The Gut-Brain Connection In Chinese Medicine

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Chinese Medicine stems from a transcendental and integrative world-view in which our bodies as well as our environment are permeated by currents of energy.

According to Chinese classic medicine, there exist different types of energy, starting with yin and yang, which are two cosmic principles that are present across the universe in different forms.

In Chinese medicine, diet is not separated from health. Digestion plays a central role in the Chinese conception of the organism. In fact, it is the source of the blood and energy that all the other organs need in order to be able to function in the first place.

Although there are no exact parallels between the Chinese channel and network vessel system and the body’s anatomic structures, the functions of the gut can be compared to the functions of some of the Chinese inner organs (zangfu). 

Table of Contents

The Gut-Brain Connection

The gut is known as the “second brain” because it is innerved by the enteric nervous system (ENS). The intrinsic nervous system of the gut contains between 200 and 600 million neurons, which is equivalent to the number of neurons found in the spinal cord.

The enteric nervous system can be considered an extension of the limbic system into the gut due to its close connections with the limbic and autonomic regions of the brain.

Similar to the nervous system, the ENS produces neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and opioids that are involved in pain regulation and other important functions.

The brain and the gut are connected and communicate bidirectionally. In addition to the vagus nerve, gut-brain signaling involves various parallel communication channels that are also interconnected.

Gastric reflexes are influenced by chemical, mechanical, and microbial activity. Recent scientific research has shown that different types of subconscious signals from the gut, including those produced by intestinal microbes, have an impact on memory formation and emotional arousal.

The connections between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain are truly unique and play a crucial role in maintaining balance within the body.

It has been shown that top-down modulation from the brain to the gut has the ability to override reflex functions of the enteric nervous system [1]

Digestion and Assimilation According to Chinese Medicine

Digestion involves mainly two inner organs in the Chinese system: the Spleen zang, and the Stomach fu. 

The Stomach is a yang organ (fu) known as the “sea of grains” due to its main function of receiving all the food which is then soaked in organic liquids called jinye that are formed from the yin qi of the Stomach.

The Spleen is a yin organ (zang) responsible for the absorption, and transportation upwards of the most essential energy of food and fluids: their flavor.

 This process involves the Spleen’s ability to extract the essence from the food and fluids in the Stomach. This nutritive essence is then transformed into various types of qi (vital energy) as well as xue (blood).

When the flavors of the aliments are extracted by the Spleen they become gu qi. Gu qi combines with the qi gathered from the air we breathe through the Lungs, becoming zong qi. Zong qi is combined with our innate yuan qi, forming zhen qi.

Zhen qi is the energy that results from the body’s natural alchemic process, it is also known as “true qi”. Zhen qi is the basis of our Blood (xue) as well as the qi responsible for our immunity, the wei qi

Mingmen: The Fire of the Gate of Life

The Mingmen Fire is located in between the two kidneys and behind the lower dantian. There are three dantian in the body, they are centers where three very subtle energies abide. 

The Mingmen is directly involved with our reproductive functions and is the energetic basis of all the metabolic processes in the body. The Mingmen Fire transforms our innate essence (jing) into physiological energy. 

The capacity of the Spleen to absorb the essence from food and fluids depends on the yang energy of the Mingmen Fire, which is inseparable from the Kidney yang. The Kidneys in Chinese medicine are our innermost organs that are the root of the yin and yang of the entire organism.

In clinical Chinese medicine, it is considered that the yang qi of the Spleen comes from the yang qi of the Kidney. Poor digestive capacity has a direct association with Spleen yang primarily and in severe cases it may more likely be caused by Kidney Yang Deficiency. 

The Brain, the Marrow, and the Sea

The Brain in Chinese medicine is referred to as the “sea of marrow”. It is considered to have the same nature as the bone marrow and is nourished by our innate Essence (jing) which is the yin basis of fertility and genetical dispositions.

This concept of the brain being connected to the bone marrow comes from very deep Taoist cosmology. Since Taoist esoteric knowledge is strictly kept within contextual barriers, it is seldom heard of elsewhere, even among Chinese medicine practitioners.

Chinese medicine does not place special importance on the brain. In TCM the jingluo channel and network vessel system modulate the function of the different structures of the body.  

The Brain is considered to be the material basis for shen, even though shen is sheltered by the Heart. Shen is a dantian that encompasses various mental activities such as thought, consciousness, self-awareness, emotions, memory, and volition.

Shen is also where information involving spatially distinct regions of the body is integrated. It is intricately connected to all other psychological characteristics and serves as the foundation for our sense of self.

Spleen Qi Deficiency 

'The five harmful exhaustions: (overuse of) long-term sight damages Blood, always lying down damages the Qi, always sitting damages the muscles, always standing hurts the bones, always moving hurts the bones tendons and ligaments; this is what we know as the Five Exhaustions that cause harm '.

Swen

Several factors can contribute to Spleen Qi Insufficiency. These include poor diet and nutrition, excessive worry or overthinking, a sedentary lifestyle, and a weak constitution.

Additionally, external factors such as damp or cold environments and food can also weaken the Spleen’s function.

When the Spleen is weakened or its function is impaired, it may lead to Spleen Qi Deficiency or Spleen Yang Insufficiency.

According to the Chinese Medicine classic Swen, excessive intellectual activity including worry, studying, reflection, and obsession can damage the energy of the Spleen, which implies a loss of function.

