Think of your stomach like a saucepan, simmering over a flame.
It’s actually not so crazy when you think about it. Do you know what your core temperature is? A healthy body temperature is anywhere between 36-37˚C depending on gender and age. It’s warm inside your belly, and the temperature is no accident. That’s the temperature required to keep you in an optimum state for healthy functioning (the fancy science name for this is “homeostasis”. In Chinese medicine we often talk about using acupuncture and herbs to bring the body back into balance. It’s essentially the same thing. Homeostasis is the aim of the game, no matter what you like to call it.)
According to Chinese medicine theory, you can think of your digestion like a saucepan sitting on a flame: the food you eat goes into this saucepan and is simmered, in order to be broken down and turned into energy. This is effectively a poetic description of the first two phases of digestion (digestion and absorption), where the body breaks down the food you eat both mechanically and chemically, and then transports them through the intestinal walls for use within the body. The flame is your digestive metabolism. Some of us were born with a big, robust flame that burns merrily away and keeps our saucepan simmering without a hitch. These are the folks that can eat anything and everything, without experiencing side effects like indigestion, bloating, or queasiness. It doesn’t matter what they put into their saucepan, the fire underneath it is big enough to heat the pot and keep it simmering, extracting the nutrients, and transporting it through the body for use.
For others, the flame is smaller. It does a pretty good job of keeping up but if you put too much in the pot, or food that is too cold (more on this in a minute) the simmering starts to die down. You’ve most likely seen it happen when you’re making a soup on the stove, as you add additional ingredients you need to either crank up the flame, or wait a while for the current flame to reheat the contents in the pan. This is where trouble can start in the digestion.
If you consistently put in too much cold food (think iced drinks, ice cream, foods consumed straight from the fridge), or too much raw food (cooking begins the process of breaking down the food, meaning cooked foods are easier to digest), or too much greasy or rich food (hard to break down), or just too much food in general, this can really start to put the digestive system under load. This is when you’ll start seeing issues like bloating, nausea after eating, heartburn and reflux, irregular bowel movements, often accompanied by a feeling of lethargy or sluggishness.
If this sounds like you, the saucepan in your belly may need some help. There are a few things you can do straight away:
Avoid COLD food and drink, consume it room temperature or warm instead. Smoothies are a classic here, stop putting ice in them and defrost any fruits first. If you’re eating salads make sure they are made with mostly cooked ingredients, for example: baked sweet potato, chickpeas, lightly steamed broccoli, feta, rocket, and toasted pine nuts, dressed with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar. And again, don’t eat it straight from the fridge.
Eat at regular mealtimes and avoid skipping meals (yes, I know intermittent fasting is ALL THE RAGE right now, but it doesn’t suit everyone, those with tired saucepans should avoid it).
Avoid food that is goopy (technical term). Think bananas, peanut butter, cheese, yoghurt, smoothies, avocados (to name a few). This stuff is harder for a tired digestion to get through. You don’t have to eliminate it, but definitely cut it back if you’re eating a lot of it.
There have been a number of recent revelations in Western medicine about the role of gut health in overall physical and mental health. If you’re experiencing bloating, pain, constipation or diarrhoea, heartburn, or just generally feeling bleugh, then get in touch. The solution to your problems might be as simple as a few tweaks to your diet and eating habits.
Written by Joanna Macmeikan
Doctor of Chinese Medicine
Follow on instagram: @joanna_macmeikan