Unless you come from a household that follows Asian principles of food energetics, mom probably didn’t insist you “eat your kimchi.”

While we’re not advised by conventional nutritionists to “feed our intestines” or to eat for intestinal health, taking this approach can explain why certain foods really are good for us. We’ll cover those in a minute, but first – do you really know what your small intestines are doing down there?

What we know about the small intestine

We all know the small intestine is part of the gastrointestinal tract.

Up to 90 percent of the digestion and absorption of food occurs in the small intestine and its main function is the absorption of minerals and nutrients from the food we ingest. It is comprised of three separate parts: the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. The small intestine measures upwards of six to seven meters long and it has a surface area of over 200 meters.

But wait, there’s more:

In the Traditional Chinese Medical system, the small intestine is so much more than just its physical traits.

Introducing the small intestine, through the lens of Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) pairs energetic meridians so that they form a complete circuit. There is always a yang meridian and a yin meridian. The small intestine meridian is paired with the heart meridian.

Imbalances in the small intestine meridian can lead to problems such as abdominal pain, digestion issues and also appetite problems like overeating or poor appetite.

The small intestine meridian starts at the outer tip of the pinky finger and runs up the arm, over the scapula of the shoulder, up the neck and ends in front of the ear. The meridian pathway allows for it to be useful in treating not just intestinal and abdominal issues, but also things like earaches, TMJ, shoulder pain and neck pain.

The nature of the small intestine

Since the small intestine is paired with the heart, it should be noted both meridians belong to the movement of fire. The heart meridian expresses movement upwards, while the small intestine meridian expresses movement downwards. And when considering this pairing logically, it makes sense.

This pairing also explains why, we are experiencing heartache or stress, we may also have an upset gastrointestinal tract, pain in the abdomen, vomiting, nausea or even a lack of appetite.

The small intestine meridian is particularly sensitive to cold. Therefore eating lots of cold, raw foods can actually lead to problems in the small intestine. When excess cold invades the small intestine, there may be pain around the navel, watery diarrhea or loose stools, frequent clear urination and loud gurgling sounds in the abdomen.

The small intestine separates the clear from the turbid: physically and mentally.

Of the small intestine’s many roles in TCM, its most notable one straddles both the physical and mental aspects of daily life: separating the pure from the impure.

On the physical level, the small intestine is the controller of the reception, transformation and separation of solids and fluids. It receives food and fluids from the stomach and then transforms them by separating the pure from the impure. The pure essence is dispersed throughout the body and the impurities are flushed into the large intestine for eventual removal from the body.

The mental role of the small intestine is to separate the clear thoughts from the turbid ones. This is another way the small intestine is connected to the heart in TCM. The heart houses the mind and is in charge of all of our mental health. Clear judgement depends on the ability of the small intestine to separate the pure from the impure. When there is dysfunction in the small intestine, then there may also be dysfunction in the mind.

Eat your kimchi!

Back to those good-for-you foods. Eating some of these can assist your small intestine in its process of separating the clear from the turbid. These foods include:

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles can work together to help keep that gut balanced. If you are intaking foods such as these you are guaranteed to experience an increase in intestinal absorption. The bacteria in fermented foods work together with your gut to help break down foods.

Pre-biotic Foods

Pre-biotic foods are also important to the digestive tract. Keep your intestines happy by feeding it pre-biotic foods such as seeds, flax, oats and potatoes. All of these foods encourage the growth of necessary and healthy microbes within your digestive tract.

Note that some of these foods, such as flax or small seeds, may be contraindicated for those with diverticulitis or other intestinal or digestive ailments. Always consult your health care practitioner.

Not just another food fad

As you can see, the small intestine plays a big role in keeping us healthy – and it pays to give it some love back. Kimchi is just one of the many foods that increases intestinal absorption. By adding these foods to your diet (in moderation), you’ll be helping out your whole body – including heart and mind!