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DIET IN CHINESE MEDICINE

 

 

BASIC PRINCIPLES

 

The following notes provide a brief explanation of the ideas underlying dietary advice in Chinese Medicine.

The basic elements of good health as seen in Chinese Medicine can be summarised as follows:

 

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appropriate diet

 

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appropriate exercise

 

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the ability to relax and rest

 

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a certain calmness of mind

 

Medicine is important in correcting imbalances, relieving pain, assisting the mind-body to fight disease, and helping someone to get onto a new path. Yet it has a secondary role to play in maintaining health. How you live your life is ultimately far more important.

None of this will come as a surprise. The importance of lifestyle and mental attitude in reducing physical and mental stress and allowing us to stay healthy is now widely recognised, and a lot of recent health education looks pretty similar to the sorts of things that the Chinese tradition has been saying for 2000 years or more. However, that tradition can illuminate them in a different and powerful way.

In order to explain how diet fits into Chinese Medicine, it will be helpful to say a few words about Chinese Medicine in general.

 

YIN AND YANG

 

In the most general terms, any form of life depends on substance and activity.  Substance is Yin and activity is Yang.  Substance or Yin is the stuff our bodies are made of: bones, muscles, internal organs, blood vessels, nerves, fluid etc. Activity or Yang refers to movement or transformation, including the transformation required to repair and build body tissue.

The relationship between Yin and Yang is similar to that between the wax and the flame of a candle. The wax is the Yin aspect (the substance), the flame is the Yang (activity and heat). These two aspects depend on each other. You need wax to provide fuel for the flame, just as you need the substance of the body to provide energy for any sort of activity. Hence the wax/substance is consumed by the flame/activity. At the same time you need the flame/activity in order to create the changes needed to make and repair body tissue. Yin and Yang cannot exist without each other.
           
This comparison is not complete because a candle has a fixed amount of substance so that once the wax is consumed the candle dies. A human being takes in food and drink and air on a daily basis in order to keep the flame alive.  Still, human beings also have a limited life span: their substance gets worn down with age and the flame eventually goes out.

The way to maintain health and to live a long life (the ancient Chinese reckoned that 100 years was to be expected  if you lived in the right way) is to ensure that the balance between these two aspects is not upset. In order to maintain the Yin substance you need to get proper nourishment from food, with  sufficient rest and relaxation to help to replenish that substance.  In order to maintain the Yang you need a diet that is not too cloying and sufficient exercise to ensure that the dynamic aspect of your energy remains strong. If the Yin (nourishment) is too great relative to the Yang, the organism gets clogged up, the metabolism slows down: the flame is dampened. If the Yang is too strong relative to the Yin then the substance of the organism is depleted too quickly: the flame burns too fast. Either way the energy (Qi) is depleted and health begins to be damaged.

The aim of Chinese Medicine dietary advice and therapy, as of Chinese Medicine in general,  is to create a balance between substance and activity which will maximise the Qi/energy available for all life functions, and will ensure that it flows freely and does not get clogged up.

 

HOW CHINESE MEDICINE UNDERSTANDS DIGESTION

 

Digestion and absorption of food and drink depend primarily on the activity of the Stomach and Spleen. The function of the Stomach is to create a mash or soup -the first part of the whole process.  The function of the Spleen is to ‘transform and transport’. The Chinese Spleen is not the spleen of the western tradition. It is sometimes compared to the western pancreas, but it is more accurate to say that it refers to the general function  of absorbing and utilising food. The activity of the Spleen is therefore closely linked to the Intestines.

If the Stomach is out of order then you will have symptoms and signs such as indigestion, acid regurgitation, nausea and vomiting, stomach pain (in the centre under the ribs) or in the chest (so-called heartburn). If the Spleen is out of order then the typical symptoms may include tiredness (the energy from food is not being efficiently extracted and transported around the body), loss of appetite (absorption has slowed down), loose stools (food is inadequately digested), water retention (water is poorly transported) and bloated abdomen.  Someone with a weak Spleen will also tend to put on weight more easily.

Quite often a Spleen disorder will manifest as cravings for certain foods, especially cravings for refined sugar. This might seem to contradict the symptom of ‘poor appetite’, but this is only an apparent contradiction. In fact these cravings are a sign of a weakness in the process of ‘transformation and transportation’ -the energy is not getting to where it needs to get to and the body craves more nourishment. Someone with a strong Spleen will have a good appetite without a lot of sweet cravings, because a strong Spleen ensures that the whole organism is adequately nourished.

The strength and efficiency of this process can be affected  by a number of things, including a person’s emotional state, but the diet itself is very important. The aim of Chinese Medicine dietary advice--especially for people who have any sort of digestive weakness--is to encourage the consumption of those foods which will not only nourish the person but will tend to keep the digestion strong and thus ensure that food is efficiently transformed and transported. Types of food and patterns of eating which put a lot of strain on the Organs involved will in the long-run create a weakness in this area and lead to a kind of malnourishment. At the same time a weakened digestion means that a person will put on weight more easily. Thus it is perfectly possible--indeed it is a  common situation in our society--to be both poorly nourished and overweight. The answer is to provide more nourishment, taking care that the nature of the diet is not such as to clog up the digestion.

