There are three flavors that are resoundingly unrepresented in the typical, daily, western diet, whose void is arguably part of the cause of our leading all first world nations in major disease. Sour foods, bitter, and bland foods all induce important healing mechanisms in the body that can only be fully understood through Chinese herbal medicine.
Sour foods have an astringent effect, which makes it very curious why so many Americans drink lemon water or tea when they have a cold or virus, which we want to do anything but astringe. From our perspective foods like lemon, pickles, (apple cider) vinegar, and sauerkraut might be great for improving immune function to prevent contracting colds, but once we are sick, acrid foods such as cinnamon, ginger, and garlic are more advisable.
Sour foods help to conserve (by astringing) the body’s cellular energy and healthy fluids. If we are completely burnt out, or experiencing symptoms such as muscle cramps, or getting a second wind late at night that prevents a healthy bedtime, these might all be requests from our body for more astringing of resources. Personally, I enjoy lemon water, or sprinkling it on kale, broccoli, and/or asparagus. Tomatoes are great this time of year and sauerkraut is especially balancing with spicy foods. Since the spice will naturally bring fluids up and out, we can use the kraut to counteract this effect and keep nutrients inside. Of course, sauerkraut is generally taken raw, so it is important to eat in conjunction with cooked foods or hot tea to fully digest.
The bitter flavor must be hands down the most unpopular in America, and the reason I figure it to be healthy is because my 2-year-old hates it more than anything—while obviously preferring sweet to anything. In Chinese medicine the bitter flavor clears heat (or inflammation) from the body, which is especially important for the next two months of the year. Scutellariae root clears heat from the lungs, Coptis root from the microbiome, and phellodendron from the urogenital microbiome.
These make up the “three yellows,” and if I’ve ever put them in your herbal formula you’ve likely complained to me the following week. Instead, regular consumption of unsweetened green and/or dandelion tea, most leafy greens, and cabbage can help to mature your palette all while reducing the kind of systemic inflammation that tends to rise eventually into the chest or central nervous system later in life. If you must have sweets after dinner, do so with either hot dandelion or barley tea to counter their effect.
The bland flavor is the toughest for me, because like most people with “damp heat” internal body types, I love spices and flavors, and especially love cooking vegetables in a way that is delicious and not so boring. But while there is a time and place for culinary creativity and indulgence, plain steamed vegetables were a staple in the diets of most human beings for centuries prior, which happened to be centuries of much fewer diseases. Sure, people weren’t living as long, but chronic illness in 40-year-olds was much rarer than it is today.
Poria mushroom is one of our most commonly used bland herbs for draining dampness from the gastrointestinal and urogenital microbiomes. Its bland flavor helps to modulate urinary function and reduce pathogenic fluid retention, and by doing so it has the additionally desirable side effect of calming our minds and spirit. How does this work? By reducing the proverbial internal traffic jams of unwanted fluids, our healthy fluids can then more easily circulate up to and from the central nervous system without diversion or congestion. If spicy foods ramp us up, it should be pretty deductive that bland will calm us, and who couldn’t use more calm?
One idea to incorporate this all into a meal is steamed or boiled broccoli (dress with olive oil if you like), sauteed leafy greens with garlic, salt, and pepper, any tofu or animal protein prepared to taste, and a glass of lemon water, and/or sauerkraut on the side; followed by a hot cup of dandelion or barley tea, with honey if you must.
In contrast to the requisite ruling out of red flags by most nurses in conventional medical settings, the reason Chinese Medical practitioners ask about almost every system in your body is because we are diagnosing based on complete patterns—not just symptoms.
For example, if someone comes in for acid reflux, we cannot know their prescriptions until we know how often they urinate or poop, what each one is like, whether they experience headaches or dizziness, which part of the head they get their headaches in, how is their appetite, how thirsty they are during the day versus in the evening, etc. etc. This is because we are one of the only true forms of holistic medicine.
So, what is normal?
A normal amount of urination is approximately 6 times a day (yes, this includes waking at night). Much less than that and you are likely either retaining, or not drinking enough water in the first place. More than 6 indicates either a weakness in the urogenital microbiome, or excessive inflammation in the urogenital microbiome, which over time can lead to local weakness by putting strain on it. The remainder of the intake questions will determine which of the two is the case.
People should sweat, but not excessively so. Chinese Medicine is critical of HIIT or marathon training, hot yoga, and sauna therapy in most cases. While these might all feel great in the short-term and/or be proven to offer certain isolated benefits in the short-term, we believe they ultimately deplete the body’s healthy metabolic fluids. On the other hand, never sweating (exercising) at all is obviously just as harmful.
While some people barely break a sweat even when they exercise, others are drenched by the time they finish their morning commute, especially triggered by certain climates or seasons. The former can either indicate body fluid depletion or a malfunction of the immunological “qi.” The latter can either indicate inflammation, fluid retention, or also a malfunction of the immunological “qi.” This is where diagnoses and prescriptions get tricky.
