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Proper nutrition is one of the most important things that we can do to ensure good health. In Chinese medicine, we say that the Spleen-Pancreas (hereinafter Spleen) is responsible for the transformation and transportation of food and fluids. It is the Spleen’s job to break down and assimilate – it pulls out the vitamins, mineral, nutrients – the essence – of our food and drink and uses it to make energy and blood. It is the Spleen’s role to supply the rest of the body with energy and nutrients. The Spleen is able to perform these functions only when healthy and adequately supplied by yang/fire (metabolic force) from the Kidneys.

The Kidneys store our essence. They can be seen as our savings account; all our energy and reserves are stored there. If we tax our bodies (and/or our minds) through immoderate living we are debiting our savings without ever replenishing. Eventually our reserves will run out, just like a car will eventually breakdown if we don’t supply it with fuel and oil.

So, what are the things that deplete the Spleen and Kidneys? From a nutritional standpoint, the following will damage the digestive system: sweet sugary foods, greasy or fatty foods, too much dairy, cold or raw foods, overeating, overdrinking, undereating and underdrinking. Overeating refers to eating more than that which makes you about 70% full. It also refers to eating when you are not hungry. Undereating refers to not eating enough nutrients and quality of food (not just calories, as calories can be empty) to sustain your body’s energy requirements and not eating when you are hungry. Sweet sugary foods refers to refined sugars or any food or drink which has a large percentage of sugar. This obviously includes candies, chocolates, cookies and the like. It also includes fruit juices whose nutritional value is overshadowed by the tremendous sugar content (30+ grams of sugar per 8 oz. serving). Whole fruits are not prohibited, and are in fact recommended that one eat 2 servings per day.

Cold has two meanings. One is physical temperature. Our body’s natural environment is 98+ degrees and when we consume food or drink which is chilled or frozen it puts our digestive organs into shock. Cold has the nature of contracting and constricting and prevents proper circulation in the digestive system. Our Spleen must expend its yang/fire (metabolic force) to bring the food/drink to body temperature prior to assimilating it. It then must expend more energy to assimilate and extract the essence. This depletes the Spleen twofold and over time will damage and weaken the digestive fire. The second meaning refers to abundance of raw foods. Raw foods, despite physical temperature, are considered cold in that they require Spleen yang to work extra hard to break them down. This depletes metabolic fire and over time weakens the system. If one’s diet is high in raw foods, it is recommended that digestive aids be used. Such aids include warming aromatic herbs like ginger, onion, cardamom, fennel, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, mashing foods to release it’s juices, fermenting, chewing thoroughly to initiate salivary enzymes. This is why sushi is always served with plenty of ginger, daikon and wasabe. (See prior posts on the benefits of “raw” milk, i.e., unpasteurized).

Excessive dairy (pasteurized/homogenized) also taxes the digestive system and creates what we call in Chinese medicine “dampness.” Dampness has many meanings, but for our purposes we can think of it as excessive mucus which lines the digestive tract. Vitamins, minerals, etc. are extracted through the gut linings into the blood for transport to the rest of the body. When dampness exists, it prevents this absorption and the body is unable to benefit from the food. Thus, one can eat a great meal and receive absolutely no benefit if they are damp. Dampness comes because the Spleen is the main organ which transforms fluids. If the Spleen becomes weak for any reason, it will be unable to perform its functions and fluids stagnate and dampness forms. Signs and symptoms of dampness include: gas, bloating, abdominal distention, thirst without any desire to drink, nausea and vomiting, heaviness in the body, limbs and head, poor memory, sluggishness, lethargy to name a few.

So how do we prevent dampness and keep our digestive system strong? One should eat a diet high in lightly cooked/steamed vegetables and liberally use warm and easy to digest foods spiced with herbs to aid digestion. One should avoid excesses in the food categories listed above (damp cold raw sweet dairy fried greasy foods). One must be careful not to overeat and not eat when not hungry and make sure that he/she receives sufficient nutrients and quality of food.

A key factor to optimal digestive health is regularity in eating. The digestive system craves regularity and routine. The digestive organs prepare for food. Their energies gear up to receive the food and break it down. If one eats breakfast at 6 am one day, 7 am the next, 8 am the following, the Spleen and Stomach don’t know when to prepare for the meal. What winds up happening is that they gear up at the wrong time (which depletes their energies) and need to receive and assimilate food when they are not ready (which further depletes energy). Food winds up being poorly digested, starts to ferment, putrefy and form toxins.

In addition, we say that one should eat like a prince at breakfast, a merchant at lunch and a pauper at dinner. Every two hours a different organ system’s energy is most abundant. For the Spleen and Stomach that is between 7:00 am and 11:00 am, with the Stomach being between 7 and 9, and the Spleen between 9 and 11. Thus, our digestive system is most able to handle food between 7 and 9 am and the Spleen is most able to work on that food and extract and assimilate between 9 and 11 am. The opposite 12 hour period of time (between 7pm and 11pm) those organs have the least amount of energy. Thus, it is unwise to eat large amounts in the evening. Your meal will sit in your Stomach and not be properly broken down.

One should also incorporate each of the five flavors into meals. Acrid (spicy, pungent), bitter, salty, sour and sweet (from grains, vegetable and carbohydrates, not refined sugars) should be used to harmonize the internal organs. Each flavor is associated with a different pair of organs and helps to stimulate that organ when used appropriately.

Emotions also affect our digestive energies; they affect the ascent and descent of digestive Qi and can prevent the separation of the pure and turbid resulting in food stagnation and dampness. Some general guidelines include: Don’t eat when upset; Don’t eat with people you don’t like; Be mindful when eating: concentrate on your food; concentrate on chewing and enjoying the food; Do not be distracted while eating, thinking about other things, reading, working, on the run, in a hurry, etc. Overthinking and worry weaken Spleen and Stomach energies and fear and depression weaken Kidney fire.

Also important is the way that one combines food within each meal. Improper food combining can result in poor digestion and stagnant food which ferments, putrifies and causes the production of toxins. Proteins require an acid environment to be properly digested and carbohydrates require an alkaline environment. Combining the foods in the same meal prevents proper digestion. Equally important is the proper chewing of food. Saliva contains alkaline enzymes which begin to break down carbohydrates in one’s mouth. The Spleen thrives on an alkaline environment, so thorough chewing allows the enzymes to alkalize one’s food, taking the burden off of the Spleen.

Applying these guidelines to one’s nutrition will yield profound health changes. The understanding that everything that we eat and/or drink has an impact on our health should help guide us to take more time and consideration regarding our food choices.

For a list of hundreds of foods and their Chinese medicine properties, click Eastern Nutrition — Foods and Their Properties.

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