This fantastic article was written by Angela Warburton, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, speaker, writer, and teacher. We encourage you to check out her website here, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the pillars of health and vitality are right diet, exercise, a good mental attitude.
In addition to eating good/healthy/nutrient dense food, making sure you’re actually absorbing the food is essential. This means in addition to what you put in your body, you also have to look at how your body deals with it!
Digestion doesn’t just look at how you feel after you eat; it needs to look at everything from your desire to eat, to how you feel during and after eating (do you get bloated? Reflux? Exhausted?) to how everything leaves your body.
Do you have a good appetite? Do you get more energy after you eat and feel good? Are your bowels regular and formed? These are markers of a good, healthy and strong digestion system. For many people this is not the norm. And you just have to talk to someone with chronic constipation or urgent loose bowels to realize how much our digestion affects our mental state!
Luckily there are a few very simple things that you can do to optimize your digestion and feel good – from start to finish.
Your Stomach as a Cauldron
There’s a principle in TCM about digestion called the 100-degree soup. What this means is that all the food that enters your digestive system has to be warmed to 100 degrees in order for optimal digestion to take place. When the stomach and contents get heated to just above body temperature, this is when digestive enzymes kick in which help us digest.
From the long tradition and wisdom of TCM, warm and cooked foods have always been a staple. This also includes drinking warm beverages or avoiding icy drinks as that is also thought to bring down the core temperature and can have a significant influence on the digestive system. Opt for room temperature or warm drinks when possible and particularly if you run on the cold side. I’ve had many many patients who felt that they only liked their water out of the fridge cold, but what they found is that leaving their water on the counter and drinking it at room temperature actually felt better and if they tried to go back to cold water, they didn’t feel great!
How Chinese Medicine Views Food
TCM views food as having nutritional value (in the same way as western nutrition), yet in addition to that, it looks at food as having properties (hot, cold, dry, moist etc.) and distinct flavours (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent) as well, all of which affect the actions or effects they have on the body. Some of this we might know intuitively – ginger is naturally warming, peppermint is cooling – but others we need to be taught (banana’s are very damp forming and cold or dairy very moistening or congesting).
In working with food as medicine for health conditions, we look for it to counteract any imbalances an individual may have. Put in a very general/simple way, when someone is cold, you use foods to warm them and avoid foods that will cool them further. When they are too warm or have too much heat, you use foods that are cooling. When they are dry, you moisten etc. The general rule: customize foods to the individual.
Unfortunately, people can be often be eating foods that, unknowingly is worsening their condition as opposed to balancing or helping to heal it. (Just think of ice water in the middle of January when we’re trying to stay warm. It doesn’t make sense, yet we do it!)
With TCM food cures, we seek to bring balance back to the body by identifying foods that are working against the individual and removing or limiting them from the diet. Then, we highlight foods that would act like medicine to the person and use means of cooking that will help strengthen them and helping their body heal.
It’s also important that we adapt our diet to the seasons and the changes in environment in which we live. Eating the same foods year round can actually cause problems or imbalance over the long term.
Eating with the Seasons
Seasonal eating is paramount in Chinese Medicine. Much of the medicine’s wisdom and philosophy evolved from observing people and nature. In times thousands of years ago (or even 100 years ago!), we were much more in tune with the natural rhythms of nature. We would naturally make the changes that the season demanded as we only had access to certain foods or activities at a specific time of the year (think the fresh abundant fruits and vegetables of summer and the cold dark stillness of winter that calls for rest and reflection).
We now live in a time where we have access to every type of food year round. Our lifestyle also seems to keep the same pace and productivity level year round as well. This is great in that we have access to healthy fresh food where we might not have had in the past. But the downside is that we’ve lost touch with the natural rhythms of nature and our body. When we disconnect from what’s going on outside and ‘push through’ or continually eat colder tropical summery foods in the winter or raw foods year round, we can throw our system off balance which can lead to discomfort, burnout, and disease. Dropping back into the subtle changes of the season can be one of the best and most restorative things we can do for ourselves.
Here are some general guidelines to follow for adapting your food and activity to the various seasons:
Spring-time: Is a time of renewal and the spark of life. It’s about movement and bringing life back after a dormant and sedentary winter. This is a time to start introducing more fresh spring foods (greens and baby beets etc) into your diet. Don’t switch to a fully raw or uncooked diet but think of more lightly cooking your food or combining warm things with fresh foods to ease your digestion into the new season.
Top Spring Foods: Green greens greens! Green onions, leeks, cilantro and sprouted foods
Summer: Is a time when the heat is at its height and there is an abundance of fresh food and produce. Taking advantage of local seasonal food is easy to do at this time of year. And with the extra heat from the season, our body is better equipped to digest the naturally more cooling summer foods like tomatoes, cucumber, and all the fresh green leafy foods growing. If you suffer from bloating or loose bowels regularly, it’s best to stick with cooked foods year round, but you can cook them lighter in the summer months and introduce a bit of raw food as long as it’s consumed with something cooked as well.
Top Summer foods: Tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, peppers, leafy green lettuce, mint, basil and any other local fresh produce.
Fall: Is the time when nights get cooler and the days get shorter. The crops shift from the fast growing summer crops into the slower grown root and cold weather crops. As we transition into the darker more reflective days of winter, we should start adjusting our diet in the same way. Adding more soups, slower roasted root vegetables and warmer cooked foods into your diet in general is a great way to help your body make this transition smoothly. Think more teas and warming stocks for those crisp fall nights!
