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The Symbolism of Illness – the Digestive System

Problems with the digestive system have become so prevalent these days and the theories behind the physical reasons for illness so varied, that I wanted to take a look at this from a different angle.

As I’ve said many times, homeopathy looks at the underlying reasons people become ill. In addition to considering the physical symptoms which trouble the patient, the homeopath is interested in the psychology or symbolism of the illness – what lies behind, what thought or event is holding the person in that particular situation.

Often a patient can recognise when the condition started. It may be related to a grief or a major upheaval in their life such as redundancy, the death of a loved one, business failure or difficult work situation. Sometimes the homeopath really has to delve into the past, much like an archaeologist, to put the puzzle together.

If we take it deeper, and if we are connected to our spiritual or life path, we need to look at why we can’t stomach or digest the choices we’ve made for this lifetime. Sometimes we think we have worked through these issues – and often we have – but we still have symptoms, so we need to look at why we haven’t been able to let go and heal.

While it is possible to use diet, herbs, probiotics, supplements, for example, to “manage” a digestive problem, the path to real improvement in more complex cases is inevitably through going much deeper to find the cause and address it at this level.  Even auto-immune conditions and hereditary illnesses have a beginning point or a trigger and may be improved with homeopathy.

So what is the digestive system about?

The digestive system is very much concerned with our physicality. While the brain consumes and digests the non-material impressions of our world, the digestion deals with our material impressions of the world, but the connection between the two is deep and more than just a concept of brain/gut in the physical sense.

The digestion involves:

  1. Taking in the material impressions of our external world;
  2. Discriminating between what is beneficial and what is not beneficial;
  3. Assimilating beneficial substances;
  4. Excreting non-beneficial substances.

Our likes, dislikes, intolerances and our general relationship with food are very symbolic. Hunger is a symbol of a desire to have, to take in, to fill a void. Lack of appetite or aversion to eating is related to issues around receiving love or nurture, often with feelings of constant self-criticism, guilt and self sabotage. Here we are still talking symbolically, not just physically.

If a person is hungry for love, as an example, without having that hunger adequately satisfied, it may reappear in the body as a hunger for sweet things. Saccharum (or sugar) as a homeopathic remedy is well suited to children who have an unconscious feeling of being unloved and who like to nibble on anything sweet to satisfy that need.

Dethlefsen (1) is one of my favourite writers on the subject of the symbology of illness and while not everyone is going to resonate with what he writes on the topic of the digestive symptom, it definitely matches up with the themes I see in clinic and in the broader community.

Just before we get into the nitty gritty, a few – almost – light-hearted comments from Dethlefsen on our choice of foods which I’ve included for interest, and again when I think about it, these are borne out in the clinic.  So, people who are engaged in intellectual work often want salty foods and hearty meals. People who are highly conservative may prefer preserved and tinned foods, especially smoked, and have a liking for strong tea. People who like highly spiced food reveal they are constantly on the lookout for new thrills and impressions and this certainly makes sense!

On the other hand, people who suffer food intolerances, or dislike or are intolerant of salt, spice, sugar, etc, may be avoiding “seasoning” their lives with new impressions, and are so determined to avoid variety through constant contact with new things or “the spice of life”, that their diet becomes very limited. They become anxious to avoid all challenges (in food and in life) and this fear can escalate to the point where they can only eat a very limited, absolutely pure or almost liquid diet, such as babies eat. They are unable to get their teeth into anything and find adult life just too hard to stomach!

Inna Segal (2) in “The Secret Language of your Body” makes some interesting observations about the symbology of certain allergies. Gluten intolerance, for instance, she describes as difficulty digesting and assimilating important events, particularly from childhood. Trying to avoid confrontation, and disliking and neglecting the self. I would relate this to a lot of intolerances, not just gluten!

Her observations on food allergies/sensitivities include feeling irritated by what is happening in your life, being extremely sensitive to people’s beliefs about you and feeling as if your discomforts are not being heard or solved. She also talks about being too focused on what you like and don’t like, so not allowing full expression of who you are.

Allergies and food intolerances are a situation which we are seeing more and more commonly, not just with children, but increasingly with adults, which prevent them living fully in the world. This can limit in their ability to socialise because they can’t eat out and they may find they have to spend their whole life focusing their time on what is palatable and what is not.

