Chinese medicine concepts of food and energy
By Alex Tan
Summer is a yang season, a time for expansion, with the energy moving up and out with a lively brightness. Warm weather and long days promote energy and activity. Summer is a time of abundant foods, being the best time to get as much variety into the diet a possible. Time to eat foods that promote energy and activity as well as use cooling foods to balance the summer heat. Summer is the perfect time for spices, flowers and leaves that have a floating or outward energy.
A fundamental principle in Daoism and Chinese medicine is that we are a microcosm (humans) of the macrocosm (nature/universe) and the same imbalances that occur in the environment can be used to describe imbalances in the human being. This is a metaphysical theory to help us understand ourselves and our relationship with nature. The seasons are linked to the environmental elements: spring – wind; summer – heat; late summer – damp; autumn – dryness; winter – cold. Environment influence is one of the causes of imbalance, heat in the body is common in summer.
What does heat do inside our bodies?
Much like in the environment, heat rises and dries moisture, and causes us to seek out source of cold. Think of a desert (hot, dry) or a tropical jungle (hot, humid)… how do you feel in these environments?
What are some of the signs of excessive heat in our body?
A red face, red eyes or a bright red tongue with no coating or a yellow coating. Health issues associated with heat include, heat exhaustion, fever, irritability, restlessness, insomnia, high blood pressure, acne, skin eruption, nose bleed, constipation, thick or yellow phlegm, headache, excessive eating, shortness of breath, or wheezing.
What can we do about heat in our bodies?
We can use knowledge of dietary therapy to tilt our diet slightly in the other direction. The more extreme our imbalance the more strong the corrective tilt can be. But remember, dietary remedies need to be gentle.
For example, if the tip of your tongue is red, we say in TCM there is too much Heart-fire. To clear the heart fire, we could cook mung-bean (lu dou) soup or mung-bean desert with rock sugar. Mung beans have very strong cold energy, so it I important not to eat them too regularly. Check your tongue and if the tip isn’t red any more, you’ve had enough mung beans and you will be able to sleep more easily.
Which foods should we avoid in summer if we have heat?
Some foods increase heat in the body and other reduce heat. Red meat and chicken increase heat in our bodies and foods that reduce heat include zucchini, celery, citrus fruit, soy product and kelp. If you suffer from rashes avoid food that have a strong outward action, including chicken, prawns, lobster, muscles, spicy or fried food, peanuts and alcohol.
Dampness in the body is always associated with the Spleen and it may be influenced by the weather in summer, particularly when it is humid. The spleen is pivotal in the proper function of the digestive system, and if food and drink are not digested properly then it will be left to stagnate and over time this mess forms damp and phlegm throughout the body.
What causes dampness in our bodies?
Dampness is the most common developed world disorder and comes from the failure to burn off and transform moisture in our bodies. Dampness is often the result of over-nutrition, overeating, over-thinking/processing, and under-exercising. The key to avoiding dampness is not to eat too many of the wrong type of foods. We must also remember, even the right food can cause damp if you overeat. Adequate exercise is essential to avoid dampness as movement of the body greatly assists digestion and the burning off process. If there are signs of damp, we need to avoid eating too much raw, cold, sweet or rich food and the over consumption of fluids. Some foods are particularly dampening:
Dairy products, pork and rich meat, peanut, concentrated juice especially orange and tomato, wheat bread, yeast, beer, bananas, sugar and sweetener, saturated fats.
What are the signs of dampness in our body?
Think of how you feel in a tropical jungle or hot and humid weather, we would feel heavy, tired, sluggish and muzzy headed. Dampness can manifest as fluid retention/imbalances, excessive weight, plaque, cysts, or anything with mucus or puss. Bitter foods are useful to remove damp. Try celery, asparagus and lettuce, though they should be eaten only in small amounts if you are weak or deficient. If there are signs of heat as well, try peppermint, chamomile or radish.
Depression can occur when damp turns into phlegm. Phlegm causes everything it surrounds to slow down and become clouded. The effect can include dizziness, poor memory and concentration, feeling numb or being unable to express emotion. In the Heart, dampness and mucus can stifle circulation giving rise to drooling, sudden movement and talking to yourself.
