Diet and Traditional Chinese Medicine
People seeking symptom relief from various health conditions rarely anticipate their health practitioner providing them with a selection of foods to supplement and support their treatments. But in Traditional Chinese Medicine, food is a potent form of medicine, influencing all aspects of our lives and health. Chinese medicine’s emphasis on the medicinal value of food dates back more than 2,000 years and is built on an entirely different framework from the Western view of nutrition.
Just as no two people are the same, no two recommendations will be exactly the same, but all food-related guidance will be built on your unique Chinese diagnosis. A practitioner of Chinese medicine will evaluate your constitution to determine the foods that will be most beneficial to your needs, and based on your diagnosis, suggest foods and cooking methods that can boost and amplify your progress between treatments.
Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Philosophy of Food
In Chinese medicine’s view, the foods we eat are seen as a part of nature: when we take each food in, we absorb that food’s unique properties and energy. Some foods are builders that boost strength and sufficiency of bones, blood and muscle. Others are neutralizers and cleansers that move toxins and dampness out of the body, clear out heat, or scatter lodged cold. Foods’ directionality, as well as its nature and characteristics, can impact how energy moves in the body. Examples include cinnamon or saffron flower stamens. Bark and flowers have directional properties that move upward and outward in the body, so cinnamon can be used to warm the extremities and scatter cold in joints, while saffron flowers are light and move upward in the body. Buds, including cloves, aid the digestive process and can relieve nausea by moving downwards in the body. The better our understanding of each food’s energy and how it affects the flow of qi in our bodies, the more we can intentionally apply that knowledge towards the creation of diets and meals to address both health issues and the demands of everyday life.
Food and Qi
The concept of Qi is central to Traditional Chinese Medicine, and it is as important to the foods we eat as it is to every other element of our lives. Foods home to the different levels of qi that help our bodies fulfill their functions. Our jing is our constitutional essence. Constitutional level foods include shellfish, seeds, nuts and sea vegetables. They support genetics, reproductive health, bones and hormones. Nutrititive level foods such as root vegetables, grains, vegetables and most meats support our blood, bodily fluids and digestive process, while protective level foods such as dairy, chicken, fruits, herbs and spices support our immune systems.
The Tastes and Temperatures of Food
Traditional Chinese Medicine views foods in terms of tastes, temperatures and the elements to which they are linked.
- Tastes – Foods are broken down into sour, bitter, sweet, spicy and salty. Each flavor supports different physiologic action in the body as well as an affinity for particular organs. Foods that are considered sour will have an astringing effect and may ease coughing or stop excessive sweating. Think about how biting into a lemon will make your lips pucker. This puckering action helps keep the tone of the digestive system and removes excessive mucous in the body. Bitter foods help digestion move downward, while also cooling and detoxing heat and easing constipation.
- Temperature – Foods are broken down into cold, cool, neutral, warm and hot, with these descriptions being determined by the impact that they have on the body rather than on the actual thermal temperature of the food. Warming foods are viewed as activating and cooling foods as a slower, moderating force in the body. These characteristics may be derived both from the food’s intrinsic qualities as well as the method of preparation.
Eating Based Upon Your Needs and the Season
Different foods may be recommended based upon the patient’s particular symptoms and their diagnosis. Adjustments to diet may be recommended based on the temperature or taste of a food, as well as based upon the season. During different times of year, seasonal foods can be used to warm or cool the body or to provide a greater level of hydration — in fact, classical Chinese teachings indicate that the foods that grow during each season are specifically suited to our body’s needs.
Too much cold or raw food — like eating too much ice cream or salad in the winter — can cause bloating. The cold nature of these foods can slow circulation or digestive processes, leading to a feeling of abdominal discomfort. This can be balanced by adding warmth. Think about having hot soup with your salad or adding some warming spices, or maybe cutting back on the ice cream! Creating the right diet looks at the individual and the types of foods that are being eaten, as well as their particular symptoms and diagnosis.
As is true in so many other areas of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the remedy to illness and key to good health and wellbeing lies in achieving balance. No foods are always good or always bad, and the same food can be appropriate at one point in the patient’s life and inappropriate at another depending on their specific health needs and what is going on in their life at any particular moment.
Traditional Chinese Medicine’s view of diet as food has proven to be remarkably effective in the treatment of health conditions and the maintenance of wellbeing. Sharon Sherman has been licensed to practice acupuncture and Oriental Medicine since 2001, and holds the highest credential available from both the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Her knowledge and understanding of complex conditions in conjunction with the medicine’s effectiveness assures patients of the highest level of care and professionalism.