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Caldwell Clinic - Digestion Article - Chinese Food Photo

Caldwell Clinic - Digestion Article - Chinese Food Photo

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Dr Harreson Caldwell


Your Downtown Vancouver Acupuncture and Hypnosis Clinic


A Traditional Chinese Medicine
Point of View, by Dr. Harreson Caldwell

Although a discussion about digestion from a Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) point of view mainly focuses on the spleen and stomach, the functions of some of the other organs needs to be explained.


Did you know your kidneys work like batteries in your body?

They actually store energy just like a regular battery. The kidneys have two sections for energy or “Qi” (pronounced chi) storage. The energy we get from our parents, called the congenital Qi, is stored in one section which is the non-rechargeable battery. This section we need to preserve because it cannot be recharged.

The energy we acquire from the external -- our diet, the air we breath, and sun light -- is called the acquired Qi because we “acquire it” from the outside. This section is the rechargeable battery.

The kidneys store all of our Vital Life Force (Qi), congenital and acquired. All of our organs depend on this vital energy to carry out their many functions.   

For example, while the heart is the pump for blood circulation, energy for the pump comes from our kidney, the source.

Spleen & Stomach

According to TCM theory the spleen is responsible for the transformation and transportation of all food and liquid in the body.

It is like the generator or supplier of energy for the battery. “Transporting” our diet through the stomach, small and large intestine, so that it can be “transformed” into Qi and blood, ensures we will have an endless and necessary supply of power to charge our battery.

This is why the spleen and stomach (referred to as the earth element) are of such vital importance to TCM. Without a healthy spleen transforming function we would have no vital life force.

Something important to mention here,is that in Traditional Chinese Medicine, whenever the spleen is mentioned it includes the pancreas.

Exhaustion of this life force is very prominent in the west and for many reasons.  

For example, many people with spleen deficiency are unaware that eating raw vegetables and fruit cause a further impairment to the transforming and transporting function of the spleen because of their cold energetics.

Cold energy doesn’t mean temperature cold, although this is damaging to the spleen as well, and cold liquids can almost halt the digestive process.

Raw vegetable may be at room temperature or warm from sun light but will still have cold energy, the same as a chili pepper can be frozen but still has hot energy. Awareness of Chinese energetics and how they relate to food is of great value to planning ones diet.

Paul Pitchfords book "Healing with Whole Foods" is an excellent source to learn about these energetics. In addition, consumption of excessive amounts of sugar, fats, and refined and chemically laden food ie.( Antibiotics, preservatives, hormones, and steroids ) cause a weakening effect on the spleen function.

If the spleen function is impaired for long, dampness can result. Dampness includes any overly moist condition in the body. This can come from the environment but is usually due to poor diet and/or internal organ weakness, especially the transforming function of the spleen.


Symptoms of dampness may include a feeling of heaviness particularly in the head, bloated abdomen, no appetite, watery stools, and coating on the tongue is thick and possibly greasy.

Damp excess may appear as edema, cysts, tumours, candida, putrefactive bacteria and parasites.

Many chronic and serious illnesses involve dampness. Cancer, Multiple sclerosis., Aids, Chronic Fatigue, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and other virus or microorganism related degeneration, usually involve pathogenic dampness in conjunction with various other contributing factors like heat, wind, and/or cold.

Damp diseases have a sluggish, stagnant quality and often take a long time to cure.

Recommended Foods

Nearly all conditions improve if foods are added such as rye, amaranth, corn, aduki beans, celery, lettuce, pumpkin, scallion, alfalfa, turnip, kohlrabi and white pepper that decrease dampness in general.

Specific recommendations for foods best to be avoided in people with spleen and stomach problems are well outlined in Pitchfords book as well as in "Prince Wen Hui’s Cook" by Bob Flaws.

They include salad, citrus fruit and juice, too much salt, tofu, undercooked grain, millet, buckwheat, milk, cheese, seaweed, agar, too much liquid with meals, and too much sweet. It is of great importance to avoid raw and cold natured food.

Recommended foods are centred on whole grains and vegetables(not raw).

Foods that are naturally sweet and yellow in colour such as squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, yam, carrot, benefit the spleen.

In addition, turnip, leek, rice, oats, small amounts of chicken, turkey, mutton; cooked peach, cherry, strawberry, dried litchi and fig; cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper; tapioca and other custards; kudzu root, arrowroot; moderate amounts of sweeteners,especially barley malt and rice bran syrup.

Congees and rice porridges are easy to digest and beneficial to people with pronounced spleen and stomach weakness.

To promote good digestion, food should be carefully prepared, appropriate to the season, and eaten in a quiet relaxed manner.

Eating while reading, watching T.V. or when angry or upset does not promote good digestion no matter how good the quality of the food is.

Being present in the moment while eating, thorough chewing, and awareness of the food we are taking in, promotes digestion and helps prevent us from eating too much or too fast.

In my practice I see a consistent connection between poor digestion and emotional stress.

Chronic digestive problems will eventually lead to exhaustion because the batteries are not being charged. TCM calls it "excessive exhaustion" because it's cause is excessive thinking. Collectively we have created a very fast-paced consuming lifestyle that really challenges us as human beings.

Many patients are consumed with worry and think too much. Excessive thinking causes the liver to go out of balance, in this cycle, and interfere with the spleens transforming and transporting function.

I successfully use acupuncture and herbal formulas regularly to balance the "control cycle" relationship between the liver and spleen (Five element theory).

The five element system is comparable to a ring which has no beginning or no end.

Wood (Liver) is cut by metal (lung), fire (heart) is extinguished by water (kidney), earth (spleen) is penetrated by wood, metal is melted by fire, water is channelled and contained by earth.

The cycle represents the process by which the elements check and balance one another.

When it is normal and everything is in order, it is called a control cycle. When it is not normal a control cycle can become a destructive cycle.

A hyperactive liver becomes over controlling or attacking to the spleen which can cause severe digestive disorders such as colitis, crohns and diverticulitis.

I also help patients overcome their worry with Qi Gong emptiness meditation (no thought) combined with Qi Gong breathing exercises.

Some patients hide from their emotions with an over busy lifestyle. During acupuncture treatments they often get in touch with feelings they are trying to avoid.

We usually identify the emotions that cause the imbalance, such as over thinking and worry affecting the spleen, but it is also very important to assist patients in cultivating the emotion that brings back the balance, which in this case is trust or faith.

TCM is part of a philosophy and spirituality that fosters oneness with nature, ie. the universe.

Harreson Caldwell is a Doctor of TCM (Acupuncture, Herbology, Tuina and Qi Gong) and has been practising in Vancouver for over 13 years. Questions can be emailed to him at drhc@shaw.ca

References: 1.Treaties On The spieen And Stomach - Li Dong Yuan 2.Clinical Practice TCM - Giovanni Macciosa 3.Law Of The Five Elements - D.M. Connelly 4.Prince Hui’s Cook- Bob Flaws 5.Healing With Whole Foods - Paul Pitchford



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