A Spoonful of Sugar
It’s midsummer and time to do a gut check. How are all the picnics, patio dates, barbeques, and road trips going? Are they sitting well tummy-wise, or is bloating a regular part of life? If your stomach has been complaining lately, you’re not alone. Indigestion isn’t just for Thanksgiving anymore.
One common symptom of indigestion is hiccups. The involuntary contraction of the diaphragm that produces the “hic” sound is most commonly caused by
- eating too quickly or too much—especially raw, cold food
- drinking carbonated beverages or too much alcohol
- feeling nervous, excited, or stressed
…in other words, all the regular features of a summer shindig. A rushed lunchtime salad or those fresh, straight-from-the-fridge carrots during a busy day can do it too.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hiccups are an example of rebellious Stomach Qi. The Stomach’s descending function is interrupted by foods or emotions that burden the digestive system, and in place of a quiet, peaceful parasympathetic rest-and-digest response we experience an upward movement that brings on the annoying, exhausting hiccups.
Happily, there is a way to have your carrot(cake) and eat it too. Ever heard of taking a spoonful of sugar for a hiccup attack? In my experience this old home remedy works like a charm.* But why does it work?
In TCM, each of the five flavors—salty, sweet, sour, acrid/spicy, bitter—has a therapeutic effect on the body’s systems. For example, the acrid or spicy flavor is associated with the Lung system and is invigorating, opens the pores, and promotes circulation. The sweet flavor, which helps calm our hiccups, is associated with the Spleen/Stomach system and is harmonizing, relaxing, strengthening, and warming. In the Chinese materia medica, the compendium of Chinese herbology written over two thousand years ago, all the herbs that tonify Stomach Qi contain the sweet flavor, and likewise for every entry in the “Herbs that Relieve Food Stagnation” chapter. In other words, a little sweetness is just the thing to bolster a faltering digestion.
The next time you get the hiccups, remember to soothe those spasms with a spoonful of sugar. And if hiccups have been making regular appearances lately, check in with your acupuncturist and ask how acupuncture and herbs can help you.
*My modification: slowly let the sugar dissolve on the tongue, then immediately drink a big glass of room temperature water, with no breaks, until it’s gone.
Joanna Willis, L.Ac.