Eating According to the Seasons - Dietary Principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine

There are many interesting and effective dietary tips to draw from the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine. TCM often describes the world as a harmonious and holistic entity where all living beings are viewed in relation to the surrounding environment and that mankind is part of this holistic entity. We are influenced directly and indirectly by changes in weather and our bodies make corresponding physiological and pathological responses to these changes. An example of this is that a change of season causes the rate, rhythm, volume, and tension of your heart’s pulse to vary. According to TCM philosophies, if we consume seasonal foods that are similar in nature to the external environment, we remain in harmony with the environment, adapt better to changes in season and stay healthy. There are numerous underlying principles regarding TCM’s dietary teachings such as how each flavor corresponds to a certain organ of the body but the basic applying principle is "nourishing yang in spring and summer time, and nourishing yin in autumn and winter time." To apply this principle, try following the simplified dietary advice below for each season.

Spring

Spring is the season of new birth and new growth. According to TCM, spring belongs to the wood element and dominates liver functioning. If we don’t adapt to the changing climate in spring, we may susceptible to seasonal health problems, such as flu, pneumonia, or a relapse of chronic diseases. It is advisable to reduce the intake of sour flavors and increase sweet and pungent flavors as this facilitates the liver to regulate the qi (vital energy) throughout the body. Examples of recommended foods for the spring include onions, leeks, leaf mustard, Chinese yam, wheat, dates, cilantro, mushrooms, spinach and bamboo shoots. Fresh green and leafy vegetables should also be included in meals; sprouts from seeds are also valuable. In addition, uncooked, frozen and fried foods should only be taken in moderation since these are harmful to the spleen and stomach if consumed in large amounts. As cold winter keeps us indoors and tends to make us eat too much, people may develop a heat unbalance in the spring, which leads to dry throats, bad breath, constipation, thick tongue coating and yellow urine. Foods like bananas, pears, water chestnuts, sugar cane, celery and cucumber can help clear the excessive heat.

Summer

Plants grow fast in summer. People act energetically, and the body’s qi and blood become relatively more vigorous than in other seasons. These physiological changes can make the heart over-function. According to the five elements theory, an over-functioning heart restricts the lung functioning, it is advisable to eat more food with pungent flavors and reduce bitter flavors; this enhances the lung and maintains the normal sweating mechanism in summer. In TCM, Sweat is the fluid of the heart; excessive sweating scatters heart-qi and weakens the mind causing symptoms like being easily annoyed, low spirit, restless and sleeping difficulties. Foods with sour and salty flavors help to ease these symptoms. Summer is hot and rainy in some regions, which disturb the fluid and electrolyte balance of the body and lead to lethargy, weakness, fever, thirst, lack of appetite and possibly loose bowels. Some foods are recommended for keeping the body cool and balanced, such as bitter gourd, watermelon, strawberries, tomatoes, mung beans, cucumber, wax gourd, lotus root, lotus seed, Job’s tears (Coix seed or chinese pearl barley), bean sprouts, duck and fish. In general, the daily diet should contain more vegetables and fruit at this time of the year to stimulate the appetite and provide adequate fluids. Warm and cooked foods ensure the digestive system work more effectively; too many greasy, raw and frozen foods can damage the digestive system and lead to a poor appetite, diarrhea or stomach upset.

Autumn

Things begin to fall and mature in autumn. TCM believes that autumn correlates with the lung system which dominates the skin, respiration, body fluids metabolism, blood circulation, immunity and melancholy emotion. Since the vigorous summer is over, TCM holds that everything needs to turn inwards to prepare for the harsh winter. The dry weather usually causes an itchy throat, a dry nose, chapped lips, rough skin, hair loss and dry stools. We need to eat to promote the production of body fluids and their lubricating effects throughout the body. Beneficial foods for this are lily bulb, white fungus, nuts or seeds, pear, lotus root, pumpkin, honey, soy milk and dairy products. It is advisable to eat more food with sour flavors and reduce pungent flavors as such things like onion, ginger and peppers because they tend to induce perspiration, while sour foods like pineapple, green apple, grapefruit and lemon have astringent properties and thus prevent the loss of body fluids. The body needs extra fluids to counteract the dry environment.

Winter

In winter, living things slow down to save energy and some animals hibernate. It is also the season where humans conserve energy and build strength as a prelude to spring. TCM believes our diet should be adapted to focus on enriching yin and subduing yang, which mean we should consume appropriate fats and high protein foods. Lamb, beef, goose, duck, eggs, rabbit meat, Chinese yam, sesame, glutinous rice, dates, longan, black fungus, bamboo shoot, mushrooms, leek and nuts are common ingredients in the Chinese dishes this time. Winter corresponds to the kidney system according to the five elements theory; hyperactive kidney inhibits the heart which leads to palpitations, cardiac pain, cold limbs and fatigue. It is advisable to eat more food with bitter flavors while reducing salty flavors so as to promote a healthy heart and reduce the workload of the kidney. Foods with bitter flavors include asparagus, celery, coffee, tea, grapefruit, hops, kohlrabi, lettuce, radish leaves, kale, and wine. Some people may eat too many hotpots or high calorie foods causing excessive heat to accumulate in the lungs and stomach. They may experience problems such as bronchitis, sore throats, peptic ulcers and skin problems, thus it is necessary to balance with certain amount of cool dishes and water in winter. Winter is also a good time to boost the natural constitution of the body and improve symptoms associated with chronic conditions. Since a person’s appetite tends to increase over winter when they have a lower metabolic rate, absorbed nutrients from foods can be stored more easily, energizing herbs such as ginseng, wolfberry, angelica, rehmannia root, astragalus and medicinal mushrooms can be used.

 

Hungry for more dietary advice? Check out our earlier blog post to learn more about Traditional Chinese Medicine Food Therapy

 

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