The Organs of summer
The organs that correspond with summer are the Heart (yin) and the Small intestine (yang) and in late summer, the Spleen (yin) and Stomach (yang). The Heart’s physical function is controlling blood circulation and the blood vessels, however, the Heart is also believed to control consciousness, sleep and memory and provide a haven for the spirit, or the shen. People with healthy Hearts are very aware of the world around them without being overwhelmed by it and they are able to come up with solutions to problems. If the Heart yin (Heart-Kidney relationship) is not strong, shen escapes from it’s stable base in the Heart and flies to the head, where thoughts rush around uncontrolled. Over time, this causes worry, insomnia, irregular heartbeat or wild dreams.
How can we take care of our Heart in summer?
The best way to treat and support the Heart with diet is often indirectly, through either calming or supporting other organs that may be out of balance. This is one more reason to eat widely in summer. The spleen and stomach are essential and sensitive in every season of the year and if you generally nurture this earth element, you build the central foundation and avoid any major imbalances related to diet. We also need to take good care of the ‘digestive-fire’, the metaphorical fire under the pot (stomach) that cooks and transforms the food into useable energy. This is why Chinese medicine advocates three cooked meals a day based on cooked grains, cooked vegetables and small amounts of meat and spices for enjoyment for most people. Most civilised cultures in the world came to the same conclusions.
How do we know when the Heart may be out of balance?
The health of the Heart shows up in our facial complexions. The emotions directly related to the Heart are joy and happiness. Check the general condition of the tongue because the Heart opens to the tongue, especially the tip of the tongue. Imbalances of the Heart can lead to a scattered confused mind, either too much or no laughter, a very red or very pale face, speech problems such as a stutter or verbal diarrhoea, depression, mental illness, loss of memory, poor circulation, a weak spirit, or an aversion to heat.
You mentioned the spleen and stomach related to late summer, how does that affect what we should eat?
It is important to look after the spleen/stomach in every season but be particularly careful in the changeover of season at the end of summer. The external damp environment places extra stress on the spleen/stomach, and it is wise to avoid the wrong foods and too much food. Problems that are most common with excessive damp in the body include being overweight, general heaviness, oily skin or phlegm. Anxiety, worry and obsession are all linked to the spleen and can harm the digestive process. This can manifest in the body as poor digestion, flabbiness, chronic tiredness, nausea, insensitive taste buds, loose stool or undigested food in the stool, abdominal digestion, poor appetite and blood sugar imbalances. There is also a tendency to have a sloppy appearance and accumulate things. A healthy spleen and digestive system encourage people to be practical, caring, self reliant and creative.
Check for clues about the function of your spleen in the quality of your flesh, the lips, circulation to hands/feet and if you bruise easily.
Flavours of summer – Bitter & sweet
Bitter (fire) and sweet (earth) are the flavours of summer. They are connected to the Heart and Spleen respectively.
Bitter is yin, cooling, descending and contracting. It reduces excess such as heat and dries and drains dampness. Bitter flavours ease inflammation and infections. Bitter reduces swelling and encourages bowel movement, so is good news for people trying to lose weight, especially for those with heat. For the Heart, bitter clears heat and removes damp and mucus in the arteries, which helps lower blood pressure. However, the descending and cooling nature of bitter means it shouldn’t be overdone in summer, unless you have a lot of fire. Bitter foods include dandelion, yarrow, chamomile, alfalfa, bitter melon, lettuce and rye. Asparagus, lettuce and papaya are bitter and sweet.
Sweet is yang, moves up and out and is linked to the spleen. Sweet foods build and strengthen the spleen and ultimately the entire body. They provide energy and, simultaneously, have a slowing and relaxing effect, build the yin (tissue and fluids) and alleviate weakness and deficiency. Sweet slows an overactive heart and mind, soothes aggressiveness and eases impatience.
So sweet foods are good for us?
Be careful when thinking all sweet foods are good for us as they provide the spleen with Qi. In excess the sweet flavour leads to the formation of phlegm and often heat. Any excess of sweet should be avoided in damp conditions. The sweeter the food, the more likely it is to create damp. Refined sweets, sugars, concentrated juices and fruits are what we call ‘empty sweet’ and are considered more cooling and cleansing. ‘Full sweet’ flavours that nourish us at a deeper level include most cooked grains, cooked vegetables and meats. Think about legumes, nuts, oats, rice, peas, peaches, avocado, kiwifruit and cucumber. ‘Full sweet’ foods are considered tonifying and strengthening. When we are craving sweet foods we should be thinking about the ‘full sweet’ food to satisfy the body, otherwise we can get into a vicious cycle of destructive sugar dependence which ill not allow proper functioning of the digestive system.
