As I mentioned in last month's column "Food as Medicine in TCM", the selection of various types of foods, herbs and mineral substances for medical purposes has been an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine since its early beginnings over 2000 years ago.
According to Chinese medical theory, all herbal and food ingredients can be classified under five different flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. It is believed that each of these flavours corresponds with one of the five phases, which are wood (liver, gallbladder), fire (heart, small intestine), earth (spleen, stomach), metal (lung, large intestine) and water (kidney, bladder).
In practice, when eaten in moderate amounts the absorption of each of these flavours will be beneficial to the organ with which it is associated. But when consumed excessively, the opposite will occur and the targeted organ will be weakened. For instance, overeating sweet flavours is detrimental to the spleen, excess consumption of salt affects our kidneys, overindulgence in sour food weakens the liver, an excess consumption of spicy foods impairs the function of lungs, while too many bitter flavours in the diet damages the heart.
Most commonly used spices are categorised as pungent or acrid. They improve the taste of the ingredients, but also facilitate their digestion, which explains why traditional cultures have for centuries used pepper, ginger, cumin, and cinnamon in their food. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to dry out excess fluid in the body and will, if consumed in excess amount, dry out the stomach and the lungs. Since both these organs require a damp environment for the process of digestion and respiration, their function will gradually be impaired.
We must keep in mind that different types of foods generate fluids inside the body in various amounts. This is important for our health since our organism needs an optimum amount of liquid to process the digested food in the stomach, as well as a certain level of moisture in our lungs to facilitate breathing.
In Chinese medicine, the sweet flavour supplements the blood and the Qi in the body. This explains why most recommended foods are described as being, to various degrees, sweet in flavour - for instance, all grains, most vegetables and most meat would be in that category. Unfortunately, foods with a sweet flavour have a tendency to generate dampness or excess fluid inside the body, overloading the digestive process. So, while an optimum amount of sweetness will benefit the spleen, if consumed in excess it will weaken its function, following the Chinese medical principle that excess Yin will transform into Yang and vice versa.
In practice, when the spleen is weakening it will crave sweets since it is the flavour that strengthens it when consumed in moderate amounts. But this craving is often satisfied with the consumption of cakes, lollies, chocolate or ice creams, which further weakens that organ, thus creating a never ending destructive digestive cycle.
Also, it is important to remember that our modern Western diet is a consequence of the invention of mass refrigeration which didn't occur until after the end of the Second World War. This technological breakthrough drastically changed our eating habits for ever. Until that time, most people ate grains and vegetables and maybe meat only once or twice a week. Sugar was too expensive for most people to buy except in moderate amounts. Also, being unable to conserve their food for a long time, the general population ate mostly what was in season. In contrast, nowadays we can eat almost any type of fruit and vegetable throughout the year, which is often not the best choice.
In TCM, there is profound belief that seasonal changes have a major influence on the physiological functions of the body, so dietary therapy needs to be adapted to the conditions of the different seasons.
As an example, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, the season of spring is associated with the liver organ. It is a time of growth, and transformation in nature as the outside temperature becomes warmer. It is when the liver becomes very active in its action of dispelling and dispersing the Qi throughout the body. Traditionally, in China at that time of the year, specific foods such as pig's liver, Chinese chives, mulberry and peppermint leaves were eaten to harmonise that organ.
The diet was different again with the onset of summer, which is associated with the heart. It is the hottest season, and selected foods were targeted at dispelling heat and generating body fluids with dishes such as mung beans and lotus leaves soup added to the general diet.
Then, autumn was associated with the defensive action of the lungs. At that time, the Chinese diet was adapted to facilitate and strengthen the moistening action of that organ with chosen foods such as sun dried persimmon and fungus soup. Finally, in winter, as the temperature dropped, there was an emphasis on reinforcing the kidneys and warming its Yang component with foods like mutton soup.
Next month, to conclude this topic, we will look at adapting these ancient concepts to our modern lifestyle.
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com