Don’t Drink That Ice Water (April, 2007)
By Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac
Living in the Arizona desert, it is commonplace to go to a restaurant and immediately be served a glass of ice water with your meal. Many of us also order iced teas or other cool beverages. Little do we know we are setting ourselves up for a dangerous cycle of fatigue and reliance on energy stimulants.
According to Asian medicine, the digestive system is ruled by the Spleen/Stomach system. All the food we eat and the drinks we imbibe go into the stomach were it is acted on by the energy of the Spleen. In traditional western medicine, the Spleen organ is of questionable use and it is not uncommon for it to be removed surgically from the body. In Asian medicine, it is one of the most important organs along with its related functions. The Spleen, or Earth element as it is often called, refers to the organ itself, and the meridian or pathway of energy which flows through the body. It is paired with the Stomach organ and meridian, and together these two organs handle the digestion of food and drink to make the energy that the body uses. The stomach rottens and ripens the food, breaking down the chemical bonds, and sending waste products to the intestines. The Spleen has an upward lifting energy and causes the qi or energy from the food to rise up and join the energy from the air we breathe. Together this forms the pure energy used by the body. This is an intricate process of waste going downwards and food energy or “qi” going upwards. This important process is what guarantees that we have energy to go through our daily tasks and perform all that we do.
So what happens when we drink ice water? Well, imagine that your belly is a cooking pan or cauldron which has to burn at a heat high enough to break down the food. When you add cold water or even ice cream (my favorite) to your stomach, the body’s thermostat has to increase in order to evaporate all the ice water or warm up the cold ice cream. One is eventually left with digested food/drink but also a high, hot burning furnace. In order to quell that heat, one feels compelled to drink more cold drinks or eat more food to make the stomach feel better. In the end, you use up more energy reserves to create the excess heat or digest the additional water or food you take in to feel better. This is one way we actually gain excess weight.
Another side effect is that the other functions of the Spleen begin to falter. One begins to feel fatigue and have less energy because the digestive system has less energy to operate. Another problem is that one craves quick energy to deal with the fatigue. Most of us crave sweets, the designated flavor of the Spleen. Unfortunately, while the sweets give us energy, they also use up energy and also cause a drop in energy when quickly utilized by the body. So we still remain tired and crave more sweets (sugar, simple carbohydrates and breads) and even stimulants, such as coffee, chocolate and energy drinks. Ultimately, these stimulants also weaken the kidney system and adrenals, making us more and more tired. We are fast becoming a nation of tired, weakened, and dependent people.
The other “functions” of the Spleen are also affected. The Spleen is responsible for holding our organs up against gravity, in order to prevent prolapse. It also contains the Blood in the vessels so we don’t bruise or bleed easily. Gas and bloating ensue from a weakened digestive system. One may even get loose stools and diarrhea from all the cold in the body. And of course, there’s that extra weigh gain.
Any deficiency of Spleen energy causes us to over-worry and become obsessive. A Kidney deficiency from overstimulation of the adrenals creates excess fear and insecurity. And too much stress, as related to the Liver system which regulates the timing of the Stomach and Spleen, can cause disruption in the digestive cycle. Conversely, disruption in the digestive cycle causes us to feel more stress, anger & frustration. And that’s just the start…for the Spleen & Stomach support the Lung and immune system. Less Spleen energy means less protection and a greater propensity to colds, flus and other respiratory ailments such as allergies and asthma (a typical problem for children who already have underdeveloped digestive systems). And all the excess heat in the stomach can rise up and disturb the Heart, making one anxious and causing heart disease.
Does any of this sound familiar? Hard to believe all that can happen from drinking ice cold water. And yet, this simple factor is reiterated by one of the most important pieces of advice in Chinese theory and folklore: to avoid eating or drinking too much cold drink or food. So, if one can gain any information from Chinese/Asian medicine, it is to avoid drinking copious amounts of water at any single time or at meals (better to spread out over the day) or to avoid drinking ice cold drinks with meals. One can also take Spleen tonics and tonics to regulate the Stomach Qi to bring one into balance. Likewise, acupuncture is helpful to tell the body how to return to a balanced flow of energy and give you more energy.
That is the nice thing about this “problem”. Asian medicine is a wonderful solution through its myriad tools of acupuncture, herbs, bodywork, nutrition, exercise and meditation. Unlike our other options of using more stimulants and eventually developing chronic disease, it is good to know that we can easily solve this potentially life-changing habit by simply drinking room-temperature to slightly cool water or using Asian medicine to restore us to balance. So, here’s to your health!
Catherine Niemiec, JD, L.Ac. is the President and Founder of the Phoenix Institute of Herbal Medicine & Acupuncture (PIHMA), College & Clinic, the Valley’s only accredited college of Asian Medicine.