Do you eat the same food year round? Do you experience low energy after eating certain food? Have you wondered why when you've hardly eaten any calories you still have a hard time losing weight and eventually just keep gaining?
Traditional Chinese Medicine has a unique way of energetically looking at food that is not a part of our standard western concept nutrition. Besides the known macro and micro nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals, etc.) energetically, by their seasonal growth, color, textures and flavors, whole foods have a stimulatory effect on innate organic functions.
Being 4000 years old, TCM is a highly effective form of medicine practiced throughout the world. It not only includes acupuncture, herbology, moxibustion (heat therapy) and QI Gong (exercise therapy), it also includes food therapy as one of its primary modalities! In the old days in China, the acupuncturist's (TCM practitioners) job was to keep their patients well. If their patients fell sick they didn't get paid, So education and participation in all aspects of their patients' health was of utmost importance, and food was and still is right at the top of the list.
Many patients complain of allergies, migraines, addiction to coffee, cigarettes, sugar, fatigue, stress and diverse other acute and chronic complaints, I always ask them "What do you eat? How often do you eat? When do you eat?" etc.
So frequently, I have discovered patients who eat only two meals a day -- usually completely skipping breakfast or just having a couple cups of coffee first thing in the a.m.. At that, this may consist of sugary things perhaps with an occasional serving of vegetables such as a salad. This is topped off during the afternoon off with ice cold sodas, coffee and perhaps in the evening with a couple glasses of wine or beer. Because they may have eaten a salad, they may think that they eat well. For some, if I ask if they ate any protein, they answer "I had some pasta, or oatmeal," which of course is not protein. It never fails to amaze me how little time people spend thinking about what, when, where, and how they eat.
If we truly consider the Hippocratic dictum of letting our medicine be our food, and our food be our medicine, then most of us are greatly depriving ourselves of important therapeutic foods. Despite this, we require our bodies to endure high emotional and physical stress as some of use work 50, 60, 70 hours a week without vital nutritional support. So, how long do we logically think we can keep going before things begin to break down? Even by our thirties, many of us have found that we've worked hard getting through college, manifested a career, perhaps bought a house, but we've done it all on half a tank -- and poor fuel at that. Now when it's time to enjoy our success, we find ourselves with debilitating health problems that may have been easily prevented with a little time and care.
People have lost their sense of eating in harmony with the seasons. Before refrigeration most of our food was eaten seasonally, now we don't even know what that means. Ancient sages of all lands, including the Chinese, meticulously studied nature, and its affect on our health. As a result, their entire medicine is about living in harmony with nature, and by living in harmony with nature their bodies would be healthy.
The Five Elements
The Chinese envisioned five elements in nature with each element corresponding to the each of the different seasons. Besides this, they assigned specific foods, flavors, activities, emotions, colors, sounds, etc.
The wood element corresponds to Spring. Its corresponding flavor is sour. Perhaps, this corresponds to the need especially in Spring for an increase of vitamin C (which as ascorbic acid is sour tasting). It is at this time that we should especially forage for the early spring greens and vitamin rich edible weeds. These foods tend to eliminate the buildup of higher levels of mucus necessary for bodily warmth during the winter season.
The summer element is fire. Its flavor is bitter. Some greens have a bitter flavor like dandelion root and greens, some salad greens, therefore raw foods such as these are only supposed to be eaten in season otherwise they cause an imbalance if eaten year round. While during the summer it is more appropriate to eat more raw foods, people with a tendency towards allergies should limit the intake of cold raw food, because they need internal warming and building to increase their bodies immunity to the antigens.
This is very shocking to most people because our better understanding of nutrition is that fruit and salads are always good. This is not true with the energetic dietary principles of traditional medicine. A few weeks off these otherwise healthy foods, and eating mostly warm cooked foods, these people feel better, have more energy and their symptoms soon begin to clear up.
The next season is Indian summer; the flavor is sweet. This is not the kind of strong sweet most of us consider. Rather it is the need for full sweet which includes whole protein and complex carbohydrates such as beans, whole grains, root veggies, winter squash, animal protein, etc. These foods are nutritionally dense and tonify all bodily tissues. Carbohydrates are necessary for energy while protein is used to heal and repair the cells of the body as they naturally break down and helps us maintain metabolic strength. We can see that sweet in the sense of full sweet as opposed to mere empty calories, is vastly different from the refined sugar that too many people addictively crave. These foods as well as caffeinated drinks such as coffee and most commercial sodas, robs the body of its reserves and may provide only a temporary lift of false or nervous energy. Ultimately people who routinely run on their reserves eventually experience exhaustion and the various pangs and woes, their 'abused' flesh is heir to.