Spleen Qi Insufficiency and Spleen Yang Insufficiency can result in a weakened digestive capacity, leading to a deficient production of qi and xue. As we can see, Spleen Deficiency affects not only digestion but can also cause Blood-related imbalances and a generalized lack of energy.

The Spleen is also responsible for maintaining organs and tissues’ tone and is connected to the lower limbs through the Spleen channel (Foot Taiyin).

Symptoms associated with Spleen Qi Deficiency include:

  • Weight loss, ageusia, abdominal swelling with distension that worsens with ingestion, loose stools:

The Spleen is not able to mobilize and activate the organic fluids in the Stomach. The difficulty to digest causes aversion to the idea of ingesting food and fluids. Inappropriate food intake causes weight loss. 

  • Shallow and weak breath, weak voice, pale complexion, fatigue, asthenia:

The Spleen is not able to generate qi. 

The most characteristic symptoms of Spleen Yang Deficiency are: 

  • A sensation of cold in the abdomen that improves when heat is applied, and morning diarrhea:

Mingmen fire doesn’t provide sufficient Heat. Digestion and assimilation don’t happen.

  • Weak muscles, edema, cold extremities, difficulty concentrating, and a laxity of tissues, organs, and blood vessels. 

Lack of Blood to nourish the muscles and other tissues. Failure to metabolize the organic liquids of the body. Loss of tone in the tissues. 

Treating Spleen Qi Insufficiency 

In Chinese medicine, the goal of treating Spleen Qi insufficiency is to strengthen the Spleen. Sometimes nourishing the Blood and qi may also be required. 

However, the most important therapeutic measure in the treatment of Spleen Insufficiency is to understand what exactly is causing it to manifest and stop whatever the root cause might be. 

Chinese medicine believes that the body tends toward homeostasis, and health is only lost when the strength of the organism (zheng qi) is weaker than the pathological aggressor (xie qi).

According to this view, no matter what is causing a disease, unless it is a trauma or an urgency, if zheng qi is strong and the habits are right the body will always heal itself.

TCM’s therapeutic principles are aimed at accelerating healing by directing qi to areas of deficiency in order to strengthen those parts of the organism, and sometimes it is aimed at dispersing pathologic factors and purging them. 

Some of the techniques utilized to resolve Spleen Insufficiency:

1. Herbal Medicine: Chinese herbal formulas are often prescribed to tone and nourish the Spleen qi. These formulas may include herbs such as ginseng, astragalus, and ginger, which are known for their energy-boosting properties.

2. Acupuncture: Acupuncture is another effective treatment modality for Spleen Qi insufficiency. By inserting fine needles into specific acupuncture points, the flow of qi can be regulated, and the Spleen’s function can be strengthened. Acupoints that tone Spleen qi include Ren-4 Guanyuan, SP-3 Taibai, SP-6 Sanynjiao, and UB-20 Pishu. 

3. Dietary Changes: Making dietary adjustments is crucial in Chinese medicine. Foods that are easy to digest and warm in nature are recommended to support the Spleen. This includes cooked vegetables, soups, whole grains, and lean proteins.

4. Lifestyle Modifications: Engaging in regular exercise, managing stress levels, and getting enough restful sleep are essential for maintaining a healthy Spleen qi. Practices such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong are also beneficial in promoting the flow of qi.

Adjusting Habits and Mindset

Although all of the therapeutic tools above mentioned can resolve the symptoms of Spleen Qi Deficiency, if the primary causes are not stopped the syndrome cannot be completely cured.

The cause of disease according to Chinese medicine is inadequate habits, which can include an inadequate diet, lack of physical exercise, and stress. 

Inadequate diet

In the case of Spleen Qi Insufficiency, this means an excessive intake of cold food and beverages, such as ice cream, beer, etc, as well as eating exceedingly large meals, and excessive consumption of dairy, sugar, refined wheat, and raw food such as salad and fruits.

Lack of physical exercise

Chinese medicine is connected to the practice of Qi Gong, which consists of integrated movements and breathing. It is a complete practice that engages virtually all the structures of the body. Practicing Qi Gong for at least 15 minutes daily in combination with some cardio exercise can be a sweet spot for optimal fitness. 

Stress

Stress can be very tricky because we may not be able to control our stress responses. Chinese medicine’s approach is to cut the source of detrimental stress whenever possible. This sometimes can mean leaving a job, or a relationship. 

Each person has to evaluate what is the source of stress in each one’s life. If stress is so intense that it exceeds one’s capacity to cope with it and reaches the point of somatizing as disease, then Chinese medicine tells us that it may be time to completely abandon de very situation that allows our stress responses to be triggered, whenever ethically possible or necessary. 

Seeking Professional Guidance

The concepts of Chinese medicine may seem foreign to most people, for this reason, it is important to consult with a qualified practitioner who specializes in this field. 

Spleen Qi insufficiency is a common condition in Chinese medicine that can cause a range of symptoms affecting digestion and overall vitality.

By understanding the principles of Chinese medicine and seeking appropriate treatment, it is possible to rebalance the body’s energy and restore optimal health.

If you suspect you may be experiencing Spleen Qi Insufficiency, consider consulting a qualified Chinese medicine practitioner to explore treatment options.

References:

    1. Mayer EA. Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut-brain communication. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2011 Jul 13;12(8):453-66. doi: 10.1038/nrn3071. PMID: 21750565; PMCID: PMC3845678. 

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