Claire* is a patient who came to see me for acupuncture a couple of years ago. She was deeply unhappy and stressed out in her present job, and was struggling with mild depression. She also complained that she was gaining weight around her waist, and it was hard for her to eat healthfully because she had such strong cravings for sweets.
This trio of symptoms—emotional upset, sugar cravings, and belly fat—is a pattern that I see in many of my patients. They come to me because they want to feel better emotionally, but also don’t like the fact that they’re gaining all this weight, especially around the middle. In addition, when they try to control their eating, all they can do is reach for a Kripsy Kreme.
Gaining weight around your waist increases your risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. We’ve all heard about the risks of having an apple shaped figure versus a healthier pear shape. Also, people who are under a great deal of stress or emotional turmoil secrete higher levels of stress hormones that can cause weight to accumulate around the middle.
But what’s going on from the standpoint of Chinese medicine? I’ve talked about the disharmony between your Chinese Liver and Spleen in previous posts. This is a common pattern in which strong negative emotions impact your digestion, causing a whole host of hellish symptoms from nausea or a lack of appetite to an uncomfortable lump in your throat, and can even wreak havoc with your bowels.
This upset digestive theory explains a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily account for the fat tire around the middle that I see in so many of my patients. To understand what’s going on, I’d like to talk a little about an infrequently mentioned organ, called the Triple Burner. That’s right, there’s an organ in Chinese medicine called the Triple Burner, and the best way to explain how it works is to think about a rice steamer.
In your standard rice steamer, you put some water in the bottom, a little rice in a pan above the water, and turn it on. The cooker heats up the water, which usually steams the rice to perfection. In your body, the digestive process works the same way. Your internal pilot light (Yang) heats up the food you eat, and turns it into nutrients and energy in what’s called your Middle Burner. The steam that rises from the rice, or your Upper Burner, is similar to the respiration that comes from your breath, and the water in the bottom, or your Lower Burner, is a bit like the waste that’s excreted after your food is digested.
In an ideal world, or a healthy body, this whole rice cooker/Triple Burner, digestive process works really well. However, as I mentioned above, the process can easily be upset by strong emotions. When that happens, your rice cooker goes on the fritz, and you get gummy rice, clogging up your Middle Burner. After weeks, and even years of upset digestion, that gummy rice has nowhere to go, except to settle around your middle, and is called…um, Belly Fat. If that’s not enough, a clogged up Triple Burner can cause lung problems in the form of phlegm, asthma, or bronchitis in your Upper Burner, and bowel, bladder, or yeast problems in your Lower Burner.
In addition, there is a flavor associated with each organ in Chinese medicine, in which a little bit of the flavor is beneficial, but too much is damaging. The flavor associated with digestion is sweet. That’s why you frequently want something a little sweet after you eat a meal—to aid your digestion. However, like Claire, people who have very poor digestion (broken rice cooker) will often have out of control cravings for sugar, indicating that their digestion is off. Unfortunately, eating more sugar just increases the damage. For people like Claire who have sugar cravings, the only solution is to cut out all sugar, and as their digestion improves, the cravings will subside. Acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and food therapy can help here.
It used to be that you were being blown off when a doctor told you that your symptoms were all in your head. However, the Chinese have a saying that “The emotions are the cause of one hundred diseases”. My point is that in most cases the road to better physical health is by settling the emotions.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.