We've all been through different diets to try and eat healthy. Vegan, vegetarian, raw, gluten-free, paleo and the list goes on... Some people see phenomenal results with one way of eating while others see little to no change. It used to be a big mystery to me. But the more I've studied the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective on diet, the more I understand. Certain foods are good for certain imbalances. Correcting these imbalances is crucial not only to general health, but also women's health and decreases the chances of things like menstrual discomfort and infertility.
Why TCM? For starters, TCM has been around for longer than the Western model of medicine. Much longer. Wait, let me rephrase that. Much, much, much longer. The Chinese have been using what we call TCM for around 2,500 years, whereas our current pharmaceutical and surgery based approach has been in use for about 100-ish years. So with TCM we're talking about centuries of observation and practice, not years or even decades. Western medicine is the best option for emergency care. In an emergency, no one can do better than a sterile ER with well-trained doctors and nurses. But for things like chronic diseases and hormonal imbalances, TCM has the potential to be much more effective while being gentler on the body.
The other difference is in approach. The Chinese used a pattern of inductive and deductive logic to understand how the body worked. Their understanding of anatomy and biology came from observing what strategies caused the disease (or disharmony as they would call it) to resolve itself. (This is why TCM terminology is different than that of Western medicine.) In contrast, Western medicine studies anatomy and biology and then bases treatment on its current theories of how the body works. While this can have some efficacy, it is limited because we are always learning new things about how the body works
There are several different patterns of imbalance that TCM can identify and many people will have more than one at a time. But here's a very brief intro to some of the more common patterns and a few of the dietary recommendations for them.
Kidney Yin or Yang Deficiency
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Kidney meridian governs fluid and acid balance, metabolism, waste elimination and growth and development. Stress and fear are the emotions that are associated with imbalances in this meridian. Conditions associated with this imbalance:
- Lower back and knee pain
- Feeling cold frequently
- Stiff joints
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Adrenal fatigue
- wheat germ, bulgur, some tofu, millet barley, brown rice, amaranth
- asparagus, beans of all varieties, peas, chickpeas, bean sprouts, eggplant, beets
- seaweed, chlorella, spirulina, kelp
- fruits like apples bananas, berries, melons and pineapple
- duck and organ meats
- pork, venison and other hormone and antibiotic free meats
- walnuts, black sesame seeds, yams, gelatin, corn
- flaxseed oil
- For Kidney Yin Deficiency avoid dry, pungent and acrid spices like horseradish, peppermint or curry.
- For Kidney Yang Deficiency use warming spices like anise, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, basil, caraway and dill.
- For Kidney Yang Deficiency eat more Yang vegetables like parsnips, parsley, mustard greens winter squash, cabbage, kale, onions, leeks, chives, garlic and scallions
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Spleen meridian governs immune function, digestion, circulation and production of certain hormones like progesterone and thyroid hormone. Excessive sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption, greasy foods and excessive worry and over-thinking all stress the Spleen meridian. Conditions associated with this imbalance:
- Thyroid abnormalities (hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, etc.)
- A number of autoimmune conditions, especially with severe fatigue
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Low blood pressure
- Eat organic vegetables lightly cooked or sauteed.
- Avoid raw or cold foods, especially ice cream, popsicles and ice-cold drinks.
- Avoid energetically "cold" fruits and vegetables like mangoes, watermelon, pears, persimmons, cucumbers, lettuce, celery and spinach.
- Do not eat refined carbs. No white bread, pasta or refined sugar.
- Eat whole grains like rice and oats.
- Eat yams, pumpkin and pumpkin seeds (except if you have certain conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome).
- Eat meat of many kinds (beef, rabbit, poultry, and fish).
- Cherries, coconut, dates, figs, cherries, grapes, molasses, potatoes and shiitake mushrooms are especially recommended.
- Avoid sugar, sugar substitutes and concentrated sweeteners like maple syrup, honey and agave.
- Fruits should be eaten in whole form not as juices.