If we re-read the preceding two or three paragraphs we need to understand that this is not a judgement on people who suffer in this way, but a chink of light in a situation which may give insight, understanding and improvement if we can grasp it and open the door to the symbology of this situation on an individual level.

Dethlefsen goes on to comment that people who become obsessed with labels, special diets and so on, are always on the lookout for difficulties or perhaps are trying to trouble shoot perceived problems before they arise. And since eating is so strongly connected to love and nurturing, complete focus on diet, to the point where a person is unable to accept dinner invitations or enjoy socialising, can indicate an inability to accept love. Remember this is purely theoretical and worth exploring from an individual perspective. This is not a “one size fits all.”

Assuming we manage to get the food into the stomach (!!), we can see the stomach acids as an aggressive, corrosive force. Problems with digestion in the upper gastrointestinal system can represent a lack of capacity to cope with what is annoying us, or with our own aggressive urges, and to resolve personal conflicts and problems. Such people either don’t express their aggression at all (they “get eaten up inside”) or they show exaggerated aggression. Continuing to direct these emotions inwards can result in gastric ulcers and even stomach cancer. Stomach sufferers are often people unwilling to enter into conflict and unconsciously pining for the conflict-free world of childhood.

One of the commonest digestive problems we see is diarrhoea. We may use the expression “shit scared” and this points to fear. When we are afraid we are no longer taking time to analyse incoming impressions. Instead, we let them all go through undigested. Nothing “hangs around” for long. We withdraw to a quiet, lonely place where we can “let things run their course”. In the process, we lose a lot of fluid which symbolises the flexibility that is needed if we are to extend the constricting (and sometimes worrying) confines of the ego and so overcome our fear. Diarrhoea, whether chronic or acute, tells us we are afraid, over-anxious to hang on to things, but unable to do so; it teaches us to let go and let things run their course.

In the lower bowel, where the water is extracted, the commonest problem is constipation. Freud interpreted defecation as an act of giving and generosity. There are stories in many cultures regarding good luck being associated with treading in dog poo or being hit by bird droppings!! Constipation, not surprisingly, is an expression of a reluctance to give things away, a desire to hang on to things. So in our modern society where problem of constipation is as widespread as that of diarrhoea, is this indicating we are hanging on too tightly to material things and are unable to let go on the physical level. Constipation can show us on a deeper level that we are hanging on both to material things and to thoughts and feelings or even “secrets” that we don’t want to come to light. There is again stuckness here, with perhaps a refusal to change old ways of thinking, refusing to make decisions or to see anothers point of view or to make changes generally.

While we are all individuals and present our “dis-ease” in a unique way, resulting in a choice of a unique and individual homeopathic remedy, the general ideas here give us something to think about in relation to many conditions of the digestive system. The main theme of any problem with the digestive system is often about difficulty in digesting life and it would appear that this theme is permeating out to our children, as life and relationships becomes more challenging in so many ways. It’s definitely important to support ourselves with good nutrition and to avoid foods that are unhealthy, but based on the many cases I see that have done all this and much more and are still struggling with major issues, sometimes looking at why this is happening and where and what it stems from may bring answers that just using physical modalities cannot. Very often it’s not a gut remedy that is required but a whole person remedy that goes deep into the soul and the psyche!


  1. The Healing Power of Illness; Dethlefsen
  2. The Secret Language of Your Body; Segal 2010

    Melanie Creedy originally trained in the UK in the early 1990s and holds a Bachelor of Health Science in Homeopathy. She is registered with the Australian Register of Homoeopaths (AROH) and is a member of the Australian Homoeopathic Association.

    She was Vice President and Professional Development Coordinator of the Australian Homoeopathic Association from 2011 to 2015 and is editor of the AHA National Newsletter.

    Melanie has used homeopathy for 30 years and has been in practice since 1998. For many years she ran The Children’s Ear Clinic in Western Australia, but since her tree change to Tasmania, has a special interest in women’s and children’s health generally and helping individuals manage their journey on the spiritual path with homeopathy and her range of essences. Melanie has developed her own methods of dealing with complex cases over the years and offers distance consultations via phone and skype to allow people Australia-wide to access her services.

    Homeopathy is a traditional medicine. It may be used in conjunction with other medicines. For any ongoing chronic condition, it is important to be assessed or examined by your healthcare professional or specialist. Always seek medical advice in emergencies. The information provided in this blog does not constitute medical advice but is for information only. If in doubt as to the appropriateness of a suggestion or treatment seek advice from your homeopath.