It's hard to know what to eat these days. There are so many types of diets and eating styles, it's easy to get overwhelmed just thinking about it. I wanted to write an overview of diet as it pertains to the principles of Chinese medicine, hopefully offering simple guidelines, rather than a complicated diet.
You might also be surprised to find that eating according to the principles of Chinese Medicine vastly differs from what is promoted on TV, in magazines, and by traditional doctors. If you suffer health issues and have tried many other eating styles, this might be something you haven't tried yet.
In general, eating a balanced diet from the standpoint of Chinese Medicine, serves to balance the meridians and organ systems, allowing proper digestion, abundant energy, and prevention of illness and disease. This doesn't mean you will necessarily be in perfect health if you eat the best diet, but you are giving yourself quite an advantage.
Solving health issues, especially if they are chronic and longstanding, usually require a combined approach with many strategies. A good diet though is definitely one of them! Food is medicine and can be used to not only eliminate health challenges, but maintain a balanced system. Prevention is always the best form of medicine.
In Chinese Medicine, the goal is to keep the digestive energy flowing, allowing food to move through the GI system at an adequate pace. The food should then be assimilated properly, allowing the body to hold onto nutrients and excreting the waste products.
When this system breaks down, food moves slowly and isn't adequately processed, resulting in all sorts of health issues such as indigestion, GERD, constipation, fatigue, etc. These digestive issues over time affect other body systems, causing more widespread health issues.
In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen's job is to assist with digestion, transforming food and water into Qi (or energy) and Blood. It is important to know that when I refer to the Spleen, this differs from the spleen in traditional western medicine, that is oriented with removal of red blood cells and production/storage of white blood cells. When the Spleen becomes deficient, it is unable to properly transform and/or transport food and liquid, resulting in dampness, or accumulation of fluids in the body.
When fluids hang around the body rather than getting transported and excreted, they accumulate, causing sluggishness and heaviness. Dampness or Spleen Qi deficiency is what makes us feel "foggy headed" causing thinking difficulties. It can also cause fatigue, difficulty getting up in the morning, low appetite, bloating, slow digestion, loose stool, and a general feeling of heaviness in the body.
When there is dampness in the joints, the result is dull, achey joints. When dampness is in the respiratory system, we get an accumulation of mucous, often manifesting as sinus congestion, allergies, etc. Dampness in the lower body can result in urinary tract infections and reproductive system issues such as ovarian cysts. In the circulatory system, it can accumulate in the vessels causing high cholesterol. In the eyes, it can lead to cataracts. When dampness affects the skin, usually in combination with heat, eczema and acne can result.
When dampness hangs around long enough, it begins to generate heat, causing the dampness to congeal into masses or tumors. Damp heat and/or Spleen Qi deficiency can also lead to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, autoimmune issues, cancer, and pretty much any inflammatory condition. This isn't to say that dampness and Spleen Qi deficiency are the cause of every illness. It is often much more complicated than that, but a weak Spleen often plays a large role. That is why you'll often hear many diet gurus say that the path to good health is through a well functioning digestive system.
How then do we keep the Spleen happy? Diet plays a big part, but so does our emotional health. The Spleen is in charge of not only digesting food, but also digesting information and life experiences. We live in a society where we are constantly bombarded by information, activity, and busyness, with little time to process or "digest" our many experiences. We spend our days frequently multitasking, eating at our desks and in front of the TV, on our mobile devices, or planning our next move.
I think it is safe to say that we live in a society that is addicted to thinking and the consumption of information and material things. These are habits that don't make the Spleen happy. The Spleen enjoys doing one thing at a time, spending time in between tasks processing and reflecting. It is taxing to the Spleen to spend all our time thinking, studying, working, or obsessing.
Now that I have discussed the importance of diet, here are 5 tips on keeping our digestive systems happy:
1) Avoid too much cold and raw food. A healthy digestive system is like a well functioning wood burning stove. The stove must stay hot enough to cook the food, otherwise the food will not cook (ie. the food will not digest).
Too much cold or raw food puts out the digestive fire, making it more difficult to digest food. During the warm summer months, it's ok to eat slightly more raw and cooling foods, since the body is warmer and more active, but in general it is best to balance cold and raw foods with cooked and warming foods.
Cold foods include those that are temperature cold such as ice cream or cold drinks, but also include foods that are "cold" in nature according to Chinese Medicine properties, such as dairy, soy, eggs, avocado, and bananas. As a side note, antibiotics are very cold in nature , so if there is an option for alternatives, it is recommended.
Try combining raw vegetables with cooked vegetables, rather than eating an entirely raw salad. Cooking fruit is another great option to avoid eating too much raw fruit. I love cooking apples with cinnamon with a little honey and cinnamon. It's like apple pie filling!
If you must have a cold drink, ice cream, or a lot of dairy, try adding some cinnamon or ginger to the mix, or sip on some decaf chai or ginger tea afterward.
Some people tolerate dairy better than others, but it's still best to avoid eating large amounts either way. For those that tolerate dairy, avoid processed dairy with hormones and antibiotics. Grass-fed, hormone/antibiotic-free are the best choices. It goes without saying, but if you don't tolerate dairy, try to avoid it.
2) Avoid too much sugar and heavy and/or processed foods. Foods with a lot of sugar, especially processed sugar can also damage the Spleen. The same goes for fried foods, hydrogenated oils, processed foods (most foods that comes from a box or a fast food place, refined flour, pastries, pasta, soda, sugary breakfast cereals and snacks.
Artificial sugar is also not a good idea, unless it is small amounts of stevia or xylitol. Artificial sugar signals the body that sugar has been consumed, so the body goes through the motions of controlling the sugar level by secreting insulin. When the blood sugar doesn't go up, the pancreas is still being to release insulin, it can lead to malfunction, causing or encouraging insulin resistance, which can lead to (or aggravate already existing) type II diabetes.
3) Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is very hot and stimulating, which can be taxing to the adrenals. Alcohol is very hot AND damp, perpetuating damp heat conditions in the body.
4) Don't overeat. Eat only until your stomach is about 2/3 full to avoid overloading your digestive system. Sometimes it can help to take a pause after eating some of your meal to reassess whether there is actually still hunger. Occasionally we keep eating past the point of fullness because our mind is still "hungry" yet we are actually full.
5) Eat meals when in a calm environment. Avoid eating when experiencing strong emotions. Try to avoid engaging in other activities such as TV or work while eating. It's best to sit in a comfortable place instead of on the go, standing, walking, or busy doing other things.
Stay tuned for Part II in this series with more food tips. I hope this has been informative and helpful!