Your gut is an emotional organ. Don’t think so? You’ve heard people talk about having butterflies in their stomach, a gut feeling, a nervous stomach, or a visceral reaction—all of which allude to the idea that our emotions are strongly related to your gut and digestion.
One of the most common patterns of imbalance that I see in the clinic is something called a Liver and Spleen disharmony. This just means that strong emotions are interfering with the digestive process. The example I use is when my high school boyfriend dumped me, I couldn’t eat for the better part of a month. A Liver and Spleen disharmony is the same thing—just in slow motion.
Your Chinese Liver is an organ system that oversees the smooth flow of everything in your body, including digestion, bowels, circulation, menses, and emotions. Stress, anger, or an emotional upset can cause the Liver system to stagnate. When this happens, one of the first things it affects is your Chinese Spleen, which is your organ of digestion.
In the clinic this pattern is a player in many, if not most, conditions affecting my patients. It can manifest in conditions such as Irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, depression, insomnia, PMS, fatigue, and even obesity, to name just a few.
So what exactly is happening when you are stressed out, upset or worried? Your stomach is a muscle, and when you’re in the emotional wringer that stomach muscle contracts, making it difficult for you to digest much of anything.
Why you have this reaction goes back to the fight or flight response you experience when you are stressed or feel threatened. Your body responds by shutting down those functions that aren’t necessary to run or fight, including digestion. The idea is that in ancient times, feeling threatened was a short-lived affair—only as long as it took to chase off or kill the wild animal lingering in front of your cave.
Today, however, many of us are in a constant state of fight or flight due to the unrelenting stress of our daily lives—whether it’s a cranky boss, a sick kid, a late mortgage payment, or having too much to do. Constant emotional upheaval doesn’t give your body time to recover its equilibrium, and your digestion stays on the back burner, unable to do its job effectively.
What can you do to get your digestion back on track and working efficiently? The most important thing to know is that it’s a two-step process: getting your stress and emotions under control, while you pamper your digestive tract. Acupuncture can be extremely effective for this kind of imbalance. In fact, many of my patients who have recovered from this kind of pattern never dreamt that they could ever feel good again. Some things you can do for yourself:
-Calm down and chill out. This may seem to be the most obvious, but is often the hardest thing to do. Find time during your day to relax; whether you take a yoga class, meditate, go fishing, or take a stroll in the woods. Without decompressing, your emotions and digestion will not have an opportunity to recover.
-Pamper your digestion. This means sitting down and actually eating a meal—not something on the run in between meetings or kids’ sporting events. This also means eating good food, fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and a little protein. Cooking most of your food makes it easier to digest—raw foods take more digestive effort to break down. The same goes for very cold foods; when you drink or eat something frozen, it uses up a lot of your digestive energy. Chewing your food and enjoying the dining process will help you digest your meal more effectively.