As we move into the warmer summer months, it is very common to see more people enjoying ice cold drinks, popsicles, ice cream, salads and chilled fruit. And while these items may help keep you from overheating, there is more at play when you consume mostly cool and cold foods on a regular basis. In particular, your digestive tract is greatly impacted, which can then contribute to other issues in your body.
Thermodynamics is a branch of physics that deals with the relations between heat and energy. When we apply thermodynamics to the body, there are a lot of factors to consider and the proper use of thermodynamics can lead to either health or degradation.
In East Asian Medicine, a properly functioning digestive system is the center point of good health. It is the starting point of energy production that supports ongoing life, providing nutrition for our whole system. All other organs in our body are related to and supported by digestion and begin to function poorly when there are gut problems.
Digestion is a warm metabolic process. Human beings are warm-blooded, like all mammals. The physiological and biological activity of our bodies require warmth to function properly. Our optimal operating temperature is 98.5 degrees Fahrenheit. For healthy metabolism, whatever we consume must be close to our body’s temperature, as our digestive enzymes work best in a particular temperature range. Whenever you have something cold, your body has to adjust the temperature difference to create a suitable environment for the enzymes to work. Not only that, when the cold substance passes through the esophagus, it comes in contact with the hot vaporized lung fluid producing phlegm.
Constant consumption of cold foods and beverages will slow down the rate of digestion because they must be heated up before proper digestion can take place. Cold beverages are removed from the stomach more quickly. Those at room temperature stay in the stomach longer. That is why marathon runners try to hyperhydrate and drink cold water before a race – to prevent from becoming dehydrated. Conversely, if cold liquids move through at a fast rate, they do not aid digestion.
If you regularly consume cold substances, you’re likely to have a lower body temperature, which in turn prompts poor circulation, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, GERD, gastritis, gallbladder problems, vasoconstriction, obesity, weight gain, impaired absorption of nutrients and a poor appetite. Plus, as the digestive tract takes more time to digest everything, it allows bacteria to fester, thereby causing bloating in the abdomen or a gas problem.
Chinese dietary therapy refers to the “middle burner” and how to support your spleen and stomach by keeping one’s stomach warm, preferably around 100 degrees. This means we should consume less cold and raw foods and consume more foods that are slightly cooked. In addition, we should eat moderately and chew well. It’s best to avoid chilled, cold or frozen drinks that too often accompany a western meal.
Food keeps your middle burner balanced. We want to maintain a strong middle burner fire, which warms your center and allows for proper digestion. If the fire becomes weak through lack of proper foods, the middle burner is forced to supplement it’s fire with energy drawn from the lower burner. When this happens, your kidney fire (which the lower burner fuels) may become depleted. According to East Asian Medicine doctors, this in turn can cause low back pain, restlessness, imbalance or agitation in the mind and spirit. Agitation in the mind and spirit can interfere with proper digestion. Before you know it, you’ve become trapped in a cycle of depletion and disharmony affecting mind, body and spirit, all because your diet was not balanced and couldn’t support the middle burner fire.
East Asian Medicine describes our warm digestive process as digestive fire. Modern science describes this as hydrochloric acid in the stomach and digestive enzymes in the small intestine. The function of this fire is to ripen and to rot, both warm processes. Keeping the digestive fire hot is the foundational principle of Chinese dietary theory.
Another concept that is tied closely to digestion is mucus, phlegm and biofilms. Excessive consumption of cool / cold foods leads to vasoconstriction in our digestive system. This makes it more difficult for our bodies to digest properly. When this happens, the mucous membranes that line our digestive system produce more mucus. When excess mucus is produced in one mucous membrane, other mucous membranes follow suit. There are mucous membranes in lots of different places. like our sinus cavities, vaginal canal, stomach, uterine lining and lungs. So, this domino effect can have a big impact. A good way to keep all of our mucous membranes healthy is to keep circulation optimal by avoiding overly mucus-producing foods, like cold or raw foods and also getting proper daily exercise.
Here are some common complaints that are seen in the office that can be contributed to the consumption of cool / cold foods:
1. Gut Issues – bloating, puffiness, indigestion, diarrhea, GERD, constipation and cramps, especially in women.
2. Throat issues – post-nasal drip, constant clearing of throat, coughing, soreness, irritation and even pain.
3. Low body temperature – commonly associated with “blood stagnation” in EAM, which means that the blood is not circulating at its optimal level. Too much stagnation can lead to serious problems like cysts, endometriosis or fibroids in women, or impotence, poor sperm motility and urogenital issues in men.
4. Heart issues – cold leads to poor circulation, which can contribute to arrhythmias, atherosclerosis, thrombosis and even strokes.
5. Low libido – excess cold contributes to lower body temperature, less activity and a lower sex drive. It can also be detrimental to the sex hormones.
Don’t be alarmed. You don’t have to give up all your favorite warm weather treats. But it is recommended that you consider smarter choices and just minimize your consumption. And wherever possible, heat your meal or drink. You can change food properties by cooking and adding spices. For example, cooking vegetables can be thought of as a form of pre-digestion that helps break down the food before we eat it so that our bodies can more easily assimilate its nutrients. Cooking also warms and helps lessen the cooling effects of foods. This is why we recommend cooking vegetables a bit before eating them, so the raw cold vegetables do not put out your digestive burner fire. Adding spices or fresh ginger (which is considered hot), to cooling or cold ingredients can help neutralize the foods cooling nature. This is how adding a good amount of fresh ginger to the fresh juices helps to neutralize the raw vegetables cooling nature. Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables should always be the most abundant part of your diet, but the thermodynamics of these foods can easily be countered when they are steamed or consumed with warm tea or water.
And remember, our bodies and health issues are never constant. They shift and change. So too must the treatments. This is why the diet is not a fixed thing and will usually be adjusted when conditions or symptoms change. East Asian Medical doctors pay attention to every little detail in life and the way we eat also plays a significant role. You will be surprised at how quickly your body will respond to the middle burner way of eating and remember that balance is key. If we eat foods in a balanced way, we can keep our bodies happy, healthy and balanced as well.