Chinese Medicine & Food Therapy

"He who takes medicine but neglects diet wastes the skills of his physician." --Chinese Proverb

It's common thought in China, and throughout Asia, that food is medicine. When illness strikes, the first recourse is generally dietary therapy. A bowl of chicken soup simmered with ginger and astragalus helps to fight off a cold, for example, and a chilled slice of watermelon may cool the body and reduce water retention on a particularly humid day. 

Eating with the Seasons

In the heat of summer, there's a tendency for the body to become overheated and withered as a result of fluid loss. Therefore, to balance dry heat, it's wise to eat cooling, moistening foods. You'll notice that many foods which happen to grow abundantly during the summer season are naturally cool in temperature, and moist in texture: cucumbers and watermelon, for example. This is no accident--It's an example of the Taoist perspective, that nature intrinsically strives for balance.

In Chinese medicine, there are five seasons, which correspond to the five elements. Foods are chosen to counteract their effects on the body:

Summer (dry heat)-- Fire: cooling, moistening foods

Late Summer (humid heat)-- Earth: cooling, drying foods

Autumn (contracting)-- Metal: warming, spicy foods

Winter (cool, wet)-- Water: warming, drying foods

Spring (expanding)-- Wood: cooling, astringing foods

Color and Flavor

The color and flavor of foods can give us clues as to what organs or systems they benefit:

Heart: red foods, bitter foods

Spleen: yellow or orange foods, sweet or starchy foods

Lung: white foods, acrid or spicy foods

Kidneys: black foods, salty foods

Liver: green foods, sour foods


In Chinese medicine there is a concept that we are born with inherent tendencies toward a particular health pattern, or constitution. Generally, we all have at least one weak link at birth. One person may be born with a weaker immune system or a tendency toward asthma or allergies. Another may tend to have digestive complaints or circulation issues. If this underlying imbalance is left untreated, disease will progress, and more dramatic health issues will arise throughout their lifetime. 

By identifying a patient's constitution, a practitioner can prevent, slow, or even reverse the progression of disease. Dietary and lifestyle choices are paramount to this processes, and a good practitioner will have plenty of suggestions in this regard.

Pattern Diagnosis

Just as dietary and lifestyle choices can be used to balance a patient's constitution, the wrong choices can also cause new health issues to arise. Imbalances may also be caused by infectious disease, physical or emotional trauma, giving birth, prolonged stress, or repressed emotions. One or several patterns begin to emerge, and it is the practitioner's job to identify them and make a correct diagnosis.

Diagnostic methods include a combination any of the following: tongue evaluation, pulse taking, abdominal palpation, channel palpation, inquiry (asking about the patient's signs and symptoms), observation (of complexion, skin tone, whites of the eyes), and even analysis of the patient's scent or the sound of their voice.