I'm very excited to share an article with you that was just published in Acupuncture Today. Written for acupuncturists who may not be tapping into the power and wisdom of our traditions, I explore some of the reasons ancient wisdom is the key to healing the modern epidemic of digestive distress.
By Karen M. Taylor, L.Ac.
Are you ignoring a powerful tool in your doctor's bag? Many acupuncturists realize that Spleen Qi deficiency has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. Yet, we don't prioritize educating our patients about the importance of warm, cooked foods.
Most of us don't have time to make nutritional counseling part of everyday care even though digestive distress is increasingly common. Fad diets, conflicting nutritional information, endless processed food choices, ice cold drinks, and little time for home cooked meals all contribute to digestive distress.
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best one. I have found this to be especially true in cases of poor absorption, constipation, lack of appetite, slow transit, stomach aches, intestinal cramping and indigestion.
During my 23 years of clinical experience specializing in Chinese medical nutrition, I regularly prescribe congee, a traditional Asian rice porridge, with excellent results. Many acupuncturists are already aware that congee reinforces key concepts of Asian medicine. I appreciate the way it helps my patients understand Spleen Yang through their own experience of improved digestive fire.
While studying at Southwest Acupuncture College, my own health issues led me to seek advice from a respected professor. She taught me the benefits of traditional congee, how to make it, and where to find classical references and food energetics. She challenged me to mindfully feel into my belly after eating congee one morning and to and compare that feeling to my usual breakfast of cold cereal. I've been eating my warm, moist, soothing breakfast and feeling amazingly satisfied and nourished ever since.
The value of congee remains through every health fad of the past 25 years. "Bad" foods to be avoided went from meat and eggs to fats and now to grains. When questions arise about how to be truly healthy, I suggest we rely on the time-tested wisdom of the classical texts and our deeply rooted traditions, and not let ourselves be blown off course by the smallest breeze.
Congee in Our Diet
References to congee can be found as early as the Han dynasty, 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., but people were likely cooking congee hundreds of years prior. We can draw on the wisdom of a variety of classical medicinal congee recipes and adapt them for the modern Western palate. Congee can contain a wide variety of the highest quality gluten-free, organic whole grains, fruits, healthy fats, herbs and spices. However, never underestimate the power of a traditional white rice congee for those with compromised digestion!
In Prince Wen Hui's Cook: Chinese Dietary Therapy, Bob Flaws and Honora Wolfe discuss the benefits of congee; "This incredibly simple food has a number of health benefits. It is easy to digest and assimilate, it tonifies both Qi and Blood, it tones and harmonizes the Middle Burner, and it promotes urination. Depending on what is cooked with the Congee, it can have almost unlimited medicinal applications. Lord Buddha considered Congee made with milk and honey to be the chief medicinal food for preserving health. In the Mahavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka, Lord Buddha is recorded as saying: It confers ten things on him: life and beauty, ease and strength; It dispels hunger, thirst, and wind; It cleanses the bladder, It digests food. This medicine is praised by the well-farer."
The Right Consistency
Compliance is the key; taste and consistency are crucial to success. Yet ease really is the number one reason I still eat congee today. As a busy student, I immediately started making congee overnight in a slow cooker and found it so convenient that I've never strayed. Staying the course allowed me to discover for myself the positive effects on digestion and elimination.
I've spent years tailoring my recipes to suit my foodie taste buds as well as the diagnostic patterns of my own constitution. I've also discovered how to increase patient compliance in adopting this simple nutritional recommendation. Because this habit is easy to establish, and the results are long lasting, educating patients about congee is the best solution to offer for digestive complaints. The results have been so positive they've even surprised me.
Many of my patients report resolution of long-term digestive issues or constipation within one month of eating congee four or five times per week. They find this easy to do because this congee method is so easy and delicious. With a basic understanding of Chinese herbs such as rou dou kou (nutmeg) and sheng or gan jiang (fresh or dried ginger) it is simple to prescribe personalized congee made with ingredients found in the everyday kitchen with incredible results.
Congee sits in stark contrast to modern diets composed of dry and difficult to digest processed foods, cold options, or skipping breakfast altogether. Congee is exceptionally hydrating because it cooks slowly over many hours with ample water making it extremely easy to digest and absorb. It gently cleanses and soothes as it passes through the entire digestive system.
It's not a leap to imagine how congee in your belly would feel like a hug compared to the standard toast and coffee, yet American acupuncturists have not yet made it our mission to share this transformational wisdom with everyone.
I'm here to change that. If you haven't, start with yourself and experience just how amazing you can feel from this simple solution.
