For example, Ellen and Fred, a recently married couple, came to see me because of their digestive woes. They were stressed from trying to adjust to each other’s eating habits: Fred likes junk food, while Ellen prefers organic food and was eating mostly raw vegetables and fruit. After a few months of culinary conflict, they agreed on a middle ground. Ellen prepared and ate more cooked food, and Fred made the salads and whole grains. The relationship was preserved, but their digestive upsets began.
Fred’s pulse was as taut as a wire, which according to Traditional Chinese Medicine means his liver was acting up. His tongue was bright red with a thick yellow coating toward the back, indicating that he had heat and dampness in his bowels, which in Western terms means liver stress combined with an excessively fast metabolism. Ellen, on the other hand, had a soft, weak pulse and a puffy, pale tongue with a bright red tip. I diagnosed her as having nervous system hyperactivity with digestive coldness and weakness, meaning weak digestion with water retention caused by too much mental activity.
Years of raw foods had contributed to Ellen’s damp, cold and weak digestive organs. We needed to warm her digestive fire so that she could completely digest her food. I recommended that she eat more protein such as fish, well-cooked beans, and nutritional yeast. She also agreed to eat less fruit and sweet foods, which can weaken a deficient digestive system, and to eat more whole grains and lightly steamed vegetables. I also suggested that she take my Digestive Fire Formula, which contains herbs that help improve digestion and enzyme output.
I also felt tightness around the center of Ellen’s belly, but her colon was fine. This is common for people who have very active minds and nervous systems. A lot of mental activity discourages small intestine activity and digestive power. To help ease this, I told her to place a hot ginger compress over her navel for twenty minutes at least five nights a week for a few weeks, and Fred agreed to massage her belly for five or ten minutes in the evening.
I focused on liver-relaxing herbs and a formula to clear heat and damp from Fred’s intestines. His belly was tight over his liver, but felt normal around his navel. Because the liver is known as the “free and easy wanderer” in Chinese medicine, I called Fred’s formula “Free and Easy”, one cup of which he took three times a day at mealtimes. For clearing the heat and dampness, I added yellow dock and gentian root. These herbs are quite bitter, so I added licorice root to the formula to improve its taste.
I also told him to avoid coffee, alcohol and all spicy foods for a month because they could irritate his liver and stimulate his metabolism.
When I saw Fred and Ellen several months later, they said that they had faithfully followed my suggestions and taken their herbs, and they were digesting much better—less gas and rumbling and almost no discomfort. Ellen was even ready for a big Christmas with Fred’s family, which promised to include meals laden with extremely rich food.
Christopher Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member and licensed acupuncturist. He is the author of St. John’s wort: The Mood Enhancing Herb, (Botanica, 1997), Stress and Natural Healing, (Botanica, 1997), and many other books.
“Case studies from an herbalist’s notebook” are not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.