Chinese medicine concepts of food and energy

By Alex Tan

Spring is the time for get up and do. It is the season of activity. A time of stirring after the cold of winter. It is the season of wind, both in the environment and in our bodies. Spring is the season to eat foods with upward energies, such as young, green, sprouting above-ground vegetables.

Just as the trees and shrubs start budding with the onset of spring, we start to loosen up as energy in the body begins to move up and out. Spring is naturally the time to nurture yang, our action principle. Appetite eases as the body shakes off the need to store energy as it did over the colder months. With the environments subtly support as the weather changes, people who want to lose weight can take advantage of the natural trends of spring to help them do more and eat less.

Wind

Wind can occur in any season, but it is more of a potent force in spring, as it is the time the Liver is most sensitive – and the Liver is very susceptible to the effects of Wind. Wind appears quickly, can change without warning and is as destabilising as it is unpredictable. If you have internal wind (TCM concept) you may experience some of the following symptoms; dizziness, cramps, itching, spasms, tremors, pain that comes and goes, twitching, pulsating headaches, ringing in the ears or dryness in the upper body. On an emotional level wind can cause manic depression, nervousness and emotional turmoil. Internally, wind often moves other conditions around such as heat or cold in the form of fever, moving pains or the common cold.

In Springtime the weather is unpredictable and so we need to be more careful about exposure to cold or getting chilled. The average daily temperature should be above 15 degrees C before people start taking off the wraps and wearing lighter-weight clothes. A Chinese proverb goes: chun wu qiu dong or “bundle up in the spring and stay cool in autumn” (literally spring muffling, autumn freezing).  According to TCM, spring is the season for new growth, when the Yang (“hot” energy) rises and gradually builds.  However, just as vegetable sprouts need the protection of a greenhouse in early spring, the internal Yang of the body is still too weak to resist the coldness of the external environment. ’Wu’ (bundling up) is necessary for people, so that the Yang energy can be adequately nurtured towards its summer-time peak.

If a person has a constitutionally low level of Yang, or has exhausted their Yang through poor lifestyle habits, it can lead to problems such as lowered immunity, causing the body to be vulnerable to the “invasion of pathogenic energies” that cause illness. While the external temperature is changing and adjusting to the new season, it is important to keep the body’s internal ‘climate’ as stable as possible by wearing warmer clothes that help keep in the heat, and wearing layers that can be taken on or off so that the body temperature can be regulated. In TCM, the area at the nape of the neck and the upper-back is referred to as the ‘Wind Gate’, and is the place where all of the Yang Channels of the Acupuncture meridians are said to intersect. This area particularly is vital to protect with a scarf or coat, as well as keeping the legs and lower-body warm.

Oats

Oats can reduce the effects of wind in early spring

There are several foods that naturally reduce the effects of wind. In early spring (or if you are more yin) try oats, pine nuts, prawns, ginger, fennel and basil. Later in the season (or if you are more yang) choose celery, mulberry, strawberry and peppermint. Other foods that limit the effects of wind include black or yellow soybean (cooked until soft), black or yellow sesame seed, sage and chamomile. Foods such as crabmeat, eggs and buckwheat can aggravate wind symptoms.

The Organs of Spring

The Liver[1] and the Gallbladder are the internal organs that are in the spotlight during spring. If the Liver and Gallbladder are supported and balanced during spring, the entire body will benefit immediately and be set up with the best possible health foundation to be strong and well in the season to come.

According to TCM, the main functions of the Liver are to store blood, support the Heart and to create and maintain a smooth and calm flow of qi throughout both the body and mind. When the Liver is balanced and functioning well, the Liver qi is smooth, active and floating. It helps us get things done without stress. When the Liver is not functioning well, or the qi is trapped or forced up, we can experience physical and emotional consequences. Someone with a less than healthy Liver may be operating on an emotional roller coaster, feeling resentment, aggression, edginess and compulsive behaviour. In the longer term, these emotions can lead to depression.

