It is not my intention here to educate you on the principles and foundations of traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Instead, what I would like to do is to demonstrate to you the importance of food in causation and treatment of disease, according to Chinese Medicine principles. To do this I will quote a few passages below from the Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen, which will reinforce to you the significant dietary and nutritional focus in the practice of traditional Chinese Medicine over the past several thousand years, and which has remained to this day.
- “Each of the diseases of the four seasons and the five viscera reacts to that of the five flavors to which they [the seasons and the viscera] correspond.”
The five flavors – pungent, sour, sweet, bitter, and salty – have dispersing, gathering, retarding, strengthening, and softening effects. But the flavors have these basic tendencies only in connection with their related viscera; in connection with the other viscera, their tendencies change. The five flavors are represented in five kinds of nourishment, each of which has a specific function.
- “If people pay attention to the five flavors and blend them well, their bones will remain straight, their muscles will remain tender and young, breath and blood will circulate freely, the pores will be fine in texture, and consequently breath and bones will be filled with the essence of life.”
- “If too much salt is used in food, the pulse hardens, tears make their appearance and the complexion changes. If too much bitter flavor is used in food, the skin becomes withered and the body hair falls out. If too much pungent flavor is used in food, the muscles become knotty and the finger and toe nails wither and decay. If too much sour flavor is used in food, the flesh hardens and wrinkles and the lips become slack. If too much sweet flavor is used in food, the bones ache and the hair on the head falls out. These then are the injuries which can be brought about by the five flavors. We know that the heart craves the bitter flavor; the lungs crave the pungent flavor; the liver craves the sour flavor; the spleen craves the sweet flavor; and the kidneys crave the salty flavor.”
- “When the liver suffers from an acute attack one should quickly eat sweet (food) in order to calm it down.”
“When the liver is sick it has the tendency to disintegrate. Then one should quickly eat pungent food which dispels this tendency. One uses pungent food in connection with the liver in order to supplement its function and to stop leaks, and one uses sour food in order to drain and expel.”
- “When the heart suffers from tardiness, one should quickly eat sour (food) which has an astringent effect.”
“A sick heart has the tendency to soften and to weaken. Then one should quickly eat salty food to make the heart pliable. One uses salty food in connection with the heart in order to supplement and to strengthen it, and one uses sweet food in order to drain and to dispel.”
- “When the spleen suffers from moisture one should quickly eat bitter food which has a drying effect.”
“A sick spleen has the tendency to work tardily and lazily; then one should quickly eat sweet food to set it at ease. One uses bitter food to drain the spleen and one uses sweet food to supplement and to strengthen it.”
- “When the lungs suffer from the obstruction of the upper respiratory tract, one should quickly eat bitter (food) which will disperse the obstruction and restore the flow.”
“Sick lungs have the tendency to close and to bind; then one should quickly eat sour food in order to make them receive what is due to them. One uses sour food to supplement and to strengthen the lungs and one uses pungent food to drain them and to make them expel.”
- “When the kidneys suffer from dryness, one should quickly eat pungent food which will moisten them.”
“Sick kidneys have the tendency to harden; then one should eat bitter food to strengthen them. One uses bitter food to supplement and to strengthen them and one uses salty food to drain them and to make them expel.”
- “In regard to the five flavors there are the following cautions and prohibitions: the pungent flavor goes into the respiratory tract; when there is an illness in the respiratory tract one should not eat too much pungent food. The salty flavor goes into the blood; when there is a disease of the blood one should not eat too much salty food. The bitter flavor goes into the bones; when there is a disease of the bones one should not eat too much bitter food. This explains the five cautions and prohibitions of what one should not eat to excess.”
From some of the above we can recognize relevance in terms of our evolving contemporary understanding of nutrition. What is fascinating to me is that these concepts date back several millennia in the Chinese culture.
In addition to the energetic effects of the flavor of each food, traditional Chinese Medicine also ascribes a thermal energetic property to each food. This means that each can be regarded as hot, cold, or neutral. One of the key approaches to Chinese Medicine is to create or maintain a state of inner balance in the body. So if there is too much internal heat present, consuming hot foods can aggravate that condition. In which case the consumption of cold and neutral foods would be a logically chosen approach.
According to traditional Chinese Medicine the thermal energetic property of food can be altered as a result of the cooking process. Raw foods are cooling when compared to cooked foods. Foods cooked at high temperature for a short period are considered to be hotter. Cooked for a longer period at a lower temperature are considered less hot and more warming.
To employ the principles
Food, nutrition and diet is a complex topic in our contemporary society. We have processed foods, foods fertilized with chemicals, food additives, refined oils, fast foods, foods grown in nutrient-deficient soils, irradiated foods for longer shelf-life, foods harvested before becoming sufficiently ripe, etc. It seems we have deviated quite considerably from what nature has provided for us. A key principle of Chinese Medicine that has remained over millennia reminds us that if we deviate too far from what nature provides for us there will likely be consequences resulting in poor health. Let Food Be Thy Medicine!