Good digestion is fundamental to our quality of life and wellbeing. Yet so many of us have grown accustomed to gas, bloating, abdominal pain, belching, indigestion, loose bowels, constipation – or any combination of these – on a regular basis. And we accept these things as a normal part of everyday life!
These symptoms – while common – are not normal, and indicate that something is awry in the digestive process.
With impaired digestion, we are not assimilating all the nutrients in our food. This can set the stage for nutritional deficiencies, fatigue, and even chronic disease states. Energy levels, immunity, mental health, libido, and skin appearance are just a few facets of health directly linked to digestion.
We can prevent many of these issues if we support digestion naturally on a daily basis.
Common GI symptoms like constipation, gas, bloating, and pain can be improved naturally, safely, and effectively with medicinal herbs – the very herbs that have been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Digestive Health in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers a unique perspective on how the digestive system works, and how to promote digestive health. Though some parallels exist, TCM views digestion somewhat differently than how it is understood in Western medicine.
Roles of the Stomach and Spleen – According to TCM, food is processed in the stomach meridian, where it is broken into usable components and waste. (For those unfamiliar with meridians, think of them as channels through which energy flows throughout the body.)
The usable parts of the broken down food are sent from the stomach to the spleen meridian. Here they become nutrients, energy (qi), blood, and other essential fluids.
An imbalance in the stomach or spleen (or both) is considered to be an underlying cause of abdominal pain, bloating, gas, indigestion, nausea, loose stools, and constipation.
For instance, acid reflux and indigestion can indicate that the stomach qi is out of balance; that is, it is moving upwards instead of downwards. Digestion is a north-to-south process!
Role of the Liver – The liver also plays a critical role in digestion. In Western medicine, the liver and gallbladder are known for breaking down and metabolizing fats in the diet. The liver is also responsible for conjugating (i.e., making less toxic) the various compounds (e.g., pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, chemicals, environmental pollutants, and hormones) that the body deals with on a daily basis so that they can safely be excreted.
TCM attributes additional functions to the liver. The liver meridian is responsible for the flow of blood and qi to the stomach and spleen meridians. In this context, nausea and indigestion can be a sign of imbalances in the liver.
The gallbladder transports bile, the substance required for digestion of dietary fats – a critical process for so many bodily functions (e.g., building healthy hormones, managing the inflammatory process, blood sugar regulation, brain function, and many more). Imbalances in the gallbladder can impair the function of the small intestine, which uses bile to digest fats.
Roles of the Small and Large Intestines – In the final phase of digestion, the breakdown and absorption of nutrients continues in the small intestine. The small intestine meridian also directs usable matter to the spleen for distribution.
Wastes are ultimately sent to the large intestine for elimination. Imbalances in the intestines typically present as abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation.
Let’s Talk About Constipation
Constipation is one of the most seldom talked-about digestive problems. It is all too common, and yet many people are embarrassed to share their struggles when it comes to bowel habits.
Constipation affects an estimated 12-19% of Americans, 14% of Asians, and up to 27% of the world’s population. These figures could actually be even higher as many people simply don’t talk about their bowel problems and therefore go undiagnosed.
Constipation is typically defined as fewer than three bowel movements per week, often characterized by stools that are difficult to pass, hard, dry, or small.
Regular elimination is a critical part of the body’s natural detoxification process. If this doesn’t happen efficiently – ideally at least once per day for most people – toxins can be reabsorbed through the intestinal wall, contributing to issues ranging from fatigue to estrogen dominance to the overgrowth of bacteria and yeast.
Sure, we can have occasional, short-term constipation when we are busier than usual, dehydrated, or visiting a different time zone. If regular bowel movements resume when we return to our normal routines, this really isn’t a problem.
Constipation is concerning, however, when it becomes chronic over weeks, months, and years.
Conventional Western medicine has been largely unsatisfactory in treating constipation – and other sub-clinical digestive issues for that matter. As a result, patients are increasingly looking to complementary and alternative treatments. Chinese herbal medicine is among the safest and most effective treatments for common digestive issues.
