Autumn Wellness: The Gut and Immunity

By: Amanda Gawrysz, L.Ac, MSOM

The summer season is slowly coming to an end. School has started back up, the hectic pace of summer is beginning to slow down, and the weather may soon begin to cool off. When the seasons change, the energies within our body’s and the way those energies flow also change.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the energies of the spleen and lung are associated with this time. Soon enough we may be experiencing more fatigue, sluggish digestion, colds, and flu-like symptoms. In Ayurvedic traditions, we are entering the vata season where the elements of air and space combine to create this dosha. We may begin feeling anxious, nervous, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, and like our energy is not grounded during this time. You also may be feeling more body pains and dryness of the skin and membranes. If you are aware and sensitive to your body’s wants and needs you may be noticing these changes happening already.

In TCM, the lung energy is known as an immuno-barrier, our first layer of protection from external invasions. Its actions are similar to our mucosal linings and membranes. The lung energy also controls the opening and closing of our pores which is a gateway for the element of wind to enter our internal environment. This external wind can cause colds and flus if we are not nourishing ourselves and taking preventative measures to strengthen our immune systems.

Additionally, the energy of the spleen is an important factor during this seasonal change. In TCM, the spleen is the source of blood and Qi production. It controls blood flow and our digestive processes. It transforms and transports the foods and drinks we consume. It is associated with the element of moisture or damp where excess of this element decreases the spleens ability to function properly. The spleen also promotes immune functions and assures bodily protection against diseases.

Certain emotions are also associated with each organ in TCM. It is important to keep your thoughts positive and limit worrying as this damages our spleen energy causing abdominal bloating, loose stools, and sluggish digestion. The lung is associated with sadness so we should not dwell on the past too much and on the things in life that bring us down. Our thoughts and actions towards others truly reflect what happens to our own physical bodies and to how the energy flows within us. Try journaling to get some of these negative, non-productive emotions out. It is very beneficial and practiced by many to burn in natural fire whatever negativity or emotions you may have written down as a letting go process.

Integrative medicine is also in tune with how important gut health is to our immune systems. Our 30 foot-long GI tract contain hundreds of “good bacteria” as well as neurotransmitters like serotonin which gives us a sense of well-being. Studies have shown that 90% of our serotonin is made in the digestive tract. This explains why our mood, mental clarity, sexual drive, and quality of sleep can all be affected by what we consume. Have you ever ate something you shouldn’t have like a large portion of fried food? You may feel sluggish, bloated, sleepy, and moody after a meal like that instead of rejuvenated, energized, and productive. If your digestive tract is not functioning properly, this can result in poor nutrient absorption or even malnourishment which can lead to an array of chronic health problems. It can also impact our immune systems because the gut contains natural killer immune cells and hormonal health.

How can we balance our body and internal energy during this seasonal change? Diet is always one of the most important aspects to consider. By diet I mean lifestyle changes and a holistic plan to use food as medicine. In both Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions, it is very important to begin eating warm, cooked foods and drinking warm or room temperature beverages at this seasonal change. Our digestive symptoms work hard and by providing it with warm, nourishing, and easy to digest foods, it will make the process easier on your body. Food that is lightly prepared helps to ensure that nutrients are preserved and are more readily digested and absorbed. Beginning our days off with warm lemon water on an empty stomach is a great jump start to our day. It gets the digestive juices flowing for the day and stimulates the liver. Caffeine will aggravate the vata dosha as well as the energy of the spleen. Try incorporating spiced teas and limiting caffeinated beverages. Eating smaller meals more frequently, eating without being rushed or stressed, and chewing thoroughly are important factors to keep your lung and spleen energy strong.

Movement is important during this seasonal change as well. We need to be looking for activities that are more grounded and fluid in their movements. Remember that vata is a combination of air and space and we need to balance those energies by practicing the opposite. Meditation and holding longer poses in a vinyasa yoga class or chair yoga are great options to begin with. It is time for us to establish a new routine for the upcoming cooler months to build up our reserves like a bear preparing for hibernation.

