Understanding Digestion – Overview of the Chinese Stomach Process

Whole Systems Healthcare


  • The Stomach is the seat of nourishment in the body and supplies energy to the rest of the organ systems.
  • It has to digest everything: food, thought, emotion, beliefs, perceptions.
  • It has to bring all this into the body, thus its direction is down and in.
  • It is responsible for proper interpersonal boundaries and the distinction between self and other.
  • It’s in charge of appetites, desires, and pleasure-seeking behavior.
  • When there is trouble the Stomach can’t internalize, can’t digest, and can’t maintain proper boundaries. This can lead to health problems, including digestive disorders, mental health issues, dangerously high fevers, addictions, and chronic disease.

The Stomach is so important! The Stomach in Chinese Medicine encompasses not only the physical stomach but the entirety of the digestive tract, corresponding more specifically to the hollow space within the stomach and intestines. The Stomach plays a role in nourishing the whole body, helps us to make sense of our life experiences, helps determine our mental well-being, and gives us the desire to “take in” the world. Our relationships, both to ourself and to the outside world, are encompassed within the role of the Stomach. Let’s examine how the Stomach works from a Chinese Medicine perspective.

A quick note: as in my other articles I will be capitalizing the Chinese organ systems to differentiate them from the physical organs. Keep in mind that these organ systems encompass the physical organ but go beyond them in how they function in the body.

The Stomach – Earth and Nourishment

The Spleen and Stomach together make up the Earth organs of the body. The primary role of these organs is to provide nourishment to the body, obtained from both physical and non-physical sources. The Stomach is responsible for accepting food, drink, thoughts, emotions, and any sensory perceptions. It holds these and breaks them down until they are able to be absorbed into the body. It is considered the root of post-heaven qi for the body, post-heaven referring to everything that is not received from the parents. It is an organ of containment, grinding away at what it contains until it has turned what used to be outside and not-self into something that has become self. The Stomach acupuncture channel is the only channel that goes to every sensory orifice; this shows its connection to the internalization of sensory perception. Just as food is broken down to nourish us, everything we bring into the body must be understood and integrated into who we are. The Stomach is part of this process.

The Stomach – A Yangming Organ

Along with the Large Intestine, the Stomach is considered a Yangming organ. There are six conformation, or configurations, and they are each responsible for certain functions in the body. The job of the Yangming conformation is to internalize yang qi, to bring it inside. This is the first step in creating matter from energy, as the immaterial is brought into the realm of the physical. Yangming is associated with the environmental influence of dryness, and the Stomach’s role is to use the internal yang qi to structure the creation of material form (Taiyin is the material form itself, and has a close relationship with Yangming). The Yangming is also a key initiator of sleep, as the shen, or consciousness, must be brought inwards in order for a person to fall asleep. The proper direction of Yangming is downwards, reflected in the movement of digestion from up to down, and in the emotions from agitated to calm and centered.

The Stomach – Psychology

The role of the Stomach psychologically revolves around relationships and boundaries. According to Dr. Leon Hammer in his book Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies, the Stomach is responsible for proper boundary development, the transformation of bonds, and the proper separation between inside and outside. Just as food must be kept contained physically, the sense of self must be kept contained psychologically. Only by having a solid sense of self and healthy boundaries can a person develop relationships with others. Everything a person takes in from the senses must be contained until it is ready to be integrated into their sense of self.

Another aspect of Stomach psychology is that the Stomach is in charge of appetites. Just as there is an appetite for food, all desire for sensual experiences comes from the Stomach. This is the desire to take in the world, to ingest experiences, and to derive pleasure from them. The desire to watch a movie, the desire to listen to music, to gamble, to do drugs, all of these relate to the Stomach. Ultimately, this is the desire to bring outside things into the sphere of the self.

The Stomach – Pathology

The major pathology of the Stomach has to do with counterflow. Whether the Stomach is too weak, or too strong, problems always relate to a lack of proper downward movement. In the realm of the Earth pathology is the inability to accept nourishment. If someone eats bad food and gets food poisoning the Stomach will revolt and try to vomit out the bad food. Nausea and vomiting after having a traumatic experience (such as seeing blood or gore for some people) is exactly the same: the bad experiences are rejected and the Stomach tries to get rid of them. However, if the Stomach is weak even normal food, or normal emotions, cannot be accepted, and inappropriate nausea or vomiting can occur. If the Stomach cannot contain and break down well there could be acid reflux (acid not contained), slow digestion (food not broken down), belching, hiccups, emotional overwhelm, and other signs and symptoms of counterflow.

From a Yangming perspective pathology is also about counterflow. If the yang qi cannot be internalized it can turn into heat and begin to scorch the body. There could be high fever, delirium, agitation, heavy sweating, and other excess signs. The heat begins to dry up the fluids, leading to dehydration and constipation. Acute infections with serious inflammation occur in this realm. Manic states are often the result of Yangming not internalizing properly, and the heat starts to affect the consciousness, creating mania, high excitement, anxiety, and inability to sleep. In a less intense way Stomach heat can lead to excessive thirst and hunger.

Psychologically addictions and disorders of desire stem from the Stomach. The excessive drive for pleasurable experiences suggests Stomach pathology. Issues surrounding egomania and the compulsive desire to expand the sphere of the self is also related to the Stomach. The word devour aptly captures this element of the Stomach: those with imbalanced Stomach energy have a pathological need to devour.

If the Stomach cannot create proper boundaries there will be confusion between what is self and not-self. This can lead to personality disorders or schizophrenia as the person is unable to distinguish what is inside from what is outside. The Stomach can also be too hard and wall off more than is healthy. As a survival mechanism the Stomach can suppress untenable thoughts, emotions, and experiences, containing them so they will not threaten the self. Dr. Leon Hammer describes this pattern as emotional hardness, and people with this pattern tend to have a drive to gain power as a way of remaining self-reliant. The issue is that emotions and experiences that are not integrated remain as obstructions in the body. Over the long-term these obstructions lead to first qi stagnation, then heat, then yin deficiency, and finally to severe weakness and separation of yin and yang. This is a major source of pathology for the development of chronic disease.

In part 2 I will be examining the biomedical correlations with the functions and pathology of the Stomach.