Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Five Flavours of Traditional Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine there are certain flavours associated with each organ system pair.  Bitter is associated with the Heart/Small Intestine, sour with the Liver/Gallbladder, sweet/bland pairs with the Spleen/Stomach, pungent and spicy with the Lungs/Large Intestine and salty with Kidney/Bladder.

Flavours are also assigned to foods and herbs some of which may be surprising.  There are the obvious ones such as lemon, lime and pickles are sour, clam shells and kelp are salty being from the sea.   Herbs that are frequently used in cooking such as rosemary, scallion, garlic, cinnamon, clove, ginger, basil nutmeg, dill and peppers are all pungent.  Some are cooling, others are warm/hot.  Many common fruits, vegetables and nuts are sweet including apple, date, apricot, beets, carrots, potato, squash, almond, coconut and walnut.  Bitter flavour food is difficult to find and often not appealing alfalfa, bitter melon, romaine lettuce and rye are some common examples.  Many Chinese herbal formulas have a bitter quality to them as most people will get adequate sour, pungent flavours, probably too much sweet and salty and not enough bitter.  It is important to get a variety of flavours in the diet to ensure the organ systems remain in harmony.

Flavours can be used therapeutically as well.  Pungent flavour stimulates digestion, disperse mucus, induce sweating, disperse blood stagnation and promote the circulation of Qi.  Salty flavour is used to soften lumps, knots, stools and hardened parts of the body as well as counter toxins, purify the blood.  One word of caution though using table salt therapeutically is not advised as it usually poor quality and the food sources will have other nutrients to help regulate the body.  Bitter flavour can reduce inflammation, infection and is beneficial for moist/damp conditions.  This may explain a recent study which showed the lungs had receptors for bitter taste causing the airways to open.  From a Chinese medicine perspective conditions such as asthma and COPD have a damp component to them and although it would appear pungent flavours would be beneficial for the lung system it appears that bitter may be even more beneficial as it can provide the greatest opening of the airways.  Sour flavour is astringent therefore used to restrain excessive sweating, urinary dripping, diarrhea, flaccid tissues and prolapse.  Sweet flavour is very common and is used to energize and calm the body, nerves and brain.  It can also moderate the harsh taste of bitter foods and is often used in a small amount in herbal prescriptions to harmonize the formula and make it more palatable.    

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