If you are feeling any negative effects after eating including negative changes in your mood, it is a perfect time to look into your diet and begin a process of elimination. You may like to consult a holistic nutritionist or acupuncturist to help you throughout this journey. Adding in high quality probiotics, prebiotics, or digestive enzymes through a health practitioner is a good start. Probiotics form a barrier on the intestinal wall, serving as a powerful line of defense to prevent pathogens and germs from being absorbed.

In TCM, most issues begin in the earth energy of the spleen organ so make that spleen happy by eating seasonal and cooked foods!  

Below is list of recommended foods for this seasonal change. Your diet should not be limited to these foods:

Cooked whole grains, glutinous rice, oats, roasted barley, sweet rice, spelt pumpkin, potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro root, squash, carrots, corn, parsnips, yams, peas, stewed fruit, onions, leeks, garlic, turnip, shitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, daikon root, chickpeas, black beans, walnuts chicken, Chinese black chicken, beef, lamb, quail, goose, rabbit mackerel, tuna, anchovy black pepper, fresh ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, molasses, rice syrup, barley malt, dates, figs, and honey.

Foods to restrict or avoid during the cooler months include:

Salads, raw fruits, citrus, wheat, sprouts, wheatgrass, raw vegetables, tomatoes, spinach, swiss chard tofu, dairy, nut butters and other high oil foods overly sweet foods, refined sugars, high doses of vitamin C, seaweeds, chocolate, cold foods including ice water, strong tea, and wine.

Other supplementational options you may like to choose from may include:

  • Zinc: An important nutrient for digestive health, which also plays critical roles in hormone regulation, immune health, and neurological function.

  • Chinese Cardamom: Offers numerous benefits for digestion, increases antioxidant levels and boosts immunity. Also helps to combat unhealthy cellular growth and balance hormones with the compound Indole-3 Carbinole.

  • Cinnamon: Soothes digestive discomfort, improves digestive capacity, boosts immunity and balances blood sugar.

  • Ginger Root: Improves digestion, reduces inflammation, purifies GI tract, increases antioxidant levels and boosts immunity.

  • Fish Oils: Reduce inflammation and help heal GI tract lining, improve nutrient absorption, balance hormones, improve neurological function and boost immunity.

  • Protolytic Enzymes: Increase digestive capacity and nutrient absorption, boost immunity and increase vital energy.

References:

Chinese Dietary Therapy. Liu, J. Churchill Livingston: Edinburgh. 1995. “The healing cuisine of china. Zhao & Ellis.” Healing Arts Press: Vermont. 1998.

Cryan, J. F. and O’Mahony, S. M. “The microbiome-gut-brain axis: from bowel to behavior.” Neurogastroenterology & Motility 23. 3 (2011) 187-192.

A Guide to Better Sleep

By: Amanda Gawrysz, L.Ac, MSOM

The American Sleep Association states that 50-70 million adults in the United States have a sleep disorder. The Journal Science has called the function of sleep one of the 125 unsolved mysteries of science.

Are you one of many Americans experiencing poor sleep? The amount of hours we should sleep change with each age bracket, but the quality of our sleep and the things we do to prepare ourselves for a good night's rest are even more crucial for our health and well-being. Hundreds of biological processes occur while we snooze and not getting the quality of sleep that we need causes stress on our immune system, slows down our metabolism, decreases our cognitive function, and triggers emotional instability.

A conventional doctor will most likely go straight towards a pharmaceutical prescription usually consisting of benzodiazepines which are psychoactive drugs commonly used for anxiety, nervousness and panic disorders. These are extremely addictive drugs and withdrawal symptoms can be extreme.

A fairly new topic of discussion for sleep problems has been melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by our pineal gland that helps regulate our circadian rhythm. Meaning that it plays a role in our natural sleep-wake cycle. Is supplementing with melatonin really the answer to an improved nights rest? Many patients claim that it helps them drastically, but it does not seem to be eliminating the root causes of why you are not sleeping in the first place. Melatonin seems to be overly prescribed these days. It should be considered more of a sleep aid and not something that should be taken long term. It is a hormone after all and side effects can include headache, dizziness, nausea, and even drowsiness if taken during the day.

