“The Japanese word kami (chew) means God or Divine Spirit. Chewing in the original Japanese meaning is to develop ourselves, to reach to the Universal Spirit.” Michio Kushi
Asian medicine practitioners take digestion very seriously. If they don’t you, may want to consider who you are working with and here’s why.
Digestion is the foundation for all Qi, Blood and Fluids in the body. All your vitality, energy, immunity, ability to grow and heal stem from your ability to transform food you eat and the utilize it properly. Let’s face it, we haven’t evolved osmosis yet so the vital substances your body needs must come from the food we eat and the air we breathe.
So who are the stars of the digestion kitchen? The Earth element and its organs the Spleen and Stomach rule digestion – with Spleen being the head chef. It is Spleen’s job to oversee our ability to receive food and drink and transform it into Ku Qi (Qi of Grain). Ku Qi is then mingled with Ta Qi (Qi of Air) which is controlled by the Lungs. This combination gives us the basis for whatever our body needs – it’s the batter for the creation of all Qi, Blood, Fluids in the body. Unfortunately, we have a society filled with habits that push aside the importance good nourishment. These perceptions about how, when, what and with whom we eat have reached into all areas of food and nutrition creating a huge disconnection in the very thing that sustains our bodies.
Today, I want to focus on one are of ‘how’ we eat – specifically, chewing. Chewing your food well is one of the first recommendations I make to any client. This recommendation stems from the understanding that in preventative healthcare we always work to improve the digestion – always. Rare is the client whose digestion doesn’t improve from simply chewing. As a culture, we tend to rush or even skip chewing. (Smoothie and green drink proponents beware, you may not love what I have to say.) You know, slowly masticating your food, mechanically breaking it down and mingling it with salivary amylase. In children, elderly and those that are ill, it is doubly important that we strengthen and protect the digestive system and don’t skip this important step.
I have made it a rule to give every tooth of mine a chance, and when I eat to chew every bite 32 times.
To this rule I owe much of my success in my life.
The benefits of chewing
Chewing physically warms the food – We liken the digestive system to a cauldron which needs to warm all the food we ingest to body temperature to start transformation. Transformation requires heat (Yang). Chewing starts this process by mechanically heating the food in the mouth. If you already have weak, cold or slow digestion issue like gas, bloating, loose stools, slow digestion chew your food to warm it. You will also further burden your digestive fire if you eat too many cold or raw foods.
Chewing mingles the food with salivary amylase, breaks down fibrous foods and regulates blood sugar – Salivary amylase is a digestive enzyme excreted in the mouth that begins carbohydrate breakdown. Complex carbohydrates – which are not evil – give you energy, stabilize the Earth element and create warmth. “But I don’t eat carbs.” If this is your current stance on carbs you may soon find yourself exhausted with possible blood sugar issues. We need to clarify here that simple carbohydrates like refined breads, pastas and cookies should be avoided as they breakdown too quickly and elevate blood sugar. However, complex carbohydrates like squash, root vegetables, lentil and legumes and grains with their bran intact are loaded with fiber and help regulate blood sugar and provide sustained energy.
Smoothies and ‘whole food drinks’ may be loaded with beautiful foods like kale and broccoli but they skip the important step of chewing leaving their fiber under processed by the time it hits the stomach and small intestines. They are also very cold and snuff out the digestive fire over time. Be very careful with smoothies with kids, elderly, sick and weak people. Stick to soups and stews which warm the digestion.
Better extraction of nutrients – Our stomachs have no teeth and if they may already be comprised and weak or not producing many enzymes if you have poor digestion. Chewing your food gives your body a better chance to take out the most nutrients of you food that it can. It will also help promote better enzyme creation and secretion.
Chewing helps to regulate the bowels and decrease digestive complaints – The physical process of mastication sends a signal from the brain to the stomach to move from the small intestines and into the colon, thereby aiding regularity of bowel movement. This doesn’t mean you should chew something like gum constantly if you are constipated. Chewing is a bodily process that should have natural times of rest or ‘not working’ unlike the Lungs and Heart that should function constantly. It would be better to start with more chewing at each meal and use fibrous foods like okra and aloe and herbs like fennel start stimulating the bowels. Many clients will notice that bowel habits improve overall reducing gas, bloating, GERD, acid reflux, IBS, Crohn’s, constipation, diarrhea and loose stools just by chewing more. Temporary use of digestive enzymes may also recommended.
Increased digestive vitality and immunity – Rather than taxing your digestive system every time you eat wouldn’t it be better to try to improve your digestion each time? It’s a general rule of preventative medicine and many cultures – always aid and strengthen your digestion. The better your habits of chewing the better your digestion, and by extension, the healthier you become.
Decreased food allergies and sensitivities – Don’t run out and start eating everything you are sensitive or allergic to just because you are going to be chewing. In time, as your system strengthens overall you will be less reactive, or more able to take an impact and bounce back. You may be able to partake or add back in foods that you had difficulty with before. Add back in slowly and gently and not too many types at a time.
Stronger teeth, gums and mouth – They like their exercise too! We also know that increased saliva in the mouth decrease gum disease and tooth decay.
That’s the technical stuff – now how about the mind/body connections?
Calms the mind and encourages relaxation – Sit down, take a bite, put your fork down, sit back, breath, smell and taste your food. Slowing down with eating helps us shift out of constantly going and lets us rest. We can better connect with ourselves and the feelings of deep nourishment. As you eat slower, you are also more attune to when you are satisfied which can help in regulating weight.
A greater sense of connection with life and your body – There is something very profound in appreciating the food you eat and allowing it bless and nourish your body. Whether that is at a magnificent holiday feast or the simplest of meals. How we nourish ourselves is a reflection of our deepest connections in mind, body and spirit to ourselves, in our families and our communities.
Creates ease and patience – Is patience not a virtue that you shine in? Take the time to chew your food, you will naturally start to slow down a little and allow ease and patience into other areas of your life too.
Here’s to great chewing!