- Sally Gao
How digestion works according to TCM
When TCM doctors talk about disease, they speak of internal imbalances that cause one’s qi (vital energy) or blood to stagnate. When it comes to digestion, the major areas to look for imbalances are the stomach, liver and spleen.
The word “spleen” here doesn’t correspond to the anatomical part called the spleen. Instead, it refers to a functional (rather than physical) entity associated with the stomach. Together with the stomach, it governs the absorption of food and the dispersal of food’s nutritive essence throughout the body, sending leftover fluids to the kidneys and bladder. If you’re experiencing diarrhoea, bloating and headaches, you may have a malfunctioning spleen. Symptoms like vomiting and frequent belching are a sign of an imbalanced stomach.
The liver also players an important role in digestion, as it controls the flow of qi and blood in the body, aiding the spleen and stomach.
Figure out if you need more yin or more yang.
Balance is a key principle of Taoist philosophy, which is the bedrock of TCM. Eating a balance of of yin (cooling) and yang (heating) foods is essential maintaining the flow of qi in your body, which leads to good health.
On top of that, you should adjust your intake of yin and yang foods according to your body’s individual needs. If you’re experiencing watery stools, nausea and diarrhea, that’s a sign of too much dampness (yin) in the stomach. To dispel the cold and warm up your body, try eating gently warming foods such as ginger, millet, oats, carrots and turnips. Avoid cold foods, dairy, sugar, ice cream, iced drinks and sushi, which can tax the spleen because of their extreme yin quality.
On the other hand, constipation is a sign of excessive heat (yang), and may be accompanied by symptoms such as heartburn and an insatiable appetite. Try to eat cooling foods such as citrus, tofu, lettuce, apples, and cucumber. Avoid spicy foods, alcohol and excessively salty foods, which can irritate your stomach and cause digestive fire.
Key ingredients for digestion:
Rice: Steamed white rice is gentle and easy to digest, and gently warms the body by draining dampness.
Cinnamon bark: or rou gui, is another key ingredient for warming the stomach. Add a stick of cinnamon to a warming mutton soup, or mix cinnamon powder with lukewarm water and drink it. Adding a touch of honey to the drink will also aid digestion by strengthening the spleen.
Hawthorn berry tea: bolsters the spleen, promotes blood flow and even helps with weight loss. Research suggests that hawthorn berry extract can lower cholesterol, widen blood vessels and strengthen cardiovascular activity. To make the tea, simmer a tablespoon of dried hawthorn berries in two cups of water for 15 minutes.
Orange or tangerine peel: it not only a good source of vitamin C, it also drains dampness, making it ideal for anyone suffering from vomiting or loose stools. This aromatic and versatile ingredient can be added to coffee, soups, porridges and meat dishes.
Tips for improving digestion
Don’t multitask during meals: Avoid reading, watching TV or looking at your phone while you’re eating. These activities divert blood away from the stomach to your brain, preventing you from digesting food properly.
Use seasonal ingredients: TCM is all about aligning yourself with the natural environment, and one way to do that is to eat fresh, seasonal food to maintain harmony with your surroundings.
Eat a hearty breakfast and a light dinner: Qi moves through the body cyclically, so different organs are more energized at different points of the day. The stomach and spleen function optimally in the morning, between 7am and 11am. You should avoid eating too much outside of this window. In particular, indulging in late-night snacks stresses your digestive system, leading to indigestion and weight gain.
Avoid cold and raw foods. According to TCM, the body transforms food by heating it with “digestive fire.” That’s why cooked food is easy to digest, whereas cold and raw foods (like salads and sushi) take up extra energy, causing the digestive process to work less well. To avoid taxing the stomach, eat food that’s been properly cooked.