How can we improve our quality of sleep with natural lifestyle changes? After all we want to resolve the issue for the long-term and at its root.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at each patient individually. Each and every one of us is different and our sleep disturbances may be caused by different reasons. Women have a tendency to have more sleep disorders than men. In TCM, women are considered to be more blood based and men are considered to be more Qi (energy) based. Qi is yang energy and blood is yin energy. They work together as a team to create balance within us. The concept of blood in TCM shares a close relationship with the western concept in that it has both a nourishing and moistening function. However, with the concept of blood deficiency, emphasis is placed on your body’s Qi. Blood is seen as a condensed form of Qi, with Qi playing a vital role in helping the blood to circulate to where it is needed.

Through childbirths, menstrual cycles, weak constitutions, or donating blood when over the age of 50, women can cause a deficiency in the blood within their bodies. In TCM, the heart is known to “govern the blood” and “house the mind.” The mind is unable to quiet itself when we are unable to create enough Qi because of a deficiency in our blood. The heart, where the mind is stored, is not being nourished by blood. Additionally, constant stress affects the nervous system. This leads to excess heat in the Liver and Heart organ systems.

Going for acupuncture treatments regularly and eating blood nourishing foods can help build up your deficiencies and clear out heat from your organs and meridians. Some blood building foods include goji berries, dates, figs, mulberries, almonds, beets, artichokes, avocados, black beans, kidney beans, dark leafy greens, and all red meat.

TCM practitioners also utilize an organ clock that dictates which times of day each organ is functioning at its strongest and weakest. As we sleep, numerous biological processes of repairing and detoxing are being completed. These processes are typically performed by the liver which has its peak energy between 11pm-1am. Ideally, we should be in bed between 10:00 and 10:30pm to help our body undergo these natural repairing activities.

Below is a list of 10 simple lifestyle changes that can be made to help you fall and stay asleep more easily:

  1. Stick to a schedule: Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day trying to be asleep by 10-10:30pm.

  2. Create an electronic sundown: An hour or two before bed turn off all your electronic devices. Electronics emit a blue light that prevents melatonin from being released by our pineal glands. If you are unable to unplug entirely, there are light-dimming apps like f.lux for Apple or Twilight for Android available for download.

  3. Establish a ritual: Practice restorative and self-care practices such as taking a warm bath, reading a book, or meditation.

  4. Clear your mind: It is important to let go of everything that happened during the day and go to sleep positive. If your mind tends to stay busy even when your body is trying to rest, try getting into some simple habits like prepping breakfast for the next day, making a to-do list, or jot down your worries in a journal.

  5. Relax your body:  If stress keeps you awake at night, the rhythmic stretching and relaxing poses of yoga can help you fall asleep faster. You may also find this releasing technique helpful: starting at your feet and working up to your neck, slowly tense each of your muscles for 5 seconds, then release for 5 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

  6. Diffuse therapeutic grade essential oils: Lavender, vetiver, roman chamomile, ylang ylang, sandalwood, and cedarwood are a few that can help make falling and staying asleep easier. 

  7. Eat heavy meals during the day: try to avoid eating heavy meals late at night. Our metabolisms need to rest while repairing and detoxing is occuring.

  8. The bedroom is your sleep sanctuary: Your bedroom is just that, a BEDroom. Leave your desk work, papers, and stacks of books in another room. Keep this room dark and quiet while you sleep or wear an eye mask and ear plugs. It is also very important to avoid watching TV and reading in bed.

  9. Limit stimulants: avoid ingesting stimulants including coffee, energy drinks, and chocolate after 3pm. It is also best to avoid alcohol and nicotine closer to bedtime.

  10. Review your medications: There are many prescription meds that can interfere with your sleep. These include antihistamines, asthma medications, diuretics, and medications for blood pressure.

The efforts we put in to improve our lives should include self care that promotes quality sleep. We cannot control the circumstances around us, but we can control how we respond to them. It is essential that we learn to calm our mind and body every single day for the sake of our overall well-being. A good night’s rest is not only important for the healing of our internal systems, but it also improves memory, mood, vitality, and creativity. Find rituals that serve you or reach out for more help when nothing seems to be working.