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Chinese Medicinal Thought
Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine
Winter Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(4) page(s): 36 and 37
From remains excavated in China, archaeologists believe people probably inhabited what is now China at least one million years ago. They know that from items such as the fossil remains of Pekin man. They were found near the country's current capital and are said to belong to the Pleistocene era, an epoch some two and half million years ago or thereabouts.
There are early writings indicating food is medicine. These, determined less than five thousand years ago, show one or more early Emperors tasting many plants almost daily to see which ones had which effects. From these experiences and other experiments, they believed stomach and spleen important organs. When not feeling well, they paid attention to their bodies and found some foods made them feel better, others that had the opposite effect. They asked which ones and why?
Fu Xi, one of China's early rulers, figured out there was a duality, now called yin and yang. It is thought his thinking may have taken place seven thousand years ago. Legend has it he and another emperor taught the Chinese to fish with nets and hunt with weapons–-probably spears. His duality was the foundation of what we now know as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
We consider Fu Xi, Shen Nong, and Huang Di, the latter also known as the Yellow Emperor, founders of China's medicinal thinking. One or more of them tested and tasted many herbs and other plant foods to determine their medicinal effects. They may have died of self-inflicted poisoning as they learned and recorded what they ate and what these plants did to their bodies. Information about them was once thought legendary, now things are beginning to confirm these people and these notions.
The Book of Rites, written in late Western Han Dynasty times (206 BCE - 24 CE) says, among other things, people should not get a sickness in the stomach. Many early theories of illness are now credited to Yi He such as the six causes or excesses in yin-yang, wind-rain, and darkness-brightness. These are similar but not identical to the six characteristics or external elements of wind, coldness, summer heat, dampness, dryness, and hotness spoken about today.
The Nei Ching or the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, probably written by a group of TCM or medical practitioners and not one emperor, reflects health thinking in these early times. One thing it says is that a 'cold' disease should be treated by 'hot' herbs, a 'hot' one by 'cold' plants. It also says that 'pungent and sweet herbs' will disperse internal energy, 'sour and bitter' ones cause diarrhea. Incidentally, the latter are yin herbs, the former yang ones. Elsewhere, it says energy is yang and flavor is yin, and that yin travels inward and downward towards the internal organs.
The Chinese system of food cures is derived from things found in the Nei Ching. So are the seven emotions, sometimes called the seven internal causes of disease. They are: anger, anxiety, excitement, fear, grief, longing, and shock when it is overwhelming. Any or all of these disturb one's qi and internal organs. They can negatively impact blood circulation.
TCM practitioners look at the internal organs of heart, kidney, liver, lung, and spleen. Their pathology and symptoms influence the six climactic or external elements. As the qi of the stomach descends and the qi of the spleen ascends, these organs affect others. Transportation and transform essences, they say, are responsible for proper digestion of food.
If one is under stress, loses appetite, or has no desire to eat, this can be damp-heat in the stomach, a stomach-yin deficiency usually with empty heat. Excessive hunger indicates stomach-heat. Feelings of fullness, stuffiness, and heaviness are not considered good.
In early days, TCM practitioners looked at imbalances. They were concerned about taste sensations and deemed sweet ones as spleen deficiency or damp-heat, sour ones as retention of food in the stomach, salty ones as kidney deficiency with fluids rising to the mouth, and pungent tastes as lung- or stomach-heat. A sticky taste was said to be dampness or phlegm in the digestive system.
In 610 CE, Chao Yuan Fang and other Imperial doctors used these and other thoughts to compile the General Treatise on Causes and Symptoms of Disease. This volume is about sixty-seven diseases and one thousand seven hundred causes, but it offers no treatment suggestions. Later, the Theory of Febrile Diseases does discuss disease diagnosis and cause and treatment, too. His later volume includes three hundred curative recipes.
Not all Chinese medicines nor all diseases are related to one or more specific foods, though some are. In a chapter in Han Wen Jia, roasted mud-coated raw meat is said to prevent some abdominal diseases. In the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, the seven emotions impact the internal organs and allow pathogens to degrade health. These influence the six climactic elements and in turn spread what we now call disease.
Confused? You are not alone. That is why TCM practitioners recommend a person not treat themselves, buy rather consult a trained professional. Furthermore, treatments can vary from place to place, even decade to decade. So do foods recommended for treating one or another of these diseases.
An example can be conditions and foods a TCM practitioner in Singapore might recommend that are different from those recommended in Sichuan or Shaoxing. Then there is how much and how to make the medications. These, too, need professional consultation. Hence, if you have a health condition, the best advise, Chinese or western, is to consult a licensed medical or TCM doctor.
Here is an example for weak blood In Singapore. The TCM practitioner might suggest eating pig blood, dried longon, and/or lotus root soup made with dried squid. For a weak body, the suggestion could be to eat mutton soup, chicken egg, tiger bone wine, sea cucumber, and/or honey. For kidney ailments, they might advise including young deer antler, chestnuts, frog, and/or fowl in the diet, but made a special way. Coughs or flu conditions can require almonds, water chestnuts, garlic juice, bird's nest soup, and/or white fungus; and for fever they might treat it with barley water, American ginseng, rhinoceros horn, watermelon, and/or coconut juice. For loss of virility their suggestions could be shrimp, pigeon, sheep kidney, reindeer horn, and/or stout. If consulting a TCM doctor in Guangzhou, the foods could be different. Why? Because climate and foods differ place to place.
Overall, when a condition is deemed hot or cold, the medical person will suggest consuming foods of the alternate category; that is hot foods for cold conditions. In Singapore, these could be durian, mutton, beef, chicken, pigeon, eggplant, chili pepper, mango, lychee, apricot, oatmeal, and tangerine. When cold foods are needed for hot conditions, in Singapore they might suggest leafy vegetables, ripe bananas, so beans, bean sprouts, cucumber, papaya, lotus root, radish, pineapple, orange, and water chestnut. The recommendations do vary in colder climates, those more humid, etc.
If one cooks a food a certain way, that preparation technique can increase or decrease its 'heating' or 'cooling' effects. Deep-fat frying, for example, can make hot foods hotter while steaming or boiling them will have the opposite effect. That said, a trained TCM professional is a must in order to be assured that the condition, the food, and how they are prepared match the location and the condition correctly.
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