From diarrhea or constipation to gas, nausea, and cramps, our digestive tract can cause all kinds of discomfort and embarrassment! But digestive problems don’t stop at the digestive tract – they affect our whole body, from our energy levels to our immune health. Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a unique perspective on digestive issues and how best to formulate a product to optimize digestive health.
The Rocky Road to Healthy Digestion
Most people experience digestive problems at least from time to time; and as we age, those problems usually become more frequent. From diarrhea or constipation to gas, nausea, and cramps, our digestive tract can cause all kinds of discomfort and embarrassment!
And digestive problems aren’t limited to just the digestive tract – they affect your whole body. Digestive health is the foundation on which all other health is built. As just one example, digestion is one of the two main ways we get energy (the other being breathing).
Besides efficient digestion, another way to have more energy is not to waste the energy you already have. So, what are two of the main ways you burn up energy every day? One is digesting your food. Another is defending yourself from the environment, i.e. immunity. In recent years, it has become clear that there are more immune cells in your digestive tract than elsewhere in the body. Effective digestion will therefore not only both give you energy and conserve energy but will support your immune system as well…not to mention relieving the sometimes socially embarrassing effects and discomfort of poor digestion.
Much of the discussion around digestion in recent years has focused on the health of the microbiome – the trillions of organisms (bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi) that especially populate the digestive tract. There are many more of these organisms in each of us than there are human cells. This realization has inspired many people to take probiotics, which are different strains of healthy bacteria that inhabit our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract). Of course, there can be many unhealthy bacteria and other organisms in your GI tract along with the good ones. Researchers are now finding that taking billions of probiotic bacteria daily can create too much of a monoculture in our microbiome. So, one suggestion is to consume a wider variety of probiotic bacteria. The goal is to make the microbiome healthier, thereby improving digestion and, to some degree, immunity. And probiotics can, in some cases, help with that. But, why and how do you develop unhealthy organisms in your GI tract in the first place?
There’s a perspective taught to acupuncturists that turns out to be very helpful in restoring effective digestive function and a healthy microbiome. It’s a very common-sense observation that states that when the Stomach is healthy, it sends your food downward through the GI tract at the proper rate; and when the Spleen/Pancreas are healthy, it holds up your food so that it doesn’t go through the GI tract too quickly. (Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) conceptualizes the organs somewhat differently than in Western medicine; suffice it to say that in TCM the function of the spleen and pancreas are considered together.)
Opposing forces, ideally cooperating in a state of balance.
When the Stomach is weak and does not send food downward efficiently, you get upward pressure, creating acid reflux, bloating and sluggish bowels. And, corresponding dysfunctional microbiome organisms will emerge.
If your Spleen/Pancreas function is weak and is not doing its job of properly restraining the transit of food, then food will transit too quickly and you’ll end up with undigested food in your stools, loose stools, or even the dreaded diarrhea. In this case, a different community of dysfunctional organisms will take over your microbiome.
If you have heartburn and take Tums, the calcium in the tablets will neutralize the stomach acid which may make you feel better, but does it strengthen your stomach so that the problem starts getting better? No is the short answer.
If you take proton pump inhibitors like Pepcid to reduce the production of stomach acid, you may feel better but you’re weakening your digestion, because that stomach acid is needed to help break down foods; and the acid is also needed to promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut and discourage the growth of unhealthy bacteria. So reduced acid production can be actively counterproductive. Same thing with probiotics: they may improve your microbiome but will they make your Stomach, Spleen, or Pancreas stronger so they can do their jobs better?
Personally, the best answer I’ve found to this challenge is a combination of herbs that improves the health of the Stomach and the Spleen/Pancreas, together with an ingredient to calm the nerves that innervate the GI tract to minimize the ill effects that stress can have on digestion.
Strengthening your digestion comes down to finding ways to strengthen the organs of digestion so they function more effectively. Then your microbiome will naturally become a healthy, more functional and cooperative community. If the organisms of everyone’s GI microbiome became more functionally cooperative, we can only hope the same would start happening in society.
- Dr. Stephen Morrissey OMD, founder and formulator
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Gastrointestinal tract: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastrointestinal_tract