Dietary Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine

“Drink milk for maintaining healthy bones.” “Eat 5-7 servings a day of …” “Eat garlic – because is good for you.” “Don’t drink more than two cups of coffee per day.” We’ve heard them all. So many phrases, guidelines, and rules! What’s right? What is too much? What’s enough? It’s enough to cause confusion and anxiety.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at food and how it affects our health in a completely different way, with not as many numerical guidelines involved. TCM dietary therapy deals with the properties of food and how food can actually be used as medicine towards preserving health, prevent and treat illness.

In TCM, everything is seen through the picture of yin and yang with the ideal of having complete balance between the two. Food is used as medicine to achieve and maintain that balance by simply adding, or removing specific types of food from the diet, as well as preparing it in various ways. The body and internal organs, and Qi (energy) are also connected with the five elements and colours: wood (green), fire (red), water (black/blue), earth (yellow), and metal (white), and the five seasons (yes, five). Food is no exception and is placed into five main categories, and grouped according to flavour and nature. Qi waxes and wanes daily but in particular, with the changing seasons in the year. As such, it is important to alter not only what we eat, but how we eat it.


swisschardThe Fire element connects with the season of summer, bitter tastes and is associated with the organs of the heart and small intestine. Bitter tasting foods are typically stimulating, especially in the digestive system, and some can have a cooling and laxative quality.  Some examples are black coffee, black tea, plain chocolate, corn, green tea, and yes, even cigarette smoking. Healthy bitters can include dark, green, leafy vegetables, scallions, radish, alfalfa, rye, and bitter melon. Overuse of bitter or “fire” foods can be dehydrating, have an adverse effect on the nervous systems and ultimately weaken the heart and digestive systems. Common illnesses associated with an imbalance of Fire energy include hypertension, heart palpitations, mouth sores, restlessness, agitation or irritability, and insomnia.


cheese_platterThe Earth element in the mid to late summer has a nourishing quality and is associated with anything sweet. It corresponds to the organs of stomach and spleen. The mouth is considered the gateway to the stomach and often in times of stress, we tend to eat more, or eat specific types of sweet foods in order to alleviate that stress. Foods such as refined sugar, pasta, breads, sweet fruit, and cheese all have sedating, lethargic and phlegm-creating qualities. Too much of that can disturb digestion and cause bloating and heaviness. An imbalance of Earth element can show up as food allergies and sensitivities, mucous in the sinuses or lungs, sugar cravings, or cloudy or foggy thinking to name a few.


In the spring season, the Wood element becomes prominent – everything is green and alive with fresh growth in nature.  Associated primarily with the organs of Liver and Gallbladder, common signs of Liver/Gallbladder imbalance include indecisiveness, pain below the ribs, belching, bloating or gas, alternating constipation and diarrhea, migraines or eye pain. Sour foods or sour-bitter combinations can benefit an imbalanced Wood elements, especially through foods such as oats, rye, wheat, apples, citrus fruits, green vegetables, and green lentils. Other sour foods such as vinegars, sauerkraut, lemons and limes and sour apples can assist the diet and make the Liver and Gallbladder happier.  For example, ingesting a cup of warm water with lemon juice first thing in the morning can help kick-start the digestive process.


The water element is always associated with the season of Winter. “Water” foods typically have a salty taste. This element in the body is represented by the organs of the kidneys and the bladder. Too much of anything salty and watery such as miso, mushrooms, kidney and mung beans, soy sauce, olives, watermelon, and pickles can causes problems such as thirst, hunger, water retention and even anxiety. Longevity is usually associated with a healthy Kidney Qi, however that declines as we age. Imbalances in the Water element are often seen in conditions associated with menopause such as hot flashes and night sweats, incontinence, or diminished hearing,


garlicAnd with the autumn season now at our doorstep, its associated Metal element is connected with  pungent and hot tastes. Corresponding “metal” organs are the lungs, large intestine and skin, the largest organ of the body.  Eating pungent foods such as peppers, garlic, onions, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, horseradish cayenne, and mustard greens, typically make one sweat and are designed to move Qi. When Metal energy is out of balance or weakened, conditions such asthma, frequent colds, excess, or diminished sweating capacity. If you want to improve appetite and speed digestion, add pungent foods to your diet.


So after all of this, take a quick evaluation of your eating habits. For example, do you need coffee to wake up? Do you use too much spice or crave sweets or salty foods? Ask yourself which taste you tend to gravitate to and eat more than others. This will be a clue as to where you are out of balance. 

Here are some final general rules of eating: balance all five tastes and colours on your plate, make sure to eat foods associated with the current season, and above all, sit down to eat regular meals and chew your food well.

TCM Dietary Therapy is on e of the many approaches we use in Naturopathic medical treatment. As always, none of the information above should be taken as a prescription or advice towards your specific condition. Talk to your Naturopathic Doctor to get an assessment of your health and see if an aspect of dietary therapy is right for you.


To your Health,

Dr. Olena


Dr. Olena Gill is a Licensed Naturopathic Physician and Registered Acupuncturist (2003). She practices acupuncture and TCM at Indigo Integrative Health in Parksville and Squamish, BC.  

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Copyright 2016 Dr. Olena Gill, R.Ac., ND – Indigo Integrative Health. When sharing any post or page from this site, please ensure to share in their entirety with links back to this site. Thank you.