How Your Gut Feeling Relates to Your Gut Health

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

We've all walked away from situations where we wish we'd listened to our 'gut feeling' - that still, small voice that seems to speak from the depths of our solar plexus to give us guidance that always directs us toward our heart's truest desires. At times, the direction we're being pointed may seem illogical, but looking back we realize there was always a reason for this guidance. 

When you struggle to listen to your gut feeling, it’s often because this feeling is being obstructed by excessive processing in the mind as well as the digestive system.

Understanding the connection between the gut that's related to your digestion and the gut feeling that guides you in the most favorable directions in your life is essential to your well being.

 

Understanding Digestion According to Chinese Medicine

In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach comprise the Earth element which is said to govern the late Summer and all seasonal transitions. This is why it’s important for us to pay attention to and strengthen these digestive organs during times of transition (seasonal or otherwise) in our lives.

According to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen is mostly responsible for the breakdown and transformation of food to produce Qi energy, blood and fluids. It is also the organ that is most likely to accumulate phlegm or dampness from improper food choices and weakness in its transformation function.

Digestion of food can be impeded by stress and too much consumption of damp or phlegm-producing foods such as dairy, sugar, and processed foods. 

The Spleen is also the organ that governs our thinking process and, because of this, it’s the first organ to be affected by overthinking and being obsessive compulsive.

For this reason, it's common for students who are mentally overstimulated for extended periods of time to develop weak Spleen Qi, or energy. Weakness of the Spleen energy will cause a reduction in mental focus and concentration and create a lower level of energy production in general. This can manifest as fatigue.

Fatigue leads students to grab fast foods and sugar for quick energy, but this energy burns fast. In addition, these types of foods can be toxic and create dampness in the Spleen, thereby weakening the digestive system and creating a vicious loop of low energy and poor decision making with food choices. 

Since students tend to be young adults their tolerance is in general higher than older individuals. However, even these young adults will crash over time with physical symptoms ranging from allergies and asthma, to digestive problems and even fibromyalgia that can manifest as a result of severe Spleen weakness causing muscle pain throughout the body.

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 The Spleen and Stomach Digest Thoughts, Ideas, Emotions, and Food

Your digestive system is not just digesting the coffee and scone you ate for breakfast, but also what the woman at the coffee shop said to you this morning or the argument you had with your spouse, or the earful of stressful news you heard at work. 

The busier the mind, the greater the burden on the Spleen to break down the plethora of thoughts and information you are processing throughout the day.

Metaphorically, the Spleen has to transform this information similarly to the way it does food because the Spleen controls your Yi, your Mind. So what you digest either physically or psychologically will impact your state of mind.

Furthermore, your physical state is impacted by your mental state. For example, excessive stress causes the body to produce cortisol, the primary stress hormone, much of which is actually produced in the gut. Increased cortisol levels lead to the proliferation of an unhealthy microbiome in the gut, which can lead to indigestion, fatigue, insomnia, as well as problems relating to your brain and mental function. 

When you eat while you’re in a meeting you’re putting twice the impact on the Spleen as it not only has to process the food that you’re eating but also all the information from the meeting.

Having your energy diverted to your mental processing inhibits sufficient energy to support your digest. Over time this pattern will cause a serious dysfunction in the digestive system and weaken the Spleen energy. This then leads to common complaints such as fatigue, poor digestion, muscle weakness, and generalized body pain since the Spleen also governs the muscles.

The fact that your mental and digestive processes are so connected makes it clear that your gut health will impact your ability to listen to and follow your gut feeling.

The Gut-Brain Axis Helps Us Understand How Emotions Affect Digestion

Modern research on the gut-brain axis (GBA), which refers to the biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system (CNS), affirms the connection between the mind, emotions and the digestive system.

Both clinical and experimental evidence suggest that enteric microbiota has an important impact on GBA, interacting not only locally with intestinal cells and the enteric nervous system (ENS), but also directly with the central nervous system (CNS).

The vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body, passes through the neck to the abdomen and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Evidence indicates that microbiota communication with the brain involves the vagus nerve, which transmits information from the luminal environment to the central nervous system (CNS). The enteric microbiota is distributed in the human gastrointestinal tract and relative abundance and distribution along the intestine is similar among healthy individuals. This microbial community has important metabolic and physiological functions and contributes to homeostasis.

The constant communication and interplay between the gut and the brain has the potential to influence and intersect with sleep both directly and indirectly. Breus (2016) summarizes some of the ways that might occur:

  • Mood. Disruptions and imbalance of gut microbes have been strongly connected to anxiety and depression. This has potentially significant implications for sleep, as both anxiety and depression can trigger or exacerbate sleep disruptions.

  • Stress. Research is also revealing a complicated, two-way relationship between stress and gut health. Stress is an extremely common obstacle to healthy, sufficient sleep.

  • Hormones. The intestinal microbiome produces and releases many of the same neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, melatonin and GABA, which help to regulate mood, and also help to promote sleep.

In sum, the health of the gut impacts the health of the brain and therefore our ability to process information, manage stress, balance our emotions, and digest and assimilate food.

 

Tuning in to Your Gut Feeling

Since so much of your mental, emotional and food processing occurs in the gut, gut health is essential to your overall health.

A healthy microbiome in the gut supports ease in the digestive process, which supports healthy elimination, and results in clarity of mind.

In the same way, the combination of a well-balanced diet, a clear, calm mind and harmonious emotions support the production of healthy microbiome in the gut to support digestive and overall health.

When your body is healthy and your mind is calm, you have the clarity to hear and listen to the still small voice that always provides you with the least resistant path to achieve your goals and dreams.

Healthy digestion thus allows attunement to your instincts and a closer connection to the guidance that's offered by your gut feeling.

How to Cultivate a Feeling of Enough

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. & Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

 

Let's admit it. We all strive for more of what we love, whether it's a deeper connection to our partner, greater success in our work or finances, a more abundant lifestyle, recognition, and even contribution and personal development.

Whether it's true to our human nature or not, we've been taught that more is better. In addition to our own personal goals, we have social media and television telling us that we should and could have more if only we buy X, Y and Z.

The great paradox is that once we buy and do everything we desire or feel is 'required' of us, the tendency is to still find that something's missing.

So when is it enough?

To be fulfilled means to cultivate a feeling of enough. 

According to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach, which encompass the Earth element, are the primary organs of digestion and assimilation. These are the organs that satisfy the feeling of enough on a physical level by transforming raw material from our diet to help the body regenerate on a daily basis. 

The Spleen and Stomach digest and process not just food, but also our thoughts.

If the Spleen and Stomach are harmonized, our digestion is unobstructed and our mind is clear. But when there is an imbalance in either of these systems not only do digestive difficulties manifest, but mental processing can also be disrupted causing problems such as a foggy mind and obsessive thinking. 

When the Earth energy is out of balance there is a tendency to overthink and worry. According to one of the foremost classical Chinese medical texts, Nei Jing Su Wen, “Pensiveness harms the spleen” (Unschuld, 2011, 207) and if it is not properly resolved, it leads to obsession.

The Earth element relates also to our ability to feel completion, abundance and fulfillment.

When you eat a plate of food, the gut sends signals to the brain so it knows that you've had enough. 

Excessive Stomach Fire can create an imbalance in this process, leading to binging, excessive thinking, obsession, and neediness. Stomach Fire most often results from a poor diet with acidic foods, as well as mental overstimulation. This heat in the Stomach ultimately burns out the Spleen Qi and leads to severe fatigue. This pattern is common among students and can cause post-college burnout and Spleen weakness. 

According to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen also plays a key role in producing blood. A weak Spleen therefore impairs one's ability to build blood.

This is especially crucial for women who work or study excessively since mental overstimulation weakens the Spleen, inhibiting it from building back the blood that’s lost during monthly menstruation. For vegetarians, the ability to build blood is even more challenging since animal products help to nourish the blood. 

The key is that not having enough blood causes one to feel empty inside regardless of one's circumstances.

The feeling of not having enough relates therefore to either weakness of the Spleen in its production of blood, or excessive heat in the Stomach system causing obsession and the need for more and more.

