China is the birthplace of many of the world’s most useful technologies—animal domestication, plant cultivation, and irrigation agriculture to name a few. But, for us today, its ancient healing system may stand out as China’s brightest accomplishment.
Thousands of effective medicines from plants, and to a lesser extent from animal and mineral sources, were identified in China starting more than 3,000 years ago. And what’s even more surprising is that those discoveries have endured for thousands of years. Billions of people around the world—in the east and the west—still rely on the healing powers of the substances discovered by the ancient Chinese.
Since writings ascribed to the semi-mythical divine emperor Shen Nong began guiding the Chinese people in the use of plants as food and medicine thousands of years ago, the link between cuisine and healing has been sealed in Chinese cultural and medical practice. And as food growing is by nature a seasonal practice, Chinese medical approaches differ accordingly with the seasons.
In fact, the food-medicine link is so integral to the Chinese culture that many traditional restaurants and hospitals in China serve dishes to treat specific conditions. And the foods that are used in medical therapy are also routinely prepared by families when seasons change, when illness strikes, to strengthen a woman after birth, and to nourish the elderly in their declining years.
Healthy digestion comes first
In Chinese medicine, the foundation for treating and preventing disease starts in the digestive system—represented as the spleen and stomach in the Chinese organ system. The strength of the spleen and the stomach are critical to preventing, treating, or recovering from just about every condition. The reason? They are responsible for taking in food and fluids, transforming them to qi (vital energy) and blood, and transporting them throughout the body.
For a strong stomach and spleen, Chinese (and other) medical experts point out that it’s not just what we eat, but also how we eat that makes a difference. Eating at odd times, wolfing down food on the run, and eating iced foods all weaken the spleen and stomach. That’s an important lesson to take from Chinese medicine, where digestion is at the heart of every condition. In western medicine, we make the mistake of thinking about digestion only when people are having digestive problems—and considering only what we eat, and not how we eat.
As for the what, Chinese diet therapy emphasizes high-quality, properly prepared foods. Since foods were developed over thousands of years, it does not directly address the problems of modern agricultural practices such the use of antibiotics, food processing, herbicides, or genetic manipulation. But by focusing on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, you can have good digestion and health. Eat only fresh, high-quality, unprocessed foods, and you’ll avoid a lot of the modern dietary traps. Bonus: Fresh foods are also higher in both nutrients and vital energy (qi).
The properties of herbal medicines
There is a fine line between foods and herbs in Chinese medicine, and they are often used together. Even in the West we use herbs to spice our foods. But in Chinese medicine, plants are recognized for their potential as medicines. After all, plants contain biologically active constituents to protect against predators and as a means of survival. And some of those protective properties make them useful for humans. In fact, the antibacterial properties of many spices allow them to preserve meats and other foods. That’s why they were so valuable during the colonial period to motivate Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British explorations of Asia and the “Spice Islands.”
The five flavors
In Chinese cuisine, you can actually taste a food’s healing properties. Everything is identified as having one or more of the five different tastes. And each of those tastes has different actions in the body:
- Sour (including astringent). Actions: Retains and stops loss of fluids (for diarrhea, sweat). Generates fluids, promotes proper digestion. Examples: Hawthorne berries (cardioactive), lemon, apricots, cherries, and grapefruit.
- Bitter. Actions: Drying and purging (for constipation, reflux, cough). Examples: Bitter melon and dandelion greens.
- Sweet. Actions: Tonify and strengthen blood (for pain and spasms). Examples: Chicken, eggs, fruits, mutton, and root vegetables.
- Pungent. Actions: Expels pathogens and promotes qi and blood flow. Examples: Chili, ginger, pepper, and spring onions.
- Salty. Actions: Softens and resolves masses (such as goiter). Examples: Kelp and seaweed.
Nature and propensity tell the rest of the story
In addition to having different tastes, each food has a specific nature—cold, cool, warm, or hot— depending on its effects on the body. If it lowers a fever, it is considered cold. If it promotes blood circulation and warms the extremeties, it’s warm or hot.
After food is digested, it can affect the direction of the flow of qi: ascending, descending, floating, or sinking. Chinese medicine experts take this into account when choosing foods to treat different conditions. Here are a few examples:
- Ascending foods are used for diarrhea and organ prolapse.
- Descending foods help belching and indigestion, hiccups, nausea, and vomiting.
- Floating (dispersing) foods aid in the common cold and promote perspiration.
- Sinking foods treat constipation, high blood pressure, and mania.
A food’s propensity determines the organ channel(s) to which it’s likely to travel. Most foods go to at least two channels. For example, lemons, pears, and tangerines clear heat from the lung channel to stop coughs. Tangerines also go to the stomach channel to address loss of appetite and nausea.
The flavor, nature, and channel propensity of a food helps determine its medicinal value.
Everything in season
Just as time of day is important in Chinese beliefs about eating, so is the season of the year. Beyond the fact that different foods are available in different seasons, in Chinese medicine the seasons have a direct effect on the body. And that helps determine which types of food are appropriate in each season.
Here’s some guidance for what types of food to eat in each season:
- In spring, eat warming foods, more sweet than sour, to nourish spleen qi when liver qi is strong.
- In summer, digestion slows, so eat light foods to clear heat and generate fluids. Focus more on fruits and vegetables and less on meat.
- In autumn, avoid extremes of hot or cold. Energy is diminishing and substance is growing. Eat foods that are moderate in nature.
- In winter, eat foods that tonify and rebalance, such as beef and mutton.
Of course, our air-conditioned-in-summer/heated-in-winter homes and offices work against the natural effects of the seasonal cycle. And both artificial cooling and heating of the air in which we live and breathe takes moisture out of the air year-round, contributing to chronic dehydration. Add some warming foods to your light summer diet of fruits and vegetables. In winter, add moistening foods.
Seasons of life
Just as with the seasons of the year, Chinese medicine guides us through the seasons of life. In children, internal damp syndromes frequently lead to stuffy or runny noses, asthma, and ear infections. Cold and moist foods such as dairy aggravate damp conditions— which makes the Western obsession with pushing dairy and milk (and especially feeding cow’s milk instead of breast milk) on infants and children seem like a bad idea.
The elderly have weakening digestions, so they should eat small, frequent meals, and well-cooked and easy to digest soups and stews.
In pregnant women, fluids collect in certain channels while others are relatively dry. So drying foods such as spices and wines should be avoided.
Emotional states also have an effect on digestion. Stress hinders spleen and stomach function and calls for an easy-to-digest diet that tonifies the spleen. Anger and disappointment require a diet that soothes the liver qi.
Scratching the surface
Even though the traditional system of Chinese medicine is thousands years older than Western medicine, its wisdom is applicable even today. But as you can tell from this brief article, it’s a complex system that requires a great deal of study to understand properly.
You can learn more through my book Celestial Healing: Energy Mind and Spirit in Traditional Medicines of China and East and Southeast Asia available through Amazon.com.
If you want to tap into this ancient healing system to treat or prevent disease, work with a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner. There is an organization called the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCA), in Washington, D.C. They have a directory available on their website at www.nccaom.org where you can search for a certified practitioner near you. Or, you can try the The American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at www.aaaomonline.org.