Constipation from a TCM Perspective
According to TCM, constipation results from too much heat in the system (i.e., an accumulation of excess qi). Excess heat dries the intestines and stool, resulting in constipation.
Another purported cause is qi stagnation in the stomach and intestinal meridians. This type of constipation is typically believed to result from inadequate fluid lubrication, or from insufficient intestinal propulsion – both due to the deficiency of qi.
Chinese medicinal herbs that have cooling and lubricating effects on the intestine meridians have traditionally been employed to alleviate constipation and promote regular bowel movements.
The Best Herbs for Digestion
It is important to remember that digestion is comprised of an entire system. Supporting all of the digestive organs is essential to proper function. We want herbs that aid in the breakdown of food, the assimilation of nutrients, and the elimination of waste.
Here are some favorite Chinese herbs for digestion:
Angelicae (Dang Gui)
Also known as the “Queen” herb, Dang Gui has been used in 9 out of every 10 formulas in Chinese herbal medicine for over 2000 years. It has been shown to promote circulation, alleviate abdominal pain, lubricate the intestines, and relieve constipation.
Atractylodes Stem (Bai Zhu)
This herb has many well-known uses and has been commonly used since it was first recorded in the 1st century. Atractylodes is often used for abdominal fullness and distention, and for soothing abdominal pain.
Cinnamon (Rou Gui)
The warming qualities of cinnamon help improve circulation and digestion. Studies show that even a small amount of cinnamon per day reduces serum glucose, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes. It also helps to reduce the rise in blood sugar after eating by slowing gastric emptying.
Gardeniae Fructus (Zhi Zi)
In Western medicine, Gardenia is known to help lower blood pressure. In the Eastern medical traditions, it is known for promoting elimination and regular bowel movements.
Ginger Root (Sheng Jiang)
Rich in nutrients and bioactive compounds, ginger is a potent anti-inflammatory that stimulates digestion, eliminates gas, relieves nausea, and relaxes and soothes the intestinal tract. Ginger is also known for its antibacterial properties.
Licorice Root (Gan Cao)
Sweet Chinese herbs, such as licorice root, help tonify (i.e., increase energy to) the pancreas. The two major constituents of licorice are glycyrrhizin, a potent anti-inflammatory, and flavonoids, which are antioxidants known to improve circulation, relieve tissue damage, and reduce inflammation.
Licorice root was – and remains – one of the most important herbs in TCM. It is said that licorice goes to all twelve channels of the body, a claim given to only a few Chinese herbs. By entering all body channels, licorice is often used to enhance the therapeutic effects of other herbs.
Ligusticum (Chuan Xiong)
Common in many Chinese herbal medicine formulas, ligusticum is used to regulate blood circulation, and works in concert with other herbs to enhance overall health benefits.
Mint Leaf (Bo He)
Refreshing, cooling, uplifting, and restoring, mint has many therapeutic uses, and is recognized as a potent medicinal herb in both Eastern and Western medicine. The German Commission E has approved mint oil for a variety of conditions, including flatulence, gastrointestinal and gallbladder disorders. Mint works in conjunction with other herbs to clear heat, gently clean out the intestines, and improve liver and blood circulation.
Platycodon (Jie Geng)
The oils in Platycodon have been used for centuries for their anti-inflammatory properties, helping to soothe pain and discomfort in the gastrointestinal tract.
Rhubarb (Da Huang)
Rhubarb has long been used as a gentle laxative. But its health benefits don’t stop there. Rhubarb is also a safe and effective herb for gut detoxification due to its antibacterial properties .
Rhubarb is also rich in the following vitamins and minerals:
Vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant required for normal growth and development
Magnesium, which helps maintain normal muscle and nerve function
Potassium, an important mineral for the functioning of cells, tissues, and organs
Calcium, which is essential for healthy bones and teeth
Vitamin K, which aids in blood clotting
Lutein, which helps maintain healthy skin and eyes, and neutralize free radicals
Rhubarb is also high in fiber, which supports healthy bowel movements and promotes satiety.