Cultivating a feeling of enough brings a sense of security, nourishment and abundance.

Cultivating a feeling of enough brings a sense of security, nourishment and abundance.

Strength in the Earth element via the Spleen and Stomach helps ground us in the present moment. When our energy, or Qi, and blood are strong we feel less vulnerable and more secure in all aspects of our lives.

Furthermore adequate blood reserves provide a sense of comfort and security as well.

In fact, a deficiency of blood can cause one to feel a lack of wealth and prosperity no matter his or her financial status.

A feeling of inadequacy may also result from excessive heat in the Stomach, which not only causes mental overactivity and agitation, but can also lead to addiction, such as to sex, drugs, shopping or alcohol.

Excessive heat in the Stomach system physiologically manifests as inflammation anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract, or the gut. This is how Stomach Heat in Chinese Medicine correlates with the pathology of the brain and numerous mental and emotional imbalances via the gut-brain axis. 

Essentially, the health of the gut determines the health of the brain and therefore our ability to process information, manage stress, and balance our emotions.

When the Stomach is full of heat, it can dump this heat into the Heart. 

When in balance, the Heart stirs a healthy level of creativity, passion and desire. However, excessive heat in the Heart induces excessive desires and passions, and this can overwhelm or disrupt the Shen or spirit of a person leading to different types of neurosis, including anxiety and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 

Since Heart imbalances can result from excessive heat generated in the gut, it's clear how our gut health influences both our state of mind and emotional well being. 

 

Tools to Cultivate a Feeling of Enough

Since the Spleen and Stomach are the source of Qi and blood in the body, they are also the source of our nourishment and therefore the basis of our ability to feel comfort, security and wholeness. 

We’re all prone to developing a weak Spleen causing blood deficiency through poor diet, irregular eating habits, lack of physical exercise, and excessive mental activity. 

If the Spleen is weak, digestive enzymes can support the breakdown and assimilation of nutrients to produce blood and healthy cells.

Maintaining a clean diet with more alkaline foods will also support your Earth element. Alkalizing foods are especially important for people who tend to be "over-thinkers" as this leads to over acidity in the Stomach. This can lead to Stomach Fire that can over time lead to both gut inflammation as well as imbalances in the Heart.

A person with an especially weak Spleen will experience a lot of fatigue and feel too cold, so in cases like this it may be best to eat less damp producing foods such as grains, dairy and sugar which feed the fungal terrain known as Candida that ultimately suppresses the body's energy.

Eating cooked, warm foods will also support the Earth organs while raw, cold natured foods, especially during colder seasons, can weaken the digestive system and exacerbate Spleen Qi deficiency.

There's a lot more you can do to balance your Earth element, including setting healthy boundaries and being especially mindful of your self-care during seasonal transitions.

The simple yet powerful practice of gratitude can also contribute to a feeling of enough by helping to amplify all that's good in your life now. It's so easy to focus on what's not going right and this is the root of why so many of us feel like we don't have or are not enough. 

A daily and consistent gratitude practice can be done simply by being mindful of and acknowledging things as they flow into your life. It's best to start with the little things so you can easily begin to see how quickly what you appreciate appreciates.

Small and simple changes can provide a great impact to help you restore balance in your Earth energy and bring a sense of comfort and satisfaction to your life.

Only through a healthy Earth element can we truly foster a feeling of enough where nothing feels missing or empty. Through this deep sense of abundance we're able to have a greater capacity to cultivate a prosperous and fulfilled life.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. 

Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com.

Sleep and the Gut-Brain Axis

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Digestive health is fundamental to the health of your entire body. According to Chinese Medicine, the Earth element, which includes the Spleen and Stomach, is considered to be the central element in the Five Element system. Earth corresponds to the late Summer as well as to all seasonal transitions. This is why it's especially important to take care of your digestive health during all transitions, seasonal and otherwise.

The health of your digestive system, or gut health, is the foundation of your ability to properly digest and assimilate food, manage stress and sleep well.

Gut health is directly impacted by stress because of a mechanism known as the gut-brain axis, which explains the biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. 

