In Traditional Chinese Medicine, Indian Summer is Earth element time. Earth includes the stomach and its partner meridian, spleen-pancreas. This is the energy of ripening. Think fruit. People with chronic Earth imbalances frequently have fruity breath and tend to worry or overthink, hence ulcers. Our anatomical stomach knows all about the bodymind connection, its complexities, and implications.
While digestion begins in the mouth, it really takes off in the stomach, essentially a muscular mixing bag. When properly hydrated, the stomach combines food with hydrochloric acid and, by vigorous churning, reduces it to a slurry called chyme before sending it to the duodenum, the first part of the small intestine.
To churn effectively, the stomach must be mechanically free from neighboring structures, and the valves at both ends must remain completely closed during the entire process. If either of these criteria are not met, digestive challenges follow.
For example, tension on the stomach's suspensory ligament or in the respiratory diaphragm may dampen the churning. Esophageal tension can prevent the gastroesophageal valve from staying closed during the churning, leaking stomach contents into the esophagus (GERD). Esophageal tension may also pull the upper part of the stomach up through the respiratory diaphragm (hiatal hernia). Other signs of possible esophageal tension include food getting stuck in the throat or a pronounced forward head position. At the other end, tension between the stomach and duodenum may prevent the pylorus valve from remaining completely closed, releasing partially digested contents into the small intestine.
Here the bodymind connection becomes clear. It turns out that the gastroesophageal junction and pylorus valve are two of the five one-way valves in the gastrointestinal tract that also function as emotional circuit breakers, going into spasm when we experience emotional overloads. Often, we are not aware that this has happened. However, the next day we may feel like we've been hit by a truck or think we're coming down with the flu. Most of us will not connect these symptoms to the previous day's insult.
Furthermore, located directly in front of the stomach, the solar plexus is a favorite landing place for criticism. It hardly matters if the criticism is fair or true. Often, it's not. However, if we accept the criticism or even try to figure out what it's all about, we're likely to experience digestive challenges and pain similar to when someone knocks our wind out. People who grew up amid criticism, blaming, shaming, etc., are probably well acquainted with this "sucker-punched" sensation. On palpation, their solar plexus and stomach may feel rock-hard. This is not to be confused with "six-pack" abdominal muscle.
In the last couple of decades, medical doctors have come to recognize the GI tract as the "second brain" because each organ is so thoroughly wired to our central nervous system, via nerves and nerve plexi (junction boxes). But the admonition to listen to our gut instincts has been around forever.
Our stomach reflects our relationships, both with the ourselves and the world. Whether a digestive problem is mostly mechanical or 100% emotional, working with stomach can dramatically improve those relationships and our digestion. When faced with chronic digestive challenges, a promising place to start might be with the question, "What is it we can't stomach?"
—Bend resident Mike Macy, LMT, is an avid skate-skier, fat-tire biker, and birder. His book BodyWise conveys insights gained during 30 years as a Craniosacral Therapist. Reach him at [email protected].