Digestive Health and the Earth Element
Support the immune and digestive systems by balancing the Earth element and nourishing the spleen.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views late summer, from mid-August through the Fall Equinox, as an ideal time for centering, grounding, and finding balance. In the context of the five elements, this is the time of year that corresponds with the Earth element.
Having a healthy Earth element is vital for your basic survival and a general sense of belonging and wellbeing. It can be thrown out of balance by being overburdened with mental tasks. This imbalance can result in a weakened digestive system.
The Earth Element & Digestive Health
Digestion begins with the Earth element, which governs the appetite and desire or lack of desire for food. Beyond that, the element is in charge of the process along the way: from creating saliva, enzymes, and hydrochloric acid (in the stomach) to sending food off to the small intestine.
This process requires you to have an appetite, to know what is nourishing to your body and, finally, for your body to know what to do with this nourishment—all of which is dependent on the health of the Earth element.
When you are hungry for something physical, mental, or emotional (which can be easily confused), your stomach and spleen work together to help you figure out which, get nourishment into your body, and do something satisfying with it. If you mistake the need for emotional nourishment with physical hunger, for example, it’s a sign that your Earth element is out of balance.
To keep your Earth element balanced, you need to keep your activity balanced. So, for every two hours you spend sitting, you should spend some time walking and moving your body. Likewise, for every hour you spend thinking, you should spend 20 minutes giving your mind a rest.
Digestive Health & the Spleen
A key player in supporting the immune system, your spleen is a small organ that sits in the upper left quadrant of your abdomen. Its primary responsibility is to filter out old red blood cells and add in new platelets and white blood cells when needed.
In Western culture, many of us are taxing our Earth element—and, specifically, the spleen. When you overwork, overschedule, and constantly multitask, the burden eventually falls on your spleen.
Stress can lead to all kinds of nutritional deficiencies because eating when you are stressed means you are not digesting your food well. As a consequence, food sits undigested in the stomach, or you might even find pieces of food in your stool (a sure sign of spleen chi deficiency).
You need the spleen to stay nourished so that every tissue in your body and thought in your mind can receive sustenance at the pace you are able to digest it and be nourished by it.
Late Summer Digestive Health
Western science is learning more and more about the critical role the gut and digestive system play as the foundation for physical and mental wellbeing.
The immune system is affected by gut health, and symptoms such as gas, bloating, belching, acid reflux, and the like are indicative of an underlying imbalance and require attention. Gut health also helps determine whether or not you can break down your food well, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste.
Neither yin nor yang, late summer (the unique period between summer and fall) is a perfect pause and balance point. When in balance, late summer brings with it a sense of nourishment, security (literally food security), and a resulting sense of relaxation. It's an excellent time to evaluate the harvest and abundance of your body, mind, and spirit.
Have you cultivated what you intended to over the summer? Is there plenty of nourishment for you to draw on for the months to come? Does your body, mind, and spirit feel nourished—or do you feel depleted? Have you spent more energy than you had over the last year?
Late summer allows you a perfect window to reset whatever your unique yin-yang balance truly is. If you have depleted yourself, or if you have overindulged over the last several months, you can now press pause and start over, setting yourself up for a balanced rest of the year.
Nutrition Principles in Late Summer
Since late summer is all about the harvest (literally gathering all the foods we possibly can before they begin to rot and fall to the ground), the focus should be on creating nutrient-dense meals that are centering, grounding, and slightly sweet in nature.
Here are 11 general principles of nutrition in late summer:
- Slowly increase your cooked food intake.
- Avoid cold foods and limit raw foods.
- Seek out sweet flavors.
- Master the art of stew-making.
- Eat foods that are orange or yellow in color.
- Use limited seasonings, keeping foods somewhat plain.
- Avoid complicated dishes.
- Share meals with others as much as possible.
- Spend a significant amount of time chewing and eating without distraction.
- Cook foods longer over medium to low heat.
- Reduce damp foods such as dairy, refined sugar, beer, and wheat.
For the perfect late-summer nutrient-dense dish for digestive health, try this lentil pate recipe from Mindi K. Counts’ Everyday Chinese Medicine, or dig into five “it” 2020 fermented foods to try for gut health.
Extra, Extra: The Earth Element & Emotion
People who have a lot of Earth in their constitution also often embody compassionate and care-giving energy. This kind of energy is best described as the energy between a mother and child: feelings of attunement, connection, tenderness, and awareness of the struggle that must happen for one to grow.
(Read this article to learn what your element is.)
Healthy protection and genuine compassion are attributes of this Earth energy. Caring about all life on Earth, regardless of differences, is a representation of this element.
When empathy is out of balance, you can become overly empathetic and have a difficult time seeing the difference between someone else’s struggle and your own. For example, you may grieve a loss almost as though it were your own. But extreme empathy can be unhealthy and exhausting. Thus, healthy boundaries are vital to a healthy Earth element.
On the other end of the spectrum, Earth can get out of balance and lead to a compassionless state in which you are unable to see yourself in others. This state is often developed as a coping mechanism when you don’t have the resources to manage your own feelings. If you are experiencing this kind of struggle, you may appear to spend all your time and energy on yourself.
The greatest challenge for the Earth element’s emotion is that empathy can easily turn into worry, anxiety, and overthinking, which is why it is so important for the compassion to have something to do.
Without a clear direction, Earth energy can just spin around with no point of reference, which can lead to obsessive thoughts and behaviors, as well as incessant worry without action.
From Everyday Chinese Medicine: Healing Remedies for Immunity, Vitality, and Optimal Health by © 2020 by Mindi K. Counts. Photographs ©2020 by Kristen Hatgi Sink. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com