When someone mentions weight-loss options, Chinese herbs probably aren’t top of mind. But if you see someone full of energy, with glowing skin and a fit body, they probably have a balanced lifestyle—and Chinese herbs are a great way to support that.
Knowing Yin and Yang
The ancient idea of yin and yang refers to two forces that form a complementary duality that exists throughout creation. This idea is well-founded and affirmed by modern physics and human physiology, where the body has complementary systems that turn various processes on and off.
In the paradigm of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), various features are assigned to these two forces or forms of matter:
Yin: cool, still, moist, earth, dark, material, form, passive, tangible, blood.
Yang: warm, active, dry, sky, bright, energy, function, active, intangible, qi.
Yin and yang represent opposite but complementary qualities. However, they are intertransformable: Yin has a component of yang and yang has a component of yin, represented by the small dots in the yin-yang symbol. Yin is black, but it carries a white dot; yang is white, but it contains a black dot.
The TCM World Foundation offers an interesting description of the simplicity and significance of these two forces: “Like Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc², the yin-yang symbol describes something very elemental and incredibly complex. What yin-yang points to and represents is so vast it encompasses everything in the Universe.”
The insight of yin yang, including the understanding of obesity, plays a central role in Chinese medicine. Instead of simply blaming excess weight on eating too much and storing the excess as fat, TCM proposes that there could be problems in how one transforms these two forms of matter or how they are balanced. For instance, the yang force may be too weak, manifesting in a slow metabolism unable to transform body fat into usable energy. Once a healthy balance is achieved, one should be able to keep these two states of matter converting smoothly.
Yin Yang Weight Loss
One of the ways in which TCM can help you lose weight is by speeding up your body’s natural metabolism, which requires promoting the yang force. Rather than viewing weight gain as a problem on its own, TCM believes obesity is a symptom of underlying health issues, though diet can be fundamental cause. Health ailments can arise from blockages in the flow of qi, the yang energy flowing through our body. As explained above, the yang force governs one’s energy level, metabolism, and circulation.
Choosing food smartly by identifying yin (cooling) and yang (heating) elements can ensure that our bodies have what is needed to adjust the balance of these two energies.
Bitter and sour foods with a sharp smell, spices, and foods red or green in color belong to yang. Sugary, salty, and high-fat foods, white or black in color, belong to yin; these are the foods that people tend to overeat.
The first group of foods helps to control appetite and improve digestion, as they induce yang energies in our bodies, while the second group makes one gain weight faster, as these foods are yin in their qualities and our bodies tend to store them, as they slow down our metabolism. Yellow is considered neutral and can balance or nurture both.
These concepts are affirmed by Western scientific insights on nutrition. In particular, bitter foods and certain other foods such as lemon, vinegar, verjuice, and Kombucha have been found to increase bile production, reduce insulin resistance, and support liver function, such as detoxification.
Many TCM herbs promote fat-burning and increase the body’s metabolism, such as poria mushroom (fu ling), polyporus mushroom (zhu ling), astragalus root (huang qi), lotus leaf (he ye), cinnamon (gui zhi), kudzu root (ge gen), ginseng (ren sen), alismatis (ze xie), and licorice (gan cao). All these herbs promote firm and glowing skin, as well.
Exercise remains an important component in losing weight. However, intense exercise is not necessarily needed. According to TCM, practices that promote circulation and energy flow among the organs and digestive tract work better than vigorous exercise; they also unwind one’s mind and help us relax; affect hormones; and are particularly vital in treating some types of obesity.
In the parlance of Western medicine, when we are stressed, our body activates the sympathetic nervous system for fight-or-flight. When we relax, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and activates rest and digestion.
For seniors and people who may not be able to do strenuous exercise, Falun Gong, tai chi, and yoga are good options as they help to reduce stress and tone the muscles gently yet effectively.
