One Person's Tonic is Another Person's Poison

August 2011

Last week, I went to the hospital to visit a friend who just had a cesarian-section delivery. I cooked some chicken soup the night before and brought to her. As she sipped the soup with relief and pleasure, she told me with exasperation about the food that the hospital offered after she woke up from the surgery: a cheese sandwich, some canned fruit, and some milk. She didn’t eat any of it. Growing up Chinese, we both have the sense that when you are sick, or after an operation, you need to eat special kinds of food. The thousand-year-old tradition of food therapy (“Shi Liao”) prescribes not only recipes for many kinds of illness, but also recommends optimal food for different type of body constitution. As I watched my friend enjoying the chicken soup, I imagined other people, still weak from the operation, biting into that cheese sandwich and gulping down the cold milk, and I cringed at the possibility of the these foods affecting the body’s recovery. I have a burning desire to share the old wisdom of what to eat, for daily nourishment and also for recovery from illness.

Shi Liao “dietary therapy” is a therapy of using food as main ingredients plus some herbs to treat illnesses, help strengthen the body and prevent illnesses. Food has two important properties: energy (Qi) and flavor (Wei). There are four different energy categories: hot, warm, cool, and cold. And there are five flavors: sour, bitter, pungent (spicy), sweet, and salty. The energy of food affects our body’s energy. If you take in food that has hot energy, you give your body hot energy. Chili pepper, for example, is hot. And if you eat too much hot food, you take in lots of hot energy — and you will experience it when you go to the bathroom the next day. Deep fried food is hot in energy. If you eat too much of it, your body shows you that you have too much heat in your system: pimples on the face or cankers on the tongue. In the summer time, we often like to eat a lot of salad and fruits, like watermelon. That’s because salad and watermelon have cool energy, which helps to cool us down in hot days. Different flavors are associated with different organ systems. Sour flavor goes into the Liver System, bitter flavor the Heart System, pungent flavor the Lungs System, Sweet flavor the Spleen System, and salty flavor the Kidney System. If you eat too much of one flavor, you are going to affect the corresponding organ system.

The ideal situation is that when food provides the body with nourishment, its energy and flavor do not cause imbalance in the body. This is a very important concept: even though food is “good” for the body, if you eat certain kind of food too much or if you eat the kind of food whose energy or flavor is not suitable for your body’s condition, the food you eat can become “poison”. Let’s look at sugar. Sweet flavor is nourishing for the body. It enters into the Spleen and Stomach system. A little bit of sweet flavor helps to strengthen the Spleen and the Stomach System. For example, licorice has sweet flavor. It is often used to harmonize the Stomach and Spleen System. If you have a stomache cramp, or a sore throat, licorice helps by its soothing nature. However, if you eat too much sweet food, it will create Dampness, which will weaken the Spleen and Stomach function. Weakened Spleen and Stomach system can not properly digest food and absorb nutrient to give body energy, which will make the person crave for sweet foods again to compensate for the insufficient energy. The vicious cycle is then formed. The weakened Spleen system not only causes problem for digestion, it is also the root cause of many other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, auto immune conditions, thyroid problems etc. Another common problem is that people believe that eating salad or raw vegetables is healthy, and the more the better. This is not true. Since salads and the most green vegetables are cold in energy, if the person is already on the cold side — we can tell by signs such as feeling cold easily, cold hands and feet, low energy, diarrhea, or frequent soft bowel movement, pale complexion etc., the cold food will make their body worse. I often tell my elder patients not to eat too much salad, especially in winter, because the cold energy in the food tends to increase the workload for their digestive system. The purpose of eating is to take in energy for the body. If the energy you spend on digesting is more than the energy that you get from the food, you are running energy deficit. It is not a good deal for the body.

Then, how do we know what to eat then? One person’s tonic is another’s poison. Chinese dietary therapy emphasizes that different foods are good for different people. Hot chilli pepper can give an 18 year old pimples because its hot energy creates too much heat for the teenager’s body; however, the same thing can be quite helpful for someone who is cold and shivering — the hot energy can really warm up the body and prevent the person from getting sick. The first step is to understand your body. Are you hot or cold? Which organ system is usually over-functioning and which one under-functioning? What health condition do you have? You can find this out by paying attention to your body and having a consultation with a Chinese Medicine practitioner. The next step is to understand the energy of the food. In general (there are always exceptions), you can tell the energy of vegetables and fruits by looking at their color: warm colors like red, orange, or yellow means warm energy and cool color like green or blue means cool or cold energy. You can also tell food’s energy by where it come from: Animals that live in water have cooler energy than animals that live on land; Tropical fruits have warmer energy than fruits from colder areas. Once you know about your body and the energy of food, the game of mix and match becomes easy. The principle is that you need to take in what you don’t have enough. If you are cold, you need more warm energy food to warm you up. If you have too much heat in the body, you need some cool and cold energy food to cool you down. That’s why if your Stomach and Spleen systems don’t function well, you need some food that can strengthen your stomach and spleen.

Different food recipes are created based on this principle. We use the energy and flavor of the food to correct the imbalance in the body. Here are some examples that you may use in your daily life.

Licorice, dates, and wheat soup. This is a famous soup that nourishes the Heart and calms irritation. It is effective for women during menopause experiencing sadness and irritation.

Mung Bean soup. This is often consumed in summer time. Mung bean is cool in energy and very good to have in hot summer days. It is also an excellent antidote for food poisoning and over-consumption of alcohol.

Ginger and brown sugar tea. It is a good medicine for colds at the beginning stage. After have a hot cup of ginger and brown sugar tea, you cover yourself while you perspire. After you rest, your cold has often subsided or is gone completely.

Ginger and Vinegar tea. This is used to ease the stomach pain caused by poor digestion and over-eating cold food.

Watermelon juice. It’s cooling and good for heat stroke.

Soy milk with egg soup. It is good for moistening the throat and benefiting the voice. Actors, teachers and anyone who uses their voice often should take this regularly for a good voice.

Chinese medicine considers that food is the best medicine. It is gentle and with little side effects. Dietary therapy is especially good for elders, people with chronic illnesses and people recovering from illnesses or surgeries. In the case of people like my friend recovery from cesarian-section, the first week, they should eat only liquid food, such as soup, broth, juice and thin congee. Brown sugar tea is good for a new mother after a cesarian-section to get rid of blood stagnation and help the uterus to heal. Chicken broth and rice congee are good for nourishing the body. Carp soup is good for new mothers who have edema. After the first week, rice congee with peanuts, pig trotter soup, tilapia soup are good for stimulating the milk production and should be added into the diet.

If you would like to find out what are the best foods for your body, or what are the recipes to use to help you with your chronic health conditions or to recover from illnesses, please consult Dr. Judy Zhu for details.