Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Food As Medicine Part 4: The Stomach

If you're like me, you're thinking about your stomach pretty much all the time.  Yep, I loves me some nomz.  Unfortunately, over 25% of the world's population suffers from some sort of chronic stomach disorder.  If your stomach isn't working properly, your body can't get the nutrition it needs, and other sicknesses will arise.  In addition, the stomach contents are highly acidic-- any leakage can lead to serious injuries to any organ system stomach acid touches.  So it's best to keep your tummy happy. 

The stomach is a large, hollow, muscular organ resting between the esophagus and the small intestine.  It is, of course, very important in the digestive process, and the digestion of protein begins here.  The stomach has three main jobs:  to store food, to mix food with stomach acids, and to move that mixture on down to the small intestine. 

How the stomach empties itself is dependent on the kind of food eaten and how much muscle action occurs in the stomach and small intestine.  Fats stay the longest in the stomach; protein stays for a shorter amount of time, and various carbohydrates are stored for the shortest amount of time, with simple carbohydrates like glucose and sugars spending the least amount of time in the stomach.   Gastric emptying time seems to differ between males and females

In Chinese medicine, improper functioning of the stomach will impair the spleen's TCM function of creating qi and blood, which will lead to weakness in other organs.  The stomach is also in charge of "separating the pure from the impure," so that the "pure" essence of food can be used to power the body, while the "impure" essence will be sent to the next organ to be processed or eliminated.  In Chinese medicine, the stomach moves things downward, so when stomach qi moves upward (i.e. vomiting, belching, acid regurgitation, hiccups, etc), the stomach is considered to be "rebelling."  In sickness, the stomach will often overheat. 

A lot of disorders of the stomach are caused directly by poor food choices and by stress.  Stress can cause nausea, vomiting, cramping, ulcers, Crohn's disease, poor digestion, and even cancer.  We live in a very stressful society, and all that stress is, literally, a killer.  I found several resources that cover good ways to manage stress (like this one).  If you have a lot of stress, you need to learn to deal with it in a healthy manner, so don't take this lightly.  Take advantage of your days off and your vacation time.  Make time for your hobbies and your family.  If you have trouble sleeping at night, get a sleep study done to get to the bottom of the issue-- sleep is extremely important for your health

There are many plant-based supplements you can take that can help lower cortisol levels (and therefore helping to mitigate some of the damage stress does to the body).  Some of these are:

-Holy Basil:  Holy Basil has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, anti-depressive, and cortisol-lowering properties. (I actually drink holy basil tea; it definitely helped me cope after my mother's death).
-Rhodiola: Rhodiola has been shown to reduce fatigue, improve attention, and reduce cortisol levels in stressed subjects, and has been shown effective as an anti-depressant
-Siberian Ginseng may help reduce inflammatory markers and cortisol levels
-Ginger and Turmeric  help reduce inflammation and reduce stress markers
-Saffron has been shown to be an effective anti-depressant and anti-anxiolytic.

Your stomach's relationship to food can be a complicated one.  Foods that are good to one person's stomach may be a nightmare for another's.  First and foremost, avoid foods that do not make you feel good when you eat them.  It might take some research to figure out which foods, exactly, are causing your issues-- the basic approach would be to eliminate all the possible culprits for a week or so, and then very slowly add them back in one by one to see what the problem foods are.

Stomach cancer, although extremely common, is somewhat of an anomaly.  Foods that appear to have antichemoprotective properties with other types of cancers do not seem to react the same way with gastric cancers, and the evidence both for and against different dietary habits are mixed.  Certain foods have been linked to stomach cancer.  These include:

-Red meat, although more research needs to be done on this.  (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
-Processed meats (1) (2) (3) (4)
-High intake of salted and pickled foods (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
-Heavy (not light or moderate) alcohol consumption (1) (2)

At the same time, a diet high in fruits and vegetables, as with other organ systems, is generally recommended to protect the stomach from cancers and other diseases, although the data are inconsistent.  (1) (2) (3) (4)  Some of the positive reactions seem to be more pronounced in smokers than in non-smokers, and some studies show that men reap the benefits of these diets in relation to gastric cancer, but women do not.  Among the winners in the fight against gastric disease appear to be:
-soybeans (1) (2)
-green and black tea (1), although some studies show the opposite (2)
-Allium vegetables (onions, garlic, chives, shallots, etc) (1) (2)
-citrus (1) (2)

It would be safe to say, though, that sticking with a diet heavy in fruits and veggies, lowering alcohol intake, and staying clear of cigarettes would be wise in protecting the stomach against disease in general. 

H. pylori infection seems to be at the root of many stomach diseases.  Practicing good hygiene can generally help you stay clear of this dangerous bacterium.  Wash your hands often and thoroughly (avoiding antibacterial soaps, which can create resistant strains), and use single-use towels or dry your hands with an air dryer.  Wash cutting boards and dishes well (and use a dishwasher if possible to help sterilize them).  Do not eat questionable food or food that has been sitting out.  Try to keep your work areas well-ventilated.  Use a paper towel or similar to open bathroom doors.  Do not drink water from an "iffy" source-- if in doubt, go with filtered or bottled water, or use another method of water decontamination.  Cranberry juice seems to help get rid of H. pylori, as do blueberries and other berriesRed grapes and chili/capsaicin are also effective, as are probiotics

Capsaicin may also be effective in reducing ulcers, surprisingly.  (1) (2

Bottom line: 
-Stay away from foods that do not agree with you.
-Reduce stress in your life as much as possible. 
-If you drink heavily or smoke, stop.
-Cut down on the salt, and watch how you prepare your meats.
-Eat your fruits and veggies, especially berries, citrus, and chili.
-Take your probiotics.
-Be hygenic.

If you do all this, chances are, you'll have a happy tummy for a long time to come, and you can come have some good nomz with me. 

Oreo says that a good regimen of belly rubs keeps his tummy happy, too.

Questions?  Comments?  Post 'em here!

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