Food Retention

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What's left of Christmas Pudding.

Food Retention is what can happen after overfeeding or over-drinking, very often, though not always, too close to trying to go to sleep. The food or drink sits inside you, heating up and blocking the natural flow.

In Chinese medicine, this is the natural flow of Qi. Any kind of blockage or stagnation in the natural flow of Qi leads to health problems, whether you are a baby, teenager, adult: it's worse when you get old.

For example, read all about Qi Stagnation, from which I guarantee you will have suffered at some point in your life!


By the time you are adult, you've probably trained yourself to ignore all the natural warning signs your body produces when you keep trying to stuff yourself.

Babies are different. They arrive with a million years of experimentation and gene evolution, all ready to start anew.

What that means is that most babies naturally turn away once they've eaten or drunk enough

Also if your baby is growing naturally and is not ill, you probably aren't overfeeding him. However, please read on, because it certainly is possible to overcome those built-in gene habits, and food retention in babies is something that acupuncturists often see and treat.

Food Retention

Food retention can also occur if you have

  • eaten too fast or voraciously
  • eaten while anxious and worrying about something
  • eaten while working under pressure or with intensity
  • eaten hastily or often with snacks, while 'on the go'
  • eaten food that is uncooked or undercooked
  • eaten while overexcited
  • eaten food that is too rich or too sweet
  • eaten food that is unripe
  • eaten food that is too difficult for you to digest properly
  • eating junk food too much, too quickly or too often, food that has little real nutrition in it and lacks fibre to help with bowel movement

But usually, in adults, it occurs because you just ate too much, or drank too much, especially if too close to going to bed, or to resting.

So it does occur in people even when there are many hours to go before bed. Usually these are people who take little exercise, or whose stomach and intestine capacity is smaller than the average, yet try to keep up with everyone else.

What happens? The undigested food sits around inside, unable to move on properly. Eventually it begins to decay.

Then, being a form of Qi unable to move properly (Qi Stagnation), it turns to Heat.

That Heat injures other processes and dries them out, or forces your digestion to rebel. Then you feel sick.

(What! You don't believe me when I say food sitting around inside you turns to heat? Have you ever cut grass and put it into a pile? Go back to it the next day and put your hand inside the pile: it will feel warm, showing that the energy trapped in the grass is turning to heat.

With grass, this heat eventually turns the grass into compost which you can use to benefit your garden soil and growing plants.

With a hotbin, the process speeds up. And that's what happens inside you too, causing food retention and constipation or even diarrhoea.)

Overfeeding Baby

If a baby often wakes crying, because parents know more milk will make him heavy and sleepy, they often feed him again, whether he needs it or not.

Doing this too often can cause a traffic jam in his little inside.

Chinese medicine says that because babies in the womb make no use of their lungs or stomach, these organs are undeveloped at birth and to start with often malfunction. They find that many baby problems come down to either lung or digestive problems.

Chinese doctors have had over 3000 years, and an awful lot of babies, to come to this conclusion, so don't laugh!

In babies, this condition from being overfed to make them sleep occurs because usually they wake from some kind of 'heat'. This underlying heat wakes them, so parents feeds them again and again, and the resulting traffic jam increases the Heat which sours the milk, giving rise to the symptoms described below.

This syndrome - food retention - is very common in the West. In fact, most acupuncturists check for it automatically whenever they see babies and young children, because the syndrome is such a big factor in many diseases like constipation, intestinal parasites, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, and even cough and asthma.

The other main syndrome affecting the digestion in babies and children is Spleen and Stomach deficiency.

By the way - I've had children! I know it's not always easy to get the right feeding pattern for your child. I suggest, to assist with sanity, you read this book!

Symptoms of Food Retention

NB You can be woken at night by much milder symptoms of food retention than those listed below. For example, you might be a thin individual who eats a good but rather-too-heating-type meal some hours before going to bed.

You might even have a good bowel movement before climbing into bed. But you still wake up, typically after 3 or 4 hours,

This is often between 3am and 4.30am, when you wake up feeling a bit warm, but otherwise well.

You lie there wondering why you're awake. And you can continue to lie there for some time, unable to get back to sleep. During this time, you'll find yourself thinking about all sorts of problems, relationships, money, debts etc, but they weren't what woke you.

You probably woke having been dreaming, but it was not necessarily the dream that woke you - although this does happen, and there are all sorts of possible reasons, see below.

No, what woke you was food retention. Your inside just couldn't cope with the heat being generated: that heat produced too much Yang energy for your Yin resources to cope with, and up you woke!

WHAT TO DO? The solution for this kind of food retention?

