The Energetics of Digestion

Kathleen MacGregor
Licensed Acupuncturist

Two of the most common health problems I work with in my acupuncture practice are digestive complaints and excess weight gain. There is so much confusion about what healthy eating is these days. Since World War 11 the use of mass refrigeration and long distance transportation paired with marketing by big corporations of processed and packaged food has significantly changed the way people eat in the West. We used to eat food that was fresh, locally grown and in season. This was the way most humans ate and a practice we might consider returning to that, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, supports our digestive health, normal weight and the health of our planet.
Overeating, feeling constantly hungry, craving sweet, salty or fried food and bingeing on carbohydrates like bread are common dietary behaviors that have two causes in Chinese Medicine. The first is injury to the “seven emotions” (another article). The second is an energetic imbalance of the digestive system, or Earth Element, which includes the organs and meridians of the Spleen, Pancreas and Stomach or the “Middle Burner”.
Traditional Chinese Medicine refers to the Earth Element as the Middle Burner because it views life as a series of warm transformations fueled by the heat of Qi circulating in the Upper, Middle and Lower Burners. The Lower Burner consisting of the Kidney Energetic System holds our inherited or pre-natal essence creating what is called the Ming Men or Gate of Fire. We live as long as that Fire burns. It is supplemented by and supports the warmth of the Middle Burner which gives us our acquired essence. This is derived from the air we breathe and the food and liquid we consume. All metabolic and biochemical reactions, movement, thoughts and activities require inherited and acquired essence.
If we live an excessive lifestyle that burns through a lot of energy it uses up that essence. If we live a balanced lifestyle that protects our inherited essence by promoting good digestion that in turn provides us with plenty of acquired essence we can store it up as we sleep. It’s like creating a savings account that supplements the Gate of Fire so that we can live a long and healthy life.
In Chinese Medicine the digestive tract is called the Xiao Hua Dao. Xiao means dispersing. Hua means transformation and Dao means path. So the digestive system is the path of transformation and dispersing. It takes the food and liquid we consume and transforms them into pure and impure dispersing the pure to fuel the body and excreting the impure.
So good digestion and health depends on a vital and warm Middle Burner that effectively transforms and disperses. The problem is that our typical Western diet and excessive eating habits put out the Fire! The transforming and dispersing slow down and the Earth becomes swampy creating conditions that Chinese Medicine calls stagnation and dampness. Stagnation, like a car stuck in overdrive, creates heat and becomes conditions like damp heat, phlegm, stomach heat and eventually fire toxin. This all translates into conditions we can recognize as being overweight, chronic sinusitis and upper respiratory infections, gas, constipation, irritable bowel, stomach ulcers, allergies and hyperacidity to name a few. All from poor digestion and eating foods that injure the Earth.
What are the foods that injure the Earth? In Chinese Medicine foods and herbs have thermal qualities of warming and cooling that represent their action on our bodies. Too much warming food overheats the digestive system and causes inflammatory conditions. Too much cooling food injures the ability of the Middle Burner to transform and disperse creating dampness. The typical diet in the West is excessively cooling and dampening.
Wheat, a central staple of the West, is very cooling as are concentrated sugars, coffee, soy, dairy, lettuce, citrus and tomatoes. Cold temperature foods such as ice cream and iced drinks also cool the Middle Burner.
A diet that supports the Earth is one that is abundant in vegetables and whole grains with small amounts of everything else. Rice is a particularly healthy grain because it leeches damp and balances the dampening effects of other foods. Our proteins from meat, beans and dairy use a lot of Qi to digest and should be eaten in smaller amounts. A balance of the five flavors such as spices and herbs like ginger or cardamon can help warm a cool Earth. Drinking cold beverages with meals is harmful but a hot cup of water can be beneficial. Cooking food is helpful. Soups, stews, stir fries and steaming put some fire into the food and aids the Middle Burner in transforming and dispersing and allows us to derive more nutrition from our food. Too much raw food with a damp Earth creates more damp.
Chinese Medicine is big on the Middle Path. Like I tell my patients, unless you are very ill, it is what you do every day that makes a difference not the occasional piece of pizza or chocolate cake. Like Grandma used to say “eat your veggies dear”.

Kathleen is a Five Element Acupuncturist. She has been in practice since 1988 and has an office in Meiners Oaks. 805-646-6581.