I wasn't always a congee advocate. Even though I've eaten congee for 25 years and always believed it to be a cornerstone of my excellent health, it wasn't until my own mother died from complications of constipation that I realized how important this information truly is. I am certain this warm, moist breakfast would have prevented the premature end to her brilliant life.
The benefits of a warm moist breakfast are obvious right away to patients once they feel the difference in their own stomachs and intestines. Give it a few weeks and symptoms like bloating and belching can disappear. If you are an herbalist, you can help patients tailor their congee recipes to treat a specific pattern diagnosis such and yin deficiency with false fire or Liver Qi stagnation.
If this sounds a bit overwhelming, please don't despair because it is quite simple. My mission is to provide recipes and educational materials to facilitate adopting congee as a morning ritual for everyone from toddlers to doctors of Chinese medicine.
Karen Taylor is a licensed acupuncturist and diplomate of Chinese herbology in Eugene, Oregon and has been in private practice for 23 years. In 2017, Karen established "Breakfast Cure" to educate and inspire you to eat congee for breakfast, so you feel soothed and nourished. For additional information please visit breakfastcure.com.
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To make energy, or Qi (pronounced "chee") for ourselves, we must breathe air into our Lungs and be able to digest food in our Stomach. Out of air and food we make Qi, our animating life-force. The understanding of Qi is one of the main ways that medicine and thought in Asia contrast with our Western outlook.
The secret to keeping your Stomach and its main cohort of digestion, the Spleen, happy is common knowledge all over Asia.
Just the other day I bumped into a Chinese American acquaintance who was curious about my congee based project. She told me about her mom's traditional recipes that I hope to have the pleasure of trying someday.
But, I was thrilled with what she said next!
“Oh, I love eating congee, especially in the winter. Of course, it keeps you slim!”
Most Americans don’t get that. It’s just not part of the way we relate to food at all. She agreed.
So, here is a bit of a cheat sheet on this wise perspective.
1. Give your digestion a break with very well cooked foods. Translation: Your belly needs a break just like the rest of us! Foods that are easy to digest and absorb give your whole digestive system a break and yet deliver the nutrients you need without all the effort. The net effect is an overall energy and metabolism boost.
2. Include warm foods and drinks in your diet. Translation: Consume warm foods and drinks. Pay attention to the nature of the food as well, meaning ginger and chilis are warming even if you eat them at room temperature.
3. Lube it up. Your digestion and all your cells that is! Getting well hydrated keeps everything running smoothly. Translation: Eat foods that are full of moisture and water to make sure all the fiber is extra plump and soft. This keeps everything moving through your system so you stay regular. When nothing is sluggish or backed up your digestion, elimination, and metabolism are optimized.
4. Don't put out your digestive fire. Translation: Ice-cold drinks, raw and cold foods slow your digestion and dial back your metabolism.
5. Don't eat only complex meals of hard, dry foods. Translation: Avoid exclusively eating difficult to digest, processed, rich, undercooked foods all mixed together because they take so much energy to digest. It slows down your metabolism and it slows you down too.
That's it. You've got this!
6. Embrace simple foods. Most Americans looking out for their health avoid white rice and consider it unhealthy. My patients are often shocked when I recommend this simple fare. Tip: When slow-cooked for a long time with tons of water, rice becomes congee, the cornerstone of medicinal food all over Asia.
The most important thing is that you eat warm, warming, hydrating foods that are easy to digest so your Spleen and Stomach will be happy.
This is exactly what I had in mind when I formulated my recipe for Breakfast Cure Masala Chai Spice. White rice is a medicinal food in this case and the spices amplify the metabolism boost that circulates the Qi so you feel motivated and nourished through winter.
Masala Chai Spice Breakfast Cure is a recipe that accomplishes all 5 of the steps to boosting metabolism and keeping your digestion and energy balanced for the long winter months.
It's a delicious breakfast that was created to build Qi, soothe and regulate digestion, and give your whole system a break with the most gentle, hydrating cleanse. White rice breaks down completely when cooked for a long time and is able to absorb 5 times the volume of water!
Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I'm a huge advocate of whole grains that haven't been processed, no parts have been removed. The fiber and nutrients are so good for you. But there is a time for true comfort food that focuses solely on gently soothing, healing and nourishing.
That time is any time you feel like it, but it is highly recommended for anyone experiencing digestive distress. Over the course of a few meals you can feel the soothing relief.
Try it for yourself. The true test is how it feels in your stomach after you eat it, and how you feel moving into your day. My friend Mo said it best. "It feels like a hug in your belly!" I think you'll agree.