Hard to Stomach: Digestion and the Mind

September 22nd, 2014





The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.

–          Francis Bacon



“Too much ahh, thinking!”



This was the gruff assessment, delivered in broken English with a thick Japanese accent by an instructor in shiatsu more than 30 years ago.



Using a diagnostic technique that palpated the ‘Hara’ (a group of reflex areas on the abdomen) he was demonstrating a connection the client had between their digestive disorders and stressful, busy mental life.




Breaking things down



st meridian


In traditional Chinese medicine, the digestive system, in particular the Stomach and Small Intestine energy, control digestion at multiple levels. As it is an holistic system it looks at how this energy can manifest physically, emotionally, behaviorally and even spiritually in an individual.



At the physical level, digestion of food involves chewing and the enzymatic action of saliva;

swallowing; the acids of the stomach; more enzymes from the pancreas (seen as part of ‘spleen’ energy – more on that shortly) and the first stage of absorption into the blood; the breakdown into amino acid chains, vitamins, minerals and so on for absorption in the small intestine. Finally there is still some absorption going on in the large intestine before its release as waste.



At the mental level the Earth element controls the function of memory. Physically, our body is the memory of what we eat and what we have done with that energy. Mentally, it is our ability to absorb and retain the food of ideas and concepts, images and associations.


This then, is a two-way process:


The state of the mind can affect our digestion and the food we eat and our ability to digest and absorb it influence our ability to process mental information.




The Spleen/pancreas



The pancreas, responsible for both enzyme and insulin production, plays a big part in digestion. It is under control of what is somewhat misnamed the ‘spleen’ meridian system and forms the other organ system in the Earth element.1 (For a more complete focus on the Earth element click here)



The spleen meridian itself has major points that concern the blood/hormone connection and some affecting blood sugar regulation. The vast majority of digestive functions however can be better accessed via the stomach meridian.



A healthy pancreas will ensure an even blood sugar level and therefore a feeling of sustained energy. This is important in mental functions like learning, concentration and memory as the brain’s only fuel is blood sugar.




Concentration, learning and mental digestion



The stomach energy’s control of digestion is not only confined to the physical digestion of food. At the mental level we learn by taking in information; ‘chewing it over’ via thought, reason and debate; and finally absorbing what we consider useful and committing it to memory.


Problems like poor concentration, comprehension and memory make learning very difficult. Some may have noticed a seeming epidemic of ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).


Here are some possible reasons for this in the light of our knowledge about its relationship to the Earth/digestive energy:


  • Record high levels of refined sugar in the modern, Western diet
    • Brain function depends on stable blood sugar levels
    • The wild swings caused by blood sugar ‘spikes’ after sugar consumption followed by a compensatory production of insulin makes a steady focus of concentration very difficult.
  • The multitasking split on our focus:



  • The virtual world access offered by computers, smart phones, video games and the endless bleeping of social media notifications all fight to grab our attention and demand a response. The average time we have to focus on any one thing is reduced to seconds before another grabs our attention.
  • Does anyone really doubt that the availability of mobile devices to young children does not contribute to the split in their attention span?




A time to reflect


Inner life


A vital mental and spiritual quality of the Earth element is the state of meditative reflection. Reflection is necessary because it contains our internal creation and response separate from the outward event.



It is the active part of taking in information. If we remain passive watchers of endless external imagery not of our own creation we do not engage with the information and it cannot be absorbed as conscious knowledge. In other words:



A major factor determining what information we take in and remember lies in the relationship we create with it.



If we just remain passive receivers the likelihood of creating conscious memory is much lower. Perhaps even more worrying, a state of passivity makes us much more susceptible to unconscious reception of others ideas and can render us vulnerable to manipulation. This is something advertising depends upon to give just one example.



What’s eating you?


The split from the Self results in an almost constant state of anxiety. We can feel worried and harassed when we are not even aware there is anything to worry about. Our anxiety just seems to create things to feed on and justify its existence.2


When we are not centered in our Earthy calm, neutral self we will feel like a skinless chicken – vulnerable to every outside stress. If we do not see it as an imbalanced state of our own nature we may try and control others around us by making them responsible for our anxiety. This passive-aggression is quite destructive and will take us no further to lessening our own anxiety states.




Return to the Self(ie)


The ‘direction’ given to the Earth element is not North, South, East or West but at the center. When too much of us has become scattered in all directions by doing we lose the capacity to express our being by, well, being.






The ‘selfie’ obsession (taking photos of oneself) has become a collective expression of the symbolic need to reconnect with a Self we have lost. Endless superficial documenting of ourselves will never fill that emptiness however.  A little more skill is needed and it is not technology based.




Here are a few anxiety reducing tips:


  • Observe how much of our diet is sugar or stimulant based and try to reduce or eliminate that component completely.
    • Don’t be surprised if, initially, you feel more tired. Your body will soon get the message to pick up the slack now that false ‘energy’ is no longer providing a prop.
  • Develop the habit of meditation and, if necessary, a short ‘power nap’.
    • This does not replace sleep but it does reset cortisol levels (a stress hormone) and actually make it easier to fall asleep at night.
  • Let your hunger develop naturally. Eating when you are not genuinely hungry will just train you to be more orally dependent and eat neurotically.
  • Consciously reduce the level of passive, attention splitting intake of images and sound.
    • That is, go on a multimedia ‘diet’. You may be surprised how much free time you suddenly have.
  • If our anxiety is about tasks to be done then break them down into bite-size pieces and keep encouraging ourself over those things we do get done instead of constantly berating ourself for what remains undone.
    • Don’t just have a ‘To do’ list. Create a ‘Got it done!’ list and watch it grow. This supports self-esteem instead of sabotaging it.




Well, that is enough to digest for this week at least,




Till the thought of another Monday is not hard to swallow,




1The physical spleen does have some contribution to Earth element functions, like maintenance of the blood, by being somewhat of a ‘spare parts garage’ of blood components as well as an aid to the immune system helping to purify the blood. It deserves its place in the Earth element due this contribution to blood quality.


2Anxiety, while linked to our Earth element, is a huge topic in itself and has links to self-esteem, early relationships to our care givers – particularly our ‘Earth mother’ – that moulds our early self-image. At a deeper level it concerns our very sense of existence here on earth. This is why anxious people feel threatened by everything.



© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation: info@jeremyhalpin.com

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