In East Asian Medicine, weak digestion is a pathology of Earth Element and relates to the Stomach and Spleen organs. Each organ moves energy in a specific direction in this medicine. The Stomach’s natural movement is downward, which makes sense when we consider the motility of the digestive tract. (Our view of the Spleen is somewhat different from the allopathic model, and is best considered as the pancreas. We say the Spleen Qi ascends. This energy lifts and holds the organs, prevents prolapse, and does so by nourishing and circulating the body’s energy).  

The Spleen’s role in East Asian Medicine is to transform the food the Stomach takes in and transport that energy throughout the body to the other systems.  

This is partly why we say “Earth is at the center” in our medicine. If Earth is not harmonious, the digestion will be poor, energy will not circulate to the other systems, the person will feel fatigued, and overall health will suffer.  

Our emotions factor into this picture too.

Earth Element is damaged by worry and overthinking. Earth is also depleted by too much sitting, as well as by Damp foods (such as refined sugar, dairy, or cold or iced drinks). These foods create what we call Phlegm, which obstructs the channels and prevents the natural flow of energy throughout the body.  

Further complicating this is the influence of Wood Element. You can see in the diagram I include here, that there is a straight line between Wood and Earth. Through this line we say Wood controls (or stabilizes) Earth.  

In order to have healthy digestion, we absolutely must have both healthy Wood and Earth in our energetic makeup, creating a perfect balance on both ends of this straight line. Wood governs the Liver and the Gallbladder in East Asian Medicine, two important organs for our digestion, even in the allopathic paradigm. We always want Wood to be healthy to have healthy Earth.  

Consider healthy Earth as a lovely garden with tilled and nourished soil and well growing plants. Consider unhealthy Wood as weeds that suddenly rage out of control and overtake the garden. This is the dynamic when Wood overcontrols Earth.  

This pattern will present as symptoms such as gas, bloating, indigestion, IBS, heartburn, and GERD.  

It need not take much to set this pattern off. When I meet a new patient, I will ask if they take time to enjoy their meals. Often I will get an odd look. In modern life, most people are pushing down a quick meal to get to work, errands, a movie, to name but a few. How we eat our meals is often overlooked. We will examine this idea more in Part 2 of this newsletter.  

In this newsletter, I’d like to focus on the energy of anger though. Variations of this energy might look like irritability or frustration. We may also just call it stress. We live in a pretty frustrated world, a world that presses down on us, a world where we feel pressure and often don’t find ourselves with much time to exhale.  

This affects your digestion.  

If you are struggling with digestive distress, consider your emotions. You probably don’t consider yourself an angry person. But you might consider that your stress levels are high. High stress, especially if prolonged, will cause Wood Element to overcome Earth. Digestive symptoms will follow. It’s as simple as that.  

The good news is, acupuncture can help, along with lifestyle changes and practices like Qi Gong, T’ai Chi, and yoga, and sometimes we need herbal medicine too.  

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog when we will talk about the element of Fire and the emotional bearing that Fire has on both our digestive health and our interpersonal relationships. Life does not happen in a vacuum. The Five Elements offer us a dance, a set of interrelationships and a way to understand ourselves. A clinical symptom isn’t merely an expression of a single body part. Symptoms are an expression of an entire system that has fallen out of balance and is asking for harmony. This is why I love this medicine. It considers all of you: body, mind, and soul.



Maria Mandarino

Maria Mandarino

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