Prepare your body for spring with help from theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine!
Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, will fall on January 29 this year, hearkening the return of the spring season.
In the Chinese lunar calendar, there are twenty-four divisions in a year, marked by six solar terms in each season. Spring starts from the first day of first solar term, called (aptly), “Beginning of Spring.” It then proceeds through “Rain Water,” “Waking of Insects,” “Spring Equinox,” “Pure Brightness,” and ends on the last day of of the sixth solar term, “Great Rain.” This year’s spring season will last from February 4th to May 4th.
It is good to know what the parameters of each season are, because adjusting your diet according to the phases of the lunar calendar can be an effective strategy in preventing diseases and curing illnesses. Continue reading to see how dietary theories in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help you maintain a healthy living.
The Importance of Seasonal Eating
The most important principle of healthy eating is to keep in harmony with natural Qi and our own inner physiological cycles. A diet that harmonizes with natural Qi will enhance one’s flow of Qi and harmonize the functional activities of all organs. A diet that is not in harmony with the movements of nature will drain one’s Qi and bring about diseases.
From an ecological view, seasons are considered a source of natural diversity. Changes in growing conditions from spring to summer, and restraining conditions from fall to winter are essential for balancing the Earth’s resources and its life forms. In other words, within the Yin-Yang theory of Chinese philosophy, a person’s Yang Qi in spring becomes dynamic and vigorous. So it brings about conditions favourable to growth for living beings.
Therefore, physiological changes in the human body correspond with this natural diversity. In spring season, Qi movement in the body tends to be upwards and outwards.
According to TCM theory, the liver/gallbladder acts as the “little general” of the Qi, directing its smooth and proper movement. In five elements theory, the spring season and the liver organ are governed by the “wood” element. (Ed: In Ontario, the sap rising in the maple trees can be equated with the Qi rising in the liver in spring.)
To keep in harmony with this nature, spring cuisine should include foods that promote and assist Qi movement upwards and outwards, while avoiding foods that impair Yang Qi or sap the Qi movement.
In Chinese medicine theory the universe provides all food with its nature and flavours to meet human physiological needs. Food “nature” refers to the Cold, Hot, Warm, or Cool aspect. Cold- or Cool- nature foods have the effect of clearing Heat, purging Fire, removing toxic substance, nourishing Yin and suppressing Yang. On the other hand, Warm- or Hot-natured foods usually disperse Cold, warm up the body’s interior and support Yang energy. In addition to these four natures is a fifth, the neutral or mild one. When a food is neither Hot nor Cold in nature, it is said to be Neutral. Every food has its nature. For example, in the case of meat, pork is considered as “cold,” lamb is considered as “hot,” and beef is considered as “warm.”
In addition, food flavouring refers to the various tastes: pungent, sweet, sour, bitter, salty, tasteless, and astringent. The first five tastes are the cardinal flavours of food and are commonly known as “the five flavours.” In the theory of attribution of five flavours, different flavouring may affect the different organs’ functions, and have different actions.
For example, sour taste is attributed to the liver so overeating food with sour taste may impair liver’s function. Foods of sweet and pungent flavour, which induce perspiration, are attributive to Yang. Foods of sour and bitter taste, which accelerate bowel movements, are nourishing to Yin energy.
In the spring season, eating certain kinds of food with sweet and pungent flavours and mild warm or neutral nature may promote Qi movement upwards and outward and keep the body in harmony with natural Qi.
Principles of Selecting Food
1. In the spring season, the main foods should be those with sweet taste. Sweet foods have the effects of enhancing Qi, nourishing, replenishing, tonifying or enriching organs, and normalizing the function of stomach and spleen. In spring season, we should eat more sweet taste foods to keep in harmony with growing conditions of natural Qi. Sweet taste foods include honey, sweet fruits, nuts, yams, sweet vegetables such as carrots and potatoes, and sweet cereals such as corn, rice and millet.
2. Eat the proper amount of foods with a pungent taste. Pungent foods can aid perspiration and promote Qi movement upwards and outwards. Pungent foods include scallion, onion, garlic, ginger, radish, daikon, leek and chives.
3. Eat foods in season. Foods produced in season and locally, will mostly meet the body’s needs – as opposed to foods harvested in different seasons; even different months. In Ontario, February foods include potatoes and onions. March foods include leeks and cabbage. April foods include radish, cauliflower and lettuce. May foods include asparagus, celery and spinach.
4. Avoid overeating foods with sour taste and cold nature. Sourness acts as an astringent, attributed to liver. Overeating food with sour taste may impair the liver’s function, resulting in liver Qi stagnation. Many kinds of diseases or illness are related with liver Qi stagnation, such as depression, digestive problems, pain-symptom’s diseases, menstruation problems. Sour taste foods include lemon, pomegranate, black plum, grapefruit, unripe tomatoes, and unripe orange and tangerine fruit. Foods with a cold nature may suppress Yang Qi. Cold foods include watermelon, bamboo sprout, pear.
