Tom’s newest Pathways article came out on June 1st, and in it he describes the connection between the digestive system and the immune system, and introduces the three aspects of digestion known in Eastern traditional medicine.
Not to put too fine a point on it, if your gut is weakened, so is your immune system. If you know anyone who suffers from food intolerances as well as Chronic Fatigue (Immunodeficiency) Syndrome, or someone with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, then they can tell you all about the miseries involved. We know that chronic stress can weaken both the digestive function and the immune response, making it very difficult to heal deeply and feel your best.
So what can we do?
We already know that reducing stress is essential, as is good sleep, good food, exercise, drinking enough water, and good ol’ fresh air and sunshine, but with digestive issues on the rise, what else is needed? We need to understand a little bit about each aspect of digestion to be able to pinpoint our own unique issues. Knowing the actions and energetics of the digestive system allow us to find the best herbs and foods to balance our own unique system.
The Small Intestine, Seat of the Fire Element
The Small Intestine is where all that excess Fire builds up. An excess of Fire, or Pitta, in the Small Intestine can lead to heartburn, diarrhea, poor absorption of nutrients, and a general sense of heat in the digestion. When there’s too much Fire, often the whole system “speeds up”, leading to incomplete digestion. In this case we need to slow things down and cool them off with complex carbohydrates, lots of green leafy vegetables, and Pitta-pacifying bitter herbs like Burdock and Dandelion, or Turmeric, the potent anti-inflammatory herb from India.
Too little Fire can lead to sluggish digestion, bloating, constipation, low appetite, or bad breath. Here again, Ginger and Lemon are great allies, as are spicy foods, high quality fats (avocado and coconut to name just two), and sour or pungent fruits and vegetables. Ginger root, Cayenne, and Black Pepper can stimulate Agni, the digestive fire, and Triphala can keep it balanced in the Small Intestine where it belongs.
Excess Fire is also related to stress, irritability, and a tendency to high blood pressure. Hawthorne is well-known for supporting the cardiovascular system, but herbs like Skullcap and Motherwort can also be cooling and soothing to a fiery mind and heart. Holy Basil helps reduce stress and keep mental focus, and Spearmint is delicious as well as helpful in balancing an overheated system. Lemon Balm, another member of the Mint family, is soothing to the nerves and a cooling herb for Fire in the gut.
So What Does This Have To Do With My Immune System?
When there is an excess of Fire, the immune system may over-react to stimuli. If you have severe allergies, including food allergies, have a tendency to run fevers easily, or have chronic and mysterious muscle pain, you may have an overactive immune system. In severe cases this can develop into auto-immune disorders, where the immune system begins to attack the body’s own healthy tissue. Herbs that balance the immune system, like Reishi Mushroom and Ashwagandha Root, can help to calm the body’s response. Stinging Nettle can reduce allergic reactions and Turmeric Root helps cool inflammation in all of the tissues. Magnesium, an essential mineral, is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and may also be a natural immunomodulator.
http://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/ayurvedic-living/living-ayurveda/health-guides/understanding-agni/ for a great article on Agni, the fire of digestion
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-fatigue-syndrome/basics/symptoms/con-20022009 lists the primary symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome