Thursday, November 26, 2009

An In-Depth Look: Stomach Fire & Its Treatment

By Karen Litton, L.Ac.

Gastro-intestinal issues are common complaints in both Western and Eastern Medicine. In Chinese Medicine, the Stomach is one of our most important yang organs. Together with the Spleen, it is the basis of our post-natal Qi (the body’s energy). Post-natal Qi is the Qi we gather after our birth from the air we breathe and the food we eat. The Stomach’s main function is to aid in digestion and the production of food Qi. A hyperactive Stomach, especially when combined with worry, overwork, or emotional problems, or the hot energy from foods or drink, can lead to Stomach fire. Stomach fire can cause the energy of the Stomach to flow upward (instead of downward, its usual course), causing us to feel the symptoms of heartburn, or acid reflux.

The Stomach needs large quantities of yin to help its digestion. If its capacity to hold the yin is damaged (perhaps by irregular eating, or indulging in mental work while eating, or disease), then a form of heat can develop in the Stomach. We call this empty heat, and it can lead to symptoms such as gastric pain, constipation, a dry mouth, mouth sores, toothaches, or a burning pain in the epigastria. Stomach fire can also be considered an excess type of heat, which burns yin fluids, thus obstructing the Stomach. This can result in symptoms of acid regurgitation, nausea or the sensation of wanting to vomit. In addition, fire in the Stomach can affect the mind, causing insomnia.

There are other emotional and physical issues that can impact the state of our Stomach. The Stomach represents our ability to accept nourishment, which can therefore manifest as difficulty accepting support or nourishment from others, or from a spiritual source outside ourselves. Another manifestation of the Stomach is too much worrying. Any of these Stomach imbalances can bring an inability to rest the mind. Lack of exercise can further exacerbate this problem by not supporting the movement of Qi, which in turn can lead to stagnation in the body.

Western conditions associated with Stomach fire include chronic gastritis, gingivitis, acid reflux, and mouth ulcers. In Western Medicine, acid reflux, commonly called heart-burn, is when the liquid contents of the stomach flow upward into the esophagus, the muscular canal connecting the throat to the stomach. This can cause a burning sensation that can damage the inner lining of the esophagus. The proper Western Medical term for acid reflux is Gastro-esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD). The Western Medical treatments for GERD are lifestyle changes, as well as medications, some over-the-counter.

Before we consider the treatment of Stomach fire from a Western approach, let us look at the role of hydrochloric acid in our digestive processes, as many of the Western drugs prescribed for stomach acid problems are designed to affect this acid. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) is important to the pH of our stomach and is necessary for optimal health. HCl is required for protein digestion in our stomach. It also is a protective agent in our digestive system for ingested pathogens, and prevents bacterial or fungal overgrowth in the small intestine. In addition, it encourages the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes, and facilitates absorption of a variety of nutrients necessary to several metabolic processes. Therefore, good health and the presence of immunity depend on the existence of an adequate production of HCl and its presence in the blood stream / fluids of our body. Thus, with a reduction of HCl, we can experience a loss of immunity, an imbalance in our blood chemistry (the pH balance), and poor digestion/assimilation.

Another action that occurs in the body from a reduction of HCl is that the body makes up for it by substituting another acid to maintain the blood pH levels. Acid wastes assume the role of HCl in the blood chemistry. They begin to accumulate in our body and challenge the alkaline reserves – causing those reserves to be depleted – thus impacting this pH balance. This change in the pH balance is another factor in the reduced ability of our body to combat invading micro-organisms. Grave results can then appear in our metabolism. Western Medicine shares the same viewpoint of Chinese Medicine, in that the presence of the emotions of worry, grief, anxiety, and depression can lead to a deficiency in the production of gastric fluids, contributing to these degenerative processes.

In treating GERD/Acid Reflux/Stomach Fire with acupuncture and herbal formulas, or with drugs from Western Medicine, it is important to evaluate the function and capability of the Stomach.

Digestion is not just about what you eat, but how well the body is digesting, absorbing and eliminating what you give it. This is an important consideration for both Western Doctors when they prescribe drugs, and for Chinese Medical Doctors when they determine acupuncture treatments and herbal preparations.

Herbs and drugs that alter the pH of the Stomach will affect their absorption. Antacids are predominant used in Western Medicine to treat indigestion, reflecting the opinion that hyperacidity is the cause of the symptoms. The change in pH produced by these drugs, as they interfere with the HCl production, adversely affects the gut’s microbial flora. This has been shown to lead to the promotion of an overgrowth of Helicobacter pylori – the organism linked to ulcers and Stomach cancer. In Western Medicine, the etiologic factors causing a lack of or impaired HCl production are not well understood in Western Medicine. Studies indicate that an important cause of these gastro-intestinal problems could be a lack of HCl secretion.

