Friday, December 21, 2007

Ice Water at the Restaurant: Don't Do It!

It happens every time you go to a restaurant, large or small, fancy or cheap: a glass of ice water is plunked down in front of you, usually without you asking. It's been sitting for awhile, and condensation has formed on the outside. Touch it and your hand goes numb with cold. What do you think it does to your stomach?

Cold is one of the original boogey-monsters of Chinese medicine, second only to wind. The ancient Chinese were great scientists, and they studied cold they way the did anything else: thoroughly. Although it's now much easier to stay warm and regulate our environment, the conclusions handed down to us about cold remain extremely valuable.

Environmental cold is classified as one of the "six evil qi" or "six pathogens" that can cause damage. In general, your internal organs like to be quite warm. Consider that the average internal temperature is 98.6F - if it were nearly 100 degrees outside, it would be considered a heat wave. But that's how hot the inside of your body is nearly all the time.

Your lungs and stomach are particularly sensitive to cold, as they have direct connections to the outside world (your trachea and esophagus, to be exact). If you've ever lived somewhere really cold, you know how important it is to keep a scarf across your mouth and nose. I remember one winter in New York, there was a two-week period in January where the temperature stayed in the teens. When I walked home from work, the cold air felt sharp, like a knife. It was only nine streets and two avenues, but by the time I got home my lips would be numb.

Similarly, if you throw ice water into your stomach, you'll lose your appetite and slow down your digestive system. That can lead to gas and painful bloating, and in some cases even diarrhea or constipation.

So what are your options? You can ask for water without ice, or just don't drink water when you eat. If you need something to wet your lips or clean your mouth, try some tea. Moderate amounts of wine or beer are also warming and in most cases good for your digestion.