Happy New Year, all! As we continue through one of the worst cold and flu seasons in recent memory, 2020 notwithstanding, I’ll begin with a recipe.
Sweet potato congee with red dates, honey added if desired (and who won’t?):
1 large chopped sweet potato
1 cup of rice, rinsed please
8 cups of water
10-30 grams of red dates sliced open (closer to 10g if you have a “damp heat” body type or pathology—closer to 30g if you are the frail and pale type with tendency to insomnia and/or heart palpitations).
Bring to boil and simmer uncovered for about 40 minutes, or until the consistency is as above, like a porridge. In Asia most people take it a bit more watery than this, but either way is fine. Plate and drizzle honey on top to taste.
Although white rice is mostly vilified by Western dietitians, in Eastern Medicine we believe that the gentle support it provides to the internal organs is imperative for optimizing the absorption of all accompanying ingredients, also at generating the healthy stomach fluids needed for digestion. Without strong metabolism we cannot build blood or create nutrients. Without blood we cannot live—more relevant, with subjectively deficient blood all of our parasympathetic functioning may weaken and we may flirt with anemia.
If you are strongly averse to (white) rice, you can absolutely try making this with quinoa, millet, or farro. Risotto or orzo, unfortunately, will not work.
The Eastern Medical diet is somewhat diametrically opposite to that of raw vegans. Besides encouraging at least small amounts of animal protein, we believe the best way to optimize health is through low, slow, and long cooking of foods to extract all nutrients into the dish and make them easy for our guts to process. Anything cold or damp, such as ice, sugar, or alcohol should at least wait until after the food has been consumed and processed for at least 15-30 minutes whenever possible. Which means all of our mothers were correct in echoing the concept of not “spoiling our dinner” by having sweets first. The adult parallel to this might be cautioning to limit drinks before dinner.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent “tonic” for the stomach qi in Winter, and red dates are actually one of the most important herbs in all of Chinese Medicine, appearing in a large percentage of classical formulas, with the intention of protecting the healthy stomach fluids and nourishing blood of the heart. I recommend making this recipe, storing leftovers in the fridge, and eating 2-3 times a week in winter. To reheat just add plenty of water to keep consistency.
Hope all are warm and healthy!
Why do many women crave chocolate or dairy more while on their menses? Why do men generally crave beer more than women? Why do some people crave sweets more at night, or wake up in the morning feeling everything from ravenous to having no appetite at all? And how do these tendencies influence future tendencies within our bodies?
Western medicine has no clue—“some people are just like that,” they shrug, or my personal favorite: “That’s normal (as you get older).” Without an intricate understanding of the paradigm of internal (Chinese) medicine, unique preferences and/or habits can be difficult to explain, hence impossible to change.
“I just have a sweet tooth,” people say, which is an expression. What if your will power was not entirely psychological, but partially a result of the state of your internal organs, making it much harder for you to resist temptation than others?
Dryness is an epidemic. It stands to reason in a society that over-prioritizes the yang, masculine energy. While yin is represented by rest, stoppage, sleep, coolness and moisture, yang is work, working out, going out, staying out late, everything out; burning it at all ends, not to mention excessive caffeinated diuretics and overly seasoned or spicy foods.
In Chinese Medical terms stress “depletes the healthy body fluids,” as do NSAIDS, most meds, skipping breakfast, poor sleep, overwork, over-working out, or excessive masturbation. Unfortunately, these are not fluids that can be supplemented through hydration. While it’s great to hydrate, from our perspective this loss is of metabolic/organ fluids that can be restored only through proper rest, herbal medicine, and diet, namely eggs and red meat.
In the meantime, whether consciously or not, we are all craving the ultimate yin. Think breastfeeding: An opportunity to stop everything, be comforted and nuzzled by some soft, fatty, support structure, nourished by its sweet, thick, delicious juice. Since few of us have that opportunity, we opt instead for ice cream or cheese, boba tea, or some delectable hazy IPA—anything thick, sweet, and nurturing in lieu of the adult version of nursing, which might be an early bedtime after a relaxing day. Imagine that. Do we deserve such a thing?