Under stress, the hypothalamus in the brain signals the autonomic nervous system as well as the pituitary gland to produce stress hormones, including epinephrine and cortisol. The production of these stress hormones shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system, which is related to our ability to rest and to digest.

When the sympathetic nervous system, or our 'fight or flight' response, is active, the parasympathetic nervous system is impeded and therefore both our sleep and digestion are impacted.

You probably know from experience that your thought process, especially when you’re under stress, affects your ability to digest food, but this relationship goes both ways.

In other words, what you eat also impacts your ability to think—and sleep. 

 

Sleep and the Gut-Brain Axis

The bidirectional communication between the brain and central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS) is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), an information superhighway of chemicals and hormones that provides constant feedback and informs, among other things, our moods, emotions and sleep patterns.

Recent research on the gut-brain axis (GBA) affirms that an unhealthy microbiome in the gut impacts sleep quality and that poor sleep causes changes to the bacterial community in the gut. This is because sleep deprivation produces an imbalance of the stress hormone cortisol.

Too much cortisol can lead to a proliferation of unhealthy bacteria microbiome that can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) problems. GI imbalances increase the potential to develop sleep disorders.

In addition, research has shown that there is 400 times more melatonin in the gut than there is in the pineal gland where melatonin was traditionally thought to be produced. It appears that stress causes changes both in gut bacteria and in neurotransmitter levels (Beckett, 2015).

The rhythms of gut microbes are affected by diet, both the timing of eating and the composition of foods consumed. A healthy diet helps the body generate more beneficial gut microbes thereby helping to reduce inflammation and optimize gut health.

The health of the gut helps determine the health of the brain and therefore our ability to process information, manage stress, balance our emotions, and digest and assimilate food; all of which affect our ability to sleep.

 

Unbalanced Emotions and Sleep

Li Dong-yuan, Founder of the Earth School in Chinese Medicine and one of the Four Great Masters of the Jin-Yuan period in China, believed that disease pathology manifests as a result of damage to postnatal Qi, the energy that we refine and consume through our environment from food and drink. Postnatal Qi is produced by the Spleen and Stomach through the Gu Qi, or energy that's transformed from food. This process occurs in the gut.

Excessive or unbalanced emotions and stress weaken the Spleen and Stomach and therefore the gut. According to Li Dong-yuan, this weakness leads to stagnation of Stomach Qi that eventually turns into heat or Fire that burns the fluids in the body.

We can therefore surmise that heat accumulation in the gut eventually affects the brain and interferes with the harmonious interplay between the gut and brain.

During menopause for example, hormone production decreases and, since damage to the gut inhibits the proper production of melatonin and other hormones necessary to regulate stress and sleep, there is a great tendency for a woman to develop insomnia at this time.

Li believed that weakness in the Spleen and Stomach, or Earth organs, is the foundation of disease and begins with unresolved emotions. He stated that "the downward flowing [of the five yang qi] into their confinement with yin fire in kun earth is always due first to damage done by the five thieves -- joy, anger, sorrow, worry, and fright--followed by stagnation of stomach qi. Finally, overtaxation and dietary irregularity succeed in damaging the original qi" (Li, 2004, 203).

The “five thieves” damage the Spleen and Stomach, leading to stagnation of Stomach Qi. Overwork or overtaxation and poor diet further damage the original qi. This pattern is prominent during major life transitions like menopause during which, as Dr. Christiane Northrup has explained, many women’s unprocessed and unresolved emotions cause insomnia and fatigue to accompany “the enormous changes of midlife” (Northrup, 2012).

This internal heat caused by Qi deficiency is called Yin Fire and flares up into heart. This pattern is common among women going through the menopausal transition where stress along with hormonal changes damage the Spleen and Stomach function.

 

Yin Fire: The Impact of Emotions on Your Health

According to Nei Jing Su Wen, one of the foremost classical Chinese medical texts, seven emotions are considered major internal causes of disease - joy, anger, fear, fright, anxiety, pensiveness and sadness. Li Dong-yuan focused on what he referred to as the “five thieves,” or the emotions of joy, anger, sorrow, pensiveness, and fright, any of which in excess become pathological.

