What really stands out about the Chinese attitude to food is the focus on digestion, on how you’re eating. Whole schools of thought were developed as far back as the 12th century, stressing ‘the importance of preserving stomach qi’ for good health. For thousands of years, Chinese practitioners have been preaching that digestion and gut health are vital for both body and mind.
It’s only been in the past ten years or so that Western medicine has come around to this way of thinking. Whereas the gut used to be considered simply a place for digestion and a small part of the immune system, it’s now thought that a healthy microbiome – the millions of good bacteria that live in your gut – is the seat of good health.
There are now over 50,000 research papers on the microbiome and decoding the intricate interplay of how your gut affects both physical and mental health. Did you know the digestive system has its own nervous system, for example, with more nerve cells than the entire spinal cord? Or that over 90 per cent of the mood hormone serotonin is found in the gut?
You’ve likely felt the digestion-mind link in your own body: when you overeat, you feel sluggish in body and brain. And when you feel nervous, you can often have ‘butterflies’ in your stomach or feel nauseous.
Chinese thinking about digestion ties your emotions very closely to the processing of food, too. The stomach is paired with the spleen in Chinese medicine, to make up the main organs of digestion. And interestingly, these organs also have the function of digesting sensations and information.
How to digest better
In Chinese wisdom, stress is seen as bad for digestion, causing stagnation (blockages in your body’s flow of Qi).
So, give your digestion the time and space it needs to work properly as you live your full-on life. It’s also a good idea, throughout the day, to recalibrate your body to its rest phase, as this is also its digest phase (with my Rescue Breath Ritual, for example).
Love your food
In a Western understanding of the body, saliva begins digestion, making food easy to swallow and starting the breakdown of starches. But it has a bigger role according to Chinese medicine, where it’s considered incredibly important for health. And it’s said your emotions affect the quality both of your saliva and of your digestive juices. As Taoist Master Mantak Chia has written, some Taoist texts refer to swallowing saliva up to 1,000 times a day for health. And Taoists say when you are relaxed, something called ‘the longevity hormone’ is released into the saliva.
If you mindlessly rush your food or, worse, feel guilty after eating, this is bad for the quality of your saliva. The same is true for eating while angry or bitter. If this sounds like you, it’s fine to eat well 70 per cent of the time, and for the other 30 per cent to eat what you like – but do try not to attach guilt or any other negative emotions to food.
Extracted from Yang Sheng – the art of Chinese Self-Healing
This is just the start. Poor gut health is tied to nearly every disease there is in some way, because this is where much of our immune system lives and where inflammation often begins. If you’d like to learn more, I’m running a masterclass on How to Heal your Gut, on Monday March 29th at 7pm UK.