“Nighttime belongs to the blood,” is an expression in Classical Medicine that refers to our healthy body fluids being in charge of evening operations, whereas cellular energy and sympathetic manage the day hours. When a symptom, such as sweet cravings, is worse at night, it further confirms fluid deficiency as part of its etiology. What many women are craving during their cycle, is frankly, more blood. Most don’t have the opportunity to necessarily get more rest, eat more red meat or go to sleep earlier (though if you do, you should!). Instead, they reach for sweets and/or dairy to temporarily satiate the desire to supplement yin. Unfortunately, in doing so this creates more dampness in the microbiome, which makes it harder for the organs to then convert future foods into healthy nutrients, which causes more cravings, and so on. Healthier options for sticky, yin-nourishing substances might be nut butters, smoothies, non-dairy yogurts, or baked apples with some honey.
“Yin-nourishing herbs” are damp. I always think of the foxglove root, one of the most herbs in our pharmacopeia, which looks, but does NOT at all taste like a chocolate brownie. It is rare to meet a patient, man or woman, who does not need some amount of foxglove to supplement lost fluids; although it is even more rare to meet someone whose gut is ready for it. Foxglove is thick and heavy, like boba tea or breastmilk, so if someone has weak digestion, loose stools, acid reflux, etc. it is probably not ideal for them. It is important in our “moments of weakness” to access at least enough will power to reach for healthier alternatives enough of the time, so as to protect our gut health—so that one day our herbalist will give us the green light to truly nourish our yin organ fluids with brilliant substances like foxglove.
If food is medicine then creating each meal should be a bit like writing your own herbal formula. Whenever possible, it should be as agreeable as possible with our unique physiology, though this is admittedly challenging when cooking for a family where everyone has different body types. Nevertheless, one part of each meal should complement the other parts, either through synergistic benefit or offsetting its potentially detrimental qualities.
As a longstanding, traditional example, any time we get Thai or Mexican food, it is served with cucumber or radishes, respectively, which are there to mitigate the side effects of the spice.
Most foods are good, but almost all of them have “side effects.” Red meat nourishes the body’s blood, yin, and qi, but if it were an herb it would be a bit warm and damp. Too much red meat and/or red meat that is not harmonized by the remainder of the meal can create damp heat, or inflammation in the stomach and intestines. Then again too little red meat can cause a deficiency of blood, yin, and qi. Ideally red meat (and pork) would be consumed alongside steamed vegetables, then followed by hot green tea, either after the meal or the following morning (green tea at other times and/or for vegetarians is thought to have a bit too cooling, or vasoconstrictive effect on the microbiome—for them black teas are preferable).
Carbohydrates are settling for both the stomach and the mind—probably why they give us such immediately pleasure—but they are obviously stickier foods, “damper” foods, which are more difficult to digest. For this reason whenever possible, it is best to eat them warm and cooked, and alongside more acrid spices in the meal, such as basil, rosemary, ginger, garlic, or onion. While I am Jewish and from New York, and love a great tuna on a bagel, there is a remarkable difference in the physiological response to cold tuna on bread versus cooked pasta with garlic and oil, maybe vegetables and cannelini beans. Yum!
Salads. Oh boy, do westerners love salad. Frankly, if you tend to any digestive problems whatsoever, raw foods should be avoided as much as possible, but if you must:
Consume salad more in summer—less in winter—and always alongside some cooked protein and/or ginger tea. The acridity of the ginger should help to warm the stomach to digest the raw foods. The protein should provide warmth, plus some much needed calories, or “qi and yin.”
Cooked vegetables, allergies notwithstanding, are probably the only perfect food that wholly lack side effects, which is probably why they are also the one food that nearly every paradigm of medicine agrees upon. If you don’t consume cooked vegetables daily you are on a dangerous path, in my opinion. They are nearly always harmless and beneficial… yet still ultimately inadequate, as we can only imagine the metabolic fatigue and inevitable illnesses to come were someone to consume exclusively vegetables.