Schizonepteta (Jing Jie)
This herb is best known for its detoxifying properties. It is commonly used with other herbs to enhance synergistic effects and lower inflammation.
Scutellaria (Huang Qin)
Associated with the meridians of the large intestine, liver, lung, and stomach, scutellaria is one of the oldest herbs in TCM. Known for its anti-inflammatory properties and promising outcomes in diabetes patients , Scutellaria is just as important an herb today as it was in the 2nd century.
Siler – Saposhnikovia (Fang Feng)
This herb acts on the liver to dispel fat. Fang feng is also known to work synergistically with other herbs to support overall digestion and alleviate pain in the digestive tract.
White Peony (Bai Shao)
White peony is among the most popular herbs in Chinese herbal medicine. It is an effective tonic herb and is used to purify the blood. White peony is legendary as a muscle relaxant; it relieves cramps (in the stomach and elsewhere) and reduces pain. Its antispasmodic and analgesic qualities are magnified when combined with licorice root.
How to Choose Digestive Herbs That Work
Pairing herbs together – and in the right proportions – allows them to achieve actions that they cannot achieve individually. This deep understanding of the entourage effect of herbs is what makes Chinese herbal medicine so effective.
The most effective Chinese herbal formula for digestive health is as complex as it is ancient. The formula for this blend was originally written around 1170 C.E.
The herbs in this formula work synergistically to protect the stomach and nourish the blood to support a healthy flow of energy throughout the body, and clear the intestines gently and without damage.
Prebiotics and Probiotics for Healthy Digestion
Many digestive issues are caused or accompanied by imbalances in the population of healthy bacteria that reside in the human digestive tract.
Probiotic supplements and fermented foods (e.g., kimchee, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir) can help regulate bowel movements and support healthy intestinal function.
Additionally, prebiotics like beta glucans polysaccharides nourish our healthy gut bacteria, and are essential for a healthy microbiome.
A healthy population of gut bacteria not only helps digestion, it is also a critical part of supporting the immune system – something we all need.
Reduce Stress for Better Digestion: “Fight or Flight” vs. “Rest and Digest”
There is a saying in Chinese medicine: “It’s better to eat the wrong food with the right attitude than the right food with the wrong attitude.” It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of eating in relaxed state.
When we eat in a stressed-out, “fight or flight” mode, the body shuts down functions that are not directly related to immediate survival – including digestion.
Only when we eat in a relaxed, “rest and digest” state are our bodies able to produce the appropriate amounts of enzymes, hormones, and gastric juices to facilitate a healthy digestive cascade.
Here are some tips for getting into a relaxed state for better digestion:
Move. Take a short walk or move gently before eating – even 15 minutes can help.
Breathe. Take some deep breaths before eating. Avoid eating when stressed or agitated; try not to multitask
Express gratitude. Reflect on how your food is going to nourish you and be grateful for the company you’re with (or for a quiet moment to yourself!).
Chew slowly and thoroughly. This makes the stomach’s job of breaking down food much easier.
Enjoy your food. Really taste and savor each bite, appreciating the different flavors and textures.
No self-judgment. Even when we eat something that’s not the most nourishing (we’re human and this happens!), it’s important not to judge ourselves or feel guilty about our choices. Doing so puts us into a stressful state, which leads to – you guessed it – impaired digestion. When you choose to treat yourself, enjoy the experience, and do your best to let it go.
“Above all else, protect your digestion” is a saying in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and for good reason – our precious digestive system is responsible for just about every aspect of our well being. Taking a multi-pronged approach to support our digestive health with seemingly small, easy-to-implement changes such as incorporating expertly formulated Chinese herbs, and simple lifestyle adjustments can have a big impact towards improving our quality of life.