An old Chinese proverb has it that “He that takes medicine and neglects his diet wastes the skills of his physician.”
Hippocrates also said, “Let food be thy medicine,” in the 5th century B.C. These two bits of wisdom from different parts of the globe tell us what was well-understood hundreds of years ago: What we eat is an important factor in maintaining health as well as recovering from disease. And even today with our advances in medicine and technology, food is still the best medicine and the easiest and most impactful way to stay healthy and disease-free.
Food as Medicine
Nutrition is one of the foundational elements of Eastern medicine. The ancient Chinese understood very well that the best medicine isn’t the herbal remedy given when you have a cold or the salve when you scrape your knee, but the food we ingest every day. It helps to build our immune systems, fortify us against disease, cool excess heat, drain dampness, move stagnation, and warm us when we are deficient.
Our ancestors were intrinsically connected to nature, and this connection was necessary for survival. They paid attention to the seasons, but more specifically, changes in the weather, the cycles of crops, migration of animals, and the changing positions of the sun and moon. They were attuned to the natural rhythms of the planet and were able to adjust their behaviors to maintain a sort of equilibrium with their surroundings.
This mindset led people to focus on prevention. Certain patterns and times of year were more associated with illness, and this insight was passed on. This type of wisdom is also found in the foundation of Eastern medicine as it was practiced then as well as today. One of the keys to living preventatively is to become attuned to our bodies and our surroundings. We must become still enough to hear what our bodies are telling us so we can give them what they need.
That awareness is something many of us have lost amid the pace of our modern world. But this listening, this attunement, is something that Eastern medicine teaches. Your body is always communicating with you, you only have to listen.
Thermal Nature of Foods, People
So how can we use food as medicine? Eastern medicine has a pretty elegant system for understanding how to use food as medicine and fortify ourselves against disease in every season. Foods have a thermal nature and so do people. It’s a delicate balance of yin and yang energies: Some foods are cooling (yin) and some are heating (yang).
People also have a thermal nature, which occurs naturally when they are in a healthy state; knowing this is very helpful as you move forward. Some people are naturally more yin while others are more yang. There are other factors at play as well, the weather and surroundings have a thermal nature too, and this also has an effect on us. Health is seen as a dynamic balance of all these forces.
Granted, this can all get a little complex, and you can get pretty deep into it (especially if you’re a nerd practitioner like me), but there are some basics that can help you get started.
Think about the seasons as a continuously fluctuating cycle of yin (cold) and yang (hot) energies. Summer is the height of yang or heat energies and winter is the peak of yin or cold energies. Summer gradually cools off and moves into fall, which cools further in transition into winter. Winter comes to an end, and the yin energies are gradually infused with yang in spring, which further heats up as it moves into summer.
So as a general rule, you want to balance the temperature of the season you’re in with foods that are its opposite. Cooling foods in summer, and warming foods in winter, and gradually adding warming foods in fall and cooling foods in spring. You can also affect the thermal nature of the foods you eat through different cooking methods, which is why those also change according to the season.
This is very general, but it gives you an idea and a place to start. As you practice and become aware of the seasons and the thermal nature of the foods you’re eating, it actually becomes this really beautifully nourishing and healing way to eat, and one your body will love.
Eastern medicine was developed over thousands of years from observations of nature. Humans and nature have always had a symbiotic relationship: The earth nourished us with its bounty, and we tended and nurtured the planet in a continuous cycle of loving interaction. Humans followed the natural cycles of the planet and lived in harmony with the changing seasons.
The Summer Season
Summer is the season associated with the heart, the color red, and the emotion of joy. In the hot summer months, people rose early and went to bed later to capitalize on the yang energy represented by outward expression and activity. They ate foods that grew in abundance, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, eating salads and lighter fare, many of which are considered cooling to balance the external heat. People also took time to get together with family and friends, connecting and feeding their heart energy, as the heart is the organ associated with summer and, with it, the emotion of joy.
Everything we do in summer should be an attempt to cultivate joy in our lives. Summer is the season to feed heart energy. In terms of foods, many red foods are good for the heart. Cooking methods should be lighter and of shorter duration to preserve all the freshness and nutrients the food has been soaking up from the summer sun. Eating should be lighter and in smaller portions and working to keep yin fluids plentiful to counteract the intense heat of the season.
The Fall Season
Fall is the season associated with the lungs, the color white, and the emotion of grief. As the summer season winds down and the weather begins to cool, our behaviors go from the outward expressions of summer to the more inward and reflective activities of fall, which will inevitably prepare us for winter.
We eat foods that grow in abundance in this season (which varies greatly depending on where you are on the planet), but in North America, we see many foods with beautiful fall colors: squashes, gourds, sweet potatoes, carrots, and pumpkins. Many of these foods grow in the ground and have more yang properties for nourishing our inner heat as we prepare our bodies and spirits for the coming cold.
Fall is a time to clear out the old and make space for the new. The energy of the lungs is “letting go,” so that’s the focus at this time of year. Cleaning, reorganizing, and donating are good practices in the fall and make space for all we will cultivate over the winter. Emotionally, making sure that we have let go of any emotional hurts that have lingered strengthens the lungs both physically and psychologically.
Many white foods are beneficial to the lungs and are good to add to the diet in the fall season. Organizing life and becoming more introspective before winter is what fall is all about; checking in to make sure we are emotionally healthy and not hanging on to things that no longer serve us.
The Winter Season
Winter is the season associated with the kidneys, the color black, and the emotion of fear. Winter is the height of yin energies, and even though it seems like a time of death, decay, and inactivity, it’s a season that’s very active—just deep, deep beneath the surface in preparation for the regenerative activities of spring.
Winter is a season of consolidation, gathering energies and pulling them inward. Winter is the time of year to go to bed early and sleep later, profiting from the healing, restorative energies sleep offers us. In winter, we eat fewer fresh foods as they are no longer available and eat more preserved foods we have prepared during the summer and fall. Eating warming foods, especially hearty soups and stews, will help build our yang and counteract the cold.
Our energies should turn inward in winter. In Eastern medicine, the kidneys are the source of our fundamental energy. We should spend quiet time reading, writing, or meditating to strengthen our bodies and spirits. Keeping warm, especially our lower backs where our kidneys reside, is especially important, as they are the source of all our qi. Many black foods strengthen the kidneys and should be added to the diet in the winter months.
The Spring Season
Spring is associated with the liver, the color green, and the emotion of anger. Spring represents the upward and outward energies of newly growing plants, flowers, and trees. The energy in spring is expansive, so it’s a good time to shake off the sleepiness of the winter months and slowly start moving our bodies with gentle stretching, going for long walks outdoors, and taking in the revitalizing green of new plants through our eyes, which are the sense organs associated with the liver.
Spring is the best time to detox from everything we have accumulated over the winter. We can detox physically as well as emotionally. Acknowledging and processing any feelings of anger, resentment, or frustration will keep our liver energy moving freely. Many green foods benefit the liver, and cooking methods should be lighter and of shorter duration compared to the slow cooking of winter. As things begin to thaw, we are able to introduce more fresh foods into our diet. Awakening and cleansing our bodies and spirits are what we need in spring as well as gentle exercises such as tai chi or qigong, which, especially when done outside in nature, nourish the body, mind, and spirit.
If we can become aware of our surroundings and make slight adjustments to our behaviors and diet depending on the season, we will see a huge benefit physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She has lived and practiced in 4 countries and now works through her practice Thrive Consulting. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.