The Earth attribute of Yi, or the mind, has a tendency to worry. Nei Jing Su Wen stated: “Pensiveness harms the spleen” (Unschuld, 2011, 207) and if it is not properly transformed, it leads to obsession.

The attribute of the Heart is known as the spirit, or shen. Over-joy, which includes excessive desires and passions, can overwhelm the Heart and disrupt the shen, since the Heart is the organ that manages joy. Over-joy can transform into anxiety and eventually mania.

Yin Fire causes excessive emotions to aggravate the Heart, which then dumps heat into the Stomach. As the abode of the shen, or spirit, the Heart’s disturbance will affect the circulation of blood and thus the shen, inhibiting one’s ability to sleep restfully.

Wei Qi, which determines the body’s circadian rhythm, forms in the Lungs through the Gu Qi that first enters the Stomach via food and drinks. The circadian rhythm, like the circulation of Wei Qi, dips and rises at different times of the day and can be impacted by the pathological process of Yin Fire.

Sleepiness and sleep propensity are strongly influenced by our circadian clock as indicated by circadian rhythms, most commonly by that of core body temperature. Sleep is most conducive in the temperature minimum phase, but is inhibited in a "wake maintenance zone" before the minimum phase, and is disrupted in a zone following that phase. Different types of insomnia symptoms have been associated with abnormalities of the body temperature rhythm (Lack et al., 2008).

Yin Fire results from Qi deficiency heat caused by poor diet, over taxation, and imbalanced emotions (Li, 2004, 86). Over time, Yin Fire creates an internal heat that can burn up the body’s blood, qi and yin and cause insomnia, especially because its ascending quality affects the Heart and Pericardium. It can also inhibit a decline in core temperature, which is essential for falling asleep (NIH, 2005). 

Internal heat can also arise from Yin deficiency wherein insufficiency of body fluids prevents the body from cooling or tempering the heat, or Yang energy, in the body.

Think of Yin Fire as a process of inflammation that slowly erodes the internal membrane of the intestinal wall. As this membrane barrier breaks down, the gut lining becomes hyper-permeable and leads to the problem of Leaky Gut Syndrome. An abnormally leaky gut allows molecules of partially digested food as well as microbial toxins like bacteria, virus and fungus to flow directly into the bloodstream. These foreign invaders lead to overactive immune responses by the body which can lead to a host of serious diseases such as cancer or chronic degenerative conditions like autoimmune disorders. 

If you’re dealing with chronic inflammation of any kind, it's imperative to clean up the toxic terrain within your gut and heal the intestinal lining.

 

Healing the Gut, Brain and Sleep

One effective way to support the process of healing a leaky gut and build back a healthy microbiome for improved digestion and elimination is through the ingestion of bone broth.

Bone broth is a food source packed with substrates to help bind up the intestinal wall, referred to as the Yin of the Stomach in Chinese Medicine. Yin is substance, so we need substance to heal the body's broken down tissues. Bone broth contains the following substances to repair and restore your muscles, skin, joints and gut health:

  • Protein - supplies the building blocks for growth, including the building of muscles, tissues and new cells.

  • Glycine - an amino acid necessary for healthy DNA and RNA that's essential for properly functioning cells.

  • Collagen - holds together our joints, bones, ligaments and tendons. Needs to be supplemented as it starts to diminish as early as age 20.

  • Chondroitin Sulfate - supports joint health and comfort (especially in combination with glucosamine)

  • Glucosamine - a compound that's involved in the creation of molecules that form cartilage.

  • Hyaluronic Acid - a compound contained in the synovial fluid in our joints that serves as a cushion and lubricant in the joints and other tissues. Hyaluronic acid is also a major component of skin, where it is involved in tissue repair and wound healing.

Furthermore, bone broth comes from slowly cooking down bones to provide different types of collagen depending upon the animal source of the bones. In Chinese Medicine, the bones relate to the Kidney system and the Kidney system also supports the brain. So we can see a correlation with how the regular ingestion of bone broth can be very nutritional to strengthen brain function as well.

Other important supplements that support gut restoration include probiotics and digestive enzymes (contact us to learn more about products we recommend that are available at our clinic).

