Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a holistic and comprehensive system of health that views the body in accordance with nature. It puts the utmost importance on lifestyle choices and nutrition, and if these fail to bring the body into balance then it is time to look into herbs and acupuncture.
In TCM there is no distinct difference between food and medicine, meaning that food itself can sometimes be all the medicine you need. Food is viewed as a powerful tool to help create and maintain wellness.
In contrast with western medicine, the role of food and medicine in traditional Chinese medicine overlap. For example, a water melon is food, but it can also have a medical effect during hot days because of its hydrating properties.
The ancient clans of China, dating back to 2200 BC, started to discover the different medical values of herbs while they were still hunting and gathering. Some foods relieved their illness, some caused death. Over time, and in concourse with the growth of Chinese philosophy, medical theories were developed.
However, there are also some foods that are considered more “medicine” than “food,” for example, ginseng. When it comes to this “medicine,” a person should consult a practitioner, since eating it could make your body worse. Why? Foods have different natures, and all of us have different bodies that interact differently with different foods.
In traditional Chinese medicine, food is divided into four natures, called “siqi” (四氣) : cold 寒, cool 涼, neutral 溫 , warm and hot 熱 . The nature of food is not determined by their actual temperature, but rather by what effects they have on a person’s body after consumption. When a person continually eats one type of food, it creates an imbalance in their body, and affects their immune system. Thus, one of the keys in Chinese medicine is to keep our body “neutral.”
Foods that are warm and hot bring heat to our bodies — e.g. beef, coffee, ginger, hot chilies and fried foods — while cold and cool foods cool down our bodies– think of salad, cheese, green tea, and beer. Neutral foods are foods like oil, rice, pork and most kinds of fishes.
The purpose of eating is to find a neutral body state to enable the perfect flow of Qi through our bodies. So, we need to understand our body type first. As we are all uniquely made, our bodies are not all the same. Just the same way, different foods will have different properties that can be matched up to suit the different body types (體質). A person who has too much heat in their body usually feels hot, sweats all the time, is grumpy, has a swollen tongue, or could be constipated. People who have too much cold in their bodies appear pale, have cold hands and feet, might feel weak, or have bad blood circulation. When this happens, we are advised to stop eating that kind of food.