By Samantha Kloss, L.Ac., Dipl. O.M.
Chinese herbs have been used for thousands of years as well as written about extensively in several classical texts. Our current “Materia Medica”, (book of herbal medicines), contains well over 500 herbs, which all have specific and unique properties and actions. Chinese herbs are differentiated by categories in terms of what they treat, as well as by the flavor and nature of the herb. In Chinese medicine, the flavor of the herb tells us a little bit about the action that the herb has on the body.
In my nutrition class last month, I talked about how the particular flavors of food provides more than just delicious diversity for our palates. In Chinese herbal medicine, flavors also initiate physiological reactions in the body. While drinking the herbs may cause an initial unpleasant reaction due to their strong taste, they are ultimately initiating change inside of the body, which is necessary to bring our bodies back into balance.
Below are some example of flavors and their corresponding actions.
Sour- Think about taking a bite out of a lemon, our mouth puckers, our body contracts, and salivation occurs. This illustrates what we know to be true in Chinese medicine- that the sour flavor has a constricting and astringent nature, and also helps to generate body fluids (for example: saliva).
Sweet- Most of us crave the sweet flavor when we feel tired and depleted and there is a very good reason for this! The sweet flavor, when used in moderation, is helpful in supporting overall “tonification” for the body. This means that it helps to strengthen our energy reserves, and helps to supplement and nourish our blood. In Chinese medicine, the state and amount of the blood is a huge factor for our overall vitality and health, especially in women.
Salty- Have you ever gurgled salt water in order to calm a swollen, sore throat? Modern research shows that salt pulls mucous out of inflamed tissue in order to relieve throat discomfort. Chinese medicine has known that salt does this for years! Salty softens accumulations and areas of hardness and also has a draining action. Kelp, another salty food and a Chinese herb, is actually currently being studied for its ability to break down plaque, another hard accumulation that forms on teeth.
Bitter- While it is perhaps the most unpalatable of all the flavors, the bitter flavor is so crucial as it is used to clear inflammation from the body. Inflammation is what we call “heat” in Chinese medicine. It can manifest in so many different ways- the most obvious being fevers and sensations of heat or “hot flashes”, skin eruptions, red swellings, a burning sensation, gut issues, etc.
Spicy/Acrid- Have you ever eaten something spicy, such as horseradish and experienced a runny nose or the ability to breathe better? The spicy(acrid) flavor is used to create warmth and promote circulation and movement throughout the body. In this way, they can be used to open up the orifices of the nose by moving blockages out of the way and promoting circulation.
When we use Chinese herbal medicine, we rarely ever use single herbs. We pair several different herbs, often herbs with different flavors and natures in order to create a balanced and comprehensive prescription that matches your exact presentation. By creating customized herbal formulas, we can treat complex diseases unique to the individual that manifest with multiple different patterns and symptoms.
I once heard someone say, “Just as the best advice can often be painful to the ears, the best medicine is painful to the tongue!”. It’s true that herbs can be bitter, sour, bland, salty, and sweet tasting and depending on the formula, it might not make for the most pleasant tasting drink. However, herbs aren’t meant to taste good- they are used as medicine and meant to provide relief from chronic health issues with minimal to no side effects. If you are interested in Chinese herbal medicine, we offer affordable herbal consults, in which we take an in-depth look into your health history and create a customized formula specifically for you. I’d be happy to talk to you about whether you can benefit from Chinese herbal medicine!
These blog posts are written by our providers about topics they believe are important to help you get well and stay well. We hope you enjoy them!