An old tai ji quan (tai chi) teacher of mine used to say, “Yi dao … qi dao … li dao,” which roughly means the focus of your mind (yi dao) dictates the way your energy moves (qi dao) which dictates the expression of your power. (This utterance came mostly when he noticed that I was looking distracted.) In other words, the ability to effectively direct your power is founded in the ability to effectively focus your mind.
Mental focus, known as yi, is one of the five aspects of consciousness defined in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Each of the five is considered to be associated with a particular part of the body, and the yi corresponds with the digestive system. In a way digestion is a kind of inner focus. When food enters the body, the digestive tract focuses its attention on it – breaking it down to its elemental parts, extracting what’s useful, and absorbing it. It makes sense that we use the word “digest” to speak about processing and assimilating a new or challenging idea or experience.
Disruption of the digestive system frequently goes hand in hand with poor mental focus. The most common example is Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder in people who have a poor diet and/or erratic food intake and/or food sensitivities and/or gut imbalances.
There are two main patterns of digestive imbalance as it relates to mental function. The first is poor assimilation of the vital nutrients in our food, leading to a state of deficiency and a “malnourished mind.” The second is the development of phlegm, which makes us cloudy-headed and may further impede the assimilation of nutrients. The Chinese medical use of the word “phlegm” here denotes a much broader concept than simple mucus. Phlegm is anything that impedes our flow or accumulates in us but serves no functional purpose, such as plaques, cysts, excess body fat, or any other similarly tenacious “gunk” in our system. It may be tangible or intangible, and it doesn’t go away easily.
Phlegm can form as a byproduct of impaired digestion. Sometimes it develops when we’re exposed to foods that irritate the body – similar to how an oyster secretes pearl material when it’s irritated by a grain of sand. Other times it develops because something else disturbs the digestive process (such as trying to digest too much mental material while trying to digest food, or eating while the eating, nervous system is activated by stress), leading to incomplete assimilation of nutrients and excretion of waste.
TCM’s notion of a digestive origin for mental disturbances is shared by Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India, which goes so far as to say that all health problems originate in the gut. Recently these millennia-old concepts have been corroborated through our emerging understanding of the gut-brain axis – the complex interplay between the gastrointestinal tract, its microbial population, and the central nervous system.
Let’s look at some ways we can improve digestion for better mental health.
- Choose nutrient-dense foods. Support high-quality thinking with high-quality nourishment: fresh vegetables, nuts and seeds, clean proteins (free range omega-3 eggs, organic grass-fed dairy products, sustainably grown oily fish, small amounts of pasture raised meat), whole fruits, and a little whole grain. Limit your intake of fried foods, sweetened foods, and flour.
- Avoid foods you’re sensitive to. One of the most common symptoms of eating a food that’s incompatible with your system is lower energy and less-sharp thinking. Keep a food journal and track of any foods you don’t thrive on. If it’s hard to determine, consider doing an elimination diet or elemental diet (powdered, hypoallergenic meal replacement) to clean out and then systematically reintroduce foods.
- Eat in a slow, relaxed, conscious way. Unlike filling up your gas tank, which you want to be as fast as possible, eating isn’t merely a “fill up” – it’s also a way to tune in, to savor, to be grateful, and to consciously nourish your mind-body. There can be a vast qualitative difference between a rushed meal you barely pay attention to versus one you enjoy to the fullest. Get media out of the eating space. Set your stresses aside. Stay connected to the act of eating.
- Stop eating before you’re full. Stop eating before you’re full. Stop eating before you’re full.
- Try bitters. Bitter digestive-stimulating herbs have the dual effect of toning the digestive tract and clearing toxins and phlegm. Bitters as cocktail mixers are experiencing a surge of popularity, so there are more blends available than ever. I recommend a mixture of pure bitters such as gentian, rhubarb root, myrrh, Peruvian bark, goldenseal, yellow dock, barberry, or Oregon grape root with some aromatic carminative spices (promoting assimilation), such as citrus peel, anise, fennel, caraway, cardamom, or ginger. Take a squirt before and/or after each meal in a little water.
- Move a little after meals. A walk is perfect. This helps promote assimilation.
- If you need extra support, consider a good digestive enzyme blend. These supplement what your pancreas produces (and won’t cause your body to produce less) and help in the breakdown of food for better absorption. There are many good products out there. Two of my favorites are DigestZymes made by Designs for Health and Digest made by Transformation Enzymes. Take some at the beginning of each meal. Sometimes they make a remarkable difference.
Interestingly, the connection between digestion and mental function works both ways. Not only can impaired digestion contribute to diminished cognitive function, mental and emotional disturbances can also contribute to poor digestion. Worry, in particular, is considered taxing to the digestive mechanisms in TCM because it habitually engages the digestive mechanisms as you “chew” on problems. If you can make mealtimes a ritual in which you always take a break from thinking about stressful things, you’ll not only enjoy your food more, you’ll also derive greater benefit from it.