  • In future be careful about what you eat in the evening, especially if your evening will be sedentary. So don't have a huge meal, or a very spicy, rich, protein-thick (ie lots of meat) meal, or too much creamy food, or too much alcohol: all of these are what Chinese medicine describes as heating. (Click that link to read more about it.)
  • Take more exercise on a regular basis, and/or yoga (see link at foot of page)
  • Chew more and eat less: chewing helps your body extract nour
  • Drinking lots of water, to cool yourself, is not a good solution if you don't have a huge and sturdy bladder, because you'll also wake up to pee.
  • Try to have a good bowel movement before bed - but that doesn't mean taking laxatives! Get into this habit, as well as having a bowel movement after rising in the morning, and you'll be training your digestion to make space regularly and not to retain food.
  • Go outside for a gentle walk for 20 minutes either after eating or before you go to bed. This may use up some of the energy you've absorbed from your food; it may - depending on the climate - cool you down a little; it makes you breathe more, providing oxygen which your body needs to digest food; the movement may help your small and large intestines move the food you've eaten along a bit better: shake it down, as it were - but the idea is to move your Qi.
  • Although it is important, for most people, to sleep in a cool room (not so easy in hot climates) but to have a warm bed, if you think you will be suffering from food retention, only have the minimum on your bed to enable you to sleep. One way of dealing with this is to take a warm bean or wheat-bag (or hot water bottle) to keep you warm while going to sleep, but not to use thick bed blankets. Later in the night, when your stomach warms you up as described, the bean-bag will have cooled down and it is just possible that you won't wake up because your bed isn't covered by too many warm blankets etc.
  • Push off extra if you find yourself getting too warm
  • If possible, don't get up at 7am or whenever, but stay in bed longer. You may find that you can then get back to sleep, and an hour of sleep at that time will be very refreshing. (There's a reason why in Chinese medicine, but explaining it here would make this page too long!)

Typical Food Retention Symptoms in the fully-developed syndrome

Leather Head after the party
  • Epigastric fullness and distension: worse if pressed
  • Nausea
  • Regurgitations that smell and taste sour or rotten
  • Burping and belching: sour
  • Relief from vomiting: what comes up smells sour or rotten
  • Breath smells foul
  • Restless, irritable
  • Sometimes abdominal pain
  • Constipation or loose stools (depends on whether the condition is one of Heat or Cold: if from Heat, the stools will be smelly  (rotten, stinky) and urgent, or possibly dried out, so making you constipated. If from Cold, they may have little or no smell, and be loose and easy to pass.)
  • Frequent bowel movements, if Damp-Heat is involved
  • Insomnia: excessive dreaming, sleep is very restless and may wake you. If so, having a bowel movement - or being sick! -  helps greatly. Normally with this syndrome, you can get to sleep quite fast when you first lie down. Probably in Western medicine this would be because to cope with sugar blood-levels, your pancreas injects lots of insulin into your blood, making you dozy and glad to sleep. However, the trapped food soon turns to Heat which prevents your Shen, your Mind, from resting tranquilly in your Blood through the night.
  • May make your face go yellow or your cheeks red.
  • Can give you a nasal discharge, white if it is cold-type, yellow otherwise, (though you can have a cold, white, nasal discharge even when you have Heat in your abdomen).
  • May get a low fever - some sweating in the evening or at night

Note: normally overfeeding like this makes you hot: having a bowel movement cools you down. So if you live in a cold country and are not well insulated, keep well covered when out of bed. After vomiting or passing your stool, if you feel cold, steep a slice of ginger root in boiling water for a few minutes before drinking the liquid.

  • Pulse: Slippery, full
  • Tongue: covered in a thick coating. If the condition was caused by cold foods, or your body has responded to it with cold symptoms, the coating will be white. Otherwise is likely to be yellow.

Other Reasons for Waking Often

There are other syndromes in Chinese medicine why you might wake up from sleep in the middle of the night, including:

Of course, you can have a combination of syndromes. For example, it is common to have the syndrome described on this page, Food Retention, together with Heart and Spleen Blood deficiency.

What Else for Food Retention?

If you've read through this page, you'll have noticed many references to Qi Stagnation and what to do about it.

Exercise is the number ONE method for moving Qi, (it should preferably get you out of breath, which stimulates your diaphragm which massages your intestines) but there are other ways, and one which gently exercises your insides without getting you out of breath is yoga.

For yoga poses/asanas/poses that can help your digestion and may reduce your tendency to constipation, here's a good page to visit!:

However, doing a pose just once won't solve long-term constipation! You need to practise the asanas regularly.

Return from Food Retention to Insomnia.

As mentioned, food retention is a kind of Qi Stagnation. If you have enjoyed reading about food retention here, you may like to read one of the author's books, such as the one on Qi Stagnation itself.

Qi Stagnation happens to everyone from time to time. It's part of life, and does little harm, especially if you know how to deal with it - which is what the book below is about: I'm told it's easy to read.

If Qi Stagnation goes on for too long, then you may have a problem. The book describes how it could make you ill.

But all is not lost! For nearly everyone, there are ways forward.

Even when you have to put up with Qi stagnation in one part of your life, learning how to take the 'sting' out of it can lead you down new pathways and keep you enjoyably sane!

Knowing that, you'll often find that the stagnating Qi - which is, after all, your own trapped energy - becomes a huge resource that you can use to move on creatively.

3000 years of Chinese being stressed, and at last, here's a book showing how all that experience can help you!

By the author of this website, it explains in simple English how to use stress to improve and enhance your life.

For the Latest Reviews of 'Qi Stagnation', click here!

NB You can also order 'Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress' from your bookseller.

Jonathan Clogstoun-Willmott Books

All the books in the 'Chinese Medicine in English' series should be fully accessible on Kindles and Kindle apps. (Or you can buy the softback print editions, of course.)

('Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine' published 1986, was never available in a Kindle version.)

Request! Please!

If, having read one of my books you can write a review - preferably positive - that would help others decide whether to read it.

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Here are some of the books I (Jonathan) have written.

Subscribers to Kindle Unlimited can borrow the first four for 'free'.

Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress

Yin Deficiency - Burnout and Exhaustion

Yang Deficiency - Get Your Fire Burning Again!

Yuck! Phlegm! How to Clear Your Phlegm ...

Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine

Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine! See Reviews.

Seven Reviews so far for Yuck Phlegm. (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read and will be much more useful than all the websites on the subject.)

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