In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the balance of yin and yang are of therapeutic importance. The balancing of heat and cold with exterior and interior needs explain how the human body can shift from good health to ill health and vice versa. Both heat and cold can exist in excess or deficiency in the human body, and it is this imbalance that can cause ill health.
The Dance of Yin and Yang
If either yin or yang predominates, then the one that is in excess creates a deficiency in the other. In a healthy physical state, the yin and yang work in harmony with each other similar to the ebb and flow of the tides. They adjust back and forth as needed, and as long as the ebb and flow is smooth and timely, the body will stay healthy. However, when the transformations do not happen as they should or when they should, the body becomes susceptible to disease.
In TCM, the two most significant qualities in the medicinal use of food are heat and cold. Although focusing on heat and cold aspects of the human body and of food seems simplistic, it actually has a diagnostic value that other more complicated explanations miss. A body with excess heat (yang) needs cooling foods to bring the body back into balance, just as a body with excess cold (yin) needs warming foods.
A correct and proper diet helps the body achieve and maintain the balance of yin and yang, which in turn helps the qi (pronounced “chee”) energy flow. Yang foods are warming and energizing in nature. They tend to be sweet or pungent. Yin foods are cooling in nature and are salty, bitter, or sour. However, in the yin-yang analysis of foods there isn’t always a clear-cut distinction. For example, apples can have both yin and yang qualities. Unripe apples are sour and are more yin, while fully ripe apples that are sweeter are considered more yang.
The Effects of Food
In TCM, food is classified according to its energetic qualities, not its discrete parts. As mentioned, some foods are considered warming and nourishing; others are considered cooling and eliminating. In fact, some foods are considered useful for building qi while others are useful for building blood, yang, or yin. For example, in western medicine a steak always has the same nutritional quality no matter who is eating it. However, in TCM a steak may be considered beneficial for those with yang deficiency conditions, but not for those with yang excess.
Foods can heal or hurt depending on a person’s constitution. Whether a person has signs of excess or deficiency determines which foods are beneficial or harmful. In the west, we consider certain foods nourishing or healthy, but in TCM you must eat the food that is nourishing and healthy for your body type.
In the United States, we think of foods in terms of their food groups (i.e., vegetable, fruit, meat, etc.). In TCM, they are classified according to five specific flavors: salty, bitter, sour, sweet, and pungent. Foods are also divided into cool, warm, cold, and hot. The flavor quality and the nature of foods can be used to determine the effects they will have on the body.
Heat Excess/Yin Deficiency
When yin energy is deficient, your body starts to show heat signs. You prefer cold beverages and cool weather. You may even have inflamed tissues, rashes, or swellings.
Some yin-building foods are:
- alfalfa sprouts,
- bean sprouts,
- dandelion greens,
- Swiss chard,
- yams, and
Small amounts of these foods should be eaten regularly. Raw foods are generally cooling. Avoid stimulating foods like caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and pungent spices.
Cold Excess/Yang Deficiency
When yang energy is deficient, the body begins to slow down, showing signs of diminished activity and coldness. You are attracted to warmth, warming food and drink. It is important to build up the yang energy to bring balance back to the body.
Some yang-building foods are:
- black beans,
- black pepper,
- mustard greens,
- watercress, and
- winter squashes.
Avoid cold foods, cold liquids, and too many raw foods.