While acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are probably the most well-known, the umbrella of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) also encompasses nutrition – food as medicine.
Unlike a visit to the nutritionist when you want expertise on the proper food to have for an illness or condition such as weight loss or pregnancy, the concept of TCM nutrition therapy incorporates itself into your lifestyle. It should be lifelong, but not regimental; it should balance and change, like the ebb and flow of the tide. It focuses less on things you need to cut out, and more on what you should add in. And even then, the food or tea or flavour you add in may not be needed forever and ever.
We are constantly trying to reach that fine balance where the scales could tip more on one side than the other, but never completely drops. For instance, overindulgence in barbecues during the warmer months could lead some to irritating mouth ulcers, acne, bad breath or constipation. These are signs of “heat” which your acupuncturist would spot and tailor your treatment accordingly. If the heat symptoms prolong, a herbal formula would benefit.
However wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t wait till symptoms got worse before you did something about it? The same way we would have the crack in the wall investigated as soon it appeared rather than wait till the whole side of the house collapses, TCM works on the same principles. It’s generally categorised as preventative but I like to call it attentive or mindful. Yes, it would be great if you stretched to prevent an injury, but more important is knowing how to deal with the injury when it’s happened (don’t wait 10 months! don’t ice it when it’s no longer acute!).
So in the case of the barbecue enthusiast, when the first signs of “heat” appear (usually the mouth ulcers and spots arrive before the constipation) she could make herself some chrysanthemum tea which has cooling properties and, yes, will “cool” down the heat.
In Southeast Asia there is this incredibly smelly fruit called durian (and it’s not a Marmite thing, even lovers of durian acknowledge it’s not exactly fragrant). Besides being smelly and pointy (it looks like a pineapple gone insane) durian is also incredibly heaty. Much worse than barbecues on the heat-o-meter. So people in Hong Kong and southern China traditionally eat bitter food or tea to counteract the heat after indulging in some durian. They aren’t prescribed it by doctors or practitioners, they will naturally go and do it themselves.
In the west, we practice a similar type of food consciousness but from a completely different angle: we count calories, we look at the colour coding on food packaging (is it amber or just yellow?); we don’t do carbs or only do meat. We don’t eat after 8pm or we behave all week and then binge (on alcohol or treats) on the weekend.
Depending on your constitution or your dietary preferences this could eventually lead to an issue your body can’t quite get to grips with. And then it’s hard to implement lifestyle changes because everything is so black and white, the ebb and flow of the tide has completely stopped. The western mind automatically goes to deficit – a “what can I cut out from diet?” mentality. The TCM mind realises that nothing is permanent. Think back to the barbecue or durian lover; they can have bitter tea or cooling foods to calm down the effects of the heat. Hopefully they will rein in their terribly heaty habits, and if they do there won’t be any more need for cooling and bitter food because that would tip them over to the cool/cold side and we would need to consider “warming” food.
Our bodies tell us a lot about the environment around us: stews in the winter and salads in the summer. But just like there is macroeconomics so there is also microeconomics. We could look so much more beyond just seasons and weather, weight gain and loss. We could see how the food we eat every day affects us today and tomorrow and next week and actually do something about it. Mindful eating, moderation and attentiveness is the key to TCM nutrition.
In my practice, clients appreciate the proactive approach that TCM nutrition gives them. It may seem slightly confusing at first, and many try to cram too much in too quickly, but it is rewarding for them to be able to carry their treatment beyond the treatment room and into their everyday lives.
Image: Chuck Grimmett/cagrimmett via Flickr
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