Chinese Medicine, Digestive Fire, Earth Element + Food

By Tarynn Butler LAc MSTCM

One of the most important aspects of our health is the ability to process and utilize the nutrients found in the food and drinks we consume. In Chinese Medicine we associate this process with the energies of the Spleen, Stomach, and the Earth element. If these energies are vital and strong, one will have a healthy capacity to think, have good energy, healthy muscles, and regular bowel movements. If we do not properly assimilate these nutrients because of a disharmony with the Spleen organ system, symptoms such as fatigue, bloating, loose stools, undigested food in the stool, foggy headedness, excessive worry, and muzzled thoughts or prolapses can occur.

In order to avoid the aforementioned symptoms it is important to protect and support the Digestive Fire. The Digestive Fire is what helps us to break down and properly utilize the nutrients in our food. The Digestive Fire is the heat it takes to further “cook” our food to transform and transport minerals and vitamins throughout our bodies. Our Stomach literally has to heat up in order to properly digest food. This is why the philosophy of Chinese Medicine states that excessive amounts of cold and raw foods can burn out our Digestive Fires.

When your diet is primarily warm and slightly steamed or cooked foods your Digestive Fire can thrive. Cooking foods helps to break down the first few cell layers of your veggies and meats and relieve your body from the extra effort it takes to “cook” and break down the food. When you inundate your digestive system with energetically and physically cold foods and drinks you impede the digestive process. You begin to extinguish your Digestive Fire. Your body has to work much harder to assimilate food and utilize its properties. After eating you should feel content, energized and optimally not suffer from any symptoms. People who have a “crash”, feel lethargic or have any digestive complaints after a meal can greatly benefit from this practice.

This is not to say that you should not enjoy your favorite spinach salad or look foreword to a nice cold drink on a summer’s day. Life is about balance and finding the equilibrium for you and your body. This is the key. When temperatures are warmer outside you have the added element of heat to aid your fire. If most of your food is cooked and you feel great after meals with no complaints digestively or energetically you can most likely tolerate small amounts of cold and raw foods. If you have been suffering from symptoms such as a sensitive stomach, bloating, and/or your stools are not well-formed or incomplete then adding warm foods to your diet can really help to turn things around.

A few other key practices to nourishing our bodies’ Digestive Fire are getting in touch again with how people have eaten throughout time. People usually sat down in a communal or familial setting, talking and taking time to eat their food, listen and laugh together. They did not have their phones sitting next to them awaiting the next email or newest Podcast episode. People would prepare and stew meals for hours to embrace and enjoy the wonders and pleasures that food and eating have to offer. They ate at relatively regular times and without the stresses of counting calories or the intensity of sticking to intensive, restrictive diets.

People who enjoy their food and have an appreciation for the magnificence of a cooked meal tend to have fewer digestive upsets and complaints. While, yes, the times are different and we cannot always spend the hours it takes to prepare a nice meal, a few small changes where it is possible can really create lasting vitality and health in our everyday lives. A strong Digestive Fire is one of the key pillars to optimal health and, ultimately, happiness.