Food Retention – the Stuffed Gut syndrome

Ocer-eating can lead to food retention
Photo by Kate Voytsutskaya on Unsplash

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! If you get it for too long and don’t do anything about it, you could end up with IBS. Both Food Retention and Qi Stagnation are syndromes in Chinese medicine, which means they’ve given them a lot of thought!

People eating and having fun but over-eating can lead to food retention
Eating huge amounts leads to food retention


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 ‘healthy’ 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
  • while anxious and worrying about something
  • while working under pressure or with intensity
  • hastily or often with snacks, while ‘on the go’
  • food that is uncooked or undercooked
  • while overexcited
  • food that is too rich or too sweet
  • food that is unripe
  • food that is too difficult for you to digest properly
  • 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 thickens and dries, leading to a form of phlegm, hard to shift.

That Heat injures other processes too 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.


Hotbin composting instructions


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

Overfeeding your 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 inside them, giving rise to the symptoms described below.

If, passing through a natural developmental phase, the baby is also teething, this leads to more heat in the system, drying and thickening.

Food Advice during teething? Avoid foods that are heating, drying or thickening, such as red meat, rich dairy foods like cheese, and sweet food. For more examples check Hot Foods. Just during teething, think of cooling foods, like yogurt. 

Of course, not only babies get food retention (ie accumulation of food)! So do children and teenagers, who often get it because they experiment with new food tastes and trends, over-heating them and blocking them up. Teenagers often get Qi stagnation too, which binds things up in other ways. (I’m glad I’m not a teenager any more!)

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. That’s 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 may have been 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! (Too much yang disrupts the normal yin process of sleep. (For more on this, click on sleep problems.)

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

1  How, when and what you eat

  • 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.)
  • Chew more and eat less: chewing helps your body extract nourishment better, which may help you feel full earlier.
  • 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.
  • Eating in good company, with relaxed conversation over a comfortable period of time, often allows you to absorb your food more gradually. 
  • Eating in silence, with awareness of every mouthful, while not reading or otherwise engaged, makes you more aware of your stomach’s limits.
  • A little wine helps, too! (A lot makes it worse.)
Wine, sometimes a contributor to food retention
A little alcohol may relax and aid digestion. ( A LITTLE!)

2  Making space

  • 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.

3 Exercise to Move it all

  • Take more exercise on a regular basis, and/or yoga (see link at foot of page)
  • 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 of walking 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. All the better, if your walk is over rough ground, not just on pavements, with a bit of up and downhill. That can really help to shoogle it along! (By the way, I’m  not so sure that if walking is good, running is better. I suspect that when running, especially on pavements, your body steadies your abdomen with an element of tightening which you don’t want. Normally, walking is less impactful, allowing your body to relax your abdomen. But, obviously, this depends on how fit you are, the ground you run over and how experienced your body is at running.)

4 Check the temperature

  • 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 help 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 covers if you find yourself getting too warm

5 Stay in Bed longer in the morning if you were awake lots during the night

  • 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

  • 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 too
  • 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 ie vomiting it up! –  may help greatly. 
  • May make your face go yellow or your cheeks red.
  • Can give you a nasal discharge. This will be 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). Check our page on Phlegm Colour.)
  • 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 or sipping 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. (Again, check Phlegm Colour.)

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.

Jonathan Brand colours

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