We've all heard the saying "You are what you eat." And if you've ever eaten too much sugar, and then felt the crash of fatigue soon after, you know this is all too true. Thankfully, the reverse is true as well, and if you eat a diet focusing on whole foods, you feel light and energetic. A diet that is balanced for your body's needs will be supportive, and not draining, to your system.But did you ever hear "You are how you eat?" Probably not, but if you think about it, it's just as important. If your stressful lifestyle causes you to skip breakfast, and then gorge on a huge lunch, you tend to feel overly full, bloated, and uncomfortable. Your empty stomach and low blood sugar may have resulted in feeling anxious, cranky, or less able to deal with the small stresses of the day. Also, we often eat on the run, and do not enjoy our meals, and this also adds to the stress of a very busy day. So, you are how you eat. There is more to this than you might think. In our fast-paced, high-tech, "get it done" culture, it's nearly impossible to digest one thought at a time - so many are coming at us! Never mind taking the time to digest our meals -we tend to eat on the run, coffee in-hand, or skip meals altogether and then over-indulge. Overthinking and digestive concerns are inter-related from the perspective of Chinese Medicine. Let's take a look at how this is so, and how making some adjustments to your routine might make some improvements to your overall health and wellness. Food for Thought In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach are the main digestive organs. However, they are responsible for digestion of food, as well as digestion of thought. Chinese Medicine is all-inclusive: organs have physiological functions, as well as mental-emotional functions. The mind-body connection cannot be unraveled. The "emotion" of the Spleen/Stomach system is thoughtfulness or pensiveness, and when it is out of balance, it shows up as worry or over-thinking. More specifically, the Spleen and Stomach are responsible for transformation and transportation of food and thought. Just as food must be taken in, and transformed into a useful form of energy, thoughts must be taken in, and transformed into a useful plan. If you eat food, but don't properly digest, you'll bloat, and if you are not active, it is stored, and you feel heavy and sluggish. Same with thought -- if you are thinking about something, but you don't make a plan, (or you have a plan and you don't act on it), then you may worry and feel weighed down. When you worry and feel stuck, you may use eating as the antidote to your frustration or boredom. You may also bloat, and feel constipated, because you are also physically stuck! Overeating may occur, because being stuck causes friction, and friction causes heat. Heat in the stomach leads to an insatiable appetite (as well as other digestive symptoms, like acid reflux). Cravings may also occur, because worry and over-thinking drains the Spleen/Stomach system. The system is related to the sweet flavor, and when it is imbalanced, sugar cravings arise. Overeating, indulging in sugar cravings, and eating mindlessly leads to a further taxation on the system, which may lead to more worry. Remember, it is one system and it is intertwined! From the perspective of Chinese Medicine, an imbalance may show up in the digestive system of Spleen and Stomach in one or more ways. The most obvious is digestive upset - bloating, belching, indigestion, or in more extreme cases, Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It may show up only in the mental/emotional realm, and the patient may feel overwhelmed, worried, stuck, or have a racing mind. Fatigue may also be a symptom, because the energy of the digestive system will be depleted from lack of nourishment or overthinking, resulting in an overall lack of energy. Still yet another way Spleen and Stomach imbalance may show up is as tension or gripping in the physical meridians. The Stomach channel runs along the jaw, where many people feel tension. It also runs along the quadriceps and shins, where muscles also tend to be tight, and grip. Often people are not even aware they are holding tension a certain area, until there is pain in the jaw, knees, shins, or feet. A Chinese Medical practitioner keeps all of these things in mind, and may also feel your pulse and look at your tongue to see the state of your digestive systems. A point prescription will be chosen to nourish your Spleen and Stomach, and the related symptoms of bloating, worry, and indigestion should all improve. But you can also nourish your digestive system and improve these symptoms with self-care. So how do you stop the vicious cycle of overeating and worry, and improve our Spleen and Stomach systems? Here's some tips, to incorporate slowly. True change takes time.
- Don't skip breakfast! You've heard this one before - but that's because it is important. Skipping breakfast leads to overindulging, which leads to weight gain. It also causes a drop in blood sugar, which affects both mood and weight.
- Sit and sip. Instead of running for the train with your cup of coffee, or having it drip from your car console, schedule a few extra minutes before your commute, at your desk, or after you drop the kids off, to sit and enjoy a great cup of coffee or tea. Adding cinnamon and ginger to your brew enhances digestion. If you're a tea drinker, find an herbal blend with ginger, peppermint, fennel and/or licorice, which also aid digestion.
- Chew slowly. Try to chew your food slowly, and pay attention to the texture and flavor. Let each bite count.
- Eat peacefully, if only for a moment. If you didn't get to sit and have a peaceful lunch or dinner, then later on, when you have a quiet moment, sit and eat a piece of dark chocolate and take a moment to really taste it, and feel it melt in your mouth. Work towards bigger goals of sitting to eat, chewing slowly, enjoying a meal as a meditative moment.
- Take a break. Did you try to eat peacefully, but instead you ate the whole chocolate bar? Maybe it's time to take a short fast from a treat you tend to inhale. Just 3-5 day should do the trick. When you go back to indulging it again, it will be easier to savor a smaller piece.
- Allow yourself to disconnect. Once a day, if only for a few minutes, put your phone aside, and shut off the TV and the laptop. Read a book, take a nap, mediate, or take a walk. Just focus on one nourishing thing. The text messages will still be there when you return.
- Make a plan. Things are always going to come up, such is life. When your day derails and your worried about something, transform the thought of worry into a plan. Worrying doesn't accomplish anything, but putting a plan into action does. You'll feel better when you address the problem, and soon enough, it will be yesterday's news, rather than the thing that keeps you awake at night.
- Be bold, and move it forward! Make sure you carry out your plan. The Stomach channel is on the front of the body, and it likes to move forward. The Stomach channel is the only Yang channel on the front of the body - it is considered the most Yang, and it is bright, and bold (for being on the front, all the other Yang channels are on the back), and it carries you forward (front of body/carrying out plans). Make sure you carry out your plans, so the Spleen/Stomach system can fully do its job and not get stuck in worry or indigestion. And the best part of a to-do list is crossing things off!
- Eat your greens (and yellows). You knew this one was coming - eat your veggies. The Spleen/Stomach System is related to shades of yellow. So along with your greens, incorporate things like yellow squash, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes.
- Just move! Exercise - you knew this one was coming, too. Exercise helps to relieve stress, and keep the digestive system moving (in other words, it keeps you regular). And interestingly enough, the Spleen channel is on the inner thighs, and gets flabby when it doesn't move!
Incorporate these things into your life little by little. The important thing is to "move forward!" (But eat your breakfast first). Written By Nancy Byrne Licensed Acupuncturist and Herbalist practicing in New York City. Learn more about Nancy and her work at www.breathingspaceacupuncture.com, or find her on facebook