In recent years, wellness practitioners have started to fully appreciate the gut-brain connection and how it impacts our overall health. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has long recognized the importance of this connection and has an abundance of knowledge and understanding when it comes to gut health, anxiety reduction, and exhaustion relief.
Interconnectedness of body systems is an important concept in TCM, and each organ in the body plays an essential role in health and wellness. TCM views the digestive system as the foundation of good health and believes that the gut is not just responsible for digesting food, but also plays a crucial role in the immune system, energy production, and even emotional wellbeing. The spleen and stomach are responsible for extracting nutrients from digested food and transporting them through the rest of the body. The liver is responsible for ensuring the smooth flow of Qi (energy) throughout the body, which in turn affects our emotions and mental state.
How Are the Gut and Brain Connected?
The gut-brain connection refers to the communication between the gastrointestinal system and the central nervous system. This communication occurs through various pathways, including the nerves, hormones, and neurotransmitters. The gut contains a complex network of neurons called the enteric nervous system, which is sometimes referred to as the “second brain.” This network can operate independently and is capable of sending and receiving signals between the gut and brain.
Besides the direct chemical connection through neurotransmitters and hormones, the microbiome of the gut can also determine how the gut and brain communicate. The gut is home to many normal and healthy microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, which produce neurotransmitters of their own. These neurotransmitters, like serotonin and GABA, are heavily involved in our moods and sleep patterns.
Anxiety and Gut Health
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions worldwide. Studies have shown that individuals with anxiety disorders often experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Although many people assume anxiety causes such symptoms, TCM believes that the cause-and-effect goes both ways – anxiety causes an unstable gut, and an unstable gut may cause increased anxiety.
The Link Between Gut Health and Exhaustion
Chronic fatigue and exhaustion are common complaints in todays fast-paced society. Studies have suggested a connection between gut health and exhaustion, and this connection has been recognized for thousands of years in TCM. Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, two conditions characterized by extreme fatigue, have been associated in modern research with fluctuations in the gut microbiome.
It is also believed that increased intestinal permeability, commonly known as “leaky gut”, may contribute to chronic fatigue. A compromised gut barrier can allow harmful substances like bacterial toxins to enter the bloodstream, triggering an inflammatory response that leads to fatigue and exhaustion.
What Other Conditions Can Be Linked to Gut Health?
Beyond anxiety and exhaustion, several other conditions are believed to have some links to gut health in both modern and traditional medicine.
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Inflammatory bowel diseases
- Irritable bowel syndrome
How Does Traditional Chinese Medicine Approach Gut Health?
In TCM, maintaining healthy digestion is an important key to optimizing overall wellness. TCM practitioners recommend and practice several habits to improve and maintain gut health, including:
- Eat warm, cooked foods.
In TCM, raw or cold foods are believed to be harder to digest and can weaken the digestive system if consumed regularly. Eating warm, cooked foods is thought to help strengthen the digestive system and improve nutrient absorption.
- Avoid overeating.
Overeating can overwhelm the digestive system and gut, leading to bloating, indigestion, and other digestive issues. Eating smaller, more frequent meals can help to support healthy digestion.
- Chew food thoroughly.
Digestion begins with chewing and saliva in the mouth. Taking more time to chew food can help to improve digestion and nutrient absorption by maximizing the conscious part of the digestion process.
- Incorporate probiotics.
Probiotics are helpful bacteria that help to support a healthy and stable gut microbiome. Incorporating probiotics can help improve gut health and can be done with supplements or probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut.
Anxiety Reduction in Traditional Chinese Medicine
In TCM, anxiety is believed to be caused by an imbalance of Qi energy in the body. TCM encourages a number of practices to manage and reduce anxiety.
- Practice deep breathing.
Deep breathing exercises like Qi Gong or Tai Chi can help to calm the mind and reduce feelings of anxiety.
- Receive acupuncture.
Acupuncture is a technique that uses thin needles to stimulate specific points on the body. It is believed to help balance the flow of Qi in the body, which can help to reduce anxiety.
- Try herbal remedies.
There are several herbal remedies that can help to reduce anxiety in TCM, many of which are rarely heard of in modern medicine. For example, magnolia bark is believed to have a calming effect on the mind while Chinese skullcap may help to reduce feelings of anxiety and restlessness.
How Does TCM Manage and Treat Exhaustion?
Traditional Chinese medicine believes that exhaustion is caused by a deficiency of Qi energy, and treats this much like modern medicine treats exhaustion and fatigue.
- Get enough sleep.
Aiming for 7-8 hours of sleep per night can help to maintain energy levels throughout the day.
- Exercise regularly.
Exercise can help to boost energy levels and improve overall physical and mental health. It doesn’t need to be strenuous – light exercise is better than no exercise. Many people can see improvement in energy levels with as little as 30 minutes of exercise per day.
- Eat a balanced diet.
A diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to provide the nutrients needed for sustained energy throughout the day.
- Incorporate herbal remedies.
Like with anxiety, people struggling with exhaustion may benefit from herbs used in TCM. For example, ginseng is believed to have a stimulating effect on the body.
Maintaining Mental, Physical, and Gut Health with TCM
The gut-brain connection is a crucial component of overall health, particularly in TCM. By understanding this connection and implementing strategies to improve gut health, such as dietary changes and stress management techniques, we can optimize our overall wellbeing and potentially alleviate symptoms of anxiety, exhaustion, and other related conditions. Prioritizing gut health is an approach embraced by TCM to maintain a healthy mind and body.
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