From the outside, the health of the liver shows in our eyes, fingernails and toenails and can be felt in our tendons. To see the health of the Liver on the tongue, check the sides. If the Liver is in perfect shape, the tongue will be firm, pink, and have a thin white coat. If the sides of your tongue are swollen, flabby or bruised looking, then spring is the perfect time to start getting your Liver in shape. This means primarily to support and calm the Liver while also toning up the other organs so they can hold their own against bullying from the Liver.

The Sour Flavour

Sour is connected to the Liver. Sour strengthen the liver and is yin and cooling. It has a contracting, astringent effect and dries and firms. It helps strengthen tendons, improve bladder control, excessive sweating, diarrhoea, sagging skin, haemorrhoids and prolapsed conditions. Once eaten, sour heads straight for the Liver. A small amount of the sour flavour is essential for a balanced Liver, but too much will make the Liver too strong and cause imbalance between the organs. Examples of sour foods include lemons, limes, hawthorn fruit, pickles and rosehip. Vinegar is also sour.

As you read about the Liver, you’ll realise for many people the Liver is too strong in spring, so for the most part, these people should avoid sour flavoured foods in spring. Pungent foods also affect the Liver and clear Wind from the body and, in moderation, will be the best accompaniment to the full sweet flavours of vegetables and grains.

Liver yin deficiency

People with Liver yin deficiency will experience signs such as dizziness, dry eyes and weak vision, night blindness, ringing in the ears and dry, brittle nails. Yin deficient signs are red cheeks and tongue, hot palms and soles, night sweats and afternoon fevers, and frequent small thirst. Emotionally, deficient Liver yin can manifest as depression, nervous tension or irritability. On the other hand, balanced Liver yin calms and stabilises. Having a strong Liver yin protects against excess Liver yang symptoms. Foods that boost Liver yin include soybean products, millet and Liver. While eating Liver is too strong for some people in spring, a yin deficiency is a good reason to eat Liver.

Blood and the Liver

Without sufficient blood production in the body, possible problems include anaemia, numbness, pale fingernails and face, memory loss, insomnia, seeing spots in your eyes, ringing in the ears, dry eyes and irregular periods or very light or absent periods for women. Emotionally, insufficient blood can cause depression, nervous tension or irritability. Watercress is a spring food that builds yin and blood. To assist blood flow eat plenty of leafy greens, Chinese red dates, beans, peanuts and a small amount of liver and red meat.

Liver yang excess

The Liver is often excessive in spring. The Liver is a real action organ. It gives you force and helps you get things done. But, too much Liver yang or Qi can manifest as anger. So, Liver yang is like rain – without rain nothing grows, with the right amount of rain things thrive, and with too much rain everything is washed away.

Foods that calm the Liver will benefit everyone in spring. For people who have plenty of yang characteristics, or heat, this is even more relevant. Sweet foods – that’s the full sweetness of grains, vegetables and meat, sooth aggressive Liver emotions such as anger and impatience. In spring, foods such as bay leaf, coconut milk, black sesame, celery, kelp and spring onions all have a calming effect on the Liver qi. These can be particularly useful, since if the Liver qi gets out of hand it can invade the Spleen causing vomiting, nausea, distension, flatulence and diarrhoea. As long as there are no signs of heat, quick acting sweeteners can be eaten in spring to calm the Liver. Try raw honey, apple cider vinegar or liquorice root.

licorice root

Take some licorice roots in spring to calm the Liver

We should be careful not to over stimulate the Liver, which is especially true if we have a strong and vigorous body type or you have a history of aggressiveness. Liver imbalances are most likely to occur in middle age. Foods that cool and calm the Liver yang are useful. Try celery, watercress, lettuce and seaweed. If these are new foods to your diet introduce them slowly and don’t overeat them as they can cause diarrhoea.

Overeating and how it affects the Liver

Over eating, especially rich and greasy foods, makes the Liver so hard it gets sluggish, and then it can’t distribute qi properly, causing stagnation. When qi and fluids don’t flow about the body properly, eyes and tendons suffer. Tendons can tear, become inflamed or inflexible. Eyes may become red, itchy or swollen or they may develop visual abnormalities such as cataracts.

