The Role Of Taste, Season, Element, Organ System, Direction, And Color Of Herbs And Foods In Chinese Diet Therapy

In Chinese medicine, herbal and diet therapies are subject to change based on the seasons of the year. In the cold season, for example, we need to consume warming herbs and foods as this helps maintain the thermal equilibrium of our bodies; conversely, we need take in cold herbs and foods in summer, to keep ourselves from overheating.

Some people tend to have a problem with certain foods in the spring than at other times of the year. Springtime is the start of the allergy season and even food allergies can become more common at this time of year. This is the time when Wind is the most dominant atmospheric condition which gives rise to allergies. Furthermore, Wind can exacerbate existing allergies and may likely contribute to the rise of new allergies. If you are not careful, some harmless foods that you consume at other times of the year, in spring, may cause you allergies or other kinds of problems.

In Chinese medicine, one of the external pathological factors you need to watch out for is Dampness. Some “allergies” are actually bodily reactions from eating foods that increase Dampness in the body. Dampness in the air or environment can infiltrate the Interior and harm your Spleen. The Spleen is especially sensitive to Dampness and if you have a weak Spleen, it can be very vulnerable to Dampness infiltration. A weak Spleen may even create more internal Dampness, which worsens the infiltration of external Dampness in your body. Dampness-producing foods include oranges, wheat, dairy products, milk, etc. For people with an unhealthy Spleen, when they eat damp herbs or foods during cold periods of the year, it can create further problems in their body. The Spleen is also very sensitive to cold but not as much as it is to Dampness.

During spring, Wind is the dominant atmospheric energy (Wood – The Gallbladder & Liver are the most vulnerable), in the early summer, it is Heat (Fire – Triple Heater, Pericardium, Small Intestine, Heart), in late summer, Dampness (Earth – Spleen & Abdomen), in fall, Dryness (Metal – Large Intestine & Lungs), and in the winter, Cold (Water, Bladder & Kidneys.

Like Western medicine, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Bellmore acknowledges that the body has a system of checks and balances built within it. In TCM, one of these checks and balances is the so-called Victor-Vanquished relationship. In this relationship, each Element controls another. These include:

Water (Bladder, Kidney) controlling Fire (Small Intestine, Heart), Metal (Large Intestine, Lung) controlling Wood (Gallbladder, Liver), Earth (Stomach, Spleen) controlling Water (Bladder, Kidney), Fire (Small Intestine, Stomach) controlling Metal (Large Intestine, Lungs), and Wood (Gallbladder, Liver) controlling Earth (Stomach, Spleen).

Earth will be over controlled if Wood is too “strong;” Earth will be out of control if Wood is too “weak”.

Certain individuals suffer from imbalances in the Spleen due to weakness of the Spleen. Their condition can be treated by simply supplementing their bodies with herbs and foods that strengthen the Spleen. But there are also cases when the cause of Spleen weakness is due to a strong Liver, and not because of a problem in the Spleen. In cases like these, merely providing the Spleen with strengthening foods and herbs is like continuously draining water out off a leaky rowboat. You have to keep on scooping water out until the leak is corked. The leak, in this instance, is the Liver that is too “strong”. It inhibits the Spleen, which causes it to function inefficiently. It is not enough to strengthen the Spleen you need to also calm the Liver to prevent it from being a control freak that suppresses and over controls the Spleen.

Wood over dominating Earth (which, in TCM, is the Elemental method of diagnosis) is similar to the Liver attacking the Spleen (This is the Organ Analysis method).

Each of the primary tastes in TCM is related to a specific Organ and Element. Salty taste is related to Water (Bladder, Kidney); spicy, pungent, or acrid to metal (Large Intestine, Lung); sweet to Earth (Stomach, Spleen); bitter to Fire (Small Intestine, Heart); and sour to Wood (Gallbladder, Liver). An Organ can be in trouble if it gets too little or too much of what it needs. Not consuming salt or taking too little of it may lead to a loss of significant amount of fluid passing through the urinary system. But when you load up on too much salt, and can be harmful to your heart. Fire (Heart) is controlled by Water (Kidney). Overconsumption of salt can lead to water buildup in the body that in turn, can overstress the heart.