A healthy diet rich in omega fatty acids, leafy green vegetables and limited complex carbohydrates (especially gluten free) will also help to develop a healthy gut microbiome . 

Self-care is also crucial to heal the digestive system, as the ability to care for oneself and others is a virtue of the Earth element. Learning to cook healthy meals at home, receiving regular Acupuncture treatment and taking time for cultivation practices such as Yoga and Qi Gong will help to regulate both the nervous and digestive systems.

With a calm mind and healthy gut, a good night's sleep will naturally become a more regular part of your life.


References

Beckett, F. (2015). Can’t sleep? Blame your gut bacteria! Retrieved from https://secretsofagoodnightssleep.com/2015/03/03/cant-sleep-blame-your-gut-bacteria/

Lack L.C., Gradisar M., Van Someren E.J., Wright H.R., & Lushington K (2008). The relationship between insomnia and body temperatures. Sleep Medicine Review, 12(4): 307-17.

Li, D.Y. (2004). Treatise on the Spleen & Stomach: A translation of the Pi Wei Lun by Bob Flaws. Boulder, Colorado: Blue Poppy Press.

Northrup, C. (2012). The wisdom of menopause: Creating physical and emotional health during the change. New York: Bantam Books.

Unschuld, P., & Tessenow, H. (2011). Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Dr. Moafi offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. 

Is It Time for a Brain Detox?

By Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

While we've all heard of or experienced a colon or liver detox, we rarely hear about detoxifying the brain. A decline in brain function is a common complaint many people have and the multitude of related symptoms can be due to both brain weakness and brain toxicity.

Abnormal brain function symptoms can vary between hyper and hypo-activity. Both conditions can be rooted in the accumulation of excess toxicity in the brain or a deficiency of adequate nutrition to properly feed the brain's neurons. When the brain’s neurons are overstimulated, symptoms such as epileptic seizures or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can develop. When the brain is under active, symptoms such as brain fog, brain fatigue, poor memory and weakness in critical thinking can develop.  

Brain dysfunction can arise from the condition of systemic inflammation and systemic inflammation is often rooted in poor gut health. In addition, poor brain nutrition is not just the result of a poor diet but also due to poor digestion and poor assimilation of nutrients.

Anything that involves the function of the gut and digestion in Chinese Medicine relates to the Earth element organs, the Spleen and Stomach. Restoring balance in our Earth organs is always going to be a fundamental issue to restore function in our brain.

From the point of view of Western medicine, as we age, the production of hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes declines significantly, making it more difficult to properly break down and assimilate the nutrients we consume. Furthermore, the combination of toxic food, toxic medications and toxic thoughts all contribute to inflammation of the gut.

Toxicity that brews in the gut due to imbalances in the microbiome, or gut flora, can lead to 'leaky gut syndrome.' A 'leaky gut' causes improperly digested proteins and unwanted microbial agents to pass through the intestinal wall and enter the blood stream. This dysfunctional process can then trigger a cascade of inflammatory responses throughout the body. This is one of the main causes underlying the degenerative process of systemic inflammation which can create a "brain on fire" and lead to many of the brain disorders we commonly see today.

Treatment of degenerative brain disorders therefore requires the restoration of healthy digestion and elimination so the brain can be properly nourished and detoxified.

 

A Classical Chinese Perspective on the Brain

In Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM), the brain is considered one of the six Extraordinary Organs and also called the “Sea of Marrow.” The Jing, or Essence, corresponds to the body’s constitution and relates to our genetic material. The Kidney system stores the Jing which supports the brain, so maintaining the health of our Kidneys is fundamental in Chinese Medicine to establishing a healthy, long life. It is the Marrow that comes from the transmutation of Jing Essence which creates the substance to form the brain, the spinal cord, as well as the bone marrow. 

As we age, Jing declines, so there is naturally a decline in brain function with aging resulting in shrinkage of brain mass and decline of memory and other mental functions as well as sensory decline such as hearing, taste and vision. This process relates to our cells dying off with aging and the decline of our genes' ability to replicate and rebuild tissue as efficiently as they did in youth. In Chinese Medicine, this reflects the natural decline of our Water element.

