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Chinese Herbal Information
Food as Herbs, Health, and Medicine
Fall Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(3) page(s): 15 - 18
No Chinese person questions if Pekin man was the earliest human found. Nor do they wonder if he was first located in a cave near Beijing at Chou Kou Tien. So why do they wonder if he used herbs? Have they figured out which ones were good for him? Do they question what he needed to eat and drink? Do they know the healthy plants and animals he needed to survive?
The first humans, after the first humanoids about whom we know little, quickly learned the items that were not good for them. They quickly learned the foods to make them feel better when they felt awful. Early on, they must have used some of them for healing. Many believe the early traditional dishes man did prepare may have healed his ills, may be even prevented specific ill feelings we now call diseases. This may not have been food by food but may have been by combinations of foods.
Some say early man learned from early medical practitioners. However, how did they figure things out? Where did they get their information from? Clearly man did expand his knowledge, and we know of one valuable source, the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine. That was published during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE), and if you believe this Yellow Emperor, now called Shen Nong, you know he learned by trial and error. he tested items on himself every day of every week.
In this Yellow Emperor’s volume, one chapter discusses the importance of balancing foods, that is eating a large variety of foods for health to do so. We think this medical know-how, but it is not.
At the end of the Han Dynasty, another book from which early man learned about foods and health is Shen Nong's Herbal Essentials. Perhaps related to the first one, from it, man learned even more. This information was passed person to person. Later still, in the Effective Emergency Treatments do discuss foods that treat specific illnesses, illnesses we now call diseases. The Chinese call them 'conditions.'
Clearly, the Chinese have a long history of thinking and practicing which foods have which kind of value. While the origins of these thoughts may be lost to history, the information is not.
If Pekin man was alive today, he could be an expert about the many foods people consume. Another early book, Huai Nan Taoist, written some time around the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE), matches some information in the Yellow Emperor's Classic. It tells us that the actual Yellow Emperor tested and tasted about a hundred plants a day to learn their impact. A common tale told, is that he, Emperor Shen Nong, claimed to be poisoned some seventy times a day. Many Chinese believe that; do you?
While early Chinese did know the health attributes of many foods, did they know which ones to call medicinal or herbal, and which ones to call foods? They did not care about these differences because they believed that all foods are medicine or what we say today, they are herbal, and all medicines or herbs are foods. Many say they knew that different foods have different impacts on things such as a person’s disposition. They knew what strengthened the body. They wanted to know what helped a person live longer. Emperors and ordinary people spent a lot of energy looking for foods and herbs that would lengthen life. How did they do this? By observing what others ate and what they themselves ate.
Passed on to modern generations, almost all Chinese believe that all things ingested are based upon the five-element concept or theory that categorizes the five tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and pungent with foods classified as hot, warm, neutral, cool, and cold.
Early on and now, Traditional Chinese Medicinal practitioners, we call them TCM doctors, ask many questions of their patients. They want to know the foods they eat, what they look like, and many other aspects of health. Many want to know if a person does thirst easily and often? They inquire if they like warm drinks? They want to understand if their throat is dry or their mouth has bitter tastes? They always want to observe a patient's tongue. Have you looked at yours in a mirror recently?
There are many other questions they use to assess health and disposition including if the tongue has blisters. If yes, then they believe a person probably has a hot disposition and needs to eat neutral, cool, or cold foods. They often ask a follow-up question such as: Does the person like hot or warm liquids more than cool or cold ones? Are their extremities cold? They want to look and see if the face is pale, if the person feels cold or has pain after eating cold foods? If yes, then they believe this person probably has a cold disposition, and they know foods that go well with this disposition. They also know which ones increase or decrease these symptoms.
As traditional Chinese medicine advanced, its practitioners believed that cold or cool foods belong to yin, hot or warm ones to yang. Reading the Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine written by the Emperor, also known as Hunag Di, the Chinese learned that illness is a disturbance of this yin and yang balance.
Today’s TCM practitioners prescribe a hot remedy for someone with a cold disposition or illness to bring the body back into balance or equilibrium. They prescribe a diet that maintains balance between hot and cold, also known as yin and yang. They say this prevents illness, strengthens the body, and maintains health. They believe overactive yin induces weakness of yang, while overactive yang does the reverse.
A good TCM practitioner provides a therapeutic diet to return the body to health and balance providing needed nutrients, strengthening the body, treating the internal organs, strengthening the immune system, and preventing further weakness. They also believe these improvements increase longevity. They counsel dietary intake by season and tell their patients that overall, one is born in spring, grows in summer, harvests in fall, and in winter, uses this time to store. Thus, they use yang energy in spring and summer, store it in fall and winter. In these two seasons, they advise their patients these times are not suitable for tonic foods.
Because food is medicine and medicine is food, they use appropriate hot, warm, cool or cold, and neutral foods to correct conditions and maintain the body's balance or equilibrium. Not doing so at a time of weakness, they say, upsets a person's equilibrium. They correct that by prescribing foods and medicines according to season, imbalances, tastes, and aromas.
TCM practitioners know foods and flavors, their hot or cold nature, and more. They know, for example, that cinnamon is at the warm end of the hot-cold spectrum and that it expels coldness. Though its impact may be minimal, they say it is important nonetheless. They also know that kudzu is near the other end of the hot-cold equilibrium, its intensity has less impact than a cold food does.
