Digestion is crucial to overall health. If your digestion isn’t working, then the rest of your body can slowly start to fall apart: Your sleep will become poor, you'll lack energy, your bowel movements will change, your skin will be affected, and much more.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the most important organs that we look at are the liver, spleen, and stomach. The liver can affect your digestion because stress affects the liver, and the liver will affect either the spleen or the stomach. If the liver affects the spleen, you may see symptoms such as irritability, abdominal distention, and pain; you may be hungry but get full only after a few bites of food or thirsty but have no desire to drink; there may be alternating constipation and diarrhea and a lot of gas—to name just a few symptoms. If the liver affects the stomach, you might see more upper-digestive issues such as acid reflux, hiccups, belching, nausea, and vomiting, and you may retain food in your stomach for a longer period of time and have distention in you upper abdomen, and more.
Also, if you've experienced hunger so strong that no matter how much you eat, it's still not enough, we may diagnosis this as “Stomach Fire." This means that there's so much heat in your stomach that it just burns up all the food and you have to eat more and more. You may also have symptoms such as bad breath, bleeding gums, mental restlessness, acid reflux, and an intense thirst for cold drinks.
In TCM, other organs may be involved and certainly other patterns can cause digestive issues as well. But there are just a few herbs that could help people suffering from digestive issues. These herbs are often used in combination with other Chinese herbs for best results. Some of the herbs are easy to get, and others only your TCM practitioner can get for you. Please consult your TCM practitioner before taking any of the following herbs:
1. Geng Mi
Simply put, this is rice! In TCM, rice is very soothing to the digestive system. It's also sweet in flavor (not sugar sweet but carrots or broccoli sweet), and sweet is tonifying and strengthening.
It's considered helpful in managing thirst, diarrhea, and fatigue, which is why it's included in one of the most popular dishes in Asian cultures, congee, a type of rice porridge. You can make different types of congee depending on what ails you by adding different herbs, vegetables, or meats.
2. Ji Nei Jin
Also known as “chicken inner golden," Ji Nei Jin is a form of chicken gizzards. They are used to promote digestion but are especially good for moving stagnant food.
When you eat too much and feel that the food is just sitting in your belly, not moving, this herb is good to add into your formula. It's also considered helpful for nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, moving undigested foods, and severe indigestion.
3. Shan Zha
Shan Zha is a hawthorn berry, and it's one of my favorite herbs. You can buy it and drink it as a tea after every meal. It's sweet and sour in taste and is considered one of the strongest food stagnation herbs around. I find it particularly good if you are having problems digesting meats and fats.
Shan Zha is also known for its cardiovascular benefits. Drinking it as a tea may help—but you would have to take the tea in large quantities and for a very long period of time because it's not concentrated enough.
4. Mai Ya
This is barley. It's good for food stagnation, but mostly it's used to facilitate digestion of starches and carbohydrates. A good idea might be to cook with barley, instead of rice or pasta. One thing to note is that if you are breastfeeding, large amounts of barley could inhibit lactation, although small doses might promote lactation.
5. Chen Pi
This is actually the peel of an orange or a tangerine. This herb can help regulate your whole digestive system and is good for your spleen and stomach issues, including nausea, vomiting, belching, abdominal fullness, and distention or pain.
It's also bitter, which means it can help drain dampness. Dampness in your digestive system can affect you appetite and cause you to have loose stool, always be tired, and have a thick, greasy tongue coating. FYI: Never brush your tongue when you go see an acupuncturist because that tongue coat can tell us a lot about what's going on in your body!