Do certain situations make you feel nauseous? Do you get “butterflies” in your stomach? We know the gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion, but do not understand why. Anger, anxiety, sadness, elation—all of these feelings (and others) can trigger gut symptoms. We feel things there. The brain has a direct effect on the stomach. The thought of eating releases stomach juices. This connection goes both ways: A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain. Experts at Harvard Medical School say, “Your distressed gut can be as much the cause as the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected. This is especially true in cases where a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no obvious physical cause.”
That’s going pretty far, taking a leap of faith towards what modern medicine used to consider risky, idiosyncratic, or just plain bunk, in other words–holistic health care. Doctors may recognize the connection between digestion and emotions, but recommend stomach drugs, mind drugs, and/or a shrink. A traditional Asian approach offers home therapies that improve digestion, vitality and mood. Another difference is a natural approach using foods, herbs, and energy therapies considers the person’s life situation, age, the weather (seasonal issues).
Do you feel blue or cranky on cloudy days? Do you have mucus congestion, water retention, irregular digestion and troubled menstrual periods? Do chronic aches seem heavy and piercing? That is more than a gut/brain connection. But improving digestion can ease most of those discomforts. Taking a sedative or pain-killer is not the answer. For example, a light, crisp, fresh diet and a few astringent herbs can help detoxify the body and tone digestion.
Stress and the functional GI disorders
Medical experts have said, “Psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and other bowel symptoms. Psychosocial factors influence the actual physiology of the gut, as well as the modulation of symptoms. In other words, stress (or depression or other psychological factors) can affect movement and contractions of the GI tract, cause inflammation, or make you more susceptible to infection.”
That’s interesting. Think about it a moment: Poor absorption in the gut (from diarrhea or poor diet) leads to numerous nutritional (mineral) deficiencies that weaken immunity. TCM traditional Chinese medicine links the skin, lungs, and large intestine as one large energy loop. After being weakened by fatigue, stress, and an inappropriate diet, we may feel chilled. The chill passes through the meridian system from the most superficial part of the body – skin, muscles, and lungs, to the intestine. We may feel depression, cramps, diarrhea, or spacey after being weak, chilled and eating cold foods and herbs. The result may even be cold symptoms. There is even a syndrome explained in Chinese medicine called “cold uterus” which results in pain, irregular periods and eventually infertility—increased by cold raw foods, and weakness with diarrhea.
Harvard doctors suggest that some people with functional GI disorders perceive pain more acutely than other people do because their brains do not properly regulate pain signals from the GI tract. Stress can make the existing pain seem even worse. “These observations suggest that at least some patients with functional GI conditions might find relief with therapy to reduce stress or treat anxiety or depression. And sure enough, a review of 13 studies showed that patients who tried psychologically based approaches had greater improvement in their symptoms compared with patients who received conventional medical treatment.” Why not?—if it works.
Your Tongue and You
It will also help to improve diet according to your particular needs. How do you know what foods and herbs you need to stay healthy and happy?
One easy approach is to observe your tongue—an internal organ that reacts to diet and health changes, which you can see right in the mirror.
A Pale Tongue
A pale tongue can indicate “internal cold” — add more foods and herbs that are warming and stimulating so that you do not feel chilled and weak and depressed.
Ginger, cinnamon, cooked foods, soups, warm teas with delicious spices. Too many hot foods and spices can increase bad breath, stomachaches, irritability, and rashes.
A Red Tongue
A red tongue can indicate “internal heat” – add cooling cooking spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, dill, mint, and drink aloe juice to prevent acid reflux. Too many cold foods and spices may result in diarrhea so keep it balanced.
Of course your tongue cold may change from what you eat –colored foods, spices, etc. But it will remain pale, red, wet or dry much of the time. See the entire chapter on tongue diagnosis in Chinese medicine in Asian Health Secrets.
Sometimes we can combine both warming and cooling foods and herbs as needed. A nice simple digestive tea is sliced ginger, fresh mint and lemon grass. Drink it in hot water or green tea. Choose your foods and herbs according to digestive comfort and your digestive and emotional center will be healthy.
It is oversimplified, but that is the way cooks can keep themselves and family well even in bad weather and other life shocks. It does not matter if your digestive problems originate from foods (digestion) or mind and emotions. Improving diet will help both mind and body.
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