Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Importance of Digestion

Fennel is tasty and a wonderful herb to promote digestion. 
The following article on digestion uses herbal energetics to analyze digestion patterns to bring health and harmony to this important function. 

In the United States people spend more money on over the counter remedies for the digestive system than they do for any other common complaint. That’s a lot of Pepto-Bismol! Unfortunately, most over the counter medications simply masks symptoms without ever addressing the reason they are happening. 
Many people live with subpar digestion for most of their lives because they don’t know they could be better. It is a common occurrence in my practice to see people who have been living with constipation for years without knowing they can often easily fix this problem. (Or heartburn, or diarrhea, or bloating or... you get the picture.) 
This article explains the importance of digestion and how to differentiate between symptoms to restore balance and not simply mask symptoms. 
In western medicine digestion begins in the mouth and ends (hopefully) about 24 hours later as it comes out the other end. In between is a series of mechanical functions that involve digestive secretions and a continual downward movement of chyme or processed food. You can read more about the digestive system here
In traditional medicine there is significant importance placed on the digestive process. Our physical bodies are, in part, manifestations of the nutrients we absorb from the food we eat. If the digestive process is not running smoothly we deprive our body of the nutrients essential to building tissues in the body and creating energy. 
Digestion can be seen as a metabolic fire. When the fire is running well it transforms the foods and drinks we consume into vital energy for the body. 
If the metabolic fire is too cool the body struggles to digest food well. In western culture we think of this as people with a low metabolism and often people with hypothyroidism exhibit these symptoms. 
If the metabolic fire is raging too high, heat and inflammation take its toll throughout the whole body. 
Here are some common ways our metabolic fire can be injured
  • Eat healthy food according to your constitution. To determine which foods work best for you I highly recommend the book Metabolic Typing. Rather than proclaiming dietary dogma it teaches self awareness to help a person actually figure out which foods, what size of meals, the best times of day for eating, etc, work for them.  
  • Eliminate food that you are allergic or sensitive to. Common sensitivities are wheat, dairy, and soy. 
  • Chew your food well. There’s not need to count to 100, just be sure that your food is well mashed before swallowing. 
  • Stay hydrated, but limit large amounts of liquids before, during, and after meals. This can dilute your digestive juices, impairing the breakdown of your food. 
  • Avoid extreme physical activity directly following meal times. 
  • Avoid frozen and iced beverages and foods at meal-time. The digestive process needs warmth, and is hampered by excessive coldness. 
  • Eat until you are only ¾ full. 
  • Eat fermented foods with your meal. Miso, sauerkraut, kefir, beet kvass, etc. 
  • Eat your bitters. Bitter foods and herbs stimulate the salivary glands and the expulsion of bile, all facilitating digestion. Bitters include dandelion leaves, kale, gentian, yellow dock, and hops. 
  • Eat sitting down. Avoid watching TV or reading while eating.  
  • Don’t eat when tense, angry, or fearful. These emotions have direct effects on your nervous system, which in turn affects digestion. 
  • Avoid harsh cleansing programs like gall bladder flushes and colon cleansing. 
  • Enjoy your meal. In Ayurveda it’s said that singing before and after a meal promotes digestion. 
  • Asses and restore nutritional deficiencies. Magnesium deficiency, for example, can be the root cause of constipation. 
Analyzing Digestive Patterns
I have broken up the various digestive patterns into main patterns of excess and deficiency or cold and hot. Within those patterns I also discuss humidity issues of dryness and dampness.
Deficient digestion 
People who’s metabolic fire is running too low have a difficult time transforming food into nutrients. They are often experiencing fatigue due to the exhaustive energy being used to attempt digestion. They are further disadvantaged because their poor digestion leaves them lacking the nutrients needed to feel vibrant. 
  • Symptoms of deficient or cold digestion include
  • stagnant digestion
  • bloating
  • belching
  • sour regurgitation
  • nausea
  • foul breath
  • gas
  • lack of appetite 
  • loose stools
  • undigested food in stools
  • difficulty digesting fats
  • heartburn
  • feeling of coldness in the limbs or in the stomach
  • Tongue is swollen, wet with possible heavy white coating
  • abdominal pain that is relieved with pressure
Ironically many people with heartburn are given a pill to decrease the digestive secretions such as HCL. I say ironically because many people are experiencing heartburn because they lack enough HCL. Eating bitter foods or taking bitters with meals can often eliminate the symptoms of heartburn for these people and lead to stronger digestion. 
People with a deficient digestion can also be too dry or too moist. 
Excessive dryness will often manifest as constipation. Dry skin, dry hair, cracked nails, red cheeks, afternoon fevers, hot flashes, night sweats, painful bowel movements and a red tongue with no coat can all indicate dryness. 
People who tend to have a cold and dry digestion need demulcent herbs and foods along with warming foods and herbs. They will also benefit from aromatic herbs and spices. Simply using primary warming foods and spices will exacerbate the issue. Moistening foods and herbs are necessary. Bone broth soup with lightly cooked veggies and meats are a healing food for this type of digestion. If they can tolerate grains oatmeal is also a good choice.They will also benefit from a moderate use of salt. 
People who tend to have a cold and dry digestion should avoid cold and dry foods such as raw fruits and vegetables, chips and crackers. 

