The ABCs of TCM

The ABCs of TCM

Registered traditional Chinese medicine practitioner Cinci Leung explains the basics of TCM

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Foodie  Foodie Your Guide to Good Taste  on 23 Aug '21


Written by Cinci Leung

Traditional Chinese medicine is a strong proponent of preventive healthcare, emphasising the importance of staying healthy and preventing illness as opposed to using medication to treat an illness after it has already set in.

Within the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, there are several “body type” classifications into which every person can be categorised. There are several key factors that determine a person’s body type. Although body types are primarily inherited, they are also determined by diet, lifestyle, the nature of one’s work, emotional intelligence and even how one copes with the ups and downs of life.

According to the theories of Chinese medicine, our bodies may be categorised into three basic body types: cold, hot and damp.

It is believed that maintaining balance is key to having an overall healthy body. Most illnesses and health conditions are a result of imbalances in the body that accumulate over time owing to poor lifestyle choices and habits. Once we determine and understand our body type, we will be able to apply the appropriate applications of Chinese medicine and adjust our diets and lifestyles in order to achieve a healthy balance.

How do we go about determining our body type? Our body type is like our personality – difficult to distil into a few simple words. A person may be tough on the exterior but soft at heart, and similarly, a body type may be a combination of both cold and hot. Nothing in this world is black and white!

To explore the nature of your body type, we need to consider the characteristics of each body type.


Cold body type

Symptoms of the cold body type Pale complexion Aversion to cold Preference for warm drinks Cold hands and feet

Simple tea remedy for the cold body type

Ingredients:

  • 2 apples
  • ground cinnamon (cinnamon warms the kidneys, eradicates coldness and relieves pain)
  • small amount of brown sugar

Method:

  1. Chop the apples into cubes and cook with 3 bowls of water for around 30 minutes, until the liquid reduces to approximately 2 bowls.
  2. Add cinnamon and sugar to taste.

Note: cinnamon is a heat-heavy substance and is not suitable for those with “vacuity heat”, or excess heat, pregnant women, menstruating women or those suffering from blood-related disorders.


Hot body type

Symptoms of the hot body type Reddish complexion Dry or red eyes Often thirsty, with a preference for cold drinks Dry lips Concentrated, yellow urine Dry, hard stools Often constipated

Simple tea remedy for the hot body type

Ingredients:

  • small amount of wolfberries, also known as goji berries (wolfberries nourish the liver)
  • chrysanthemum (chrysanthemum clears heat and releases toxins)
  • ginseng (ginseng clears heat)

Method:

  1. Heat all the ingredients together with 1 cup hot water for 15 minutes.


Damp body type

Symptoms of the damp body type Distress in the chest area and the sensation of fullness or feeling bloated in the stomach Weak appetite/loss of appetite Sensation of heaviness in the head and body, tired easily Swollen eyes and face Large amount of vaginal discharge for women Soft, loose or sticky stools

Simple tea remedy for the damp body type

Ingredients:

  • 20g coix seeds (coix seeds promote diuresis and strengthen the spleen)
  • 20g hyacinth beans (hyacinth beans strengthen the spleen and expel dampness)
  • rock sugar

Method:

  1. Wash the seeds and beans and place in a pot with 1.5L water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 20 minutes.
  2. Add a small piece of rock sugar to taste.


TCM hot and cold food categories

Now that we have a basic understanding of the different body types, let’s explore how traditional Chinese medicine classifies food into either hot, cold or neutral categories. This is important to know because the food and drink we consume has a direct effect on our bodies and health.

For example, many of us like to unwind and relax with a glass of wine every night, especially if we have experienced a stressful at day at work. However, in these cases, we must exercise caution because wine is actually considered a “hot” food, and with stress also adding heat to our bodies, drinking wine daily can worsen any build-up of excess heat in the body. Over time, excess heat in the body may cause symptoms such as thirst, dry eyes, hard stools and sore throat – these are all signs that your body is suffering from excess fire!

