Gut health has been in the news frequently this year, since the recent research from doctors Braden Kuo and Allan Goldstein at Massachusetts General Hospital, the US, who found that bacteria in the gut can affect mood, cognition and behaviour and lead problems in these areas – and vice versa.
In neurobiological terms, the enteric nervous system that regulates our gut is in constant communication with the other major nerve centre, which is our brain. We might, for example, feel anxious or stressed and experience these as abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, or “butterflies’. Or we might eat something that makes us sick, and instinctively avoid the food and even the place we found it.
TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) has always recognised the interlinked nature of the human organism – in fact it makes no division between ‘mental health’ and ‘physical health’. Our gut health is intimately connected to our mental wellbeing, as well as to the entire health of the rest of us.
It follows naturally, that food therapy – preserving health and treating illness by adjusting the patient’s food intake – is an ancient and integral part of TCM. Dr. Sun Shen Miao of the Tang Dynasty (618-917 AD) declared that the physician should first correct the client’s eating and lifestyle patterns and only if these changes fail to bring about the desired results should acupuncture and herbal medicine be resorted to.
A modern day Chinese idiom spells out the same message:
药 补 不 如 食 补
yào bǔ bù rú shí bǔ
Cure by food is better than cure by medicine
In TCM, food therapy is divided into two major categories. First one has to do with preservation of health – eating so that one does not not become well. If the person has already fallen ill, then dietary therapy must first and foremost be concerned with restoration of health through dietary therapy.
In order to attempt to remedy illness through food intake, a detailed understanding of the patient’s individual condition is necessary. There is no standard remedy for ‘IBS’, for example, but each person’s condition needs to be evaluated by a trained TCM practitioner – for specific dietary advice to be useful and effective it needs to be based on a thorough TCM diagnosis.
Improving health through food habits, on the other hand, is a relatively straightforward undertaking and the general guidelines are the same for everybody. For this end, it is important to get the basics right; to use a fair amount of common sense; and to be patient with yourself.
The journey starts, surprisingly not by counting calories, carbs, fibres and other such, but by first educating ourselves of how to eat right.
According to TCM, it is not only what we eat, but how we eat, that affects us. Good, proper nutrition is essential, of course, but if our digestion can’t assimilate it, then our body can’t make use of the good that is put in.
Our digestion is not a machine, grinding away unaffected by the conditions it has to work in. Digestion is a delicate process affected by how we are feeling, what we are doing with our time, how much time we give it to do its job, and when we put it to work.
TCM Dietary therapy begins with the correct, proper time and manner of eating.
Time: Eat in the morning
“In the morning, eat like a king. In the evening, eat like a beggar.”
Our digestion is at its strongest in the morning, and relatively weak in the evening. This means that the main meal of the day should be either at lunch time or at least early in the evening. Breakfast IS important – it is important to set on the journey of the day with adequate fuel – yet many of us start the day with little or no breakfast, perhaps because we are still full from last night’s late meal!
Many digestive complaints such as ‘acid reflux’ and ‘IBS’ can be greatly improved by eating less or not at all in the evening.
Observing the proper time of eating is crucial for those trying to lose weight – something that western research is now also catching up with in that it indicates that excess food eaten earlier in the day is more easily disposed of than that eaten later in the day. What is now often called ‘intermittent fasting’ is basically just another way of saying the same thing: you need to let your digestion rest at a time it is least active and ready for work.
Eat regular amounts at regular times.
We should try to eat more or less at the same time every day. As with any habit, our body and digestion adjusts to being ready to expect food at those times, and to digest it in the most efficient way. We shouldn’t, either, starve all day and then eat a massive meal in the evening.
This is also why it tends to be counterproductive to try to control one’s weight by periods of special diet. Common experience shared by dieters is that most, if not all of the weight lost during the diet will pile back up as soon as ‘normal’ eating habits resume.
For losing weight, it is infinitely more useful to eat regularly, regular amounts, avoid snacking between the meals, and adjust the food intake towards the morning and cut out late night excesses altogether.
Manner: Eat ‘comfortably’
The manner of eating is something we rarely think about in the West, especially if we live in a big city where the pace of life is fast and there seems to be no time to stop – not even for lunch!
The simple rule is: eat when you are in a calm, relaxed, peaceful state.
What this means in practice is that:
- You should not eat on your way somewhere, walking or running.
- Don’t eat too fast. Take the time and chew your food properly.
- Don’t rush straight back to work after eating. You should, if you can, schedule a break between eating and work, even if only a brief one.
- Avoid eating while physically, intellectually or emotionally exhausted. Avoid intellectual stimulation and overthinking just before eating, and physically strenuous work such as lifting, just after eating.
- Don’t eat while deeply worried or upset
- Don’t eat while arguing, working, reading or being otherwise distracted. When you eat, just eat!
You can see from the above that the act of eating is given much more importance in TCM than what we are normally used to. Because the human being is seen as a whole, all of our activities, non-physical as well as activities, affect each other.
To digest food means to transform it from its food-form to ingredients that are useful for our metabolism. Similarly, thinking, studying, learning requires transformation of input into internal understanding. Feelings – upset, anger, grief, all require transformation and assimilation to our emotional landscape. Our capacity for transformation is limited, hence we should safeguard the time required for digesting food from the other transformative processes that otherwise constantly demand our attention.
Next time there is an argument at the dinner table, interrupt one of the activities: either argue, or eat, but don’t attempt both at once.
If you need to do an extensive amount of studying, for an exam for example, only eat lightly or eat early in the morning. Overburdening yourself with food will make it harder to take in the ideas you need to digest.
At work, no matter how busy it is, don’t just grab a sandwich on your desk while typing away. If you take the time to take a break from work, have your food, even if rather quickly, you will work better after – you will also work better for longer, at all levels.
This is all very common sense, when you think about it. But often we never come to give it proper thought unless prompted by an illness or discomfort that communicates that all is not well.
It is easy to look at a piece of advice and think ‘Oh, I know that, yes of course that makes sense’, but to actually change ones habits and DO what you know is best, is a whole different undertaking. For most of us, putting the advice above into practice is already aplenty. Test it first before looking for more advanced knowledge of how to help yourself.
To learn about your individual condition, you can make an appointment for a full diagnostic consultation at one of our clinics. And don’t forget to read the next part of this course in TCM Dietetics, which will look at what we should be eating, once we have adjusted our habits of how we eat.