Welcome to The Now Age, our tribute to the fascinating and ever-evolving landscape of alternative wellness. From reiki to plant medicine, we're taking a closer look at how holistic healing can factor into the modern woman's lifestyle—with curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism.
There's about one week out of every month that I'm not a human blimp. The other three weeks, I'm floating through the sky with a Goodyear banner slapped across me, especially during my period. It's a painful, gassy feeling that makes me look like I'm in my first trimester and worse on some days than others. When I've asked Western doctors and gynecologists for help figuring out a remedy to decompress, I've either been told A) there's no remedy (fun!) or B) I should keep a food diary and find the common denominators. The latter was actually quite helpful—in doing this, I've weaned out dairy, white flour, beans, and spinach from my daily food intake, but sometimes (especially in the case of dairy and white flour), avoiding these foods completely isn't always feasible, and the bloat hits me like a tidal wave. I'd rather not pop pills or anti-gas supplements, so I began researching natural remedies.
When The/Thirty's managing editor, Victoria, challenged us to try an alternative wellness treatment, I chose traditional Chinese medicine knowing there's a strong emphasis on proper digestion in Chinese culture, hoping it would help my bloating situation. According to Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP, the spleen is actually more of a focal point in digestion than the stomach in TCM. It's said to be responsible for extracting "qi" (or life energy) from the food we eat and keep things moving throughout our system. It's also connected to our brains, helping to regulate emotions. (When I'm bloated, I'm miserable, so that connection makes perfect sense.) When our spleen experiences a qi deficiency, this leads to bloating, being chronically tried, poor bowel movements, and physical or mental blocks. Curious how to recalibrate my own spleen qi, I tried several TCM remedies for seven days, which can be found below.
I'm almost never just eating a meal—I'm also on my computer or watching television or scrolling through my phone. Multitasking with some sort of digital distraction leads to overeating or scarfing down food hurriedly, which (you guessed it) translates to poor digestion. It's also one of the main reasons people face spleen qi deficiency, according to Suttie. So I made it a point to enjoy as many meals as I could peacefully and undistracted, focusing on chewing each piece of food, since breaking down foods before they get to the spleen means the spleen has less work to do. This definitely helped me feel more settled and experience less stomach stress, especially since the environment I'd eat my meals in would be somewhere calming, like outside on my apartment's patio or comfortably in my kitchen. I still constantly eat lunch at my desk at work (always being in a time crunch means I have no other choice), but I hope to get to a point where I can step away and not answer emails while shoveling in food, even if that means going into a conference room alone for 15 minutes.
Avoid Harmful Foods
I'd coincidentally already discovered which foods are deemed harmful to the spleen in TCM by doing my food diary. High up on the list are dairy, processed foods, and refined flour and sugar, but TCM also rules out wheat, coffee, alcohol, fried foods, cold drinks, fruit juice, and cold, raw foods. I took each of these into account as much as possible, finding coffee to be the hardest to say "no" to (I was impossibly tired from the lack of caffeine). But cutting out these spleen aggressors made a marked difference in my bloating—by foregoing processed, fried, bad-for-you foods, I was choosing healthier options like soups (a favorite in TCM because of the small amount of work needed to chew and digest), cooked vegetables, and lean meats.
Keep Things Warm
You might be wondering why cold drinks and cold, raw veggies are ruled out in TCM. That's because it's thought that all foods have a fundamentally thermal nature (either warming, cooling, or neutral), all of which have a direct effect on the body. "With foods thermal nature in mind, the spleen likes to be warm and dry," says Suttie. "So if you have spleen qi deficiency, you want to eat foods that are warming, or at least neutral to help build the spleen's energy." Cold foods are thought to weaken your digestive system (Chinese people almost never put ice in their drinks and drink them either hot or at room temperature) and "weaken the digestive fire," so I tried to avoid any and all cold foods, and even sipped my water at room temperature throughout the week. This was difficult for me, especially since I eat about five or six salads and drink an equal amount (if not more) of iced coffees a week, so instead, I chose cooked veggies like carrots, kale, and green beans and drank lots of lukewarm water.
In TCM, there's a focus on "dampness," or high humidity within the body, which is said to be the cause of many illnesses, including cancer. "When dampness is created by impaired digestion, it likes to end up in the lungs and large intestine," says Edward F. Block IV, Ph.D. This can manifest itself in the form of water retention, distended abdomen, phlegm discharge, nodular masses, and loose bowels. Negative foods mentioned earlier like dairy, processed, and fried foods encourage dampness, but you can counteract or "dry" the dampness with foods that are bitter in nature. Orange or tangerine peel has been used for centuries in Chinese culture to fortify the spleen, dry dampness, and increase circulation. At first, I was unsure how to consume orange peel, but I read about steeping it in hot water and drinking it as a tea. I usually like my teas to be quite strong, and this had a lighter, bitter taste to it, but it was enjoyable nonetheless and was especially settling to have in the morning and after meals. If this doesn't sound appetizing to you, try eating cranberries or goji berries.
Calm Your Mind
As mentioned earlier, your spleen is connected to your mind. Says Suttie, "The Spleen is directly related to our capacity for thinking, how well we manage our thoughts, concentrate, exercise discernment, and form intentions is dependent on the strength of the spleen." I've made it a point to exercise regularly and found that this is an amazing way to decompress emotionally, but exercise is also excellent for preventing spleen qi deficiency.
Acupuncture is another common treatment for imbalanced qi, but I'm not a fan of needles, so I skipped this remedy. Every other method was immensely helpful, though, not just for bloating, but for being an overall happier, more balanced person. I also appreciated that these methods are completely sustainable—I didn't have to buy any herbs or powders, just change my outlook on food and the way in which I eat it, something I can continue to do for years to come. And if that means having a less puffy stomach while I'm at it, I'm all in.
Opening Image: Mango