Candied ginger is a sweet and spicy treat that promotes digestion

Spicy or pungent herbs
Black Pepper
Demulcent herbs and foods
marshmallow root
Prepared rehmannia
flax seed
healthy oils and fats (olive oil, saturated fat from pastured animals, ghee from pastured animals. 

A marshmallow infusion is soothing to a hot digestive tract.
I often add a pinch of peppermint. 

People with coldness and excessive dampness will display all the cold symptoms listed above. They may also feel heavy and lethargic, feel the need to sleep a lot, experience frequent mucous congestion in the lungs and sinuses, edema and have loose stools. They will benefit from consuming warming foods and pungent herbs and spices. Increasing the metabolic fire will most likely transform the excessive moisture. (Just as we hang our wet mittens by the fire to dry.) 
People with coldness and excessive dampness need to avoid cold wet foods such as cold dairy and citrus fruits. They may also benefit from restricting salt in the diet. 
Pungent herbs
Black Pepper
On the other end of the spectrum a metabolic fire that burns too hot can also create an array of problems.

Turmeric is more readily assimiable when 3% black pepper is added to it. 

Excessive or Hot Digestion
Excessive digestion can lead to inflammation throughout the body. 
Symptoms of excessive digestion
  • Heartburn
  • Red sores in the mouth
  • Excessive appetite
  • Excessive thirst
  • Constipation
  • Bitter taste in mouth
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Strong odors
  • Scanty dark urine
  • Red Face
  • Yellow coating on tongue
  • Red eyes
  • Abdominal pain that is exacerbated with pressure
Like we saw in a deficient digestive system people displaying signs of too much heat can also be either too dry or too moist. 
Specific signs of dryness may include constipation, dry eyes, dry skin, etc. 
These people will benefit from cooling herbs as well as demulcent herbs. Frequently clearing the excess heat from the system will reveal more moisture in the body. 
Cooling Herbs
Dandelion root
Gentian leaf
Artichoke Leaf

Dandelion leaves can be eaten at any meal to stimulate digestion. 

Demulcent herbs and foods
Marshmallow root
Prepared rehmannia
flax seed
healthy oils and fats (olive oil, saturated fat from pastured animals, ghee from pastured animals. 
People with excess heat and excess moisture will tend to sweat easily or have damp skin, oily hair, oily stools, thick yellow coating on the tongue, feelings of lethargy and fullness. 
These people benefit from the western classification of herbs called alteratives. Both cooling and drying and often nutritive. 
Dandelion root
Nettle leaf
Burdock Root
Yellow Dock Root
Red Clover flowers

Red Clovers making a tasty infusion. 

Digestion is extremely important function to our overall health. Imbalanced digestion can lead to poor immune function, difficulty sleeping, nutritional deficiencies and a cascade of problems following. 
Because digestion is so important we never want to mask symptoms that are inconveniencing us, instead we want to get to the root of the problem and restore digestion to a healthy balance. Healthy digestion leads to a healthy life.