The brain needs blood to function properly as blood brings oxygen and nutrients to support its structure and function. Some of the nutrients transported from blood comes from water. As we seeing clearly in the elderly, a lack of proper hydration through water consumption has a dramatic impact on reducing brain function.

According to Chinese Medicine, building and storing blood in the body is a function of the Spleen, Heart, Lung and Liver. Supporting the brain is therefore a function of all five primary organ systems found in the Five Element Theory of Chinese Medicine. The Spleen and Heart combine to produce the substance of blood, the Lung’s provide the Qi or oxygenation to complete the blood production, and the Liver stores the blood and helps send it up into the brain to support proper neurological function.  

 

The Brain's Built-in Detoxification System

We learned only five years ago through a major medical discovery that the brain’s waste disposal system is far greater than what had ever been known.

It was discovered that the brain has an independent and unique drainage system, called the Glymphatic System that's far more efficient and powerful than the cerebrospinal fluid system we had previously thought was the only drainage system in the brain. The reason for such a late discovery of the Glymphatic System is that technology just recently developed the capacity to study the living brain in action. Prior research was done on dead brains and the Glymphatic System works through live cellular action and not through a structure of its own.

The glymphatic drainage system was actually discovered in the process of researching amyloid protein circulation and its abnormal accumulation in the brain in the form of brain plaques thought to be associated with Alzheimer's disease. 

The Glymphatic System is, in fact, much more proficient in moving nutrients and waste in and out of the brain than the cerebrospinal fluid system. It is like comparing a system that works on a drip process versus a system that is activated by the powerful pumping force under the pressure of blood flow. 

To make a theoretical correspondence to Chinese Medicine, I would say the Glymphatic System is under the functional domain of the Liver and Gallbladder systems.

The Liver meridian ascends blood into the brain for nourishment and the Gallbladder meridian is the main drainage system of the brain to support detoxification. 

Both the Liver and Gallbladder are Wood element organs established in Five Element Theory. According to Five Element Theory, the Wood energy is strengthened by the Water element and this makes the connection how the Kidneys (Water) support the Liver (Wood) for healthy brain function, especially in memory retrieval.

More specifically, long term memory is supported by the Liver and short term memory is supported by the Spleen which brings us back to the Earth element and gut health. If you find yourself having difficulty with memorization, than this is a weakness of the Spleen often due to dampness from excessive sugar in the diet. Dampness or a fungal terrain can also be attributed to excessive use of antibiotics, birth control pills or corticosteroid medications. So any of these medications can impact one's brain health in a negative way.

You may notice that your brain gets fuzzy, lazy and tired after eating too many sweets. This is often due to blood sugar quickly dropping with the consumption of simple sugars and the resulting dampness that impedes brain function. A damp terrain is a fungal terrain. Just as chronic sinusitis is now recognized to be associated with fungus, the same fungal pathology can seep into the brain to down-regulate brain neuron function.

Sugar in any form feeds fungus in the body so it's easy to see why the condition of dampness is a very sticky, stubborn pathology to clear up.

Dampness therefore, according to Chinese Medicine, essentially needs to be dried up or drained out of the brain to support proper function and impede the disease process that leads to brain disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

It is imperative for those suffering from these disorders to eat a very low carbohydrate and low sugar diet. If you've known anyone with these disorders, their diet is usually heavy on carbs, sugar and dairy -- the exact foods that feed the fungus in their brain.

 

Inflammation, Inflammation, Inflammation

You may find you can't recall things as well as before, or perhaps you easily get tired while reading. These everyday occurrences that people brush off as aging can be early stage signs of a brain inflamed with toxicity. 

Inflammation is associated with most chronic degenerative conditions and what we have now realized in modern medicine is that systemic inflammation is often rooted in poor gut health. The problem is that Western medicine protocols are not addressing this fundamental issue and rely on toxic drugs to try and ameliorate symptoms without addressing the underlying problems. All the while, the medications are tearing apart the very system that is already inflamed and deteriorating.

