Traditional Chinese medicine holds that emotional stress wreaks havoc on our health by affecting the flow of chi (energy) and blood in the abdomen. Imbalances in the spleen, in particular, can occur as a result of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle exacerbated by sustained levels of stress.
"The majority of functional gastrointestinal disorders, such as poor appetite, dyspepsia, diarrhoea and constipation result from a weak spleen organ system," says Professor Bian Zhaoxiang, a Chinese medicine expert and director of the clinical division of Baptist University's School of Chinese Medicine.
The spleen is considered by practitioners to be the main organ of digestion, responsible for transforming and extracting nutrients from the foods we eat into chi and blood. It is a yin ("cold") organ system that prefers food and drink that are "warming" to the body temperature and temperament.
Think of the spleen as being powered by heat. Frozen food, icy drinks, cucumber, bitter or winter melon, lettuce and grapefruit deplete the spleen's "fire". Foods that are "damp" - such as dairy products, refined sugars and sweets - can also smother the digestive process.
In general, to nourish the spleen, foods must be cooked or brought to at least room temperature. Sesame, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, legumes, kidney beans, lightly cooked vegetables, small amounts of lean meats, figs, coconuts, grapes, cherries, dates, potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, oats, rice, ginger, spring onions and pu'er tea are among the best foods for the organ.
Different types of herbs are also recommended for treating different types of spleen imbalances and particular gastrointestinal disorders. Bian advises codonopsis root (called dang shen) and astragalus root (huangqi) for deficient chi, and dried ginger and aconite root for deficient yang. Specifically, Bian says, "the hemp seed pill [HSP] … has been used to treat functional constipation".
Bian cites a 4 1/2-year study by Baptist University, published last year in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, which found that high doses of HSP were more effective than low or medium doses in easing constipation among 96 patients.
A subsequent placebo test - in which the patients were split into placebo and HSP groups - reinforced the strong effects of HSP. Results showed the efficacy of the pill was higher than those in the placebo group. The pill is a mixture of hemp seeds, rhubarb, apricot seeds, white peony root, magnolia bark and immature bitter orange.
"Specific dietary advice and herbal formulations will depend on the individual patient's constitution and imbalances," Bian comments.