Lifestyle Basics: Eating

In our intro article, we looked at the view of the natural world as a place of rhythms and cycles, peaks and ebbs, and how this is the underpinning of all lifestyle recommendations that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners offer their patients. Central to our understanding is that doing the same activity at a different time can have a very different effect on our health based on these rhythms, and that periods of less activity are important to provide energy for periods of more activity.

Today we will delve into a topic near and dear to most of us: eating! Before you get the idea that we will be talking about specific foods to ingest or avoid, let’s delve into how the Chinese have understood the process of digestion a little bit. The stomach is basically considered to be a soup pot. It has a (metaphorical) burner underneath it, which is responsible for heating up and breaking down the contents of the pot. This was called the digestive fire, or digestive qi (say “chee”). Once broken down, the contents passed down into the rest of the digestion, which uses a kind of discriminating intelligence to decide what to absorb immediately, and what to pass further down the tract to break down further, or eliminate.

Key to optimizing our digestion’s activity is the insight that the metaphorical burner in the digestion (the digestive qi) is also cyclical. The qi is highest in the morning, and declines steadily throughout the day. The discriminating intelligence also declines through the day. After lunch time, there isn’t really much qi left in the system, as it has moved elsewhere. What does this mean for us practically? What we eat for breakfast gets absorbed easily and completely, and converted to readily available energy for our daily tasks. What we eat for dinner is much more likely to get inefficiently absorbed, as the energy in the digestion declines and the discrimination of our digestive organs loses steam. The discriminating intelligence doesn’t know what to do with this sludgy stuff the stomach is dealing with, so it usually socks it away as long-term storage, what we call fat (LINK: Anti-Sumo), hoping that there will be time to deal with it effectively later.

One of our main goals in TCM dietetics is keeping this digestive fire strong, and offering it food in those early hours, when it is best able to break it down and convert it to energy. So, just like your mother said, breakfast is the most important meal of the day! Further, the best breakfast is going to be a warm breakfast, because that keeps the digestive fire stoked. Cold foods in general are avoided, because they cool down the soup pot, and the digestive qi is wasted just warming up the stomach, instead of breaking down the food. By evening, when our digestive energy is lowest, we want to move towards a very light meal.

So we now have a basic understanding of digestion in TCM terms. Let’s cover a few more general recommendations:
Eat at regular times. This syncs your digestive capacity to your schedule. An irregular meal schedule sends a confusing message to your digestive qi, and it doesn’t know when to show up and work.
Eat real foods. Foods that your great grandparents would easily recognize as food are a good start. The packaged and processed foods that are so common today make our digestion dumb and lazy. We want to engage the discriminating intelligence of our digestion with variety, and also a balance of different starches, proteins, fruits, and veggies.
Eat local and in season. Our digestion has a rhythm influenced by the environment, and adapts naturally to foods that appear at the time of year that we are in, and our locality. For example, fruits in the summer, squash and other yellow veggies in the fall, and root vegetables through the winter months.
Add pickles and fermented foods. A little bit of pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, miso, or kimchi helps kickstart the digestive enzymes, and provides natural probiotic support for the gut.
Don’t drink iced or cold water. Especially at mealtimes. This throws the breaks on the whole digestive process. Instead have a bit of warm water or tea. If you feel your digestion is at all compromised, avoid cold and raw foods in general.

If you feel bloated or sleepy after eating, this tells you that your digestive qi is compromised. Ever find that your head is being inexorably drawn towards your desk after lunch, for an impromptu afternoon nap? This indicates that your digestive energy is not strong enough to get through your lunch, and is drawing from other areas (like your ability to stay awake and think!) to process your lunch. There’s not enough juice in the system to keep you awake and digest your food at the same time! Examine your diet, and make an appointment with your Licensed Acupuncturist to address this before it causes other issues.