June 2010

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We’ve been blogging recently about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and its theories about Blood and its relation to our health. We’ve discussed how blood is produced, how it affects our body, and what organs work in concert with different aspects of blood and Qi. An aspect of TCM that is always relevant no matter what the subject is nutrition. What we eat directly affects our bodies — how they produce blood, build up immunity, and feel over all.

What we put in our bodies is very important. Some guidelines to a good diet are fairly simple. Avoid sugar. Stay away from fast food and overly processed foods. The more natural the food, the better it is for you. Another way to help you decide what food choices are best is to eat with the seasons. What this means is eating foods that are in season; things that grow naturally during that time of the year in the part of the region/country that you are currently living in. Different parts of the world and even in different parts of the United States these options will vary, but there are some general guidelines to this way of eating and living.

  • Spring brings new growth and greens. You can represent this with tender, leafy vegetables including Asparagus, Swiss chard, spinach, Romaine lettuce, fresh parsley, and basil.
  • The heat of summer can be balanced with with light, cooling foods. These foods include fruits like strawberries, apple, pear, and plum; vegetables like summer squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and corn; and spices and seasonings like peppermint and cilantro.
  • As autumn cools down, warm things up with the harvest. Foods that fit into this category are carrot, sweet potato, butter nut and acorn squash, pumpkin, onions, and garlic. Also emphasize the more warming spices and seasonings including ginger, peppercorns, and mustard seeds.
  • With winter’s cold, it’s time to turn even more exclusively toward warming foods. Foods that take longer to grow are generally more warming than foods that grow quickly. All of the animal foods fall into the warming category (e.g., fish, chicken, beef, lamb, and venison). So do most of the root vegetables, including carrot, potato, onions and garlic. Eggs also fit in here, as do corn, and nuts.

-Adapted from Worlds Healthiest Foods

Another good resource for seasonal eating is the book by Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  She chronicles a year where she and her family grow and eat all their food in season. An interesting read.  Follow the seasons and you will be naturally led down the right path to right nutrition — a cornerstone in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

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Green beans are an extremely healthy vegetable packed full of nutrients that are perfect for feeding the spleen. Green beans are available year round, with peak season from May-October. They are are low in calories (just 43.75 calories in a whole cup), and an excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin K and manganese. Green beans are also a very good source of the following: dietary fiber, potassium, folate, iron and vitamin A (notably through their concentration of carotenoids including beta-carotene). They are also a good source of magnesium, thiamin, riboflavin, copper, calcium, phosphorus, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and niacin.

Here is a delicious spleen strengthening recipe:

Butternut squash and green bean curry
8 oz butternut squash peeled and chopped into 1 inch cubes
1/2 cup water
8 oz green beans
1 cup canned coconut milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1-2 medium green serrano or jalapeno peppers (depending on how spicy you want it)
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cashews or almonds

Place cubed squash in medium saucepan with water and a pinch of salt and bring to boil over high heat. Lower heat to medium, cover, and steam until squash is tender — about 6 minutes. Remove squash with slotted spoon and then add green beans to the pan. Repeat the process — add more water if needed.

Return squash and green beans to pan and any remaining cooking liquid, Add the coconut milk and a little more salt if necessary. Bring to a boil and immediately turn down the heat to low. Simmer the curry, uncovered, until slightly thickened, about 8 minutes – don’t allow the mixture to boil or it will curdle. Do not stir because squash may start to disintegrate; shake pan if you need to mix ingredients.
Transfer curry to a serving dish.

Make the tadka: Heat the oil in a small skillet or butter warmer over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, add the mustard seeds, covering the pan with a lid or splatter screen. After the mustard seeds stop sputtering, add the chiles and cashews or almonds and shake the pan over medium heat until the cashews/almonds are lightly toasted and browned.

Pour this over he curry and serve.

Recipe taken from: 5 Spices, 50 Dishes by: Ruta Kahate

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In Chinese Medicine, our digestion is thought to be the root of blood production in the body, which is an important component to female health. However, before we can speak to how blood is produced in the body, we need to describe basic organ function in Chinese Medicine. To start, when Chinese medicine references the concept of “the organ,” it does not necessarily reference the solid organs described in our biology textbooks. Rather, organ in Chinese Medicine describes a series of functions which can be physiological as well as psychoemotional.

There was no deep understanding of internal anatomy at the inception of Chinese Medicine, and so Chinese Medicine had its root in observation and the description of how body functioned overall. Therefore, while there can be overlap in how Eastern and Western Medicine understands these organs (liver, kidney, heart, spleen, stomach, large and small intestines, etc), we must remember that in Chinese Medicine, “organ” is a description of function.

Chinese Medicine divides the organs into two categories, Yin organs and Yang organs. Yang organs represent the “hollow” organs (gall bladder, stomach, small and large intestines, bladder and triple burner).  Yang organs are organs that receive and transform while the Yin organs are solid and have relationships with the vital substances of Yin and Blood (liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys). That being said, we’ll turn back to digestive function.  In Chinese Medicine, this is the job of the spleen (Yin) and stomach (Yang) organs.  This Yin and Yang organ pair work together to make new blood for all the organs to utilize.  Spleen is an organ that works to digest and interpret our environment.  It functions in traditional digestion to break down ingested food, but it also has a more ethereal role in digesting information.  Spleen has an important job in helping us to process information and analyze our environment to help us make decisions, stay organized, and be calm.

A common imbalance in Chinese Medicine, is Spleen Qi Deficiency.  In modern western living, 90% of us show some aspect of Spleen Qi Deficiency. That is because we are ALWAYS on the go, mentally and physically.  Spleen easily becomes overburdened when we work long hours, read and analyze without ample rest (like students often do), worry excessively, eat on the go, eat low quality foods, etc. The Spleen needs to time to rest from information processing as well as a dedicated time to digest our foods. That is why you will often hear us remind our patients at The Nest to reinstitute meal times. Meals allow time for us to focus on eating as a time to nourish ourselves and give the Spleen the proper environment for digestion and transformation. When we eat, it should be a time to look, smell, chew and taste our food slowly and deliberately.  We all can remember a time recently when we shoveled something down our throats without consciously consuming it.

What really is the big deal about Spleen Deficiency?  Well, initially symptoms of Spleen Qi Deficiency might be more mild. Slight fatigue, some discomforts with eating, like mild gas or bloating, but as Spleen Qi Deficiency becomes more profound so do the symptoms.  Fatigue can become crushing, digestive symptoms more serious, and psychoemotional symptoms, like obsessive overthinking may start to manifest and become emotionally debilitating.  Because Spleen is a root of blood, as transformation weakens, so does the output of blood.  Symptoms of blood deficiency may start to manifest and so the domino effect continues.

Another major consideration of a compromised spleen system is something called Phlegm Damp. When transformation of food is ineffectual, the weakened spleen doesn’t make bright clear useful Yin and Blood, it makes a goopy viscous substance, described by Chinese Medicine as Phlegm Damp.  Phlegm Damp is insipid.  The longer it lingers, the more problems it causes. It can show up as physical phlegm which complicates other organs, chronic sinus congestion or infections, productive coughs, mucus in stools, chronic yeast infections, etc.  It can also show up as difficult to pinpoint symptoms, like foggy thinking, heavy head, extreme fatigue, and lack of motivation.

The bottom line is healthy digestion and strong spleen is a major cornerstone in healthy living and overall wellness.  How we eat matters just as much as what we eat.  So stay tuned for our next post, which will continue this discussion of how to care for our Spleen with specific foods, cooking styles, and the benefits of REST!

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