Many western doctors have now begun to recognize the health benefits of the Chinese herb, astragalus, which on one hand is great. On the other hand, their recognition by way of empirical studies poses the challenge of having no comprehension of Chinese Medicine. If you give astragalus to the former example of a “cold-body person” with a simple immunological malfunction they will feel amazing and sing your praises. If you give it to someone with both immunological malfunction AND fluid deficiency it will do almost nothing. Worse, if you give it to a “hot-body person” with inflammation and fluid retention they will feel much worse.
Finally, it is normal to be thirsty, for 6-9 cups of water per day. A lack of thirst tells us there is fluid retention in the microbiome, signaling to the brain that it’s got plenty of liquid down here—no need to hydrate! This is dangerous, and better to fake it ‘til you make it in acquiring thirst. On the other pole are those who are ravenously or insatiably thirsty, which informs us of inflammatory heat in either their respiratory microbiome, gastrointestinal microbiome, or both, drying out their fluids. As always, the most complicated patterns are those who are generally unthirsty followed by sudden bouts of desperate thirst. This is a combination pattern that requires more thought, trial, and error.
I hope this was interesting and informative. One of western medicine’s shortcomings is its reliance on tests and labs to determine whether we are healthy or normal. While these are undeniably valuable, they tell only part of the story, which is why so many diseases get caught too late. Chinese Medicine is more brilliant in its neurotic recognition of pathologies in any abnormality, any imbalance, as something to rectify before it spirals into disease.
I’m not sure what the time or place was that berthed the maxim, Breakfast is the most important meal, but they were obviously more attuned with human biology than our own. In Chinese Medicine’s circadian clock, 7am-9am is considered the “time of the stomach.” The prior, 5-7am, corresponds to the large intestine, which makes it the ideal and most common time for bowel movements; before that, 3-5am, to the lungs, which is why many people with chronic or acute coughs are disrupted by them in the middle of the night.
While this may all sound like esoteric medical theory, it aligns perfectly with modern biomedical understanding: The reason 7-9am is the time of the stomach is because it is when metabolism is strongest—when our bodies are most sensitive to the insulin hormone, whose job it is to break down glucose from food and transform it into nutrients.
We say “stomach qi.” They say insulin secretion. Same thing. Of course, when people lack a morning appetite or experience a weaker metabolism in the morning we consider this to be pathological, diagnostically informative. Since for most of us 8am is at least 12 hours since our last meal this should not sound far-fetched. Chinese Medicine believes when we do not adequately exercise our microbiome in the morning we weaken it—a similar use it or lose it view as to the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are ultimately nourished by the gut as well.
Intermittent fasting can have many health benefits when done responsibly, but if one intends to do it intelligently, without potentially robbing Peter to pay Paul in the long term, you would skip or have an early dinner, instead of neglecting science by skipping breakfast. I understand the potential social repercussions of this, for which I recommend compromise: Have dinner or later dinners on social nights, while on quiet nights, if it works for you keep to your fasting window.
For those who claim to not have time for breakfast, I am skeptical. As most of you know, for the past year I’ve been still running my own practice while co-parenting a 14-month old. Recently, as she has rapidly grown in physical mobility and emotional attachment, I’ve been forced to cook with one hand and arm in the morning. I’ve learned to crack and cook eggs all with one (messy) hand, and inadvertently multi-tasked into giving my left bicep a tremendous daily workout. Even on my earlier days in the office we never skip breakfast.
One of my favorite and easiest recipes are as shown above, eggs over easy with ANY roasted vegetables. As long as you can find the five minutes to wash and chop the veggies, you can then throw them on the pan, add salt, pepper, garlic powder, and flaxseed, and cook for 20 minutes, during which time you can get ready for the day (or sit cross-legged on the floor and read children’s books). When they are a few minutes from ready return to the kitchen for your one-minute, one-handed eggs. Once plated I like to add a good quality olive-oil atop the vegetables, a) to give them moisture, b) for olive oil’s health benefits. Viola! Breakfast!
In Chinese Medicine eggs are considered one of the healthiest foods in the world. They even appear in a couple of our herbal formulas that are designed to clear pathological heat from the body by nourishing our healthy fluids and blood. Between my wife, daughter, and I, we consume 3 dozen/week, and I can’t imagine where we’d be if we didn’t. Bon Appetit!
One of the recurrent flaws in our Jersey City apartment of the past few years has been the plumbing. Within months after moving here we had an inexplicable leak from the kitchen sink that forced management to have to tear up and replace the living room flooring. Of course, my neurosis coupled with faith in ongoing communication from the subjective realm diagnosed this as a sure sign from the universe (and my own spirit guides) that leaving New York City was the wrong decision. My wife on the other hand diagnosed it as a plumbing crisis.
More chronic at home has been our need to regularly flush out the shower drains, and each time we do so we’re sure to use not just hot water, but a pot of boiling water to chase the Liquid Plumr or whichever product my wife deems most ideal to unstick the grime and/or hairs that cause the clogs. It reminded me of one of the most important principles in Chinese medicine, the diet, and lifestyle we encourage of human beings.