- Avoid all dairy products as these have a dampening effect, which further harms the Spleen meridian.
In TCM, blood deficiency doesn't necessarily mean anemia. Blood depletion in the sense of Blood as a vital substance in its TCM definition can happen through a really crazy overly active lifestyle, too much stress, lack of rest and self-care and, of course, blood loss.
- Dry, flaky skin
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss (all over, not in patches)
- Diminished night vision
- Eat apricots, berries and grapes
- Eat eggs and meat
- Eat spirulina
- Eat dark leafy greens
- Eat liver and bone marrow broth
Blood stasis refers to conditions where the blood isn't moving properly.
- Varicose veins
- Chronic hemorrhoids
- Blood clotting disorders
- Eat soy, but in moderation
- Use oils that are cold-pressed and unrefined and high in linoleic and alpha-linoleic fatty acids like flaxseed, pumpkin seed and chia seed oils.
- Add spirulina to your diet.
- Avoid foods containing arachidonic acids like meat, dairy, eggs, and peanuts. Fish is OK.
- Eat walnuts, chestnuts, chives, crabs, peaches, mustard leaves, onions, scallions, dark leafy greens, cabbage, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, beets, turnips, cauliflower and carrots.
- Lemons, limes and certain types of seaweed like kelp, Irish moss and bladder wrack are especially recommended.
- Don't eat foods straight out of the refrigerator or freezer.
- Don't put ice in your drinks.
- Add grapes, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, beets, watercress, vinegar and unrefined salt to your diet to purify the blood.
Oh, Liver Qi stagnation. A good portion of America suffers from Liver Qi stagnation and at least one of its accompanying conditions. Liver Qi stagnation is often associated with stress, anger and unfulfilled desires.
- Insomnia (trouble getting to sleep as opposed to night waking)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Incorporate Spleen Qi deficiency guidelines.
- Don't overeat.
- Avoid heavy or hard-to-digest foods like nuts and nut butters, butter and other animal fats, and excessive bread or meat.
- Don't eat foods with chemicals or preservatives.
- Sit down when you eat.
- Eat small, frequent meals.
- Chew thoroughly.
- Eat spices like peppermint, rosemary, spearmint, turmeric and thyme.
- Supplement with zinc.
In TCM, the Heart Meridian encompasses the mind and the spirit as well as the cardiovascular system. Imbalances in this meridian are associated shattered emotions and spirit. If you have experienced severe trauma, there is a good chance you have an imbalance in this meridian. Take note that many of the symptoms are associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you want my opinion (and I'm assuming you do if you're here), I think PTSD is associated with imbalances in the Heart meridian.
- Insomnia (waking early and having trouble falling back to sleep)
- Heart palpitations
- Cut out coffee, caffeine and any other kinds of natural or artificial stimulants
- Mung beans, beets and corn are especially recommended.
In TCM, imbalances in the meridians can be associated with "coldness" or "heat". Excess heat needs to be treated differently than excess cold.
- Dry mouth and throat
- Hot flashes or feeling warmer than those around you
- Red acne
- Don't drink alcohol.
- Avoid spicy and greasy foods.
- Don't take very hot baths or sit in hot tubs or saunas.
- Include cooling foods like burdock root, plums, pears, tomatoes and pomegranates in your diet.
Too much dampness in the system can be another imbalance. Some conditions associated with Dampness:
- Fibrocystic breasts
- Cystic or pustular acne
- Joint aches with movement
- Some types of overweight conditions
- Certain types of rashes
- Do not eat greasy, fried foods.
- Avoid sugar, fruit juices, sweets and refined carbohydrates.
- Do not consume dairy products.
- Eat soy products sparingly if at all.
- Avoid wheat (it's a damp food). Barley, rye and brown rice are grains that help combat dampness.
- Don't eat bananas, chocolate or nuts.
- Don't drink alcohol.
- Add in diuretic foods like alfalfa, parsley, radishes, summer melons, celery, carrots, cabbage, cranberries, cucumbers, lettuce and kelp.