Monday, January 24, 2011

Probiotics and Chinese Medicine

Many of you have heard about probiotics. For those of you who haven't, probiotics are beneficial bacteria. We all have them in our intestines and women have them inside their vaginas (lack of these beneficial bacteria is what leads to yeast infections).  Antibiotics kill bacteria when there is an infection in your body, but they are often non-discriminating and kill off the good bacteria as well as the bad. This is why many people experience digestive symptoms after taking antibiotics. Probiotics are used to replenish the good bacteria that you have lost. However, antibiotics are not the only thing that can deplete us of our good bacteria. Poor diet and stress can also do that over time.

But let's look at the Eastern perspective.

According to Chinese Medicine, digestion is the realm of the Spleen. When the Spleen is functioning properly it separates the "pure" from the "turbid" in the food that we eat; the pure is transformed into the Qi and the Blood and the turbid becomes waste. When the Spleen is weak or over burdened with too much sugar, refined, raw or cold foods, you experience symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, loose stools, constipation, flatulence and lots of phlegm (like chronic sinus congestion). Antibiotics are seen as very cold (since they attack infections which are hot) so they easily damage the Spleen, causing many of the above symptoms. Probiotics, since they aid digestion, are seen as a Spleen tonic. They warm and improve the Spleen's function thereby repairing the damage that antibiotics cause.

Even without antibiotic use the Spleen can become damaged. As I mentioned before poor diet can affect the Spleen, but emotions can also cause injure it. The Spleen is vulnerable to over-thinking, obsessive thinking, too much mental or physical work. When you are stuck in your head, it is not good for your Spleen. When your Spleen is damaged by your emotions, you might experience a "knot" in your stomach, or bowel irregularities (incomplete bowel movements, alternating between loose and hard stools) or when it is really chronic, more extreme conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Colitis. Probiotics can help with many of these conditions by regulating the bowel movements, seen by Chinese Medicine as improving Spleen function.

According to the Western view of physiology, about 70% of your immune system is found in your gastrointestinal tract. According to the Eastern view of physiology, the Spleen makes the Wei Qi (see Nov. 1st blog entry). Either way, your digestive system plays a huge role in the state of your immune system. Regular probiotic intake can play a big part in keeping your immune system healthy. Probiotics are found mostly in fermented foods, like saurkraut, high quality yogurt, kefir, natto, miso, kombucha as well as in raw dairy products. You can also buy probiotic supplements in your local natural food store or vitamin store.

Keep your Spleen and your immune system happy by eating warm, cooked, easily digestible foods and probiotics. A little goes a long way to keeping you healthy!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Balance of Yin and Yang

Happy New Year! Now that "holiday eating" is behind us we can start to look ahead at health in the new year (of course the Chinese new year is not for another month...). Winter is the time when our energy retreats inward, think hibernation. It is cold and dark outside so we tend to spend more time indoors where it is warm. Unless you wear shorts and a T-shirt in the snow, the key to health in the winter is not to encourage more cold by eating a lot of raw, chilled or frozen foods. Think stews, soups and tea!

Health is about balance. Too much of a good thing is still too much and can cause problems. When it comes to heat (Yang) and cold (Yin) in the body the same is true. If either is out of balance, we are out of balance. Too much heat (or not enough cool) and we dry up; too much cool (or not enough heat) and we can't get warm and get very damp and phlegmy.  In either case we can end up with blockages in our energy flow. Qi flows best with just enough heat and cool.

How do I know that I have "just enough?"

When you experience symptoms (like those I'm about to list) you know that you are out of balance. If you are symptom free, you are balanced.

If you have too much heat (excess yang) you might experience: headaches, red face, sweats (or sweat easily with little or no exertion),  high blood pressure, dark concentrated urine, stomach pain/pressure, acid reflux, constipation, heavy menstrual flow, overly strong libido, acne.

If you have not enough cool (deficient yin) you might experience: insomnia, night sweats, dry skin, hot flashes (with or without sweats), hot hands, feet and chest.

If you have too much cold ("excess yin")*, you might experience: lower back pain that is better with heat, difficulty getting warm, poor digestion, loose or watery stools, infertility, frequent urination, painful menstrual periods, fixed joint pain.
*Clinically you don't typically see "excess yin," but you can have excess cold that comes from the enviornment or from eating too much cold, raw or chilled/frozen food.

If you have not enough heat (deficient yang), you might experience: chronic lower back pain that is better with heat, 5am diarrhea, loose/watery stools with undigested food in the stools, low or no libido, edema especially in the lower body, frequent copious urination, poor digestion.

So what can I do?

In addition to seeing an acupuncturist to get your exact diagnosis, you can start with some basic wisdom. If you seem to fall into the excess yang or deficient yin category, you can probably get away with eating more cooling foods. However, you still don't want to overdo it or you will find yourself in the "too much cold" category. Avoid spicy foods as well since they may exacerbate your symptoms. Aim for "cooling" foods, like:

cucumbers, asparagus, celery, button mushrooms, yogurt (good yogurt, not yoplait), amaranth, millet, wild rice, apple, avocado, blueberry, pear, lima beans, mung beans, chammomile and peppermint.

If you seem to fall into the "excess yin" or deficient yang category, eating warming foods is in your best interest. Most of your food should be cooked and warm when you eat it. If you do eat raw food, like fruit, make sure that it is at least room temperature. "Warming" food examples:

meat, chicken, turkey, ham, shrimp, lobster, oats, quinoa, sweet rice, kale, leek, onion, pepper, squash, sweet potato, blackberry, cherry, date, basil, cardamon, cinnamon, clove, cumin, fresh ginger (dry is hotter than fresh and better for excess cold), nutmeg, oregano, miso, walnut, jasmine, black beans, chestnut, coconut and coconut milk. 

Eat for health!