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Last updated on December 28, 2020

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 quality can suffer, you may lack energy, your bowel movements can change, your skin may 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.

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Also, if you've experienced hunger so strong that no matter how much you eat, it's still not enough, we may diagnose 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 might 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 doctor and a 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 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.

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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 thought to have 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.

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5. Chen Pi

This is actually the peel of an orange or a tangerine. This herb can help regulate your whole digestive system and according to TCM, is though to help with 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.

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before trying herbal treatments. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what treatment is right for you.
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Marina Dabcevic, DAOM, LAc
Marina Dabcevic, DAOM, LAc

Marina Dabcevic, DAOM, LAc, earned her Master's Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture at Yo San University in Los Angeles, California. After successfully passing the national boards and California licensing exams. Marina earned her doctorate in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington. During this time she completed a 1-year internship at Skagit Valley Regional Cancer Care Center, where she worked closely with doctors and patients. She also completed an internship at two prestigious hospitals in China. Prior to her studies in Eastern medicine, Marina earned a diploma in Reflexology and a Bachelor Degree in Homeopathy at the Nature Care College in Sydney, Australia.

As a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, Marina specializes in oncology and chronic pain management. Her approach is holistic, taking into account not only each patient's physical state but also his or her mental and emotional states. She often works with specialist doctors to offer an integrated approach that assists their current treatments.