Grime or accumulation in pipes is no different in theory than “dampness,” dysbiosis, or plaques in human vessels, arteries, and pathways. Call it what you will—any of the aforementioned, otherwise inflammation or fluid retention, ultimately all paradigms of medicine can consistently observe and cite such blockages as the underlying etiologies to most diseases.
This is why Eastern medicine discourages our consumption of anything and everything cold. Whether cold drinks, cold foods, such as salads, yogurts, or smoothies, or using ice on injuries, cold constricts and solidifies accumulations instead of dissolving them, thereby making such substances counterintuitive to our perpetual intention to reduce inflammation.
Cold foods are often yummy and convenient, which makes them that much more appealing in our fast-paced society, although convenient should always be a red flag when it comes to caring for the planet and ourselves. Microwaves are convenient, as are plastic bags and take-out containers, as well as gasoline cars, all of which are obviously and equally basic and destructive.
Western medicine often alleges there is “no known cause of arthritis,” which really just means they do not know what causes it. In Eastern medicines we know better. This doesn’t necessarily mean our treatment towards full resolution is simple, but its cause is. The human body is made mostly of fluids that have to constantly circulate, often through relatively microscopic spaces surrounding joints and ligaments. This circulation is created by our “qi,” or overall cellular energy, which obviously wanes with age. Exercise can help, as can a good diet, but all of us over the age of 30 are gradually losing energy, which means our fluid circulation is slowing, which leaves us vulnerable to cold clogs, constriction, and inflammation.
As we seem to instantaneously traverse from summer into a rather chilly fall this is an important concept to keep in mind. While anti-inflammatory diets and nutritious foods can be great, many times our bodies can benefit by just pouring hot water into it every day. Whether in the form of herbal teas, pu-erh tea, barley and ginger tea (message me for this recipe) green tea (only for those of us with heat patterns), soups, and/or bone broths, or shiitake mushroom broth for my vegan friends, a daily ritual of these edible, nourishing versions of Liquid Plumr can have immeasurable preventive benefits if consumed consistently over long periods of time.
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There is no school of medicine or nutritional paradigm that does not consider breakfast to be “the most important meal of the day.” The reason for this is of course, science: the fact that morning is when our metabolism is strongest and we are most sensitive to our body’s insulin, whose job it is to break down glucose.
Nevertheless, cultural conditionings invariably conflict with scientific evidence, and breakfast remains generally the most neglected. People either don’t eat it at all, cite coffee as “breakfast,” or turn in C- work in the form of the unhealthy toast or bagel, otherwise “healthy” smoothies and yogurt. From a Chinese medical perspective such breakfasts are mostly inadequate in protein or healthy fat, and worse, they’re cold and sweet. As my mentor, Suzanne Robidoux always says: “A smoothie is not a meal.”
Once in a while, such indulgences are okay. But if taken regularly over time the microbiome becomes colder and weaker, and/or encumbered with gluten and sugars. Once this happens it becomes more difficult to digest heartier foods, so when we try introducing them we feel bloated. Instead of nutrients, our food turns to inflammation, our guts get weaker, and so on. This is the vicious cycle that leads people to have little to no appetite in the morning… which is the metabolic equivalent to not feeling tired at night, or not having a libido during the summer. It is an imbalance (of the liver or gallbladder meridians) that must be corrected.
One way to do so is to fake it until you make it. Eat warmer, higher calorie foods for breakfast, but begin with smaller portions, “smaller dosages,” to allow the body to acclimate. In Chinese medicine there are few foods more revered than (organic) eggs. I have no reservation in advising that it is impossible to eat too many eggs—especially of good quality. Start with one egg, ideally cooked a bit runny and over easy, but any way is beneficial (the yolk is thought to nourish our yin and blood, and is used in certain herbal formulas). You may cook with organic butter, avocado or olive oil, and/or dressed with olive oil at the end. Alternately, one can start with roasted vegetables…
“What??? Roasted vegetables for breakfast???” remarks all every American I know.
Yes. I realize this seems very odd in our country, but keep in mind that our country also leads the first world in cancer, autoimmune, and heart disease. Anyone not willing to step outside of the box of our cultural norms, in my opinion, puts themselves at great risk.
Roasting vegetables in the morning is SO EASY. In the winter I’ll throw a bunch of sweet potatoes (another Chinese herbal superfood) or brussels sprouts in the oven—in summer I’ll err more towards asparagus, if not sauteed leafy greens on the stove. Not only is this fast and simple, but also easy to digest, and checks off much of our daily vegetables requirement. My wife and I eat this with eggs literally every single morning, which in my opinion has undoubtedly nourished for our microbiomes a virtuous cycle of having strong morning appetites and putting them to good use by churning through substantial fatty protein. Or in Chinese medical terms, “the qi is strong” with which to start the day.
We’ll never know the diseases we avoid through good habits. We’ll only know those we endure, and quite often we’re left unsure of what caused them. The conditionings of fast-paced capitalism are obviously what has led us to neglect this spectacular source of strength in the day’s first meal. I highly recommend working towards reversing it. As always, acupuncture and herbal medicine can encourage things in the right direction.
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