When the Liver becomes sluggish (stagnant Liver qi) this leads to anger and frustration and sense of being held back. At first, the Liver Qi becomes blocked we can become depressed or frustrated, and then when the Qi pushes through the blockage all at once, it shows up as anger. Stagnant Liver signs include a feeling of lump in the throat, distension in the breasts or abdomen, allergies, lumps or swellings, chronic indigestion, neck or back tension, inflexible body, eye problems, tendon problems and being slow to get going in the morning. Emotional signs of stagnancy can be emotional repression, anger, frustration, resentment, impatience, edginess, depression, moodiness, poor judgement, difficulty making decisions, mental rigidity and negativity.

Foods that help ease the Liver stagnancy in spring include both pungent and sweet foods. Try watercress, cardamom, oregano, dill, pepper, or rosemary.

Heat in the Liver

Rising Liver heat can be caused by stagnancy. A stagnant Liver eventually generates Liver heat, often called Liver fire. Think about the term ‘gung-ho’ in English it comes from the Chinese words ‘gan-huo’ or Liver-fire. Liver heat symptoms include anger, impatience, headaches and migraines, dizziness and high blood pressure. Other signs of Liver heat include a red face, red dry eyes, red tongue, menopausal disorders, indigestion and constipation. Liver heat can predispose people to frequent irritability, an explosive personality, shouting, wilfulness, arrogance, rudeness, aggression and even violence. To cool the Liver you need to build up yin fluids. Watercress is perfect to counteract heat in the Liver. Bitter and sour foods help reduce help to reduce Liver excess too. Try grapefruit, rye and chamomile.

Looking after the Gall bladder

The rich, fatty foods that make the Liver struggle also have a negative impact on the gallbladder, which can manifest as indigestion, flatulence, shoulder tension and a bitter taste in the mouth. Remember that spring is the time for energy to float up and anything heavy, such as oil or rich foods, weigh us down and make it very difficult for the energy to move up. A simple diet of cooked vegetables, grains and legumes can assist to gradually clear these symptoms. Specific foods that will speed up the process include lemons, limes, turmeric, parsnips, radishes, linseed oil, chamomile tea and seaweed.

So what to eat in spring?

Foods that eliminate Wind getting the energy up and moving. They support Liver yin, calm Liver yang, remove heat and stagnation from the Liver and support the Spleen.

In general, foods that are good for spring are warm and ascending sweet foods. In early spring, try cabbage, sweet potato, carrot and beetroot. As the weather changes, move to mint, sweet rice, shitake mushrooms, peas, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and in late spring, cherries.

Gently warming pungent foods are particularly good for spring. These include fennel, oregano, rosemary, caraway, dill, bay leaf, grains, legumes and seeds. Pungent flavoured foods stimulate circulation of Qi and blood, moving energy up and out. But remember, a little goes a long way. Pungents also regulate Qi, enhance digestion, disperse mucus, stimulate the Lungs, Blood and Heart, guard against mucus forming conditions such as common cold, remove obstructions and improve sluggish Liver function. Pungents improve digestion and expel flatulence from the intestines to fix bloating. And pungents make grains, legumes, nuts and seeds less mucus forming. Pungent foods you can add to your foods in spring include mint, spring onions, ginger, horseradish, chamomile and black pepper.

Ginger

Ginger helps eliminate wind

Combining foods well can get the best out of them. Spinach strengthens both the Blood and Liver, but if you are feeling angry, too much spinach may stimulate the Liver and increase your anger. However, spinach can be balanced with tofu, as tofu will counteract the spinach’s effect on the Liver because tofu builds yin and is cooling.

Honey and mint tea is perfect for spring as is gently warming and encourages Qi upwards. Mung beans, green peas and green beans are colour coordinated to enliven the spirit of spring. They also remove heat, which can be very beneficial for many people during spring.

Enjoy the energy of spring!


[1] The capital ‘L’ is used here to indicate that in this case the Liver in TCM represents not only the physical organ but also the functions as described by TCM, the channel of the Liver system, and also the emotional and spiritual energies of the Liver.