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.

Is Your Skin Driving You Mad? A Classical Chinese Medicine Perspective on Psoriasis and Eczema

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

Skin problems are some of the most challenging health disorders to resolve. Here we will examine two of the most common types of skin disorders we see in our clinic: psoriasis and eczema.

As with most skin disorders, flareups can often be associated with an increase in stress.

However, simply trying to relax is not going to cut it as a treatment option. We need to understand the factors driving these inflammatory conditions in order to begin resolving these problems from the inside out.

It is my hope that you will be empowered through understanding a Classical Chinese Medicine perspective on these often challenging health conditions so that you can seek a path to healing and resolution rather than suppression.  

According to Western medicine, the key difference between psoriasis and eczema is that psoriasis is an autoimmune over-reaction of the skin and eczema is rooted in an allergic, inflammatory reaction of the skin known as dermatitis (derma = Greek for skin, itis = inflammation). Both of these skin conditions can become chronic and often require the use of toxic internal and topical medications. These medications are designed to either suppress the immune response or the inflammatory heat, both of which can lead to other more serious diseases. 

Though the healing process can be challenging and require lifestyle changes, with patience and perseverance, eczema and psoriasis can be treated safely and very effectively through Chinese Medicine.

A Classical Chinese Medicine Perspective on Psoriasis and Eczema

According to Classical Chinese Medicine, there is a distinct difference between the pathogenesis of these two skin disorders.

Psoriasis is an outward expression of pathological heat emanating from the deep bone level of the body which is correlated with the Kidney system.

Eczema, on the other hand, manifests as an allergic response to something either internal or external that initiates the skin reaction. It may be triggered by food or an environmental chemical that irritates the skin and causes the inflammatory reaction which can spread as long as the allergic reaction continues.

Both psoriasis and eczema can be disorders with hereditary predispositions that have been passed along genetically.

According to Classical Chinese Medicine, both conditions are associated with heat in the Lungs which over time will weaken the Lung Qi, or energy. 

Weakness of Lung Qi causes weakness in the immune system as well. This is why chronic sufferers of eczema or psoriasis become prone to secondary infections on top of their skin sores. Furthermore, since patients with either psoriasis or chronic eczema can develop weak Lungs, it is also common for these patients who chronically suffer from either of these skin disorders to develop asthma.

Both eczema and psoriasis can present with sores that form clusters on the skin. This clustering indicates that the root cause is likely related to diet. In Chinese Medicine, clustering indicates internal dampness that is exuding out to the skin level.

Dampness in the body and is often rooted in overconsumption of foods that are very sweet, oily, or processed, as well as heavily dairy or carbohydrate based. These clustering type of skin diseases may also be associated with some form of food sensitivity or allergy such as gluten or lactose intolerance.

Another common problem associated with eczema and psoriasis is a history of gastritis, which in Classical Chinese Medicine terms can be associated with excessive Stomach Fire. 

In Western medicine, gastritis is often rooted in the presence of the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori (aka H Pylori) in the gut. From a Classical Chinese Medicine point of view, both Dampness and Heat are major pathological factors in this case. The Dampness creates the clustering sores, and the Heat creates the Wind/itching, the redness and causes the condition to spread more rampantly.  

If Dampness is present with eczema or psoriasis, this suggests that there is also some problem involving the bowels likely with excessive Heat trapped in the large intestine causing constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or colitis. Heat and Dampness can also get trapped in the bladder causing recurring urinary tract infections or interstitial cystitis that creates cramps and pain in the lower abdomen often following urination.

There is a close relationship between the Lungs (skin) and the Large Intestine in Chinese Medicine. If excessive inflammatory heat overwhelms the gastrointestinal system, it cannot eliminate the heat sufficiently through urination and defecation, and therefore the body will try to release it out via the skin creating inflammatory skin issues.

Gluten sensitivity is one of the factors commonly at the root of gut inflammation which underlies both eczema and psoriasis problems. 

Heat from chronic gut inflammation can spread anywhere throughout the body. In psoriasis, as the heat tries to penetrate the deepest organ level, which is the Kidneys in Chinese Medicine, the Kidneys will push it away. If this process continues, the body will inherently push this inflammatory heat into the bone level at the joints to protect the Kidneys. This is how psoriasis can become psoriatic arthritis, a related autoimmune problem. This is also the mechanism for how gout develops.

In these cases, the body is basically overwhelmed with metabolic heat rooted in an imbalanced diet and gut inflammation. Over time, this heat gets pushed into the joints as a way to try suppress and control it.

