The “lower intestines are like the officials who propagate the right way of living and they generate evolution and change,” wrote the Yellow Emperor in his seminal work, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the two-thousand year old bible of Chinese medicine.  Like so much else in this great work, this statement offers the most practical of wisdom.  If you cannot digest and eliminate a food, you shouldn’t eat it.  Eat only what your body can accept and eliminate with little effort, and you will be living in the “right way.” 

The Yellow Emperor points to something even more mysterious in this pithy little sentence.  Your body changes and evolves over time.  The foods you can eat in youth are no longer digestible later in life.  Follow the advice of your intestines and you will be guided to the right way of eating. 

In an adult, the large intestine is six feet long, on average, and about two inches wide.   It is joined to the small intestine on the right side of the body at the cecum, a round structure within which is the ileocecal valve.  The large intestine has a horseshoe shape and is composed of four sections.  On the right side of the abdomen is the ascending colon.  This is joined to the transverse colon, which is positioned laterally across the abdomen, just below the diaphragm.  The transverse joins with the descending colon on your left side, which runs downward to the sigmoid colon, an small “S” shaped tube that goes to the rectum, anal canal, and anus. 

The large intestine also has an interesting appendage, a tiny replica of the intestine called the appendix.  Western medicine says that the appendix has no known purpose or function.  But some branches of complementary medicine see the appendix as having an important energetic function, especially when viewed within the context of yin and yang.  The large intestine can be seen as a large hollow tube, which is balanced by its complementary opposite, the small appendage of the appendix.  Together, these two function as complementary opposites, like the north and south poles of a magnet, generating the energy needed to support the large intestine function. 

Nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, the twenty-two foot long tube that runs from the stomach to the large intestine.   The unneeded waste products that are left behind are moved into the large intestine.  There, the excess water is absorbed by pores in the intestinal wall.  Enormous populations of bacteria in the large intestine – trillions of them – break down any remaining nutrients in the waste and some of these are absorbed, as well.  The most notable vitamin absorbed in the large intestine is vitamin K.  As an aside, the bacteria also create methane gas, as well as hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which are responsible for flatulence. 

Finally, the large intestine moves the waste out of the body in the form of bowel movements.   While most medical doctors will tell you that there are no hard and fast rules to how many bowel movements you should have per day, or per week, most complementary healers urge people to have one well-formed, full elimination per day.  Less than once a day constitutes some degree of constipation.  (I will address more serious disorders of the large intestine, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and diverticulosis, in a future Monthly Newsletter.)  

Among the more important waste products eliminated by the large intestine each day are excess hormone, such as estrogen, androgens, and testosterone.   Working in conjunction with the liver, the large intestine keeps the body free of excess hormone, and thus prevents these powerful catalysts from over-stimulating the hormone sensitive organs, such as the breast, ovaries, uterus, prostate, and testes. 

Foods That Heal The Large Intestine

In order for the entire digestive tract to function properly, and especially the large intestine, we must consume an abundance of dietary fiber.  Fiber is found only in plant foods. 

The following foods and herbs are used in Chinese medicine to strengthen and treat the large intestine.

  • Grain: Brown rice, sweet brown rice, mochi (pounded sweet rice).
  • Vegetables: sweet potato; cabbage, Chinese cabbage, celery, watercress, turnip greens, mustard greens; all roots, including daikon, carrot, lotus root, ginger, turnip, tarn root potato
  • Beans: navy; soybeans, great northern, tofu, and tempeh.
  • Fish: Cod, haddock, herring, flounder, halibut, scrod, carp.
  • Fruit: Pears, pear juice.
  • Herbs: Garlic, dill, fresh grated ginger, horseradish, nutmeg. Jobs tears, cinnamon, basil, fennel, bay leaf, black pepper, coriander, rice bran, cayenne, thyme, licorice.

Foods to Avoid for Healthy Large Intestine Function

Red meat and other animal foods, which contain no fiber, can be extremely difficult to eliminate from the body.  When these foods are combined with foods that have a expansive influence, such as spices, sugar, and alcohol, the extremes in energy can cause peristalsis to become irregular and spastic. 

The absence of fiber can also cause diverticulosis, a disorder characterized by pockets forming in the large intestine.  These pockets, or diverticula, can become inflamed and infected, thus giving rise to a more serious disorder known as diverticulitis.  Both conditions can be treated and reversed with a whole foods diet, though medical care may be needed if there is infection and fever that results from diverticulitis. 

The absence of fiber in the diet causes waste to accumulate in the large intestine, and thus give rise to more serious disorders, including colon cancer. 

