Supporting your health through diet
© Justine Hankin Acupuncture 2021
Diet is seen as a form of medicine in many different models of medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is no different.
According to TCM, when you are in good health, your energy (‘qi’) flows freely through your body and you don’t experience any symptoms of ill health. This is because symptoms are simply your body’s way of letting you know something is wrong. Therefore, in order to maintain good health, it is vital to keep your energy vibrant and moving – and your diet is one of your biggest weapons in achieving this!
What, and how, you eat is key to producing enough qi to stay in good health.
You might think your diet is already good enough because you function on a day-to-day basis; but are you thriving or simply surviving? Making some small changes to your dietary habits can be enough to ensure you are in the thrive camp!
In order to understand the impact diet can have on your well-being from a TCM point of view, it is helpful to understand the origins of energy. There are two main types of energy:
- the first is ‘Pre-birth Qi’. This is the innate energy you are born with. It is the energy that allows you to draw your first breath; in western terms this can be equated to your constitution. However, this type of qi is finite and cannot be recharged, therefore it should not be relied upon unless absolutely necessary
- the second type is known as ‘Post-birth Qi’. This is readily available and easy to replenish as it is derived from water, sleep, air and food. This is the energy we should rely upon a day-to-day basis
Very simply, if you eat well, there is more chance your energy will be abundant and that you will be in good health. However, if you eat badly, you will have less energy, forcing you to make up the deficit by dipping into your reserves (Pre-birth Qi) which can have a detrimental effect on both your health and fertility. You really are what you eat.
In the West, with a huge variety of readily available ingredients, why do any of us have a ‘bad’ diet? There are a multitude of reasons; lack of knowledge, diet fads, lack of time, lack of interest to name but a few. Taking control of your diet is one of the most important and effective means you have to improve your health.
So, what is a good diet? In a nutshell, from a TCM point of view, a good diet is varied and incorporates fresh, homemade foods, using ingredients that suit the individual, that are eaten in a healthy manner and in moderation. Let me explain what this means in practice.
What is the right type of food?
Before eating it is be helpful to consider ‘what does my body need right now in order to feel well?’. For example, if you are in the follicular phase of your cycle, your body would benefit from good sources of protein. Similarly, if you are about to give an important presentation, it might be best to have a light, hot meal because a very heavy meal might cloud your mind.
Thinking about what your body needs at that moment in time and tailoring your diet accordingly is a relatively uncomplicated way to ensure better health and more energy.
Variety is vital. If you eat the same foods day in/day out, you limit the number of nutrients your body receives. For example, if you were building your dream home, you would buy a variety of the best building materials you could afford: bricks, windows, doors, furniture – because a house built only out of bricks would be very dark and boring! It is literally the same for your body – a varied diet provides your body with different nutrients which, in turn, contributes to building good health.
The Importance of Digestion
Not only do you need a fresh and varied diet, you also need to be able to digest it effectively. In TCM, the Stomach controls your digestion. It plays a central role by taking in the food you eat and breaking it down into energy the body can use.
Therefore, it is beneficial to incorporate foods that traditionally nourish the Stomach.
You do not need to eat these foods exclusively but try to incorporate them into your diet where possible.
Conversely, there are foods that can weaken your digestion. These include:
- Salad, raw fruit and vegetables: these can be too cold for the Stomach if eaten in excess
- Milk and cheese: these are cold in nature and cause the production of phlegm, which hinders the Stomach function
- Uncooked grains: these can be difficult to break down and drain the Stomach energy
- Sugar: the Stomach benefits from a little sweetness as it actually helps digestion, but too much will deplete Stomach energy
- Alcohol: in moderation is fine. However, alcohol is essentially sugar, therefore large quantities (more than 2 glasses) can impact the Stomach energy
Other TCM tips to support a healthy digestion:
- Liquids and foods should be neither too hot nor too cold – just as Goldilocks would like it!
- In particular, avoid foods that cool the digestive ‘flame’ e.g. chilled, iced, frozen foods and liquids. All foods and liquids should ideally be consumed at room temperature or cooked
- Avoid using a microwave to cook your food. Microwaved food is considered to be devoid of energetic benefit
- Avoid too much raw food e.g. fruit and salad. Seasonal summer foods are the exception to this rule. In winter all foods should be cooked
- Avoid greasy, fatty or very spicy foods e.g. deep-fried foods and too much red or fatty meat
- Try to eat according to the seasons e.g. strawberries in the summer, not in the winter
How and when to eat
In TCM how and when you eat is as important as what you eat. You can eat the best food in the world but, if you are eating it in the wrong way, or at the wrong time of day, your body will be unable to fully benefit from it.
