Food Therapy TCM Style

By Jennifer Troyan & Maria Chah, DOM, AP

Why do people like the seasons and changes? It is because there are environmental changes and foods that go in and out of season and it is good to think about the fact that we have an internal environment just as we have an external environment. Acupuncturists can help match the right foods best to align your body’s natural state of harmony. A couple of months ago we talked about preparing for a fall detox and now that time is soon passing upon us. It’s now winter approaching and, very simply, when it is cold outside, we want to eat warming foods, such as soup or stew, and when it is hot outside we find ourselves wanting something more cooling like a cold bowl of fruit or cool beverage.

A little bit of theory on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM):

We are coming into winter and this is considered a yin (dark/ retreat state). Each season has a natural flow of energy and TCM food therapy is – based on flavors and temperature of food for that season. Like Fall is a time to detox and release the old excess so we can prepare the body to slow down and find a time to retreat from the active yawn of Summer. The moon rises and falls, and the sun rises and falls into the day and then to the night. Everything about our planet has a continuous cycle of energy.

The energetics of all foods have specific actions and flavors that serve our primary 5 vital organs. TCM name it the 5 flavors such as: sour, aromatic, salty, sweet, and bitter.

Example: Ever have that craving for a sweet or something salty or sour? According to the energetics of flavors, these tastes/cravings have to do with what your organs need. If you are craving salt (which has a governing action – where salt goes, water follows).

Is there a reason we have cravings? Yes, it is something our bodies are asking for and needs, especially when not being nourished enough of the specific energetic element for the organs to properly function. What is most interesting is not always as one might assume. If you feel like you want something salty it is probably because your body wants more water, but we are told salt dehydrates! Yes, but salt is also heavy and sinks and it wants water to fill that space.

If you have emotional things going on, you may crave something crunchy, and it might just be because you need something to chew on to release any tension to gain a sense of gratification.

Food and herbs (particularly the temperature and actions of herbs) are medicinal, and a Chinese herbal medicine approach helps the practitioner understand how to help their patients’ well-being through coaching and decision-making with what food therapy is best to be used for each patient. This may help you understand how and why an acupuncture physician inquires about your eating habits and lifestyle. Because The TCM approach is an integrative process of the whole mind and body encompassed within external factors.

Here are some examples of foods in action:

Cinnamon: Is warming and dispersing. If we crave it, it is most likely because we have too much sweetness or dampness in our diet, such as sugar and dairy, or too many processed products).


Lemon: Is sour and great for the Liver but too much can be too alkalizing (meaning it can alter the pH levels of your blood).

Hence, everything has to have balance and we can also consider foods in their right seasons so the body and its organs can acclimate accordingly. This creates more harmony and a healthy Life Force.

Fruits are out in certain seasons because nature naturally knows. In winter, we want warmth, a cozy blanket, our pets curled up beside us, and perhaps we want to eat pot roast (or a veggie version of this). The pot roast has potatoes and carrots, and they are warm, and grow underground. Whereas in summer, corn is growing – it is open to the air, to the external environment. This is all based on temperature. The seasons are nature’s transitions.

TCM is always looking for what stagnates energy. Right foods, right temperature, for the right time of year. These flavors have a pathology to them, have the ability to create change in your body’s temperature and pH level.

Ice cream – cooling, soft, and makes you happy (when out in sun).

Too much salt is damaging – can raise your blood pressure and in Chinese medicine damages blood and that is considered blood stagnation. The kind of salt – mineral, Himalayan, and a balanced amount makes a difference.

Salt can be your friend and we crave it more – because your kidneys like and need it to best regulate the body’s sodium/potassium fluid metabolism. For TCM, the kidneys are considered the water element.

When the body needs more fluids it seeks help for better systemic function. When we get dehydrated, the tendency is to crave more food. So, depending on the person's imbalances they will seek out what organ calls for the most attention. And that usually will be the food we find ourselves in the mood to consume. Of course, the former statement can also be overridden by excessive emotional states that then lead to many other complexities.

Now let’s not underestimate the power of natural herbs. Particularly TCM herbal formulas. They act as synergies for the body and are used to correct energetic imbalances of the vital organs, including the brain.

This completes our part 1 of 2 article series on health and wellness TCM style.

If interested, we will talk more about TCM food philosophy to be concluded in our “Part 2 Food Therapy Article”. Here is where we take a deeper dive into the pathology of the 5 Tastes and their energetic healing flavors.

This type of knowledge can help you learn how to read the body and its messages. So, keep your eyes open for our December Issue coming soon.


DISCLAIMER: This is some real “Doctorly or Scientific” yet it is valuable content to learn and interesting! If you find it too much, we have given a basic summary up to this point, and just scroll down to the Conclusion part.