Over the past few years, the mind-gut connection has filtered from the research world into the mainstream media. More and more information is now available on how the health of the gut can tell how stressed you are, how likely you are to fall ill and how long it will take you to recover. I have been following this research with great interest because in a completely unexpected way, the concept parallels one of the principles of Chinese meridian.
For centuries and definitely in the past few decades, Chinese medicine touted what seemed like a very bizarre concept: That how you eat, what you ate and your digestion could even remotely affect your stress levels and vice versa and then all that in turn could influence how often you felt unwell and how easily you would recover from illness. It is definitely an idea that takes a while for the brain to comprehend at first.
The idea is actually quite simple. Many of you are already familiar with channels and meridians, and the organ systems being similar to chess pieces that all have a job and main function. Some organ systems control the first line of defence while others are more systemic, they take a while to weaken but when dysfunction occurs, things fall apart quite spectacularly.
Among the chess pieces, the Spleen and Stomach functions in Chinese medicine are primarily focused on transforming what the body eats into nutrients and then transporting them to areas of the body where they are needed. But the Spleen doesn’t just toil away endlessly with no complaints. Like all of us, it expects a good work environment with regular hours and a good work-life balance. Like all good workers, it can work under pressure for a while but it won’t be able to do it forever.
A lot of modern lifestyle choices can feel like Victorian-era workhouses to the Spleen: the long hours, late nights, work stress, relationship stress, commuting stress, being put on hold for 30 minutes stress, lunch at the desk, late dinners, skipping meals, raw food, salads and smoothies all year round, constant snacking, sugary drinks, cakes and then more cakes. Individually (and most certainly collectively) any one of these factors over a long period of time can start to wear the Spleen down, and when that happens, it’s like trying to work with a constant hangover.
You feel like you’re walking through quick sand, heavy and lethargic, the brain feels foggy and the body seems weighed down or is actually weighed down with some extra pounds. There is bloating, loose bowels, and then sometimes constipation. If you’re a lady, there might be extra discharge down there. Stress becomes harder to manage and for some, apathy sets in so that while you would like to go out with your friends, when the day actually comes, pyjamas and sofa seem more inviting. Sleep is all you want but no amount of sleep makes you feel truly refreshed.
And now consider this picture from research on the gut and the trillions of microbes that live in your body:
There are receptors throughout our bodies that respond to signals from the microbes or the metabolites that they produce. For example, certain microbes can influence the production of the serotonin molecule, which plays a role in appetite regulation, food intake, well-being and sleep. That gives the microbes a tremendous ability to influence overall health states.
The LA Times recently interviewed Dr. Emeran Mayer who has been studying interactions between the gut and the mind for 30 years and is the author of “The Mind-Gut Connection”. He further describes the effects of stress and anxiety and how the gut microbiota responds:
When we experience these emotions — especially stress and anxiety — there is also a release of stress hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine. They circulate in the blood and make your heart beat faster and cause sweaty palms. We are learning now that they also influence the behavior of the microbes in your gut because they have receptors for these chemicals.
It is fascinating to see how finally after all the years and from completely different angles, the importance of the gut is being understood and it is possible that more theories from Chinese medicine can be understood from scientific research.