Knowing hot and cold is not the only thing they need to know to prescribe a food or a medicine. There are degrees of hot and cold from extremely hot to hot, to slightly hot, to neutral, to slightly cool, to cool, to cold, and finally, to extremely cold. They know how to prepare a food to impact its location on this hot-cold continuum. Furthermore, they can change a food's therapeutic strength a little or a lot knowing that cold or cool foods expel heat, detoxify, improve blood circulation, and raise a person's yang energy. They know this because they explore and learn all that they can about the nature of each food and its preparation..
Here are seven examples followed by general information about them and if they are hot or cold. At the end of this article are recipes to impact a body's balance. Do use one food or recipe each day and think about what that food can and did do and you will be wiser, perhaps healthier, too. Then visit the web or your local library and increase your knowledge, but do it one food at a time.
GINGER is warm in nature and tastes spicy. Used to treat cold conditions such as edema, fresh ginger can help stop coughing and reduce nausea due to cold in the stomach. How ginger is prepared and consumed is important. Often preferred as ginger juice, TCM practitioners know that ginger tones the blood; though they most often say it 'tonifies' it. They know ginger strengthens the stomach and the spleen. They also advise when to take a food or a medicine. This is an additional factor they need to consider. They know ginger is best used after a person begins getting better, not at the height of the condition or imbalance they may have. Chinese traditional practitioners we speak to say fresh ginger is best with brown sugar and strong pu-er tea. They say that when needed, one needs to add a little fresh basil to make the effects of ginger even better. When you take ginger for any of these conditions, how do you prepare it?
SUGAR is cool and sweet in nature and traditional Chinese medical practitioners say it expels heat, particularly in the lungs and intestines. Alone, it strengthens the spleen and the stomach, quenches thirst, promotes urination, and eliminates toxins. Sugar aids metabolism and with fresh ginger juice its impact to detoxify is increased.
MINT, especially peppermint, is cool in nature, and can improve a person's qi. It expels heat, improves eyesight, soothes a headache, even helps a sore throat. One traditional doctor told us that peppermint taken when one has measles, reduces its impact and improves circulation in the liver if it is not cooked too long. He also said not to consume too much mint at any one time.
PEACH KERNELS, that same doctor told us, is a neutral food. It is inside the hard pit or stone in the peach, and its taste is bitter-sweet. These kernels promote the blood circulation of qi; and they can cure diarrhea, also reduce coughs. He said people should not take too many of them. When we asked how many is too many, he said that depends on the person and their condition.
PINE NUTS are also neutral in nature. They nourish the lungs, ease constipation, and provide oil, protein, and fiber to the body. This traditional doctor went on to tell us not all practitioners agree about each food because the nature of each individual is different. Pine nuts, he said, can cause diarrhea, and can weaken elders. Better, he said, for them to consume walnuts or almonds or both. He counseled that it is good to avoid too many pine nuts.
BLACK MUSHROOMS, another practitioner told us, are neutral in nature and they taste sweet. Known to strengthen the spleen, improve circulation, and help the body detoxify, he advises his patients to use those with thick caps and nice aromas. Another traditional practitioner told us these mushrooms negatively impact absorption in the spleen and stomach and that elderly folk should not consume them, especially not in their soups.
HONEY, one traditional practitioner said, is neutral in nature. It regulates, even strengthens the spleen and stomach, and it nourishes the lungs and eases constipation. Another medical chap said honey is good for the elderly and for those that are weak. He went on to say that black sesame seeds with honey help one’s growth and darken black hair. He also said it improves skin texture, and when someone has a warm or hot condition they need to avoid these seeds even though they clear the intestines of diarrhea. He suggested avoiding them if they make one dizzy.
IN ADDITION, there are other comments these doctors made. They said that wheat flour and glutinous rice are warming, and that barley has cooling properties. In fruits, most agreed that dates, peaches, plums, and cherries are warming while watermelon, citrus fruits, and pears are cooling. In the vegetable category they said that celery, pumpkin, and carrots are warming while winter melon and water lily roots are cooling.
Among seafood, most agreed that abalone and sea cucumber are warming, clams, mussels, and crab quite cooling. In meats, chicken and lamb they believe are warming, rabbit and horse are cooling. As to spices, chili pepper and ginger are warming while salt, soy sauce, and seaweed have cooling properties. As to neutral foods, longan and lychee, and rice and licorice and the adzuki bean are all neutral.
For centuries, the Chinese have strongly believed that yin and yang forces control the universe. The former is negative, the latter is positive, and neither exists without the other. Shen Nong and others said these medical beliefs are the foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine and its practices. They said they require rigorous diagnosis and academic research; and that practitioners are taught to be compassionate and treat all patients regardless of income, social status, race, or education level. This doctor said he was taught to instruct everyone on the importance of physical exercise, breathing exercises, and meditation. These, he said, help maintain health through good circulation and healthy qi.
The above are just a smattering of what is known about a few foods. Sorting them out is not easy; and while there is some conflicting information, a quick and important answer is not to self-diagnose. Everyone needs to consult a licensed medical practitioner for help, then take control of the information received, make educated decisions as to what to eat, when, and why. He said to learn lots about yin and yang and hot and cold, also sweet and bitter in foods and conditions, too. These TCM practitioners believe they and their patients need to read and learn as much as possible doing so continuously.
They agreed that the following recipes, deemed hot or cold, warm or cool, even neutral, are good ones and they do suggest making and taking them, and then seeing how they make you feel.
Before the recipes, there is some very good TCM information on the web. Here, in no particular order, are some with links to some sites with extensive federal or other agency information. A few report disease trials, others general or specific health information. All are great sources of information to use. These are:
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