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.

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. 

Food as a Mirror

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

We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat” but what may be more true is that what you eat is a reflection of how you feel about yourself. 

When we make healthier food choices, we're also making choices about the quality with which we want to live our lives.

A healthy lifestyle comes from knowledge through the proper resources but also through tuning in with the self. Adapting a healthy lifestyle means looking at all aspects of your life – your work, relationships and your diet.

Proper nutrition is one of the primary pillars of healthy living and, for a lot of people, it’s also one of the most challenging. My hope is to empower you to be more conscious of your diet because it is one of the most impactful aspects of your health over which you have total control.

 

Food and Digestion According to Chinese Medicine

According to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach are the primary organs responsible for digestion. Everything you eat and drink has to be digested and transformed into Qi, or energy, with the help of these organs.

There are two major kinds of Qi in the body - the essence Qi, often referred to as the prenatal Qi, and postnatal Qi, which is produced from food and drink (Gu Qi), in the Stomach. Prenatal Qi is the constitutional essence with which we're born and postnatal Qi is our basic daily energy that we cultivate through our diet and lifestyle. The healthier the diet, the better quality Qi we can extract and therefore the greater our endurance.

The Gu Qi, or “grain” as it is often called in the classics, that enters the Stomach, is transmitted to the Lungs to produce the defense or “guard Qi,” also known as Wei Qi, which is essential for maintaining one’s circadian rhythm.

Wei Qi forms in the Lungs through the Gu Qi that first enters the Stomach. As Chapter 21 of Nei Jing Su Wen stated, “Beverages enter the stomach. Overflowing essence Qi is transported upward to the spleen. The spleen Qi spreads the essence, which turns upward to the lung” (Unschuld, 2011, 375). 

The Spleen sends Gu Qi up to the Lungs, where (with the help of Kidney Qi) it combines with air and transforms into another form of energy known as Zong Qi, which is often referred to as "gathering Qi." 

Zong Qi is formed from the combination of Gu Qi extracted through food and drink and Lung Qi extracted through the breath. Therefore, the more nutritious your diet and the better your capacity for deep respiration, the better quality Qi you'll have to support the various organs' Qi in the body.

Since Gu Qi is also used to produce Wei Qi, which controls circadian rhythm and supports immunity, a healthy diet also supports sleep and healthy immune function. 

An unhealthy diet that's high in sweet, spicy, fried and processed foods taxes the digestive system and over time will make us not only feel lethargic but also can damage the gut, or the Spleen and Stomach terrain, and lead to chronic inflammation.

In Western Medicine, the impact of nutrition on overall health has been confirmed through recent studies on the gut-brain axis (GBA).

Eating healthy can be so simple (and beautiful!) - Sprouted quinoa, lentils and adzuki beans with brussel sprouts, arugula and beet salad, avocado, butternut squash and baked sweet potatoes. We dressed the salad, grains and brussel sprouts with organic olive oil, black and cayenne peppers, and lemon juice from Meyer lemons in our garden.

Eating healthy can be so simple (and beautiful!) - Sprouted quinoa, lentils and adzuki beans with brussel sprouts, arugula and beet salad, avocado, butternut squash and baked sweet potatoes. We dressed the salad, grains and brussel sprouts with organic olive oil, black and cayenne peppers, and lemon juice from Meyer lemons in our garden.

The Gut-Brain Axis

Recent studies have revealed that the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is a system of neurons within the gastrointestinal tract and often referred to as the ‘second brain,’ may be linked to immune function, hormonal regulation, psychological disorders, and even autism. The bidirectional communication between the brain (i.e. the central nervous system) and the ENS is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), an information superhighway of chemicals and hormones that provides constant feedback and influences - among other things - our moods, emotions and sleep patterns.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It passes through the neck to the abdomen and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Evidence indicates that the communication between the microbiota in the gut and the brain involves the vagus nerve, which transmits information from the luminal environment of the gut to the central nervous system (CNS). 

Important hormones and neurotransmitters such as melatonin, which regulates sleep, and serotonin, which affects mood, are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, about 90% of serotonin, which can affect mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function, is produced in the gut. 

The health of the gut therefore impacts the health of the brain and our ability to process information, manage stress, sleep, balance our emotions, as well as digest and assimilate food.

 

Chinese Medicine Perspective of Digestion, Emotions and the Gut-Brain Axis

Li Dong-yuan (1180 – 1251 c.e.) was a Chinese medical scholar who is considered to be one of the Four Great Masters of the Jin-Yuan period of Chinese Medicine. As founder of the Earth School, Li believed that the health of the Spleen and Stomach was the foundation for disease prevention. He developed the concept of Yin fire, which he believed is produced by excessive emotions and poor diet, both of which damage the original Qi and overwhelm the Spleen and Stomach. Excessive emotions engender heat internally. This heat, accompanied by weakness in the Spleen and Stomach, eventually flares upward into the Heart causing symptoms such as restlessness, anxiety and insomnia.

The gut-brain axis dynamics discussed earlier parallel Li Dong-yuan’s emphasis on the pivotal role of the Spleen and Stomach, or gut health, for all human functioning. Li believed that disease pathology manifests as a result of damage to postnatal Qi, the source of which is the Spleen and Stomach. 

The Spleen and Stomach is responsible for creating the Gu Qi, or energy that is transformed from food. 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. This pathological heat relates to any inflammatory or infectious condition within the gastrointestinal tract.

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. Furthermore, pathological heat in the gut burns out the Stomach Yin which correlates to the destruction of the intestinal mucosa.

Over time, as the mucosal lining of the gut deteriorates, "leaky gut" syndrome develops allowing for undigested proteins to leak into the blood stream and begin the cascade of inflammation throughout the body. This is one of the fundamental pathological processes underlying a host of autoimmune diseases.

 

Diet and Your Health

Some argue that to eat healthfully is too costly or a less convenient option. But we can’t be short-sighted. The long-term return on your investment is quite high, even if in the short-term it is a little more expensive to cook healthy foods at home rather than eat processed foods, for example.

Nothing is worth more than the health of your mind and body. And nothing will give you as great a return on your investment.

Your health is the pillar of your future success, happiness and fulfillment. Nothing is possible without health, and in health anything is possible.

So it should naturally be the number one place where we put our resources.

In Chinese Medicine, diet can be used as a modality in and of itself to heal chronic illness.

Diet is also the most important self-care tool we all have. Our diet provides an opportunity to feel empowered because we're able to have a say in our self-care and well-being through the choices we make with food.

What we eat is a mirror for how we feel about ourselves, and the choices we make with what we eat also allows us to choose how we want to feel and what we want to create in our lives.

Once you've finished reading this article, I'd love to hear from you on any or all of these questions in the comments below --
* How does what you eat reflect how you feel?
* Do you eat better or worse under stress?
* What's one change you could make in your diet to better reflect what you want to create in your life?


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is co-owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California. The Silicon Valley-based health and wellness clinic specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture with a clinic and studio where Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com