Types of Obesity and Their Solutions
Here are five categories of obesity, and how you can best address them to regain your health:
- Dampness and Phlegm
In TCM, the term “dampness” refers to water retention combined with fat stores due to overstimulation of insulin from poor diet and overeating. If this happens chronically, it weakens the spleen system, which has a different definition in TCM than the Western-medicine spleen definition, and is in charge of transformation and transportation of food.Dampness can be due to a problem arising from the inability of the digestive system to transport fluids, or because the body is overwhelmed by external dampness from the environment (damp weather, damp living conditions, dampness-producing foods). It can also arise as a response to illness or from the overuse of medication that promotes dampness, such as certain antibiotics.A condensed, easily recognized form of dampness is phlegm. If your body often feels heavy and sleepy, and you have phlegm in the lung and throat, you likely have excess dampness.In TCM, the recommended way to address this problem is to drink white tea, eat pearl barley and white-colored foods, use spicy flavors, drink goat milk, and eat some lamb.Regularly massaging the center of the chest or using a hair dryer to warm it helps the lungs heat up and rid themselves of dampness.
- Blood Stasis
Those who feel deep pain when massaged firmly or occasionally suffer heart pain may have blood of higher viscosity that moves more slowly than it should. Usually, this is due to eating too much greasy food, and the result is that the heart lacks the energy to properly circulate the blood.In Chinese medicine theory, obesity results from poor circulation, rather than from the food itself. An analogy is how cars and trucks move in and out of a city: If both the roads and traffic are managed well, it is not a problem for many vehicles to move efficiently.A warm half-body bath can help people with poor circulation. Drinking warm ginger tea and adding cinnamon, cumin, fennel, or cardamom to one’s diet can also be helpful.A good massage of the muscle on the lower half of the upper arms can also help to break down the viscosity of the blood.
- Lack of Qi
Common symptoms in people who lack qi include weak muscles, feeling tired after talking or standing, poor digestion, and weak appetite. This condition directly reflects how one’s body burns calories.Doing exercise—not necessarily heavy exercise—is beneficial for those who are lacking qi. You may be surprised that gentle exercise practices, like qi gong and tai chi, are among the best for losing weight. When we’re doing bigger movements, the blood and nutrients are circulated in our limbs; we do build some more muscle, but the fat stored in our organs remains.Qi gong, yoga, and tai chi focus on the improving the exchange of oxygen and the flow of blood, so these help the whole body regain health. Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is also highly recommended as it addresses mental stress and psychological attachments, and is very simple to learn (FalunDafa.org).
- Excess Heat and Inflammation
Most modern jobs take place within temperature-controlled office environments and require workers to use computers or other electronic devices for long hours. This type of work deprives our skin of the chance to adjust to the seasons; we don’t sweat and our pores remain closed, with heat stored within. The result is that we disrupt our bodies’ natural ability to keep balance with the seasons, and we may suffer bouts of inflammation. Common symptoms of this condition are swollen gums, skin irritation, heartburn, dark-colored urine, and bad breath.To reduce the heat or inflammation inside our bodies, avoid cold drinks or uncooked food, don’t stay up too late, and get sufficient rest. People suffering in this state can also drink green, oolong, or lavender tea.
- Mood and Stress
A very common cause of obesity, especially among women around 40 years old, is mood and stress. This type of weight gain often comes with depression, and it takes a toll on one’s physical and mental health.Typical issues associated with this state include sleeping problems, skin pigmentation and other skin disorders, stress, and in some cases, cancers, especially breast cancer.This is because, according to the understanding of emotional impacts on health in traditional Chinese medicine, the liver is in charge of anger. Those who are easily irritated but always hold in their anger, instead of releasing it, tend to have issues around their liver energy channel; this system is distinct from the Western concept of the liver. People with a weak liver energy system commonly suffer sleeping problems.Two simple massage techniques can help relieve such symptoms:Underarm: Open and place your palm behind your head; hold a loose fist with the other hand, and gently hit the armpit for about five minutes on each side. It is very easy to do when you lay down before bed—every night if possible. You may be surprised to find that you experience deep, restorative sleep.Inner thigh: Use a stick or a long bottle filled with water to roll over the upper inner thigh down to just above the knee. A wooden hairbrush or comb can be used for the same movement.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an ancient tradition enriched with millennia of experience and practice. It offers insight on nutrition, prevention, remedies, and aftercare. TCM is a holistic practice that looks at a person’s lifestyle, mental state, environment, and habits, thus offering a complete solution for weight management. If you integrate TCM smartly and often, you may find that, beyond a healthier body, you experience an uplifted mood.
This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.