Food is a gentle medicinal. It will neither heal nor destroy us quickly on its own, however it will always do one or the other over time. I’ve seen firsthand, in myself, loved ones, and patients eradicate chronic symptoms by pursuing a more Eastern diet, though it took many months—in my case years! People should not get discouraged by eating well for a particular interim and not feeling dramatically better. Instead, pay attention to whether you feel worse (always a possibility), meanwhile recognizing that without internal medicine, diet alone may take a long time to cure disease. It is up to us to continue to better understand the nature of each food, so that we can wisely design the perfect “herbal formula” three times a day until the end of time.
Pictured above is an imperfect, but still great meal: Breaded chicken cutlet, sauteed spinach, and roasted acorn squash with roasted apples, cinnamon, and maple syrup. What is “imperfect” about it? First, fruit should be consumed at least 15 minutes apart from other foods so as to avoid creating its notoriously mucus-like congestion in the microbiome. Also, “natural” or not, let’s be honest: maple syrup is sugar; and chicken is healthier without breadcrumbs. On the other hand, breadcrumbs make up a very small amount of the meal, the apples are at least cooked, hence easier to digest, and the leafy greens with garlic should help to optimally process the meat and sugars.
Patients often ask me what they should eat for breakfast. Most Americans are conditioned to either skip breakfast, have something simple and unhealthy like a bagel or toast, or something “healthy” like yogurt or smoothies. While the latter might check off as such within the context of a scientific laboratory, obviously Eastern Medicines hold that uncooked foods are more difficult to digest, thereby ultimately providing us with less nutrients, in spite of having maybe started with more on the grocery shelf.
While going through Chinese Medical school my own microbiome was a minor disaster, and one of my teachers who was treating me at the time requested I eat sweet potatoes (with my eggs) for breakfast.
“You want me to eat Thanksgiving for breakfast?” I asked. He laughed and asked if I’d ever had eggs with hash browns or french fries. Of course I had, countless times.
He rhetorically asked me what the difference was —if I chopped sweet potatoes in the same way as hash browns, even adding onions to my liking. For years to follow sweet potatoes became my daily breakfast. And many of my health issues gradually improved during that time.
I became perpetually more educated in health and self-care, also about food itself. I learned that sweet potatoes are not in season for the majority of the year, which means during those periods they are, a) not as much what my body needs, and b) likely lacking in their maximum nutrients. From yams it was an easy transition to exploring other vegetables as side dishes with breakfast, which I realized was a good way to get in some daily recommended portions of greens from the start.
For many years now my breakfast has been eggs with a cooked, in-season vegetable, and would struggle to imagine starting the day any other way. In the Winter we eat a variety of root vegetables—whether roasted potatoes, carrots, radishes, or turnips—in Summer it’s more leafy greens. As for the ongoing, raging egg debate, now reignited by many functional medicine docs, all I can say is I’ve eaten eggs every single day for decades. I don’t doubt some peoples’ allergies to them, in which case they should surely avoid until that allergy is rectified. For the rest of us eggs provide invaluable nutrients in a very light, easily metabolized way. In Chinese Medicine they are said to nourish the blood, so much so that the yolk is even an ingredient in the herbal formula, “Huang Lian E Jiao Tang,” which is used to clear inflammatory heat that exists as a result of healthy systemic fluid deficiency. This “blood” benefit is probably why eggs are so highly recommended by many holistic fertility doctors.
EGGS AND “ZUCCH” (as my daughter calls it)
- Pre-heat oven to 375
- Slice squash however you like it, leave all of the slices on the cutting board, and lightly sprinkle them with salt. Let them rest for about 10 minutes (or longer) so that their excess water gets sweated out, then pat them dry.
- Add to pan with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, pepper, and whatever seasonings you like.
- Cook for 15-20 minutes, turning them over once in the middle to roast both sides
- Once almost finished cook your eggs to your liking.
- Drizzle a nice olive oil on top of them once plated
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!