Top Fall Foods: Carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, squashes, onions, ginger, kale and turnip
Winter: Is a time of deep reflection and restoration. It’s the time to embrace the non-doing instead of the active doing energy of the summer. This is a time when both our energy and our food should be slower. Slower cooking imparts more heat into the foods making them naturally more warming, nourishing and easier to absorb in the cold winter months. We should focus on more warming spices and crops like carrots, parsnips, turnips and beets. Kale is a great winter green and using spices like dried ginger, cumin, cloves and cinnamon make great additions to the warmer winter fare.
In general raw and frozen foods should be avoided during the winter months and activities should be more geared toward the inner world and have a more restorative action on the body instead of the very social outward energy of summer. Try curling up by the fire with a book and going for fresh walks bundled up outside to get some fresh air.
Top Winter Foods: Legumes such as black beans, warming spices such as ginger, pepper, cumin, naturally salty foods such as seaweeds and warm cooked foods in general.
Your body is talking, be sure to Listen
Every body is different. Just as we’re all born with our own unique set of physical characteristics (our nose, eyes, height, disposition), our physical body has our unique stamp as well. Digestion is easily affected by stress, mood, diet, environment and season. It’s important to tap in and listen to the unique messages that your body is sending out.
Not all diets are suited for all people! General eating guidelines such as eating whole foods in their most natural state and avoiding processed or fast food in general are important. As is making sure you’re getting adequate protein, healthy fats and at least 7-12 servings of vegetables and fruits/day. But within those guidelines, listening to your body and how it responds to certain foods is key in optimal health.
Salads and raw food, although high in nutrients, are not good for everyone. Those with bloating and lethargy after meals or looser bowels should avoid. Even lightly cooking food for many can be enough to help them absorb the nutrients easier and nourish their body in a more profound way. Hot, dry and irritable people should avoid hot, spicy and fried food in general. These foods will tend to send them more off balance. Your diet can be fine tuned to your particular pattern or body type and sometimes it’s easily figured out with the help of a trained TCM practitioner.
Simple Tips to Optimize Digestion
By eating first thing in the morning, it’s like stoking the fire of your digestive system helping to kick-start your metabolism for the day. It’s also giving your body the nourishment it needs to move through your day. Food is fuel for our life, and life tends to happen when we’re moving around, not when we’re restoring and resting at night, so give your body the fuel for when it needs it!
You want to kickstart that digestive metabolism by heating it up. Eating cold or frozen things in the morning (think frozen smoothie) or throughout the day is similar to adding a block of ice to a soup and expecting it to cook properly!
If you’re a person who feels hot all the time and perhaps suffers from dry bowels or constipation, lightly cooking your food in the winter and then having some more fresh salads and fruit in the summer months would be good.
However if you’re someone who runs on the colder side year round and possibly has digestive upset like bloating after you eat (no matter what you’ve had) and tends to have loose bowels, your body is not absorbing what you’re putting in. By cooking your food year round and being sure to use slower cooking methods in the winter (think slow roasting stew and veggies that make the house smell great!) and warming spices like dried ginger, cumin, fennel, cardamom etc. regularly, you can help kickstart your digestion and warm it up to optimize your digestion.
If you feel pretty healthy and want to stay that way, try to eat with the seasons – opting for fresh foods in the heat of the summer, moderately cooked foods in the spring and fall and opting for warmer cooked foods over the winter months.
Your stomach doesn’t have teeth! I love this saying as when you think about it, of course it doesn’t, yet so often we gulp down food expecting our stomach to do the job our teeth were designed for! Chewing food not only breaks down the food into a more digestible size and substance, it is also the first step of the digestive process.
Digestive enzymes are excreted in the saliva which signal the stomach that food is coming, but also start the breakdown processed of foods. I know the thought of chewing your food for 45 seconds straight might seem torturous, but just taking the time to turn it into more of a “mush” than a “chunk” can actually make a huge difference to how you feel after you eat and how your body is able to absorb the nutrients and nourish your cells!
Try not to eat when you’re rushed or angry as it tends to stagnate and upset the digestive system
Don’t flood the digestive system!
Sipping on some warm water or broth during a meal is good. Gulping big glasses of water before you eat to “fill up”….not so good. When we flood our digestive system with lots of water, what we’re actually doing is diluting the stomach juices and acids, which means they are less potent or strong for actually digesting our food when it arrives. Stick to water and hydration between meals and stick to a little bit of warm liquid (teas, stock or warm water) only during your meals. Soups are a great way to get hydrated and nourished at the same time!
Sit. Connect. Eat.
Try not to eat standing, walking or on the go. When we stand and eat or walk and eat, it signals our body that it’s stressed. And when we’re stressed our body will literally shut down blood supply to non essential organs and systems (think digestion and reproduction – neither one essential when you’re in fight or flight mode running from danger!). Unfortunately much of our modern world lifestyle is triggering the stress response in people. The go go go without adequate downtime, the eating on the go and the general busyness and stimulation from tv/computer/smart phone information coming at us non-stop all have a significant impact on our health. By simple sitting, taking a few deep breaths and eating in a more calm state, we can actually help our body drop into that calm, rest and digest state when the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged.
By listening to our body, adapting to the seasons and eating fresh whole foods we’re setting ourselves up for health in a most amazing way. It’s known that fruits and vegetables increase your vitality and decrease your risk of serious diseases by up to 70% (and that’s just with 5-6 servings/day!) and when we can combine that with listening to our body and customizing the way we eat – we’re set up even better to thrive!