Furthermore, each taste has its own specific qualities. The sour taste has a tendency to generate Yin and fluids, and it can also “plug leaks” (which may be helpful for diarrhea, excessive sweating, etc.). Earth (Spleen) is controlled by Wood (Liver). Spleen plays a huge role in the transport and conversion of drinks and foods. The buildup of Dampness is the symptom that’s likely to arise when the Spleen is weak. A person with Dampness should avoid drinks and foods that generate fluids.

The bitter taste has a quality that hardens, sedates and diffuses Heat. It also overcomes rebellious Qi and clears Damp Heat. Metal (Large Intestine, Lung) is controlled by Fire (Small intestine Heart). There are a wide variety of bitter herbs that bring about problems in the Lungs. While the Lungs are averse to Damp, they also have a dislike for excess dryness.

The sweet taste has a moderating, balancing, and tonifying quality. It can help halt pain and tonify deficiency. Water (Bladder, Kidney) is controlled by Earth (Stomach, Spleen). Be reminded of the urinary problems diabetics suffer when you think of this connection.
The pungent taste can eliminate pathogenic elements and has a scattering quality. Spices have a warming quality and can be hard on people who are too Hot but helpful for people who are too Cold. Metal is the Mother of Water. People become too Cold because of deficient Yin in the body, spices can be of great benefit for these people. Heat, however, has a rising or ascending quality and so when you over consume spicy herbs or foods, it can lead to a buildup of too much Heat in your Lungs. Wood (Gallbladder, Liver) is controlled by Metal (Large Intestine, Lung).

The salty taste has a descending or downward quality. It is useful for swelling and constipation and can help soften hardness. This activity can be biomedically portrayed as the osmotic slope generated when salt travels through the large intestine. This attracts fluids back into the Large Intestine (or it can hinder them from leaving) and this can benefit constipated individuals who need to pass dry and hard stools. The salty taste can help lubricate those dry stools.

In dietary therapy, one of the concepts of TCM is that in order to be in harmony with a season, one should consume foods that possess the energy of that season. Hence, in the winter, one ought to consume salty and cold foods in order to receive the energy of that season (and stave off conditions that may later develop). In the spring, Yang energy increases and so you should eat Yang foods. Still, you need to address idiosyncratic deficiencies. For example, if you are too Cold, regardless of the season, you need warming energy.

In Chinese medicine, an ideal balanced diet is one that has all the five tastes included at every meal. The percentage of the flavors may vary based on the needs of the person. For instance, although a person who is too cold needs to include all the five tastes, he may need to eat a higher proportion of salty and spicy foods to keep warm. Because of the negative viewpoint about the ill-effects of salt to health, a significant cutting back on salt for people with chronic fatigue syndrome can only aggravate their condition. Lots of people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome say that increasing their intake of salt in their foods helps them feel better. Most people with chronic fatigue syndrome also suffer from Kidney imbalance and so it’s also important for them to strengthen their Kidneys.

In Chinese dietary therapy, eating raw foods is prohibited. This is one rule that may not be appropriate at all times. Sometimes, eating a salad with raw foods can be good for the body provided that it is added with spices (like cayenne pepper). Obviously, eating raw foods should not be recommended for some people with deficient yang but the there are people who benefit from eating veggies and raw fruits in moderation.

In TCM, Directions are also related to the Elements: North is related to the Black Tortoise and the element of Water, South to the Red Phoenix and Fire, East to the Green Dragon and Wood, and West to the White Tiger and Metal. You would notice that there are also colors in diet therapy that correspondence the directions and elements. For TCM dietary therapists, this can be very helpful in determining diagnosis. More often than not, people with imbalance in the Liver have a greenish skin color. People with Kidney imbalance tend to have a dark or blackish complexion.

It is very difficult trying to explain how directions can be a helpful tool in diagnosing a condition. This is very foreign in how Western medicine diagnoses disease since it has no logical explanation. Nevertheless, it does work in Chinese medicine. For some reason or another, some individuals feel uncomfortable when they sit in a certain quarter. Some people with liver imbalance, for instance, may at times, experience discomfort when they sit “in the East” (facing West and back to the East). They may refuse to seat in a room on the West or on the West side of the table if they are given a choice of where to seat. Some people meditating in the four directions, testing sitting in the North, South, East, West, may find that some quarters feel more comfortable or uncomfortable than the others. This discomfort may at times suggest imbalance in an Element. No one can explain this phenomenon, but it nevertheless, happens.