jobs easier
- Reduce “damp-producing” foods – foods high in sugar such as dairy and processed carbohydrates create dampness in the body, which bogs down digestion and creates excess phlegm
- Purchase foods that are in season and free of chemicals; choosing organic and locally-sourced foods can help with this
- Mindful eating – sit down for meals and chew your food thoroughly. Focus on the food instead of trying to eat while driving or doing other tasks
- Take a walk or massage your belly to stimulate your digestive tract so it can help move trapped intestinal gas and stool
- Drink a cup – or two – of bone broth. This healing liquid is rich in nutrients such as iron, fatty acids, and selenium. It can also reduce gut inflammation caused by leaky gut
- Boost up your fiber. Fiber helps keep you regular and has other benefits including reducing cholesterol and balancing blood sugar levels
- Limit your intake of cold foods. Consuming iced water or tea, smoothies, ice creams, and raw veggies is like pouring water on your digestive “fire”
- Reduce your stress levels. Stress negatively affects your digestion, and stomach problems can often be the first sign that you are under stress. Stress releases adrenaline which can slow your digestive system.
- Dress properly for the climate. Cold, drafty conditions can weaken your digestion, whereas hot, humid conditions can create water retention and abdominal bloating
Some useful herbs and supplements include:
- Magnesium – this mineral can help with bloating and constipation. Bonus: it can help you sleep better too
- Chinese (or Mountain)Yam, Wild Yam, Atractylodes, and Codonopsis – these help the body to breakdown food, distribute nutrients, and support your bowels
- Magnolia Bark, Evodia, and Pinellia can aid indigestion and acid reflux
- Rhubarb and Rehmannia can help relieve constipation
- Dandelion Root Tea is great for abdominal bloating
- Orange or tangerine peels can help reduce vomiting and loose stools
- Cinnamon bark warms the Stomach and improves digestion
- Potassium-rich foods such as bananas, avocados, and sweet potatoes help flush excess sodium and water out of the body and banish bloat
- Bitter or pungent foods and herbs including garlic, kale, onions, radishes, ginger, pepper, cloves,and green tea help to drain dampness in the body. They can also stimulate the functions of the liver and the gut
- Steamed white rice can also drain dampness, and is a gentle, easy-to-digest food on the stomach
- Sweet foods such as honey promote moistness that can help dryness, relieve constipation, and strengthen the Spleen
- Lemons and other sour foods promote dryness and intestinal contraction, which can help firm up loose stools
- Salty foods including pork and seaweed can help you pass stools
- Probiotics encourage the growth of good intestinal flora and promote healthy gut function. Look for one that contains a prebiotic as well (the food the probiotic eats), and try to rotate your probiotics regularly so your gut is exposed to a variety of bacterial strains
A caution regarding over-the-counter antacids, laxatives, and antidiarrheals:
While these products can be a wonderful help in truly inconvenient times, they are a band-aid that temporarily relieves symptoms. Too much of a good thing here can bring problems of their own; for example, too many antacids can block the absorption of nutrients such as calcium and lead to malnutrition, bone loss, and fatigue.
Traditional Chinese medicine can help relieve your stomach problems and work at the root cause(s) of your digestive issues. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs have been shown to lower gastric acid, reduce esophageal pressure, balance your gastrointestinal organs so they function optimally, and calm down your stress response.
If you are dealing with abdominal or gastrointestinal issues, give us a call! We will meet with you, take a detailed history, and create a personalized treatment plan to reduce your symptoms and help prevent them from coming back.