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Chinese Traditional Medicine and the healing energies, flavours and movements of food

If you are familiar with how Bee Loved came to be, you’ll know our founder, Mercedes Varona, is an experienced acupuncturist and herbalist who has worked with traditional medicines for many, many years.

Creating the Bee Loved Skincare range was a wonderful opportunity to bring the magnificent healing benefits of plants and herbs to a wider audience, particularly given so many people suffer from sensitive and dry skin, and also difficult to treat skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea.

Yet caring for skin must also come from within, which is why this month’s blog focuses on the energies, flavours and movement of food for healing.

Before we begin, it is important to understand that this blog post provides a very broad explanation on this topic, and it is not intended for use as a tool for self-treatment. Our future blog posts will explore further natural and traditional medicines and healing approaches, where you can learn more about this fascinating topic from a personal interest point of view.

Eastern approaches to food

The first thing to understand about the Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM) approach to food, is that it differs from a western approach that is focused on protein, calories, carbohydrates, vitamins and nutrients. The CTM approach considers foods for their flavours, energies, movements, and actions that food has on the body.

In practice, that means that if you feel cold, you would eat something to warm you, or if you have an upset stomach (considered feeling weak), you would eat something to make your stomach stronger.

The flavours of foods

CTM considers that there are five flavours of food:

  • Pungent: coriander, chive, parsley and green onion
  • Sweet: sugar, chestnut cherry and banana
  • Sour: lemon, pear, plum and mango
  • Bitter: lettuce, hops and vinegar
  • Salty: salt, kelp and seaweed

In CTM, flavours have an important impact on the body’s internal organs. For example, sweet foods can act on the stomach and the spleen to improve digestive functions, while salty flavoured foods can have an effect on the kidneys and bladder.

The energies of food

In CTM, there are also considered to be five energies of food, which determine their ability to create a sensation in the body – either hot or cold.

An easy reference is to think of drinking a warm cup of hot water that makes you feel warm, while eating ice can make you feel cold. However, it is important to remember that if something is hot right now (for example a cup of tea), it doesn’t necessarily mean it has a hot energy when absorbed by the body.

The five energies of food are:

  • Cold: bamboo shoots, banana, clams, crabs, lettuce, seaweed, salt and watermelon
  • Hot: black pepper, ginger (dried), green and red pepper, white pepper
  • Warm: chicken, clove, coconut, coffee, coriander, dates
  • Cool: apple, cucumber, mung bean, spinach, strawberries
  • Neutral: apricot, corn, crab apples, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes

The energies of food play a significant role in helping to act on the body in specific ways. For example, if someone experiences what is considered cold arthritic pain that is particularly bad on cold days, then foods with a warm or hot energy can be useful.

Foods however only provide temporary effects and as a result, herbs are used to provide a longer lasting impact on the body.

The movement of food

In CTM, food is also considered to move in different directions in the body, with some moving up, others down, while some move inwards and others out:

  • Moving inward: provides relief from abdominal swelling (banana)
  • Moving outward: brings on perspiration and reduces fever (peppermint)
  • Moving upwards: can help relieve diarrhoea (wine)
  • Moving downwards: eases vomiting and asthma (salt)

The movement of foods in the body works in conjunction with two addition categories that either facilitate the movement of food (known as “glossy” foods, such as honey and spinach) or slow down the movement of food (known as “obstructive” foods such as guava and olives).

Depending on how food is prepared, its movement can be affected too. For example, when vinegar is used to prepare foods, the food can become obstructive, while salt used in food preparation can cause foods to move downwards.

The movement of foods in the body is also associated with the season. Where types of foods are better consumed at a certain time of the year to have the right impact on the body.

  • Eat foods with upward movement in the spring: typically, these foods are associated with a neutral energy and a pungent, sweet or bitter flavour such as apricot, beef, beetroot, duck, grapes, pineapples, kidney beans and sweet potato.
  • Eat foods with an outward movement in the summer: associated with hot energy and pungent or sweet flavours such as black pepper, green and red pepper and soybean oil.
  • Eat foods with a downward movement in autumn: these foods have three energies that are cold, cool or warn, and two flavours, sweet and sour, such as apples, banana, clams, eggplants, lettuce, strawberries and watermelon.
  • Eat foods with an inward movement in winter: these have a cold energy and salty or bitter flavours such as clams, crabs, lettuce, salt and seaweed.

Bringing this all together, the CTM approach is that someone experiencing symptoms should be treated according to the energy, flavour and movement of foods that are associated with their symptoms or condition. Eating with the seasons also brings your body into harmony with nature, which ensures that your body receives the right nutrients to build your wellbeing for that time of year, and the season ahead.

The actions of food

Each different food has an action on different parts of the body and flavours and energies contribute to these actions.  For example:

  • Heart: green pepper, mung bean, adzuki bean, watermelon.
  • Kidneys: chive, freshwater clams, plums, salt, pork, star anise.
  • Liver: brown sugar, crab, leeks, peppermint, vinegar.
  • Lungs: carrot, coriander, crab apple, olive, peanuts, pears.
  • Stomach: barley, brown sugar, radish, cucumber, crab, salt, watermelon.

Therefore, when looking to have a specific action on the body, a CTM practitioner would consider the action of the food and the association it has with the body. For example:

  • Brown sugar can be used to promote blood circulation
  • Garlic can be used to promote energy circulation
  • Cucumber can be used to quench thirst
  • Guava can be used to relieve diarrhoea
  • Honey can be used to relieve pain
  • Freshwater clams can be used to sharpen the vision

In general, CTM espouses a balanced diet for good health that is rich in a variety of foods with different flavours, energies and actions, while also being attuned to your specific needs and constitution.

While this blog was developed to provide a brief insight into the energies, flavours and actions of different foods, you should never alter your diet without the advice of your health care practitioner that is based on your own unique situation.

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