(By Paolo Propato, LAc and Grace Rollins, LAc) The late summer weeks are associated in Eastern Medicine with the Earth element and the Spleen and Stomach energetic systems. These systems are a Yin-Yang pair and govern all aspects of digestion and assimilation. Even other organs obviously related to digestion, like the bowels and the gallbladder, are secondary to the importance of the Spleen and Stomach. In the 5-element system so central to Chinese medicine practice, the Earth energy is like the gravitational force that holds everything else together. So if the Spleen and Stomach energies are out of balance, many other systems can become compromised.
As we transition from the slower pace of summer back to the rushed life of full-time work and school, it's good to take a look at how it's not just what we eat, but the manner in which we eat that can drastically affect the health of the Spleen and Stomach, having ramifications throughout the body.
To say the Spleen and Stomach energies are in charge of "digestion" does not only mean food, but the digestion of ideas and thoughts as well as external stimuli. An example is the Internet, our phones, TV and the rest of today’s luxuries. All this stimuli is hitting our senses and needs to be processed, digested. Often we also have at least a day's worth of worries, plans and responsibilities to chew over, if not major life issues and family crises to think about. All of this can lead to an over-burdening of the Spleen and Stomach, leaving little energy left for the complex task of digestion.
Here are several small steps to implement during your meals to help ease the stress and help you digest:
▪ Eat with no other distractions. During your meals shut off the TV, close the laptop and turnoff the phones and just be with your food. Doing so can help those that tend to overeat. In a fascinating study, some participants played computer solitaire during their lunch while another group ate the same meal at the same time with no distractions. The "wired" group reported not feeling full after their lunches and ate more later on compared to the "unplugged" group.
▪ Eat slowly. Take your time, fully chewing your food. This way your gut has more time to take in and signal the feeling of fullness to your brain, preventing you from overeating and feeling like you will burst. The saliva produced from chewing also helps break down the starches in food, making it easier on the gut. Mechanically breaking down food also helps nutrients to be absorbed and prevents symptoms like constipation and bloating.
▪ Do not eat to overfull. Stop before reaching that Thanksgiving-night-about-to-pass-out-feeling. Stopping a bit before being full prevents taxation of the digestion process. This will also keep you from feeling lethargic after eating, and significantly promotes health and longevity. They have a saying in Okinawa, to eat until hara hachi bu - "belly 80% full." (Is the renowned health of Okinawans in part due to this insightful practice?)
▪ Most importantly enjoy what you are eating. Smell the food you are going to eat, and when you place it in your mouth feel the textures. Realize the complexity of taste in a food you have already eaten countless times, or that you previously considered bland. With no other distractions, truly tasting and enjoying your food starts the digestive process with a good intention.
Digestion starts at the brain, then the mouth, then the gut. People always tell us they are too busy to begin a meditation practice. Our response is always, “If you eat you can meditate." If you implement these simple steps during breakfast, lunch and dinner, you are meditating three times a day! Eating can be a pause to let go of stress and connect to yourself and the Earth. Your body and your mind will thank you.
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