For weight control, stoke your digestive fires.
One of my favorite patients was Melanie. She had a fantastic sense of humor and an unshakeable determination to be healthy. At age thirty-eight, she also had trouble with her weight despite dieting, walking five to ten miles a week, and bicycling for at least an hour each weekend.
She had been a pudgy child and, as she got older, rather than lose the baby fat, she got plumper. Through high school and college, she kept to herself a lot, focusing on her studies and a few close friends. She tried every diet that came along, but just as she began to slim down, the diet left her feeling deprived and hungry, and she gained back the weight she had lost.
As we talked, I noted that she looked puffy around the eyes. When I examined her tongue, it was swollen and wet and had a red tip. The sides of her tongue had tooth marks—indentations created when the tongue swells up with water and presses against the teeth. She told me that she often felt tired in the morning, which to me indicated that she might have a weak digestive system. Her pulse was “slippery,” which, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), indicates that she had a “damp spleen.”
In TCM, the spleen is a metaphor for the digestive system. I find that most overweight people have weak, damp digestive tracts. This point surprises some people who struggle with their weight because it seems that their digestion is working too well, but this is not the case. When the digestive fires aren’t “burning hot,” it is much easier for the body to transform food directly into fat and extra water than to transform it into muscle, blood, and energy. According to TCM, if the digestion is weak, cold, and damp, it is nearly impossible to reach an optimum healthy weight, even when eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
During her first visit to the clinic, Melanie mentioned her fondness for yogurt, sandwiches, and drinks from her local delicatessen’s refrigerator case. Such chilled foods rob the fire from the digestive tract. Melanie also enjoyed big salads—perhaps healthy in the summer or for someone who has too much digestive fire, but not so good for her because this type of food was too damp and cold.
I recommended two bitter tonics to bolster her program—one tonic to brew as a tea when she was at home and “one for the road.” A bitter tonic is a traditional digestive preparation used throughout Europe and other parts of the world. Bitter herbs such as gentian and artichoke leaf increase digestive secretions to improve protein digestion, and spicy herbs such as ginger and cinnamon warm the digestive fires and regulate the bowels, according to TCM.
In addition, I suggested that Melanie alter her diet a little, substituting warm soups and hot herbal teas for the cold lunch foods and frozen yogurt. She also started drinking chai, a spiced Indian tea drink that helped “stoke” her digestive fires. She began experimenting with chai recipes (see her recipe below) and found that her friends would come around just to have some of her special chai.
I didn’t see Melanie again for several months, but when she came into the clinic, she looked much slimmer. She said she had lost eighteen pounds and had kept it off. After another three months, she had maintained her new weight. I recommended that she continue with the bitters, avoid cold, watery foods, and increase the amount and intensity of her aerobic exercise, now that she had more energy.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. 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.