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healthy digestion

Self-help for Healthy Digestion

Good digestive health is a key component of overall health. Good digestion provides us with the nutrients and energy for life. If the system is impaired over time, it can lead to uncomfortable symptoms and eventually disease.

What does the Digestive System Do?

The digestive system has the essential function of transforming our food into nutrients and then transporting the nutrients around the body. Numerous organs make up the digestive system; each with its own tasks and needs. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) digestion revolves around the stomach & spleen/pancreas. The intestines, liver, and gallbladder all have roles as well but things really start with the stomach receiving the food and the spleen/pancreas “transforming” the food by secreting digestive enzymes to break the food down. From there the intestines absorb the nutrients and water and compress the leftovers for elimination.

Our poor digestive systems! We expect our system to somehow magically grind [whatever we eat] all up, sort it out, use the good, eliminate the bad, all without any noise or complaint.

(Matsen & Dewey, 1991)

What is Good Digestion?

TCM concerns itself with digestion and bowel movements a lot! Go for a session of acupuncture and expect to be asked about digestion and bathroom habits. So, what does good digestion look like? Ideally, our digestive system would function as we assume in the quotation above.

When everything is working well in the digestive system we tend not to notice. It isn’t until things start to go wrong that we even think of our digestion. Good digestion is a seamless process from eating to eliminating. From the outside, it is a lack of negative symptoms such as gas, belching, pain, distention, gurgling, or difficult bowel movements (neither too loose nor too dry or painful to pass).

What Factors Affect Digestion?

Most people struggle with digestive issues at some point in their life. Digestive problems can be due to external factors or internal factors.

  • food intake
  • pathogens
  • medications
  • eating habits
  • stress
  • sleep or its lack
  • general health
  • emotions

Top 3 Suggestions for Better Digestion

If you have been suffering from poor digestive health be sure to visit your doctor to rule out any serious illness. Report any persistent or unexplained changes in bowel functioning as well as any pains and when they occur. Provided there is nothing seriously wrong the following 3 tips will help your improve your digestive health.

1. Eat Healthy Foods

One of the biggest factors affecting healthy digestion is what we put in the system. The foods we eat play a critical role in our digestive health. Modern convenience foods are filled with chemicals (colours, preservatives, flavour enhancers, stabilizers….) that we didn’t evolve with. The best foods to eat are those you cook yourself from scratch with a dollop of love. Some nutritionists suggest eating the foods your great-great-grandparents would have eaten.

There are plenty of “diets” or ways of eating floating around the internet. As long as you are eating real food and getting a full range of nutrients any one of them could work for you. TCM typically suggests eating with the season. In the summer when we are full of warmth and energy the berries and tropical fruits that are available are often cooling to keep the heat under control. Salads and raw foods are easier to handle in summer. In winter it is time to eat warming foods to help combat the external cold. This includes root vegetables, soups, stews and warming herbs such as ginger, cinnamon, chili and curry. This seasonal eating can be paired with many other ways of eating so you can find what works best for your goals.

2. Relax

The digestive system is controlled by our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two parts; the “fight-or-flight” response of the SNS and the “rest & digest” response of the PNS. As the name suggests the “fight-or-flight” response is aimed at saving our lives in a crisis (such as being chased by a bear). At such times digestion takes a backseat. Modern lifestyles have us on the edge of the “fight-or-flight” response a lot; fighting with the spouse, a confrontation with the boss, a difficult deadline, and many other stressors. This leaves our digestive system functioning at sub-optimal levels.

Healthy digestion starts with relaxing enough to engage the Parasympathetic Nervous System or “rest & digest”. To improve your digestion take a deep breath and relax before eating. Paired with the next point your digestion will improve just by relaxing.

3. Practice Good Eating Habits

Paired with stress we often don’t take the time to sit down for a meal. Modern lifestyles frequently leave people eating on the run – grabbing a quick bite while working through lunch or driving the kids to various events. Digestion works best when we take time to let it work. Sit down, eat slowly, chew properly and pay attention to what you are eating.

Sitting down to eat helps engage the “rest & digest” part of the ANS. It’s hard to relax if you are eating standing up or, worse yet, walking to your next meeting. Chew slowly and savour the taste to enhance the production of digestive enzymes. Digestion of some foods starts right in the mouth so don’t skip this starting step by gulping food down in a rush. Eating slowly helps prevent over-eating. It takes time for the stomach to send messages back to the brain that it has received enough.

Acupuncture for Good Digestion

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can be very helpful in maintaining healthy digestion. The use of fine needles to stimulate acupuncture points can speed up sluggish digestion or calm down an overactive digestive system. Your therapist will want to know all the details about your digestion: what symptoms do you experience, what are your bowel movements like (how often, what colour, what shape, what consistency), what do you eat, what are your eating habits to name just a few.

Keep a food diary for a week and take note of the day and time of any digestive symptoms. This information can help your TCM doctor determine the root of your imbalance and thus provide better treatment. You may receive dietary suggestions that include specific foods and spices to eat, how to prepare your food and specific things to avoid. Your therapist may also prescribe herbal medicine and acupuncture to help regulate your digestive system and reduce symptoms.

References

Matsen, J., & Dewey, N. (1991). Eating Alive: Prevention Thru Good Digestion. Crompton Books.

Maciocia, G. (2005). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A comprehensive text for acupuncturists and herbalists. (2nd ed.). Elsevier.