Learning & Resource Center Articles
Foods and Nutrients to Support a Healthy Digestive System
By: Vanessa Vogel Batt, L.Ac., MSTOM
The importance of eating a balanced diet is paramount to maintaining a healthy digestive system. 'He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skills of the physician.' This Chinese proverb reveals the importance of selecting nutritious food. What we eat, when we eat it and how we eat it can either promote healing or cause damage.
The B vitamins represent a group of nutrients which greatly impact the digestive functions. B1 (thiamine) converts carbohydrates into energy and regulates appetite. Common sources include liver, eggs, peas, oranges and milk. B3 (niacin) works on metabolizing carbohydrates, fats and alcohol. Meat, fish and eggs are primary sources. B6 (pyridoxine) focuses on protein digestion. Foods rich in this nutrient include poultry, pork, fish, oatmeal, wheat germ, rice, eggs and soy beans.
Diets low in B vitamins may manifest symptoms of nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. In addition, other systems in the body may be affected, creating mental anxiety, fatigue, anemia, headaches and sore muscles. This wide range of vitamin B deficiency symptoms supports the acupuncture and Oriental Medicine theory that a bad diet can impair the health of the entire body.
The Chinese physicians of the past understood this concept well and thus founded a school of medicine known formally as The School of Replenishing the Spleen and Stomach, but often simply referred to as Spleen School. It is based on the idea that all disease starts in the stomach. After eating, the stomach performs the process of 'rotting and ripening' the food, then the spleen engages in 'transformation and transportation' of the nutrients derived from it.
When either the spleen or stomach under-perform, precious vitamins and minerals may never have a chance to assimilate into the body. This lack of usable nutrients adversely affects blood quality and Qi necessary for healing. Qi is an essential form of energy necessary for all of life to exist. After the spleen extracts the nutrients, it sends the valuable material to other parts of the body for further processing. In this way, the entire body receives nourishment.
Harriet Beinfeild, a contemporary expert on Oriental Medicine, writes that 'Like Mother Earth, the Spleen is the constant provider, the hearth around which the body gathers to renew itself.' To make things easy when selecting the proper foods to nurture your spleen, try adding any yellow or orange fruits and veggies into your meals. This includes oranges, lemons, bananas, squash, pumpkin, carrots, yams and many more.
These all contain properties to reduce blood pressure, improve eye health, fight free radicals, regulate PH balance and assist in bone production, just to list a few. From the perspective of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, the reason why the spleen improves with ingestion of yellow and orange foods is because they harbor the sweet taste. The spleen resonates with naturally sweet food. This does not include artificial sugars, or heavily sweetened candies and desserts. Eating too much of anything, sweet or not, overloads and slows down the digestive process.
The stomach and spleen represent the element of Earth, according to the theory of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Other qualities associated with Earth are the taste of blandness, the emotion of worry and the time of late summer. Symptoms of an imbalanced spleen include anxiety, overthinking, poor appetite, bloating after eating and loose stool. This is why eating bland, plain rice is a good idea when digestion is off. There are several important nutrients in sweet yellow and orange foods which may explain why they benefit digestion and the whole body.
These foods possess an abundance of vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, and flavonoids. Vitamin A contributes to good vision, immunity and reproductive health. Vitamin C deserves its reputation for supporting a robust immune system. Potassium increases motility in the intestines so they can metabolize food properly. Derived from the Latin word flavus, which means yellow, flavonoids act as antioxidants in the body.
No matter which way you look at it, eating foods with a sweet taste will delight your spleen, (in moderate proportions, of course). Finishing your last meal at least three hours before bedtime, saving your beverage for the end of the meal, instead of during it and concentrating on food at mealtimes, as opposed to watching TV or checking emails, are all highly recommended.
To satisfy a strong craving for sweets, instead of a rich chocolate treat, try baking apples or yams with a drizzle of honey on top. Try to avoid eating while experiencing dramatic emotions. Cold and raw foods are best in small amounts. If a bit of ice cream proves too hard to resist, consider counterbalancing the cold dessert with a warm cup of ginger root tea afterwards.
To discover more ways to improve your digestion, and your overall health, contact an acupuncture and Oriental medicine practitioner today!
About the Author: Vanessa Vogel Batt, L.Ac., MSTOM, studied at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and practiced acupuncture and Oriental medicine in New York for several years. Vanessa enjoys traveling the world, and has published articles on acupuncture and Oriental medicine and related health topics for websites and publications in both the U.S. and abroad.