So what to eat in summer?
Foods that strengthen and support the Heart, cool the symptoms of summer heat, nourish the Kidney, boost the spleen and dry damp are the best choices for summer. The heat of summer makes hard work for the digestive system, so there should be a predominance of light and easy to digest foods. Heat producing foods should be eaten only in small amounts. Remember to think about the ingredients in a meal, the season and your on personal needs.
Example 1 – Naturally strong build, physically active, showing signs of heat and excess
These people often already eat a lot of meat, so it may be best to cut down on red meat in summer. An increase in the amount of fruit, cooked vegetable and grain eaten in summer will help deal with heat and benefit the Heart and spleen. Other ways to balance a meat meal are to add cardamom to the cooking process, avoid burning (bbq, grilling) the meat and include cooling foods as part of the meal.
Example 2 – Thin, weaker build, sensitive to cold
Can use summer to put more energy and activity in the body. Eat more warming foods, such as small amounts of beef to give a boost to the system. Minimise cold or raw foods as you need to put more yang energy in the body.
What are some foods that specifically clear heat in summer?
Avocado, asparagus, aubergine, bamboo shoot, banana, egg white, grapefruit, lemon, kiwifruit, mulberry, peach, pineapple, strawberry, watermelon, alfalfa, asparagus, barley, celery, crabmeat, cucumber, lettuce, millet, mung-bean, peppermint, potato, radish, salt, tofu, tomato, watercress and heat.
Sounds like the time to eat salads?
Salads are best eaten when the weather is hot but they need to be well chewed. Since raw foods take more energy to be broken down, consider whether you have energy to spare. Exercise creates more heat in the body, so if you exercise a lot, your digestive system will have more heat. If you have a strong build and show other signs of internal heat, such as a loud voice and a red face, salads will help you during summer. However, if you are deficient, weak, flabby or very thin, with a pale tongue or a white tongue coating, it’s best not to eat salad with raw or cold vegetables too regularly because they can cause cold and damp within the body. A more suitable choice for you would be lightly stir -frying vegetables and adding a little water or stock.
More Chinese Medicine ideas for summer?
- When cooking mung beans, you can counteract their very cold nature by adding black pepper, ginger or cumin, for the lat 30 min of cooking.
- In summer when the digestive system can be overheated, use cardamom. Cardamom I especially good for barbeques because it clears the digestive system of blockage caused by heat. As it is ‘fired’ food, barbeques should be avoided by people with excess heat (indicated by a red tongue).
- Get rid of summer phlegm with strawberries, string bean or radish. For a dry cough use mangoes or asparagus.
- Watermelon is known as a natural white tiger, because of it heat clearing properties. Melons are provided by nature in summer to help clear heat.
- Even in summer, people with damp should mostly eat cooked meals, (avoid deep fried foods) and use fruit as snacks between meals.
- Too much sweetness can weaken the bones and make the hair fall out.
- Some foods, including oats and celery, have a calming effect on hypertension and will be helpful in managing stress.
- Relaxing will improve digestion, and improving digestion will help you to relax. It doesn’t matter which you start with, just start.
- Fatty foods are usually too heavy for summer.
- Most foods contain more than one flavour, but the refining process removes other flavours from refined sweets. Refined sweets are not balanced by other flavours so, if taken in excess, they go directly to the spleen and send it into overdrive. This creates more dampness and ultimately more fat.
- The spleen and stomach work best with a diet of warm natured, freshly cooked, mainly seasonal vegetables and cooked grains… eaten warm. Cold and raw foods and drinks make the stomach work hard to warm it contents before digestion can start.
- Aim for warm feet and cool head.
- If you have a problem with energy and motivation, your kidneys could probably use a boost. Rice with Kidney beans and vegetables should help.
- When smaller amounts of food are eaten, less qi is used in digestion and therefore you’ll have more energy.
- Green tea in summer
Alex Tan – TCM Practitioner & Educator
“unlike the wayward man, the bamboo grows straight”