The next element is metal which corresponds to the season of fall. The flavor is spicy (acrid or pungent) and includes garlic, onion, ginger and mint. This flavor disperses congestion, and stagnation, increases blood and lymph flow while counteracting mucous production. These foods are especially important to help prevent the type of diseases such as colds and flus that typically occur during the fall and winter seasons.
The last element is water and it's flavor is salt. This again is a full or wholesome salt, naturally found in nature and rich in an abundance of vital trace minerals. Refined kitchen salt, like refined sugar, is refined to be pure sodium chloride with none of the accompanying buffering minerals. Of all the foods, the sea-vegetables including wakame, kombu, kelp as well as salt fermented foods such as miso have a salty flavor. Good quality mineral-rich salt, is important to maintain the proper ratio of potassium in the blood and cells. It is through the chemical reaction of potassium and sodium, called electrolyte balance, that nutrients and waste is carried to and from the cells. Because salt tends to retain fluid in the body, it is important to maintain pliability and softness of the various tissues and organs of the body. Certainly in the winter, a time of storage, we may need more salt to help us retain body fluid and other nutrients.
Over millennia, the ancient Chinese discovered how these flavors harmonized with the organs, either tonifying or sedated them according to our individual requirements and the seasons. The teachings of Taoist priests always included a knowledge of therapeutic diet.
So, what does all of this have to do with those of use who upon catching a cold, for instance, believe that the best foods are fruit juices such as sugar-rich orange juice because of its purported high vitamin C content? Perhaps the vitamin C is good but the cold temperature and nature of the juice is definitely wrong. The concept of cold essentially means to lower our body metabolism while heat means to raise it. Therefore, when we consume cold natured foods out of season it throws the chemistry of our blood and body out of balance with the seasons and climatic environment. As a result, our immune system and digestion become weaker and we are more prone to external diseases such as colds and flus.
The same is true for people who are overweight. They can deprive themselves of necessary calories, eat cold natured foods such as yogurt, fruit, salad, etc. and because they have depressed or cooled down their metabolism, once they start eating normal food they gain all the weight returns with a vengeance with more to boot. Most of patients who want to lose weight are treated on an individual basis. I consider their problem and explore with them the possible energetic food imbalances based on their unique constitution.
The Chinese think of the stomach (called the "'spleen" in TCM) as cooking receptacle that likes to be about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, this heat, besides actual temperature, is biochemical and consists of hydrochloric acid and the various digestive enzymes that are used to break down food. We could consider this like our internal fire metabolism. The therapeutic objective is to harmonize the individual with the season, innate constitution, lifestyle and activity so that the body is better able to maintain itself.
Breath, food and proper rest is primary to health. The job of the Spleen in TCM physiology is to transform food into blood and ultimately the very substance of the body itself. The Spleen, therefore, represents the innate warmth and strength of our metabolism and following the Chinese teachings, it doesn't like to be cold and damp because these are the two energies that will lower overall physical metabolism. The results are symptoms of coldness and dampness including weak digestion, abnormal weight gain, lowered immune system, etc. Too much cold or raw foods weakens our digestive and assimilative capacity on all levels and it is much like placing a cold, wet log into a burning fireplace. We create smoke. In the body metaphorical 'smoke' is expressed as gas, bloating, heaviness and in general, decreased assimilation of important nutrients including vitamins and minerals This eventually leads to chronic disease. This is why all traditional healing systems stress the importance of maintaining good digestion.
The dietary principles of traditional medicine, including TCM are:
There is no one diet for all people. Each individual is requires different foods to health. Patients who I have counseled and guided in the above principles, are always gratified and amazed at the sense of renewed inner harmony and balance they experience. As a result, their symptoms clear up, even faster with the use of herbs, they feel calmer, more energy, decreased cravings and generally feel more in control of their lives and eating. They lose or gain weight if needed and have increased endurance and productivity in their lives.
Shasta Tierra studied and worked with her father, Michael Tierra, a well-known herbalist and author of The East West Herbal Correspondence Course, The Way of Herbs, Planetary Herbology, The Natural Remedy Bible, Chinese Herbal Medicine and The Way of Chinese Herbs. She also worked with herbalist, Christopher Hobbs L.Ac., AHG. and acupuncturist Miriam Lee.
She currently practices Traditional Chinese Medicine from her clinic in San Jose, California. You can reach her office at 1-408-971-6422.