Foods, Medicinal Drinks, and Herbs to Help Treat Constipation

  • Soft brown rice, carrots and ginger.   Boil brown rice with carrots, onions, and grated ginger root.  Cook with a pinch of sea salt until rice is soft, usually about forty-five minutes to an hour. Chew well.
  • Ginger tea.  Grate a tablespoon of fresh ginger.  Squeeze the juice from the ginger fragments into the bottom of a tea cup.  Pour hot water or kukicha (bancha) tea over grated ginger.   Add one drop of tamari or shoyu to tea. Drink hot
  • Kuzu and apple juice drink.  Kuzu, also known as kudzu, is a hardy root and an excellent herb for the intestines.  Boil apple juice.  Use two and a half tablespoons of kuzu per cup of juice.  Dissolve kuzu in cup of cold water before adding to juice.  Stir kuzu constanlty into juice while simmering juice.  Liquid will gradually thicken into a gelatin.  Turn off flame and allow to cool.
  • Stewed fruit.  Stew figs, prunes, and raisins in a cup of apple juice for fifteen to twenty minutes.  Eat and drink broth at night, at least two hours before sleeping, and as the first meal in the morning. 
  • Herbs.  Cascara sagrada, a natural herbal laxative.  Cascara should only be used in conjunction with general improvement in diet and lifestyle.       Bowels can become dependent upon any laxative, including cascara. Small doses of cascara are recommended (fifteen to twenty drops in water).
  • Garlic, either raw or in cooking, in small amounts.
  • Slippery elm, either as infusion or tea.   You can purchase slippery elm tea as tea bags in most natural and health food stores. 
  • Licorice root.   Licorice root can also be purchased as a tea in most natural and health food stores.  
  • Flax seeds.  Soak one or two teaspoons of whole flax seeds in a cup of water overnight.  Eat at least one teaspoon of soaked flax seeds as the first meal in the morning. 
  • Lemon water.   Squeeze one half of a lemon in two cups of water and drink before any meal in the morning.   Follow the lemon water with brown rice cooked soft and moist. 

Foods and Medicinal Drinks to Treat Diarrhea

  • Kuza and umeboshi plum drink.  Dissolve five tablespoons kuzu in two cups of cold water; add a rounded teaspoon of umeboshi plum paste and bring to a boil.  Stir water while simmering until liquid thickens.  Eat while hot.
  • Boil a combination of fifty percent brown rice and fifty percent white rice in water.  Add a pinch of sea salt to the water before boiling. 
  • White potatoes.  Boil and enjoy.    

Note: Constipation and diarrhea should subside quickly on a whole-foods diet.  If either of these conditions persist, seek appropriate health-care advice.   Persistent diarrhea during infancy is a dangerous condition: parents should seek immediate and appropriate medical advice. 

Getting Rid of the Past – Along with Sadness and Grief

In the Five Element Theory, the large intestine, like the lungs, are associated with the emotions of sadness and grief. 

The large intestine function can also be seen as being able to eliminate what is no longer needed in life.  Food is essentially an experience of the past – it was grown over a period of weeks or months, under the daily cycle of sunlight, weather, nighttime, moon, and stars.  This cycle represents the experience of time and the elements, all of which are captured in food.  The body takes what is needed in the food, or in experience, and eliminates what is no longer needed.  The large intestine, therefore, is seen as having the primary function of letting go of the past. 

Our ability to let go of all that is no longer needed – lingering painful experiences and negative emotions – is concentrated in the large intestine. Those with healthy large intestines usually experience balanced emotional lives and have the ability to accept life.  They do not cling to the past, but are able to learn from it.  They typically move into the future without holding on to painful memories and old grudges.   They tend to avoid the need for revenge. 

Over-Metal: Letting Go, A Bit Too Easily

People with overactive Metal seem to let go of everything with an ease that makes those around them shake their heads with wonder.   Over-Metal people shed relationships, jobs, homes, and commitments with little or no apparent regret, pain, or sense of loss.  They simply move on to the next relationship or job or home.  They have great difficulty making commitments, and consequently are often wanderers. 

Over-Metal people have trouble grasping hold of anything in their lives.   Down deep, they fear commitment and they’re threatened by all that commitment means — namely, the possible loss of other opportunities; the distinct possibility that they may be making a bad choice in a relationship or job.   They’re always wondering if something better exists on the other side of the hill, or around the next corner.   This causes them to remain cautious and reserved, though they can mask their inner feelings when the occasion requires it.   For example, over-Metal people frequently go into job interviews and force themselves to sound interested, but inside they are terrified of the commitment that the job represents, and are wondering how long they will have to stay if they get the job.  

Secretly they carry a lot of sadness and grief, but they don’t dare deal with it.   Instead, they try to conform to the demands of others, adopting the personality that best suits the situation.   They hate conflict; they’ll appease virtually everyone, and are constantly looking for the easiest road to peace.  

Over-Metal people tend to breathe a lot.   You may notice that whenever Over-Metal person talks, they are saying relatively few words per breath.   They also sigh a lot.   Overall, there is a palpable lack of freshness in their appearance and manner.   They often suffer from diarrhea. Many lifelong bachelors and those who are always moving from one location to the next are overactive Metal.          

Under-Metal:  Holding On Forever

Underactive Metal types are people who are most stubbornly in denial of their needs and feelings, as well as the needs and feelings of others.  Under-Metal are the control freaks of the world.   They regard their bodies as machines.  They deny pain; they postpone pleasure; they are soldiers of some cause.   Under-Metal people push themselves relentlessly, denying that the body needs rest or good food or play.  They regard food as fuel — nothing more — and any kind will do.   Usually, under-Metal types are physically stiff in the muscles and joints.  They walk with a certain military or machinelike bearing.  They are also disdainful of people who listen to their bodies, who take care of themselves, and who respond to pain.   They seek control over situations or relationships.  They see themselves as leaders, as “real men,” or “iron women.”

Underactive Metal people tend to grasp hold of the past and never let go.  They remember the unkind word Aunt Tillie said to them when they were six years old — and every single injustice ever done thereafter.   There’s very little gray in their understanding of truth: it’s black and white, good guys and bad guys, of which they always find themselves among the former, never the latter.  They have an aversion to change.   Hence, they can easily become embittered and unforgiving.  

They tend to suffer from constipation. 

Many of the cold warriors who make up the upper ranks of the Pentagon are good examples of underactive Metal.   Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig was an under-active Metal.

The large intestine is one of the key barometers of our health.   It allows us get rid of so much waste and excess hormone every day, and thus keep the internal organs clean and free of disease.