The same considerations apply when thinking about dieting. Chinese Medicine emphasises a balance in the qualities of foods, in order to improve the Qi and to prevent Qi from stagnating.  Rigorous dieting, in the sense of rapid reduction in calorie intake, is likely to be damaging in most cases. The digestive Organs, like all other functions, need Qi/energy. Crash dieting weakens them by depriving them of it. Of course you can lose weight that way in the short-run. But since the digestion is weakened by this process, you will put on weight more easily when you start to eat more normally.

 

DAMP, RAW AND COLD FOODS IN CHINESE MEDICINE

 

The foods which tend to weaken the Spleen and thus to damage the process of transformation and transportation are Damp, raw, and cold foods.

Foods with a Damp quality include: dairy produce; fats, oils and nuts; refined sugars and any very sweet foods (eg concentrated fruit juice); some grains (especially wheat). These are all nourishing foods providing high levels of energy, but if taken in excess they produce Dampness which  could manifest as an excess of fluid or phlegm or body fat, as fatigue, reduced appetite, loose stools, abdominal bloating and discomfort (in other words the symptoms associated with a weak Spleen).

In modern western societies raw foods are often seen as good because vitamins, minerals and enzymes are preserved and not destroyed by cooking. However, raw food puts more strain on the digestion. What is taken in should not be confused with what is assimilated. A raw carrot may contain a somewhat higher vitamin content than a lightly cooked carrot. But if the digestion is weak the net absorption of vitamins from a raw carrot may be less. In the long-run, and especially if there is any digestive weakness, the consumption of a lot of raw food will damage the digestion and lead to a less efficient assimilation of nutrients.

The process of transformation and transportation is a warm  process, and cold foods put more strain on it because the digestive Organs must first raise food to a temperature at which it can be digested and absorbed. Cold means food which either has a cold quality or which is cold in temperature. Examples of cold energy foods are melon, tomatoes, cucumber, apples, pears, lettuce. These tend to lower the body temperature even if they are not cold according to a thermometer reading. Hence it is a general principle of Chinese Medicine dietary advice to limit the amounts of cold food.

Raw and cold foods, as well as those foods which are described as Damp, also tend to generate Dampness, because they smother the ‘fire’ of the digestive process and reduce its efficiency. In terms of the Yin-Yang polarity, this means an excess of Yin over Yang. You need a lot of Yang to achieve the warm transformation involved in digestion, so you need sufficient warm foods to support it.
           
Foods which are both cold and damp eg ice cream, or which contain a lot of Damp substances eg pizza (tomato, cheese, wheat) come high in the league table of Damp foods.

 

THE WEAK SPLEEN AND OTHER IMBALANCES

 

The discussion above has emphasised the importance of maintaining a strong digestion and the problems associated with a weak Spleen. The weak Spleen is a widespread problem in modern societies, encouraged by an excessively rich diet as well as by extreme forms of dieting. However, other patterns are also common. For example, some people suffer from what is called Stomach Heat. This may be caused by overconsumption of Hot energy foods, for example spicy/hot food, fried foods, heavy red meats, alcohol or coffee. It can also be due to emotional/psychological stress which can lead to a Stagnation of the digestive energy, causing a build-up of Heat. Typical signs and symptoms may include burning stomach pains, bad breath, constipation, unusual thirst or hunger. This is a situation where an excess of Heat needs to be cooled down and a higher proportion of raw, cold foods would be OK. Inflammatory skin conditions, especially eczema, are often associated with this sort of Heat and many sufferers find that their skin is aggravated by Hot quality foods.

Another pattern which may be diet-related is called Blood Deficiency, which can include the symptoms of anaemia but which is not the same thing. Typical signs and symptoms of Blood deficiency may include: tiredness, pale complexion, dizzy spells, dry skin and hair, reduction or loss of menstrual flow, unusual tightness of muscles and tendons, anxiety and poor sleep. In this situation the Blood, which belongs to the Yin aspect, needs to be nourished. In the Chinese tradition animal foods are considered the richest source of Blood, hence those who are on a vegetarian or vegan diet need to take special care to ensure that the diet is not deficient in this respect.

 

A HEALTHY DIET

 

General advice on diet in Chinese Medicine is guided by the importance of maintaining a strong Spleen and avoiding the development of Damp. A preventative diet would therefore emphasise:

 

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relatively large amounts of grains, including rice, bread, pasta (rice is particularly good because it is easily digested and  slightly encourages urination, which helps to reduce Dampness) or other complex carbohydrates eg potatoes.

 

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relatively large amounts of lightly cooked vegetables.

 

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moderate amounts of fruit (if there is a digestive weakness then stewed fruit might be better, and concentrated fruit juices are to be avoided).

 

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moderate amounts of animal protein (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish, seafood) and eggs. (Most people would be OK with 2 oz  meat 3-4 times a week)

 

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very moderate amounts of dairy products (cheese, milk, cream, butter), oils and refined sugars. The more the person is affected by Dampness, the less of these should be consumed.

 

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spices (eg pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cloves) have a warm and pungent quality, hence they assist digestion and help to reduce Dampness. Garlic is very good for the same reason.

 

Beyond this the advice will depend on the individual's constitution and individual imbalances.

 

 

 

 

Birmingham Centre for Traditional Chinese Medicine Ltd. Directors:
M.R. Ehrenberg BA, PhD, LSSMDip, DipAc,MBAcC,CertAc(Kunming); N. Lampert BA, PhD, DipAc, MBAcC,CertAc(Nanjing)MRCHM; C. Wylde BA, DipAc, MBAcC, CertAc(Nanjing)