Stomach Functions in Chinese Medicine


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From the start, Chinese medicine recognised the unique importance of the Stomach energy organ. Although it is a ''fu organ" and Yang in nature, it actually has many Yin qualities:

This page is at times a bit technical! The first part has to do with yin and yang, which are really important concepts in Chinese medicine. You could say that all therapy in Chinese medicine, whether it's Herbs, Acupuncture, Tai Chi, Guasha, Cupping or Moxibustion etc has at heart the aim of balancing Yin and Yang. Most energy organs and channels are fairly definitely one or the other. Not so the Stomach.

So is the Stomach Yin or Yang?

  • Modern life being what it is, a frequent problem for people is Stomach Yin deficiency. The strange thing is that the the Spleen energy organ, one of the six Yin organs in your body, tends to suffer more often from Yang deficiency.
  • Next, whereas the Spleen has the job of transforming, transporting and exchanging food and Blood, all of which are Yang types of action, the Stomach's job, see below, is to receive, rotten and ripen. These actions are more Yin in nature, requiring time and space to work.
  • As the origin in the body of fluids, one might think it would be Yin. On the other hand, to work at its best, the Spleen prefers dryness - Yang!
  • Then there's the direction that the organs make energy flow. Stomach Qi, if working correctly, descends, helping you to swallow food, keep it down and allow its nutrients down into the body: Yin-type activities. Spleen Qi, on the other hand is responsible for sending and keeping things up or in place: Yang-type!

You can see that they each have both Yin and Yang qualities, needed to nourish and maintain your body and health.

They are so closely connected that they can almost be considered as one organ energy, looked at from two points of view.

Stomach Channel Pathway

On another page you'll find more about this, but to continue the question about how Yin or Yang the Stomach is, there's another anomaly. The front of the body is considered to be Yin, the back Yang.

Why? I hear you ask! Why is the front Yin and the Back Yang?

Yang provides movement, speed, fast change, and defense. If someone attacks you, would you open your arms and let them punch you in the stomach? Probably not, if you have any sense.

I would expect you either to protect your abdomen by covering it with your arms (arms being very movable, so more Yang than your abdomen), to turn your back or to curl up into a ball. At least, that's what I'd do.

Better still, you might try to run away, which is another way of turning your back on your assailant.

So the soft abdomen with all its vital life processes is considered comparatively Yin, whereas your back and sides - and arms, which are harder and more easily movable, are Yang.

The Stomach's primary channel pathway runs up the front of the body, its Yin aspect.

All the other Yang channels (for example the Gall-bladder and Bladder channels) run up the side of the body or its back.

The Stomach channel runs parallel and lateral to the Kidney channel on the front parallel to the midline. On your back, the Bladder channel has two lines which run parallel with the Spine.

In some ways the Kidney and Stomach channels on the front are there to balance them. If they don't balance, as between front and back, you'll tend either to

  • hunch or curl forwards if the channels on the front are weak or deficient or alternatively the ones on your back are too strong
  • stretch out or back if the ones on the front have too much Qi as compared with those on your back. 

Example? When you've eaten a huge meal of highly spiced food you'll probably stretch out or back because your front is too full. (Sorry to mention it, but once you've been sick, you'll tend to curl up!)

Another example: if someone lacks confidence, it may be because he is Blood or Stomach Qi deficient, or because he is Yang deficient. It could easily be both, of course.

If the first, Blood or Stomach Qi ie Yin deficient, he'll tend to cross his arms or hug his belly.

If the latter - Yang deficient - he will tend not to stand up straight or look you in the eye. (Of course, in some cultures people are taught not to look you in the eye when talking to you. That's different.)

Mental aspects of Stomach

When the Stomach energy organ functions well, other things being equal you will have enough good food and you will eat it sensibly, you'll have plenty of energy, you'll sleep well and be equable in temperament.

You'll also have good powers of concentration, and a reliable memory.

Some of these attributes come about from having enough quality Blood, manufactured by the Stomach and Spleen. 

If your Stomach doesn't perform adequately then various syndromes become possible:

  • Stomach Qi deficiency means your powers of digestion are reduced. This results not just in lower energy levels but lowered spirits. When Qi is reduced you may also get (because of a link with the Lungs) weepiness or a tendency to cry or produce tears even when you aren't unhappy.
  • Stomach Fire: this produces burning pains in your stomach and, in a way, your Spirit burns too: mentally you become restless. If this Fire produces Phlegm (as it were by drying out body liquids) and you get Phlegm Fire then potentially you could get mental derangement and mania.

