If you’re having digestive problems, you may not think about Chinese herbs as a treatment. However, there are a number of useful herbs that are compiled into formulas in TCM that can promote good digestion and relieve your symptoms. TCM stands for Traditional Chinese Medicine and is a way to describe the use of Chinese herbal formulas for healing.
The principle behind Chinese herbal medicine is that each herb has an inherent temperature, action and organ system that it treats. For example, herbs can boost your energy to improve your immunity, warm you up, cool you off, reduce phlegm in your lungs or drain excess water (this may or may not show up as edema). So it’s no surprise that Chinese herbal medicine can also treat a number of digestive problems.
It’s important to know that under this system, it’s not just about taking one herb if you’re feeling nauseous or have a stomachache. Instead, your practitioner needs to uncover exactly what’s behind your symptoms and then choose an herbal formula (a group of herbs) that’s best suited to treat your diagnosis. While there are a number of underlying causes of digestive problems in Chinese medicine, there are a few that are the most common, including:
Food Stagnation. This is a condition where the food you’ve eaten just sits in your stomach, making you feel bloated, gassy and miserable overall. Food stagnation can come from overeating, eating too much meat, greasy meals or starchy food, weak digestive function or even from stress. The herbs that treat food stagnation help with stomach emptying, promote peristalsis (the movement of food within your gut), and increase gastric secretions, such as digestive enzymes. Herbs that treat food stagnation include:
- Hawthorn Also called Shan Zha, hawthorn helps reduce and guide out food stagnation, especially when you’ve eaten too much rich meat or greasy foods. It can also be added to formulas to stop diarrhea. The use of hawthorn fruit is so well-known in China that a common hawthorn candy called Hawflakes, does double duty as a digestive aid. In addition, a number of research studies have indicated that hawthorn can be used to control high blood pressure and lower cholesterol.
- Sprouted barley or malt, called Mai Ya is also used to treat food stagnation, especially when it’s caused by starchy foods. May Ya is included in formulas to strengthen your digestion, improve your appetite and promote better absorption of food.
- Sprouted rice, or Gu Ya, is also used for food stagnation of undigested starchy foods. Its gentle action is less pronounced, but is a good choice for patients with weak digestion and loss of appetite.
- Lai Fu Zi are the seeds from the radish In contrast to sprouted rice, the action of Lai Fu Zi is more pronounced and used for severe food stagnation with gas, bloating, acid reflux and belching with a foul smell. It can also help with abdominal pain and diarrhea.
- Shen Qu is a weird but effective herb called Massa Fermentata. It’s made from a mixture of herbs and grains (usually wheat flour and bran) and herbs, such as xanthium leaves, polygonum, mashed apricot kernels and artemesia. The herbs and grain is covered and fermented for about a week, then cut into small chunks and dried. Shen Qu is added to formulas to treat food stagnation caused by overindulging in alcohol and starchy food. It’s often mixed with other herbs that treat food stagnation, such as hawthorn fruit and sprouted barley.
General stagnation of the Spleen and Stomach. In Chinese medicine, your Stomach is a physical organ, and your Spleen is often used to describe the process of digestion. So stagnation of the spleen and stomach can involve any part of your digestive system—not just your stomach. Symptoms involve bloating, pain, gas, reflux, nausea, vomiting diarrhea or constipation. Herbs in this category include:
- Mu Xiang, which is Costus root. Mu Xiang works by promoting movement in your entire digestive tract from your stomach to your intestines. It’s included in formulas to treat a loss of appetite, stomach pain and distension, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and intestinal pain and cramping.
- Finger Citron Fruit is also called Buddha’s Hand, because the fruit has many fingers that resemble a hand. Called Fo Shou in Chinese, this herb is included in formulas to help promote movement through your intestines, and can treat symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, a reduced appetite, belching and vomiting.
- Zhi Shi is the immature fruit of the bitter orange. It helps to break up accumulations in the stomach or intestines and promotes downward movements. It’s used for pain, bloating and gas in the abdomen and helps treat constipation. Interestingly, Zhi Shi is also used to treat diarrhea caused by dysentery.
Dampness. When you eat too many rich foods, sweets or just too much food in general, it can bog down your digestion and cause you to retain dampness. This just means that your fluid metabolism is hampered, which can cause you to feel moist and…boggy.
When dampness is hampering your digestion, Sha Ren, or cardamom, is a good choice. It helps transform dampness, stop vomiting, treat diarrhea and calm morning sickness during pregnancy. Sha Ren can also be used in formulas to offset the effects of tonifying herbs that may becoming cloying and cause stagnation.
When it comes to treating digestive problems Licorice Root is in a category on its own. Called Gan Cao in Chinese medicine, licorice helps strengthen your Qi (energy) and supports your digestion. It’s commonly used in herbal formulas for its ability to harmonize, which simply means that it can soften the effects of stronger herbs or balance the heat or coolness of a formula. Licorice also tastes good, and it can also harmonize the taste of a bitter formula.
While licorice has been used in Chinese medicine for over a thousand years, Western researchers are documenting its health benefits. They have found that licorice can prevent and treat ulcers, help in the treatment of certain kinds of cancer, has antiviral and antibacterial properties and may also be useful in treating obesity. Licorice taken in very large amounts can negatively affect your heart beat, increase blood pressure and interfere with certain medications, such as blood pressure medications, so checking with an herbal practitioner is a good idea.
The bottom line is that Chinese herbal medicine is versatile! While the uses and actions of each herb can be complicated and nuanced, the TCM practitioners at BodaHealth have had years of education and experience in prescribing these incredibly useful herbs. If you’re having digestive issues and want to know if Chinese herbs are right for you, contact us today for more information.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.