 

Chinese Medicine Offers Clues to Evaluate Subtle Indications of a "Brain on Fire"

Based on the associations of the organ systems and brain function as outlined above, we can make some direct correlations you may find helpful to evaluate your own brain health.

If you're suffering from inflamed joints not due to an injury, then it’s time to consider healing your digestive system in order to cool down inflammation that's likely also occurring in your brain. Hip inflammatory problems relate to the Gallbladder system and knee inflammation relates to the Kidneys. Since these systems are directly related to healthy brain function, if you are suffering from any systemic inflammation or, specifically, these large joints are chronically painful and stiff, your brain is also likely inflamed. 

 

Beginning the Process of Brain Detoxification 

Chinese Medicine offers some of the most potent medicine available today to restore brain function which has been damaged. 

Chinese Medicine is a comprehensive medical system that looks to restore healthy brain function in a holistic way by addressing the other supporting organ systems involved in the brain's function. 

The brain can be directly targeted therapeutically through Acupuncture and herbal medicine, which can provide nutrition and support the flow of nutrients into the brain. In addition, these modalities can stimulate the dissolution of brain plaque and the clearance of toxic debris. 

Acupuncture can stimulate the Gallbladder Meridian to detoxify the brain. 

The Gallbladder Meridian system offers direct access to drain toxicity from the brain and support the removal of debris such as denatured amyloid proteins that cause plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Acupuncture can essentially stimulate the Gallbladder system to flush the brain and help reduce toxicity leading to brain inflammation. Acupuncture as a form of manual therapy is a critical part of detoxification because it is very common for the body to form blockages internally which impair detoxification and interfere with the recovery process. These blockages can be efficiently released through Acupuncture, Cupping and Gua Sha (a type of scraping therapy).

It is imperative to note: for acupuncture and herbal medicine to work optimally, a person's diet must support the healing process that is being instigated by these modalities. Otherwise, you may be disappointed with your progress and blame the medicine for failing. You must clean up your habits for healing to take place, there is no way around this fact. We cannot continue the same lifestyle habits that created our problems. We must change in order for change to occur.

 

Chinese Herbal Medicine: An Important Component for Restoring Brain Function

Some Chinese herbs target the Gallbladder system to decongest and move the lymphatic circulation for detoxification. Some herbs are specific to break up amyloid tissue and plaques that block the brain neurons from functioning optimally. Other herbs support the nutritional aspect and provide nutrients for the brain to work better as well as the different organs involved in its function. There are herbs to strengthen the Qi energy of the Spleen to improve overall energy and others provide nourishment to help the Spleen build up the blood. These benefits support healthy brain function.

Other herbs specifically nourish the blood of the Liver to improve memory retrieval and vision. In addition, there are Chinese herbs used specifically to increase the Qi of the Lungs which improve oxygenation of the brain in order to quicken brain function and reduce brain fatigue. Perhaps most importantly, there are herbs to strengthen the energy of the Kidneys which as we now know has a direct correlation with the brain and is fundamental to maintaining the health of one's hearing and brain function overall. 

What is most exciting, is that many herbs have been shown to reduce brain inflammation and amyloid plaque deposition which interfere with brain circulation and neuron function.  And perhaps most importantly, herbs such as Turmeric, Gotu Kola and Bacopa Monnieri have been found to stimulate the regrowth of brain neurons to restore lost function as well. In fact, these three herbs support all of these critical actions for restoring brain health. There are a number of studies to support these claims, mostly international studies from China, Japan, Korea and India.

 

Healing the Brain Takes Time

Keep in mind, when working on the level of the constitution which includes anything related to the brain, it takes a minimum of three months of treatment before one can evaluate the progress of one's condition. Usually results are noticed right along, sometimes quickly, but studies show it takes a few months to regrow brain neurons to improve brain function. Older, weaker individuals and those with more serious brain dysfunction will require longer periods of time to restore brain health.

Healthy brain function allows us the awareness to experience a more full and meaningful life. Awareness is important to put us on the path of healing. My hope is that this information brings you awareness that there is always opportunity to heal and improve your health. Depending on your situation, the path may be easy or challenging, but if you persevere, you may find yourself living in greater health with an active, lively brain for many years ahead.


Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com.