The lists below will give you a basic idea of how foods are classified by type, according to traditional Chinese medicine.


“Cold” foods

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  • Most salads, fruit juices, cold foods and vegetables
  • Watermelon, winter melon, bitter melon
  • Banana
  • Young coconut
  • Pear
  • Lemon
  • Kiwi
  • Aubergine
  • Cucumber
  • Mushrooms
  • Tofu
  • Sea urchin and crab


Neutral foods

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  • Most steamed and stewed dishes
  • White rice, pasta, noodles and oats
  • Red grapes
  • Fig, apple, papaya
  • Avocado
  • Green beans, soybeans and red beans
  • Carrot, black radish
  • Courgette, okra
  • Green, red and yellow peppers
  • Sweet potato and potato
  • Corn
  • Pork
  • Most fish


Foods with “heat”

Image title

  • Most stir-fried dishes, dried fruits and nuts, sweet foods, grilled and baked foods and most alcoholic beverages
  • Coffee
  • Pineapple, longan, lychee, mango and durian
  • Peanut
  • Cherry, peach and guava
  • Chestnut
  • Ginger, garlic, chilli peppers and and other spicy foods
  • Chicken, lamb and beef
  • Hotpot


Cold body type: consume less “cold” foods Hot body type: consume less foods with “heat” Damp body type: consume less of both “cold” foods and foods with “heat” *Neutral foods may be consumed by all body types


The role of the spleen and stomach

In traditional Chinese medicine, the efficiency of the spleen and stomach is most closely related to the quality of our diet. Much like Western medicine’s view on the digestive system, the spleen and stomach in Chinese medicine follow a simple formula for health: appropriate diet + daily lifestyle habits appropriate for your body type = good health.

Why is diet so important in traditional Chinese medicine? Why must we avoid certain foods when we are ill in order to have a speedy recovery?


Photo credit: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


Theories in traditional Chinese medicine stipulate that the spleen and stomach engender “the source of transformation” and are “the root of the acquired constitution”. From birth, we rely on the functions of the spleen and stomach to digest, absorb nutrients from food and nourish our internal organs so that our body can operate smoothly. No amount of nutritious food would be able to help if either the spleen or stomach is compromised.

So how can we take the utmost care of our spleen and stomach? Most of us have probably, at one point or another, been advised not to consume anything that is raw or cold, but what does this advice really entail?


Raw foods: anything uncooked, such as sashimi, salads, fruits, raw eggs and even mineral water
Cold foods: anything that is colder than room temperature, such as items fresh out of the fridge or freezer, including ice cream, beer, cold drinks and cold fruits and vegetables


Even if we order an unsweetened iced tea at a fast-food restaurant, it might not be a healthy choice because:

  • We consistently consume raw and cold food and drink over a long period of time.
  • We do not eat at regular hours.
  • We overeat rich foods at one sitting.


Photo credit: Giovanna Gomes on Unsplash


When we overburden our spleen and stomach, we affect their functioning

In this case, food gets stuck in the stomach or skips the movement and transformation process of digestion. The food either gets directly passed out of the body or remains stuck inside, affecting appetite and causing bloatedness and/or diarrhoea.

Fluids also become stagnated, and dampness is retained within the body or causes “phlegm dampness”, which leads to swelling/oedema and the accumulation of phlegm.

This is why it is better to keep your body balanced rather than wait to treat it with medicine after you get sick. Make an effort to reflect on your habits and change your lifestyle for your overall health and well-being.


Tips

  • Do not simply eat a meal of sashimi (a “cold” food); include some cooked food and don’t forget to have some pickled ginger (a “hot” food) on the side.
  • In addition to asking for a drink that is lightly sweetened, perhaps also consider asking for less ice or for a drink at room temperature.
  • Try to avoid eating cold cereal every day; cooked dishes such as congee and noodles are both good options for breakfast.
  • After exercising, consider drinking a beverage at room temperature – it actually quenches your thirst better than a cold one.


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