Chinese Nutritional Therapy And The Five Elements

A helpful dietary principle in traditional Chinese medicine in Overland Park (TCM) relates to Wu Xing or the Theory of the Five Elements. This article will explore the concept of the microcosm of humanity in the macrocosm of the universe.

The Sheng Cycle or the Cycle of Creation

Water, Metal, Earth, Fire, & Wood make up a sequence know as the Sheng cycle or cycle of creation. This sequence runs clockwise on the circle symbolizing the Sheng cycle. This cycle is also referred to as the mother-child relationship. Each element generates another, as with the cycle of the seasons; this means that one element is deemed to be the “mother” of the next

To help remember;

Wood kindles Fire
Fire generates Earth (ash)
Earth produces Metal
Metal transports Water (as in tap or bucket)
Water nourishes Wood

Nourish the mother if the child is deficient/weak. As the Liver is considered to be the Heart’s mother, fortify the Liver or the Wood element with herbs or food if there’s not enough Fire relating to the Heart.

There is a positive relationship between the body systems, the Five Elements, and the colors of food:

1. Liver is nourished by green foods.
2. The Abdomen and Spleen are nourished by orange and yellow foods.
3. The Heart is nourished by Red foods.
4. The Lungs are nourished by White foods.
5. The Kidneys are nourished Dark Blue/Black foods.

An individual having weak digestion that affects the Spleen, (according to TCM), should consume abundant orange and yellow foods such as winter squashes and sweet potatoes, as these are the colors that represent the element of the Earth. Eating lots of red foods such as tincture or tea, hawthorn berries, beetroot, and tomatoes is good for an individual with a weak heart since red represents the Heart organ and the Fire element.

The Ko Cycle/Control Cycle

The Ko Cycle or Control Cycle is another relationship that’s within the Five Elements. The Ko Cycle is also referred to as “fathers”, “restrains”, or “controls”. This cycle is also known as the grandmother-son cycle.

To help remember:

1. Wood cracks Earth open
2. Earth soaks up Water
3. Water puts out Fire
4. Fire melts Metal
5. Metal cuts Wood

If Liver (Wood) becomes overabundant, manifesting as headache, red eyes, hypertension, etc., strengthen the Lungs (Metal element) to control the Wood element.

Flavor and the Five Elements Theory

Flavor is a physical sensation that plays an important role in TCM. Many documents make a reference to the Five Flavors or Tastes and a couple of sub-tastes. These five flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, sour and pungent. The two others are bland (which is classified under sweet category) and astringent under sour category.

1. The Gallbladder and Liver absorb the sour flavor
2. The Small Intestine and Heart absorb the bitter flavor
3. The Abdomen and Spleen absorb the sweet flavor
4. The Large Intestines and Lungs absorb the pungent flavor
5. The Bladder and Kidney absorb the salty flavor

Hence, herbs and foods with different flavors and energies are imbibed into the body to nourish the various organs in the body. A person with say, digestive problems (due to weakness of the Abdomen or Spleen) would tend to crave excessive sweets. TCM will use foods with sweet flavor, like such winter squash or yams, to strengthen the Abdomen and Spleen.

The general consensus is that reasonable consumption of food with a specific taste will benefit specific organs. We also need to emphasize that too much consumption of individual flavors can also injure the related organs. This is especially common when it pertains to the sweet flavor. Consuming excess amounts of bitter foods, for example, is highly unlikely.

Sweet

Sweet flavor has the following qualities: slowing, harmonizing, and tonifying. In cases of deficiency or fatigue, sweet products have a strengthening and reinforcing quality. Deficiencies may arise in different aspects of the body, such as deficient Yin or Yang, Blood, or Chi. However, eating too much sweets can weaken the spleen. This is why during episodes of lethargy and fatigue, sweet cravings tend to arise. Sweet flavor can also be used to relax. It is also useful in cases of acute pain to ease pain and help one relax. Sweet herbs or foods can be used as a counter balance or an antidote to the negative effects of some herbs. Rice, licorice, corn, and yams, are a few examples of sweet tasting foods.

Salty

Salty flavor has softening qualities and has the ability to dissolve hard masses. This flavor can also lubricate and moisten the intestines. Symptoms such as tumors, cysts, masses, nodules, and lumps can be dissolved and softened by salty foods. Goiter, for instance, can be addressed by eating seaweed. If you are constipated, lubricate the intestines by drinking salt water.

Salty foods include seaweed and celery among many others. Glauber’s salt or Mang Xiao in Chinese, is cold, salty, bitter, and pungent. It’s composed of a mineral known as hydrated sodium sulfate which can be found in salty lakes all over the world. Glauber’s salt is used to relieve constipation among other things. Heart disease and hypertension can develop if you’ve been eating too much salty foods for a long time.

Bitter

Bitter flavor can eliminate blockages and possesses a drying damp quality. This flavor can also dispel heat. Swelling caused by water retention (edema) can be treated by consuming this type of food. Manifestation of excess heat such as hypertension, headaches, red eyes, etc, as well as obesity can be treated by these foods as well. Its ability to clear blockages can be utilized in cough related to Chi stagnation.

Samples of bitter tasting foods are kale, burdock root, mustard greens, dandelion leaves, cos lettuce, endive, radicchio, apricot kernels, and rhubarb. Eating too much bitter foods can cause fatigue and diarrhea and can injure a weak spleen.

Sour

Sour flavor has astringent, consolidating, and absorbing properties. It can be used to halt inordinate discharge of body substances and fluids such as enuresis, spermatorrhea, seminal emission, excessive sweating, and diarrhea.

Vinegar, lemon, and sour plum are a few examples of sour foods. Eating too much sour foods can exacerbate skin problems and cause retention of toxic heat.

Pungent

Pungent flavor tonifies the descending and dispersing function of the Lungs. This flavor also helps enhance and energize circulation. Its dispersing quality is mainly utilized to break up pathogens from the outer portion of the body, such as seen in flu and colds. Its invigorating quality helps boost circulation of jin ye (body fluid), blood, and Chi. According to Chinese Medicine theory, illness is the result of blood and chi stagnation. Pathological signs of stagnation manifest as fibroids cysts, tumors, edema, painful or irregular menses, local pain, etc. Pungent foods can help alleviate these conditions and energize circulation.

Mint, radish, garlic, and ginger are few examples of pungent tasting food. Eating too much of these foods can injure the Yin and/or Blood and lead to itching or dizziness and exacerbate wind pathologies.

Bland

Bland flavor is considered a subcategory of the sweet flavor. Eating bland tasting foods can help treat edema and encourage urination. This flavor has diuretic qualities.

Pearl barley is one example of a bland tasting food.