There’s nothing quite as discouraging when you eat as having a stomach ache, especially if it makes you feel nauseated. Since food enters your body through your mouth to your stomach, having stomach problems can really interfere with your ability to get nourishment. It’s amazing to me how much we can eat without actually getting anything from the food we take in.
Stomach problems come in many forms. Most commonly, they are either due to an irritation of the stomach lining such as gastritis or ulcer, or from GERD – gastroesophageal reflux disease – where acid backs up into the esophagus. Symptoms include heartburn, nausea, vomiting after eating, feeling full after eating a little, waking up coughing in the night, pain in the upper abdomen, and sometimes even feeling like you have chest pain.
From the western medical perspective stomach problems come from too much acid, or from a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori which can invade the stomach lining and cause an ulcer. Since the stomach naturally has a high acid content, we often assume that if there’s burning then there’s too much acid, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the symptoms are due to the stomach not producing enough acid, which can occur as part of the aging process or from overeating.
Because we live in a fortunate part of the world where food is plentiful, it is common in the American lifestyle to eat huge portions at each meal, portions which we have come to think of as “normal.” Think about the amount of food that you are served when you go to a restaurant; the food on one plate can easily feed two people! When we take in too much food at once, the stomach must produce more stomach acid to break it down, and over time those acid-producing cells get overworked and depleted. In this case, taking supplemental hydrochloric acid can actually help with symptoms. Eating small meals more frequently helps take the load off the stomach (and helps control blood sugar levels as well).
In Chinese medicine, the Stomach and Spleen govern the ability to take in food, transform it into energy, and transport that energy throughout the body. Additionally, Chinese medicine views these physical functions as being interwoven with particular mental and emotional functions. The Spleen and Stomach are associated with the emotions of worry and sympathy, and with the mental function of focused thought or attention. Much like the taxation of overeating, obsessive overthinking and excessive worrying can contribute to problems at every stage of food intake and digestion, from ulcers to eating disorders.
As you can see, the reasons you can get stomach problems in Chinese medicine are more varied and bigger than what we see in Western medicine. If you put the two together, there are many options for treating issues. The first thing to do is to change how you eat and when you eat. It’s amazing how many people I’ve worked with get improvement in their stomach problems after just cutting out salads. I’ve also found that high-carbohydrate, grain-based white foods contribute to heartburn and esophageal reflux. Eating a more balanced diet of protein, good fat, and trading processed grains for lightly steamed vegetables can eliminate stomach problems in many people. Skipping meals isn’t recommended; neither are raw foods, especially during winter.
When you eat, you should focus on “just eating.” Eliminate distractions; try not to eat on-the-go, and turn the off the TV. Give your attention to the food you’re taking in, completely chewing each bite. After eating, go for a short, gentle walk before you settle down. Avoid eating late at night, when the body (including digestion) is going into rest mode.
Of course if you have any stomach issues, its important to make sure that you don’t have the ulcer bacteria, since that’s an infection that needs to be dealt with. There are many ways to treat the bacteria if you have it. Conventional medicine uses a three-drug regimen to treat it. Chinese medicine has numerous herbs depending on what is out of balance, and functional medicine has an herb and supplement regimen that has been shown to be effective in ridding a person’s body of the bacteria.