Eating for Digestive Health

General Principles of Happy Digestion in CM:

  • Warm and well-cooked dishes: think soups, porridge, oatmeal
    • “Warm” here means two things, actually: the physical temperature a food is served at, and also its thermal nature. Things like ginger and garlic are warm-hot in nature, regardless of what temperature they are eaten at. In contrast, things like salad are cold in nature, doubly so when eaten at a cold temperature.
  • Small > big meals: less food means less work processing nutrients from a food
  • Early > late meals: the digestive organs are strongest and most active early on in a day, and weakest in the evening.

Specific Foods to Support Digestion:

  • Simple, bland flavors: rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread if you can gluten. All of these are starches, or simple carbohydrates, and thus easily broken down into energy by the body
  • Sugar: obviously in moderation, but a little sugar goes a long way to help cramping/painful digestion

Obviously humans shouldn’t live on simple-carbohydrates alone, however. Even in very poor communities were the bulk of an individual’s calories come from rice, bread, or sweet potatoes, these core foods are supplemented by whatever other scraps of things are available. From a modern perspective, we assume this is because of vitamin content. But from a CM perspective, something else is at play.

Foods that support digestion do so through a directional tendency: they draw into the center, and hold that center. Thus, people’s tendency to gain weight eating a lot of sugary or carby food over time. But too much directional holding in the center, beyond causing weight gain, is also going to create some stagnation. This might be felt as heaviness, gasfulness, or something just not moving right. This is where balanced eating comes into play – not just to balance vitamins, but also to balance the directional tendencies of food.

Ginger is a common digestive support. Warming and acrid, it helps keep things flowing. It also has some anti-microbial properties, which together with its warmth is one reason why it is commonly used to balance cold/raw sushi.

Mint is another common digestive support. It is cooling and acrid, keeping things flowing but also soothing heat from a very warming meal (lots of chilies, heavy red meats) or the stagnation that builds into heat if unrelieved by normal digestion. Think of every restaurant that has ever given you a mint after your meal – it’s not only for your breath.

Fermented foods of all kinds (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, some pickles and saurkrauts) benefit digestion. Generally these foods have are roughly neutral in temperature, and slightly sour. This sourness resonates with the liver, which in CM is responsible for the smooth circulation of qi and blood throughout the body. Without smooth circulation, there is no smooth digestion. Appropriate usage of foods with this fermented and sour quality is super helpful for patients who suffer from problems with stress, anxiety that lives in the gut, and IBS-like swings of digestion. From a western perspective, fermented foods are not only full of probiotics, or the “healthy bacteria” responsible for the heavy lifting of digestion (and food cravings), but also the prebiotic substrate that keeps those good bacteria alive until they can make it to where they need to be along your digestive tract to benefit you.

Resolving Digestive Problems (General):

So far, these have been positive recommendations: foods that you can add to your diet to help support digestion. However, a lot of the work of supporting digestion is work of avoidance: avoiding overdoing it with foods that actively impair digestive function, such as:

  • Greasy, fatty, fried foods (“if the paper turns clear…”)
  • Starches unrelieved by other flavors for balance
  • Sugary foods like cake, candies, soda, etc
  • Dairy, especially cold/sweetened dairy like ice cream, but also cheese, lots of butter in cooking, etc
  • Cooking oils (not normal amounts used in cooking, but in excess amounts – like that used in frying)

Note that “overdoing it” is gonna be a different amount of different things for different bodies – or even the same body at different times. Don’t despair, these things can sometimes be okay in moderation. For instance, for most of us a little milk in coffee or butter on toast is balanced by the thing its eaten with. A Liz Lemon level of “night cheese,” however, or covering a sweet desert with a grip of whipped cream, is obviously not a balanced plate. Common sense is frequently good sense, people.

Untreated dampness builds up in the body. Sometimes this can look like a problem of fluid metabolism (frequent urination, lack of thirst, puffiness or edema). Or, especially with simultaneous irritation of the sinuses and respiratory passageways (common in allergy season) it leads to storage, and ejection, as clear mucus or concentrated phlegm. This is why CM classics say that the spleen makes dampness (which turns into phlegm), but the lungs (including their passageways) store it.

Some Foods that Drain Dampness:

  • Warming, drying, dampness transforming foods: ginger (in moderation)
  • Rice, amaranth, barley, millet
  • Soymilk
  • Cornsilk tea (disorders of urination more than others)

Some Foods that Increase Fluids (and thus Directly Build Fluids, Worsening Dampness)

  • Milk
  • Pear, apple, citrus fruit, watermelon (also very cooling)

Resolving Digestive Problems (Specific):

  • General Discomfort: mint or ginger tea, gentle belly rubs
  • Diarrhea: apples, bland/rice- or potato-heavy diet, very plain broth
  • Constipation: bananas, others depending on hot/cold or excess/deficiency presentation