Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What is Healthy Digestion? The Scoop on Poop.

We all know when our digestive system is "off." The discomfort, the smells, the inconvenience. But what is healthy, "normal" digestion/elimination supposed to look like? Many people don't think they have a problem because their bowel movements have "always been like that," but daily loose stools, or bowel movements only once a week are not signs of health. Normal for you might not be healthy.

So let's start with the basics.

It doesn't matter whether the stool sinks or floats, that is dependent on the fat content of the waste. A healthy bowel movement happens 1-3 times daily, is a medium brown color and is soft, formed and easy to pass. Period. That's it. You should not be sitting on the pot for hours, reading the entirety of the 7th Harry Potter book. If your experience is different, it might be time to ask yourself what is going on.

Diet and nutrition have everything to do with healthy digestion. You eat foods that are bad for you, you will have problems with elimination. Now I say "bad for you" because not all food is bad for all people. If it was cultivated on a farm or naturally in the ocean, it is considered food. If it was created in a lab (soda, most junk foods, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, preservatives, etc) it is not food and should be avoided. Some people have food sensitivities or allergies, so certain foods, for them are off limits. Common foods in this category are Wheat/Gluten, Dairy, Egg, Corn and Soy, but there might be others as well. That being said, these foods are not inherently bad foods. They may have been adulterated or Genetically Modified in some way which makes them unhealthy in that form. Dairy for one person causes agony, while for another it is medicine. If you notice abdominal pain or loose stools (or lack of stools) after certain foods (or even hours or 3 days later) you might have a food sensitivity. Keeping a food log for a month or so can often help you track down the culprits, but sometimes eliminating whole food groups is necessary; add each questionable food back one per week to find the problem foods. If you are still struggling, you might want to meet with a food allergy/sensitivity specialist.

If your bowels are moving too fast (loose, watery, frequent) it is likely that you are not absorbing all the nutrients from your food; this can lead to malnutrition, despite taking supplements or eating "the right foods." If your bowels are moving too slowly (more than a day between bowel movements) then toxins that are normally eliminated are staying in your system too long. Many skin problems, like some forms of acne, are due to this latter situation.

According to Chinese Medicine, there are a number of reasons for "improper" bowel movements:

Spleen Qi (pronounced "chee") Deficiency-- this usually causes stools to be loose, but could also cause incomplete bowel movements. Stools can sometimes have undigested food in them (aside from corn--no one digests corn). The stools are usually a medium or darker brown color and accompanied by gas, bloating, fatigue and lack of appetite as well (the sensation of hunger, not your ability to eat). Causes of Spleen Qi Deficiency are overthinking (common with students), pensivity or too much physical work.

Liver Qi Stagnation-- since the Liver is what moves the Qi through the body, when it is stagnant, things don't move well. This can often cause constipation with sometimes days between bowel movements, or gas pain or bloating that is relieved by bowel movements. This is also the culprit when you have alternating loose stools with constipation, or extreme variations in the texture and quality of your bowel movements. This is often the cause of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). You may also have headaches, irritability, muscle tension and frequent sighing or yawning when not necessarily fatigued. Causes of Liver Qi Stagnation are stress, frustration, anger, unfulfilled desires, not moving your body enough.

Heat in the Large Intestines--sometimes stagnation can lead to heat (like friction that builds in an engine when the gas and brake are simultaneously applied). These stools are often dry and hard, are sometimes painful to pass. Sometimes there is bright red bleeding on the stools (if it is mixed into the stools or stools are black, see your gastroenterologist right away). If it is toxic heat, the stools could be lighter brown or yellow in color, loose or watery,  as well as having a foul odor. Heat can be caused by long term Liver Qi Stagnation, insufficient cooling, Yin Deficiency, or eating too many hot spicy foods.

General helpful tips:

In general, drink half your body weight in ounces of water per day (For example, if you weigh 150 lbs, drink 75 oz of water every day). Fruits, vegetables and non-caffeinated beverages, like herbal tea, count toward the total. For every 8oz of caffeine that you drink (coffee or tea--you are not drinking soda, of course) you need to drink16 oz of water to make up for the diuretic properties of those drinks.

Probiotics are a must for all irregular bowel problems. For daily health you'll want a product that has 1-5 billion organisms per dose, up to 20 billion if you don't have healthy bowel movements every day as described above. You can also find probiotics in real yogurt (with multiple strains of live active cultures) or kefir daily. If you are avoiding dairy, fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee or kombucha are all great options.

Eating enough fruits and vegetables is essential to over all health as well as healthy digestion. This, again, adds to your overall water intake, but the fiber with the water is a great combination. Green smoothies are great, especially in the Spring and Summer when the weather is warmer (usually too cold for the fall and winter--depending on where you live). If you fall under the Spleen Qi deficiency category, you might want to drink this once a week until your Spleen is stronger and only at room temperature, never cold. Start with a green leafy vegetable or two (kale, collards, romaine lettuce, spinach, chard, mustard or dandelion greens), add 2-3 types of fruit, some form of protein (yogurt, whey protein, hemp protein, etc), chia/hemp/flax seeds and a liquid (I like almond or coconut milk, but water or other types of milk work too). Blend and drink.

Specific helpful tips:

With Spleen Qi Deficiency, make sure you don't have any food sensitivities that are causing your loose stools. Sometimes removing those foods is all you need to do. Beyond that, eating more cooked foods rather than raw. If you digestive system is very weak, the coldness of the raw can be very depleting to the Spleen and worsen the problem. Brown rice (long cooked), oatmeal, flax, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato, lentils, broad beans, salmon, chicken and turkey are all foods that benefit the Spleen.

With Liver Qi Stagnation the best thing you can do is move your body. Whether it is going for a walk, a swim, a bike ride or taking a yoga class, moving your body will move your Qi. Doing gentle twists can also help. Lie down on your back and pull your knees into your chest. Pause and take 3 deep breaths in and out, expanding the belly as you inhale and letting it contract while you exhale. Keeping your knees close to your torso, drop them over to your left side as you look to your right. Feel free to place pillows or blankets under your knees or your right shoulder for support if you feel strained. Maintain the twist and breathe deeply into your lower belly, just like before. Inhale and exhale as fully and completely as possible for 5-10 breaths, then repeat to the other side.

With Heat in the Large Intestine, avoid hot spicy foods of all types, including foods containing hot peppers, cayenne, basil, rosemary, cinnamon, wasabi and ginger. If it is a "food poisoning" or "stomach bug" situation, the best thing to do is stay hydrated and let it run it's course. Trying to stop the bowel movements will only prevent the bacteria from being able to leave your body. If you have constipation from Heat, make sure you are getting enough water in your diet, as well as moistening foods like coconut oil, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, dried fruit like prunes and figs (they are "dried" but are moistening to the intestines), and dark green leafy vegetables. Helpful cooling foods are foods such as yogurt, seaweeds, cucumbers, celery, apples, melon and all citrus, as well as spices such as peppermint, dandelion greens and root, cilantro and marjoram.

As with all health problems, the more chronic a condition, the more it needs to be seen by a medical professional, Eastern and Western. A healthy gut means a healthy person.

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