In East Asian medicine, food is itself medicine. Food theory runs on two important principles. One, specific culinary ingredients will nourish the organs directly associated with the current season. Two, by nourishing the organs of the season, you are also strengthening and preparing your body for good health in the following season. This takes seasonal eating to a different level than simply eating what is available locally in that season. Spices, stock choices, and whether or not you cook your food are all part of the seasonal eating strategies in East Asian medicine food therapy.
As I write this post, we are well into Autumn, the season of the lungs and the large intestines. Autumn is a time that we battle both moisture from rains, dryness from cold air and wind, and temperature swings moving ever towards the colder direction.
This weather will start to dry out our skin, our nostrils, and maybe even our lungs. If your lungs are ‘drying’ out, then you’ll notice that slight ache when breathing chilled air, or you may have a dry cough in the mornings and late afternoon without being sick.
The lungs and large intestines are considered in charge of our skin, our nostrils, and our immune system. They are associated with the ability to grieve properly, experiencing nostalgia, and the ability to let go of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that we do not need. In Autumn, it is normal that if the lungs or large intestines need to be strengthened, then you may notice that instead of experiencing nostalgia, you may actually feel melancholy and a lack of inspiration. Or if the large intestine needs more attention, you may find it hard to let go of negative thoughts, emotions, and even small interactions that normally wouldn’t bother you. Physically, you may feel slight tension in your chest, struggle a little more with phlegm, and tend towards dry or cracking skin. If you notice these symptoms, then it is a great time to start incorporating some food therapy.
The color of the lung system in Chinese medicine is white and their flavor is pungent. Both of these associations become important for autumn food therapy. The pungent flavor includes aromatic and spicy culinary flavors, such as perilla leaf, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, curry, pepper, and chili peppers.
The pungent flavor helps lung function. It helps to open up the pathway in the lungs, breaks up mucus, and circulates qi or energy through your chest. If you feel melancholic and notice tension across your pectoral muscles, adding in aromatic spices to each meal will be important. Moderate use of chili peppers can help to break up phlegm, if your stomach can handle the spice, but for melancholy, spices like rosemary, thyme, perilla, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and basil, may be better choices, as they strongly circulate qi through the chest and some of them also improve digestion.
perilla leaf (Photo credit: postbear)
A few ideas for pungent herbs: have cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger in your oatmeal in the morning. Drink teas made from pungent herbs, such as fresh ginger tea, or holy basil tea, or even a caffeinated or non-caffeinated chai tea (but skip the sugar and milk if you have phlegm, both sugar and dairy will actually increase your phlegm production). Try baking chicken breasts with perilla leaf wrapped around them, and cook roasted root vegetables tossed in rosemary and garlic.
Another way to strengthen your immune system and support your lungs is to eat naturally white foods, such as pears, onions, leeks, capsicum, and cauliflower, as well as rice. Rice is considered the specific grain of the lungs. Pears are especially fantastic for people who live in a climate that gets dry in the autumn. If you get a dry, persistent cough, adding a baked pear with a little cinnamon can help immensely. In fact, if you are prone to dry, wheezing induced by cold air in the autumn and winter, eating pears daily while in season is indicated in Chinese medicine. Another pear recipe for dry cough/wheezing, is to make a porridge with the grain called Job’s Tears (same basic cooking instructions as oatmeal), add slices of a baked pear, a dash of cinnamon and a drizzle of honey.
The final way to strengthen nutritional strengthen your lungs is by eating vegetables that nourish and strengthen the organ system that is considered the mother of the lungs, the spleen/pancreas and Stomach organs. This works on the philosophy that the child stays healthy and strong, when the mom stays healthy and strong. Orange and yellow vegetables with a hint of sweetness nourish the spleen/s\pancreas and stomach. So eating a healthy dose of orange fleshed squash such as butternut, banana, delicata, acorn, pumpkin, kabocha, and hubbard squash is what the doctor ordered. Also remember to add in carrots, sweet potatoes, and yams. I like to substitute mashed sweet potatoes and yams for regular russet potatoes, or just bake them.
Note: if Chinese medicine food therapy is a topic that you are interested in, we are getting close to finishing our six-part nutrition video series that teaches all about how to use food as medicine each season for optimal health. Stay posted on the blog, and check in at the Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic Facebook page for the announcement of when the videos will become available for purchase.