The Guts of Chinese Medicine
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Mindd forum and was inspired by one of the keynote speakers, Dr Kelly Brogan. Dr Brogan is a holistic women’s health psychiatrist with a sharp intellect and wit, warm heart and wealth of knowledge. A true seamstress, eloquently weaving together the interplay between our modern day health crisis with our flawed mainstream approaches to lifestyle, nutrition and medicine.
I respect Dr Brogan for these qualities and notably her passionate interest in the diets of traditional cultures and what this has to teach us about where we are going wrong with our current eating habits.
As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I want to provide some insights into how food, along with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, are used to promote health. To do this, I will explore the relevance of these practices to our modern day understanding of the human microbiome, which we are learning is critical to our health and wellbeing.
The traditional Chinese approach to food represents the wisdom of thousands of years of human discovery, uncorrupted by industrialised food production and the subsequent changes to the human diet. I feel like the Chinese understanding of food as medicine, gives us a window to help navigate our way through the increasing list of modern diets claiming to have all the answers.
As Dr Brogan noted, Chinese medicine has been screaming from the mountain tops for thousands of years about the profound relevance of the gut to overall health, including mental health. The recent, ongoing discoveries into the gut-brain axis are well described in Chinese medicine, albeit using very different concepts and language.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the right food is critical to good health, not just because of the vitamins and minerals that the western nutritional model has reduced food to, but for the complex interactions and communication these foods have with the trillions of microbes and cells in our bodies. In Chinese medicine this is referred to as the ‘energetics of food’. It represents the wisdom of listening and understanding the interplay between the microbiome, gut, brain and immune system.
The concept of the ‘Spleen’ in Chinese medicine refers to some key aspects of the digestion process, so I suspect many of the foods known in TCM to be beneficial to the Spleen, have important interactions with our gut bacteria. Rice and sweet potato for example are understood in modern times to be important prebiotics. In TCM, both these foods are said to be ‘sweet’ and ‘neutral or warm’ thereby helping to strengthen the Spleen……. the Spleen likes to be ‘warm and dry’ and is nourished by a balanced amount of ‘sweetness’. Many other vegetables like carrot, pumpkin, turnips and beetroot also serve this purpose. It’s likely they too have specific actions on gut microbes and this is one of the many reasons Chinese medicine encourages their consumption for digestive health.
Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture are well known for their potentially beneficial effects on our state of health. While there are many studies exploring the interactions between acupuncture and our bodily systems, far fewer have been undertaken exploring the possible interactions between therapies like acupuncture and herbal medicine, and our microbiome.
There is an interesting study on Reishi mushroom which has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries and is now famous for its health promoting properties. The study showed that Reishi may reduce obesity and alleviate inflammation by modulating the composition of the gut microbiota and maintaining intestinal barrier integrity.
Another study showed that the Chinese herbal formula Si Jun Zi Tang (a well known digestive tonic) and Shi Quan Da Bu Tang (a tonic with digestive and immune indications) have been shown to beneficially regulate gut bacteria. This investigation revealed that as a result, there were changes in gene expression i.e. turning genes on and off.
Likewise, acupuncture has also been shown to help regulate our internal bugs. A study on the effects of acupuncture on gut bacteria showed that beneficial bugs Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium increased after treatment, but potentially harmful bacteria including Bacteroides and Clostridium perfringens, decreased.
More good quality studies are required in this area, however these demonstrate that the health benefits associated with traditional Chinese approaches to food and medicine are likely to include positive effects on the microbiome. The foods we eat and the medicine we use can and does have an effect, for better or for worse, on the ecology of our body.
I would encourage all people, especially those with chronic or unresponsive health complaints to learn more about traditional food practices and consider this knowledge when making decisions about how, what and when to eat. Getting tailored information specific to your own constitution from a practitioner experienced in traditional Chinese nutritional medicine, can be a good place to start.
I wish you all the very best of health on your journey.
Written by Sean Alison.
Certified in Traditional Chinese Medicine
 Chang, C.-J., et al. (2015). Ganoderma lucidum reduces obesity in mice by modulating the composition of the gut microbiota. Nat Commun 6, no. 749. http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150623/ncomms8489/full/ncomms8489.html
2 Li, H. K., Zhou, M. M., Zhao, A. H. & Jia, W. (2009). Traditional Chinese Medicine: Balancing the Gut Ecosystem. Phytotherapy Research, Vol. 23, pp. 1332-1335. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19253310
3 Xu, Z. T., Li, R. F.., Zhu, C. L. & Li, M. Y. (2013). Effect of acupuncture treatment for weight loss on gut flora in patients with simple obesity. Acupuncture in Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 116-117. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3796330/