The Western approach used to treat Stomach acidity includes Axid, Maalax, Mylanta, Zantac, Pepcid and Tagamet, Prilosec (which absorbs HCl acid), and Rolaids/Tums (which neutralize stomach acid). The Western treatment with Tums (which has calcium) blocks the HCl from touching the esophagus. Prilosec and Prevocet work by blocking the production of stomach acid. By reducing the hydrochloric acid of the stomach through drugs, you do not address the underlying cause of the disorder. The situation responsible for creating the fire is still operating, although the symptoms are now repressed. As a result, the Heat can be driven deeper, which may manifest later as a different health problem – such as inflammation, or muscle and joint pain.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, in the form of teas and pills, are useful for resolving Stomach fire by addressing the underlying cause of this condition. By working with the body’s systems overall, harmony is restored in the internal pathways and organs, and the situation leading to the Stomach fire is alleviated.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Food Is Medicine: Roasted Root Vegetable

“Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” -- Hippocrates, 460-359 BC
By Karen Litton, L.Ac.

The relationship between food and health has long been explored by both Western and Eastern medicines. Throughout Chinese history, diet has been one of the four pillars of individual responsibility that leads to good health. These pillars are diet, exercise, mindfulness and lifestyle. Food is one of the ways we stay either in balance or out of balance with the world around us. Food can be a contributor to sickness, as well as a main support for a healthy, long life.

As food was studied and analyzed over the millennia, the medicinal properties of different foods were noted. In the Western diet, foods are broken down into their constituents of proteins, calories, carbohydrates, vitamins, etc. In Chinese medicine, one looks for not only vitamins and minerals, but also for the energetic properties of food and the body’s relationship to that energetic. Just as your practitioner prescribes certain herbal decoctions or pills based on your particular needs, different foods are suggested for different people at particular times to support a specific healing path.

The Chinese medicine system is based on observation of nature in all its forms – including the seasons, temperature, movement of the elements, and tastes. In applying these principles to food, we can affect the balance of our body, mind and spirit.

The Stomach and Spleen are the organ systems in Chinese medicine that involve the food we take in, breaking it down, and transporting it through the body. This is part of an important process that produces “post-natal” Qi, which is the energy our body creates after we are born. It is based on the food we ingest and the air we breathe. Different energies from food affect the production of post-natal Qi in various ways. Your practitioner considers a couple of factors when deciding which foods to recommend to you. They are based on the concept of yin and yang.

Many of you have heard of the terms “yin” and “yang” as concepts in Chinese medicine. Yin and yang convey the Chinese approach to balance and healing -- a balance that is always shifting. The Chinese symbol for yin is the shady side of a hill, while the symbol for yang is the sunny side. Therefore Yin qualities include coolness, dampness, and darkness relative to the yang qualities of warmth, dryness and light.

In general, yin foods are more cooling and moistening to the body. Yang foods are more warming and drying. Something that grows in the air and sun is often yang. Those foods that grow in the earth or darkness have a more yin nature. Soft, wet, and cool foods are also yin, like melons. Foods needing heating up (like meat) are usually yang. The summer is a more yang time, while the winter is yin. Thus, foods like salads and other raw foods, which have a more yin effect on the body, are better
eaten in the summer when the weather is hotter and our body may need some cooling. However, these foods are not the best to eat in the cooler months and during the winter when our body needs more warming type foods.

Another factor to consider from a Chinese perspective is to define the nature/energy of foods as hot, cold, warm, cool, and neutral. The energy of foods is its capacity to generate these temperatures in the human body. This energy represents the “effect” of a particular food on our body. For example, green tea, even when drunk hot, has a “cooling” nature on our body.

In light of these principles, it is important to note that a person’s choice of foods can also affect one’s mood. Too much hot/yang food can lead to over-excitement, or even agitation. Too much yin/cold foods can lead to a feeling of lethargy and heaviness in the body. The Chinese idea is to eat both types of food to keep the body in balance. Thus, if you are dealing with a certain situation in life that has you all fired up, or you are a type of person who gets emotionally worked up a lot, then you might find a diet with a lot of yang or hot foods to be too energizing for you. It might be suggested that you limit certain yang foods in your diet.

Though this is just an overview of some of the principles involved in food therapy from a Chinese perspective, paying attention to the foods one eats is an ancient healing modality spanning many cultures. These principles make sense and when put into action. Health is a state of balance in which food choice is a key.

The fall is a transition time, as we are moving from the heat of summer to a cooler time of the year. Some of the vegetables we harvest at this time are squashes, turnips, carrots, beets and sweet potatoes. Let us take a moment to apply the principles we have mentioned to these root vegetables. These foods grow in the soil and are more yin in nature. Energetically, they are warming foods for our digestion. Many, like the squashes, have a sweet taste. They are all very nourishing to our Spleen and Stomach, and help us to build stamina for the coming cooler season.

On the previous page, there is a recipe for roasting root vegetables -- one that is good for your digestion, nourishment and enjoyment!


How To Roast Root Vegetables

· Cut up any mixture of the following root vegetables: squashes, turnips, carrots, beets and sweet potatoes.

· You can include onions and peppers, if you like.

· Mix all with a light coating of olive oil.

· Add a spice like basil or rosemary, and mix it all thoroughly.

· Spread in a baking dish or cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 30 – 90 minutes, depending on how thick your slices are.

Have fun eating and take care of yourself throughout the seasons!