Nutrition

Read about the Stomach from the orthodox perspective here.

From the Chinese perspective, providing your body with good Nutrition is also a major function of your Stomach energy.

You could say that the whole business of

  • getting hungry, 
  • planning what to eat, 
  • obtaining it, 
  • preparing it, 
  • cooking it and 
  • making it look appetising, 
  • as well as eating and digesting it properly, 
  • falls to the Stomach.

The Stomach doesn't like to be rushed! Chew food well, and eat it leisurely. Think, if you like, of a large and placid cow in your stomach, munching slowly through what you give it. It's a huge powerful beast and if you feed it the way it needs, it will give you all that power and energy!

Technically, it receives, rottens and ripens what you eat, then transports the essence of what you've eaten on to the next stage, the Spleen function.

This process of rottening and ripening takes time. That means :

  • eat slowly
  • enjoy and savour food
  • choose foods that your Stomach is used to - modern manufactured, de-natured, refined and fast foods are not what your genes have spent the last few million years evolving to be able to eat!
  • chew well and don't gulp
  • don't eat on the job, or when driving, or if very anxious
  • don't eat if tired
  • don't eat a huge meal immediately before going to bed. (Why? Because a huge meal then, when you are already tired, is taxing your Stomach too much, and also strains its ability to hold the food down)
  • eat small meals if rushed, and chew them well
  • if you are ill or tired, eat food that is well-cooked and  warm to the touch 
  • try to eat meals at regular times or intervals

Benefits of Company

Good company nearly always enhances digestion. Technical note: there is a reason for this in the Five Element theory part of Chinese medicine. Good company enhances the action of your Fire element, which is the Mother element to Earth, the Stomach's element. (If that just sounds like a lot of nonsense, you'll have to wait for our pages on the Five Element system.)

Eating in relaxed Company usually relaxes us and lengthens the time we take to eat. That suits the big cow down inside!

Cautions

We live in an acquisitive age. We are urged to own more possessions, to try new holidays, to taste new foods, to enjoy more adventures, to boast more 'friends'. 

In many ways these 'exercise' our Stomach function. When you have had too much of something, you either get overwhelmed or you get sick of it.

If you have too many possessions or money, you may not know what to do with them, or it. You will lose interest in ordinary life, and you'll demand ever more exotic tastes to satisfy you.

This is not healthy for you. The cow down inside gets fat and flabby, constipated, fussy and burpy. Ever more demanding, she becomes increasingly unhappy. You begin to get both physical and mental symptoms of food retention.

Despite lack of resources, some people just can't stop acquiring things, whether by purchase, gift, loan or theft. Here they have what amounts to Stomach Fire, always needing something to burn through. This can lead to hyper states, including mania.

Mania can then burn you up, leading to hypo-states and depression.

In charge of Descending Energy (Qi)

This is more important than you may think. Obviously if Stomach Qi lets things rise, you become nauseous and burp: eructations.

This descending function turns up in lots of ways.

  • Nerves are often eased by eating or drinking. Sometimes constant anxiety provokes constant eating, which leads to obesity
  • Smokers trying to give up smoking often find they start eating more because, in the absence of a cigarette, food calms them
  • Babies, whose Stomach function is not mature, frequently bring food and milk up, when they have had enough
  • People are judged by whether they can 'stomach' something
  • Fright, shock and disgust can disturb the Stomach's natural processing of food, making us sick or even vomit
  • Chewing fingers, finger-nails or lips is another way of exercising the chewing muscles. It suggests your Stomach and Spleen functions are not in harmony.
  • Chewing gum is calming and assuages hunger, for a while.

Origin of Fluids in the body

All fluids in the body come from what we eat or drink. Food should therefore not be too dry.

On the other hand, it may not be a good idea to drink huge quantities when eating. Too much fluid, especially chilled or iced fluids or foods, in effect douses the Stomach's Yang energy, needed to digest food.

"Why does my Stomach hurt?" Click here to find out!

  • Strong emotions, particularly worry or over-thinking
  • Very cold or iced food or drink
  • Eating irregularly or too fast
  • Cold conditions 

Stomach Syndromes

Here are various Stomach syndromes (which can also combine with other syndromes):

Alternatively, have a look at:


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