What foods should I eat? For my patients, both with and without digestive health issues, this is a common question. My answer is not that simple. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) principles have me change my recommendations from person to person, as well as from season to season. There is no perfect diet for everyone because we are not all the same and our different external environments also affect our bodies.
Tongue/MouthDigestion starts in the mouth. When you go for a TCM consultation, don't be surprised when you are asked to stick out your tongue. The tongue is the only internal organ that we, as TCM doctors, can ask to see. Unfortunately, we can't ask you to pull out your liver or stomach.
StomachLet's follow food digestion down from the mouth to the stomach. TCM envisions the stomach as a cooking pot. When food reaches the pot, it is partly broken down by the cooking process. This continues the digestive process that began in the mouth.
Since a pot requires fire or heat to cook food, TCM recommends the avoidance of excess cold and raw foods such as rice, ice cream, and ice water. Instead, the emphasis is on easier digestion with foods like lightly steamed vegetables, and during colder seasons, more soups and stews.
If you do not have enough digestive fire, your metabolism may be too slow. Symptoms may include bloating, undigested food in the stools, and pain that is reduced by warmth.
If you have too much digestive fire, you may suffer from heartburn, an insatiable appetite, or constipation.
Because foods can have an innate warmth or coolness, you may want to eat foods appropriate to your constitution, as well as to the weather. For example, spicy foods are heating, but too much or too hot may cause digestive irritation. More suitable warming foods include ginger, cinnamon, fennel, winter squash, sweet potato, kale, oats, spelt, and quinoa.
Spleen/PancreasThe next organ involved in TCM digestion is the spleen. The spleen and pancreas together are termed the spleen system. If you suffer from bloating, soft stool/diarrhea, undigested food in your stools, fatigue, and/or poor appetite, your TCM practitioner will likely say you have a spleen energy deficiency.
LiverThe liver helps cleanse the blood and detoxify the body. It also secretes bile which is stored in the gallbladder. Bile is required for the proper digestion of fats. In TCM, poor quality fat, intoxicants, chemicals, and denatured foods are known to cause problems with the liver. In addition, the TCM liver soothes and smoothes the functions of the whole body, including the emotions.
IntestinesThe small and large intestines absorb nutrients and eliminate digestive waste. In order for this to happen properly, the intestines must have healthy cells lining the walls, and the muscles must be able to contract rhythmically (peristalsis) to move matter along. Sufficient fiber and water are also needed to ensure proper elimination, but I'm sure you already know that.
If you do suffer from constipation, then avoid alcohol, yeasted bread, foods with baking powder or baking soda, and refined "white" foods such as white bread, white pasta, white sugar, and white rice. General foods to take for chronic diarrhea are rice or barley broth, leek, eggplant, sunflower seeds, yam, and adzuki beans.