How to eat
In order to understand why the how is important, you need to understand the functions of the Stomach in TCM. Picture the stomach as a witch’s cauldron, heated by a small flame, into which you throw ingredients – your food. The Stomach takes these ingredients, cooks them, extracts the energy, then sends this energy out to your body.
But in TCM this is not the Stomach’s only job; it has several other functions:
- it sends energy to your brain to help you to think
- it sends energy to your muscles to allow you to move
- it makes blood
- it is the organ associated with the emotion of worry
Therefore, imagine this scenario:
You are at work, it is lunch time, but you have a presentation that afternoon, so you have no time to stop to eat. Instead, you grab a sandwich, rush back to your desk and eat whilst working, worrying about how you are going to meet the deadline.
How will this impact your digestion?
- when distracted you don’t tend to chew your food thoroughly (ideally each mouthful is chewed until it is the consistency of soup!). As digestion starts in the mouth, not chewing means the Stomach has to work much harder
- if you are concentrating on a work issue whilst eating your Stomach has to divert energy to your brain to help you to think, hindering digestion. Obviously, your mind does not have to be blank whilst eating! However, working on your next presentation at the same time as eating will put stress on the digestive system
- if you then get up to go and find a work file you need for the presentation, your Stomach has to divert energy to your muscles to enable your legs to work
- if, in addition, you start to worry about your presentation, even more energy gets diverted from digestion
You get the picture – just replace the ‘presentation’ with whatever challenges you face in your day. In the end your Stomach does not have enough energy to digest your food, meaning you do not get the full benefit from having eaten.
Even when under pressure there are some basic ground rules that will help your body get the most out of the food you are eating:
- Chew your food at least 30 times – the average person chews each mouthful between 5-10 times…
- Thorough chewing allows foods to be mixed with saliva which helps to turn grains and other complex carbohydrates into satisfying sugars and makes oils, proteins and minerals available for maximum absorption. Without adequate chewing, you may feel bloated, muzzy headed and tired
- Set some time aside for meals. It does not have to be long – 15 minutes is enough. During that time do nothing but eat (you are allowed to chat to a friend!) – concentrate on the flavour and texture of your food. You will find you feel more satisfied and less hungry if you do this
- Avoid talking about emotionally charged subjects whilst eating. When you are tense your whole body tenses up – including your Stomach – impeding digestion
- Avoid eating when you are really tired, or too hot, or too cold, worried, angry, standing or before having a bath as they all hinder digestion
When to eat
When you eat can also impact health and digestion in TCM as there is a concept of a body clock – that is to say that, within every 24 hours, each organ has a period of time when it is at its strongest; when it can perform its duties most efficiently and when it is best suited to carry out any repair work. The strongest time for the Stomach is between 7.00–11.00a.m, and the weakest time is between 7.00-11.00p.m. – which is why it is best to ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and supper like a pauper’.
Breakfast should be eaten between 7.00-11.00a.m. Ideally it should be quite simple and warm in temperature, for example oat or rice porridge, as the Stomach loves warm, wet food.
A perfect way to start and finish your day, and help your system to cleanse itself, is to have a cup of hot water with half a squeezed lemon in place of a cup of coffee/tea/hot chocolate.
Eaten 4 hours after breakfast. This should be a bigger meal than supper. If you have an urge to eat salad, lunch is the time to do so – but even better is something warm – particularly in the winter.
Ideally to be eaten by 7pm. I know that this may not always possible, and if that is the case try to eat at least 2 hours before going to bed.
Supper should be the smallest meal of the day. It should be food that is easily digested such as soup, steamed vegetables or stir-fry – definitely no raw food in the evening.
Another reason for not eating later than 7pm in TCM is due to the fact that between 11pm-3am the Liver energy is at its strongest. The Liver is responsible for clearing toxins from the body and its effectiveness can be hindered when you eat late at night. If you wake up feeling tired or with a ‘fuzzy’ head, it is an indication that the Liver has not had the opportunity to complete the necessary purification.
A final word on Post Heavenly Qi
I hope these guidelines help you gain maximum benefit from your diet. But don’t forget, our energy is sourced not only from food, but also sleep, water and breath. Therefore, in addition to eating a fresh, varied diet, in a calm, relaxed manner, ensure you also:
- stay hydrated – up to 60% of your body is water. If you are dehydrated it puts your whole body under stress
- have 8 hours sleep a night (it has been proven that we all need 8 hours – it is not true that some people only need 4 hours!)
- breathe! Throughout the day take a moment to take 10 slow, deep breaths through your nose. You will be amazed at what a boost in energy this gives you
If you can incorporate these key foundations of nutrition into your life it will go a long way to ensure you are truly nourished – and remember, when you are nourished, you are more likely to be in good health. It really is as simple as that!