If Stomach Heat is part of the Chinese Medicine diagnosis, it is essential to identify if any foods are causing the inflammatory reaction. Stomach Heat (gut inflammation) can also be created by an imbalance in the intestinal micro-biome due to a fungal or bacterial overgrowth including what is becoming a far too common problem, Lyme's disease.

From a Western medical perspective, psoriasis, as an autoimmune problem, is much more complex than eczema. 

From a Classical Chinese Medicine point of view, Psoriasis is created from heat coming out of the body's deepest energetic level, the KIdney or bone level. When heat comes out of this deep Constitutional level it is called a "Steaming Bone Syndrome."

"Steaming Bone" suggests that the Kidney system is pushing excessive metabolic heat away from itself in order to protect the Jing, or Constitutional Essence, that it stores. Jing corresponds to our cellular genetic makeup, so protecting our genes from heat invasion is a fundamental survival mechanism of the body. Toxic heat can create genetic mutations on a cellular level leading to more serious problems such as cancer. If heat is not being sufficiently cleared through the elimination channels of urination and defecation, this heat gets pushed upwards and prevents the Lung energy from properly functioning.

If the Lung Qi cannot descend properly because too much heat has weakened the lungs, asthma can develop. 

Furthermore, if the Lung energy cannot descend properly, then the Lung's action of diffusion out to the skin becomes overactive and this process pushes heat outward to the skin resulting in overstimulation of the epidermis and the development of psoriasis.

Early stage psoriasis will first manifest on the scalp, palms and soles of the feet.

As the condition becomes more chronic, the psoriasis moves toward the joint regions of the elbows and knees as the Dampness and Heat migrate closer to the center of the body and the trunk, where the psoriasis makes its way around and down to the base of the spine.

 

The Causes of Heat that Underlie Eczema and Psoriasis

The heat that gets penetrated to the deepest aspect of the body (the Kidney system) can come from emotional trauma, hereditary factors, diet, vaccinations, and exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides and herbicides, especially in the farming industry.

Vaccinations induce tremendous heat directly into the blood. Diet can also contribute to inflammatory heat in the body, especially a diet heavy in processed foods, bad fats such as hydrogenated oils, sugar and hot, spicy foods such as caffeine and alcohol. 

Lifestyle can create inflammatory heat that eventually explodes out via the skin. Unhealthy habits including excessive mental stress, smoking, drugs, and even excessive exercise and sex can generate too much heat in the body and consume the blood reserves needed to cool down this heat pathology.

As we age, our blood reserves decline so it is imperative to keep our systems cooler. As our blood declines with aging, our vision declines, our memory decline, and our skin and muscles dry up. Adequate blood reserves also keep inflammatory processes of exorbitant heat under control as blood cools the fire in the body. Once blood weakens with aging, inflammatory disorders begin to express themselves and latent heat can begin to surface on the skin with dark skin pigmentations, liver spots and moles. These are all indications of heat that has been trapped in the body, now being released.

Constitutionally, we are all born with different levels of strength. However, all children are deficient of Yin and Blood. If a child's Jing, or Essence, that is stored in the Kidneys is particularly weak, he or she will be prone to early onset of diseases. This is especially true when aggressive vaccinations are administered at an early age. Vaccinations put toxic heat directly into the blood system and in general children have very vulnerable immune systems, which is why a lot of chronic diseases begin at a very early age.

From a Chinese Medicine perspective, childhood onset of psoriatic arthritis arises when inflammatory heat penetrates to the level of the bones or joints. Excessive inflammatory heat at an early age is likely created from some type of stress (vaccinations, birth trauma, a stressful pregnancy of the mother or food sensitivities) that compromise the child's Jing, or Essence, and prevent him or her from properly dealing with it. The child's body with its innate wisdom traps this toxic heat in the joints to protect the vital organs, and this creates arthritis. If the skin gets hyped up as a way of venting the heat, this leads to the painful chronic autoimmune problem of pediatric Psoriatic Arthritis.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, arthritis occurs concurrently with around 30% of the people afflicted with psoriasis.

The good news is that Classical Chinese Medicine has a way to understand the pathogenesis of these complex skin diseases and a systematic way to treat and address both the acute and chronic phases of these disorders. Through the use of acupuncture, herbal medicine, essential oils and diet modifications the often stubborn conditions of psoriasis and eczema can be brought under control safely and effectively to bring healing and a sense of peace to one's life.


Salvador Cefalu, 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.