5. Apply a medicinal diet. People easily get sick during the seasonal change from winter to spring, because the body is still adjusting to the weather change at beginning. When spring is arriving, utilizing a medicated diet to detoxify is a good way to prevent infectious diseases and dermopathy. Later in this article, I will introduce different herb teas for treating and preventing seasonal diseases.
Eating in spring should follow these principles in selecting food. However, it is necessary to be flexible using the principles according to one’s body constitution, age, and disease. For example, diabetes patients should limit sweet food. And for those with a Yang excess body constitution, it is not suitable to tonify yang Qi. For example, those with skin itching problems should avoid pungent food such as scallion, garlic, onion, chili and seafood such as shrimp.(Editor’s note: Many westerners who live in cities have excess Yang Qi due to stressful urban lifestyles. Symptoms are high blood pressure, skin problems, night sweats, headaches, angry constitution, red face, etc., which indicates a “hot” constitution. So these people should avoid “hot” foods at all times, including beef, lamb, shrimp, hot spices, and ginsengs from Asia. On the other hand, people with cold constitutions should avoid cold foods most of the time, including tofu, dairy products, watermelon and other cold fruits. To get a diagnosis of your constitution, see a Chinese medicine specialist.)
Best Food for Spring
1. Fruits and nuts: Apples, dates, lychees, longans, walnuts, peanuts, chestnuts.
2. Cereals, grains, and legumes: Rice, corn, millet, oatmeal, sorghum, soybeans, black gram, adzuki bean, red kidney bean, broad bean.
3. Meat, poultry and fish: Hen, turkey, rabbit meat, shrimp, crucian carp, eel, chicken egg, goose egg.
4. Vegetables, seaweeds, and mushrooms: Potatoes, onions, carrots, chives, scallions, radishes, daikon, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, cooked spinach, coriander, cauliflower, garlic, leeks, eggplants, Chinese cabbage, wax gourds, yams, sweet potatoes, celery, common mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, white wood ears, black wood ears.
5. Herbs, spices, condiments, oils: Perilla leaf, peppermint, dandelion, honeysuckle flower, basil, parsley, wolfberry, fleece-flower root, liquorice, astragalus, rhubarb, ginger, pepper, honey, sesame oil
Application of A Medicinal Diet
A medicinal diet is often used during seasonal changes. According to individual needs, select one or two of the following herb formulas to prevent disease and strengthen immunity. It is necessary to take this for 3 to 7 days to get positive results.
1. Soup of astragalus and black gram (Makes 1 serving).
Function and Indication: Replenishing Qi. Treats perspiration or night sweating, fatigue, frequent colds.
Ingredients: astragalus root 30 grams, black gram 60 grams, Salt to taste.
Preparation: Place ingredients in a pot with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, keeping the pot partially covered, until black gram is very soft. Strain out Astragalus and add salt. Take soup warm.
2. Herb tea for reducing cholesterol and slimming (1 serving).
Function and Indication: Strengthens liver and kidney, treats overweight, hypertension, high cholesterol.
Ingredients: Rhubarb 5 grams, fleece-flower root 15 grams, astragalus root 15 grams, lotus leaf 8 grams.
Preparation: place ingredients in a pot with 2 cups water, bring to boil, and reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out herbs. Serve herb tea warm.
3. Herb tea for preventing colds (makes 1 serving).
Function and indication: dispersing cold. It treats those who are prone to catching colds, and feel chills, sneezing, stuffy nose.
Ingredients: Perilla leaf 30 grams, fresh ginger root 5 slices, brown sugar to taste (optional).
Preparation: place ingredients in a pot with 2 cups water, bring to boil, and reduce heat to simmer for 10 minutes. Strain out herb. Drink tea warm.
4. Herb tea for detoxifying and preventing infectious diseases (makes 4 servings for the whole family).
Function and Indication: clears heat and toxic material. It treats sore throat, skin rash, and is used to prevent upper respiratory tract infection, mumps, chickenpox, and shingles.
Ingredients: Honeysuckle flower 30 gram, chrysanthemum flower 30 grams, peppermint 30 grams, Lophatherum 30 grams, Cogongrass rhizome 30 grams.
Preparation: Place ingredients in a pot with 6 cups water, bring to boil, and reduce heat to simmer for 15 minutes, cook down to 4 cups of liquid. Drink 1 cup daily for 3-5 days.Yuxiang Wang, CMD, was born in China. She graduated from the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine with a Bachelor’s degree in TCM in 1983. In 1986, she took her Masters Degree in Gynecology of TCM. She has been practising and teaching Chinese medicine for 23 years. In recent years, she has maintained a private practice in Toronto and teaches TCM for several Chinese medicine programs. Her new book “Handbook of Pediatric Chinese Dietary Therapy” is soon to be published by PublishAmerica. Yuxiang Wang can be reached at The Herb Fragrance Oriental Healing Center, 2951 Lakeshore Blvd West in Etobicoke. For appointments phone (416) 354-2045.