There’s so much to learn from traditional systems of medicine. Although there were no labs or fancy testing methods thousands of years ago, somehow our ancient ancestors had a better understanding of the body and root of dis-ease than most doctors do today.

Here’s a fun fact from my Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner: Did you know that acupuncture points and energy meridians were first discovered when people comforting crying babies realized pressing on specific spots relieved symptoms?

Ancient Chinese healers were way ahead of us. They knew that different emotions directly affected different organs. Worry weakens the stomach, fear weakens the kidneys, and anger weakens the liver.

They also knew exactly which foods, herbs, and flavors could bring life back to a weakened organ/meridian. But most of all, they knew that balance in all things is the key to health. If they were to cook a dish with ginger (one of the ‘hottest’, most ‘yang’ herbs known to man), it had to be balanced with a ‘cooling’ or ‘yin’ ingredient, such as bok choy.

All ancient systems of medicine, including TCM, are based on the simple truth that we are one with nature and the universe around us.  Man created “laws,” but nature has its own laws we must follow.

The universe has a lot to teach us about balance. You can’t give a plant too much water, or else it will wilt. Provide it with too little, and its leaves will shrivel. If you increase the sun exposure that the plant gets (sun = yang and dry), you must also increase its water intake (water = yin and moist).

The earth we live on is yin, and the sun that brings us warmth is yang. A woman is yin, and a man is yang. Sadness is yin, while joyfulness is yang. This brings us to our first lesson from Chinese medicine:

Lesson #1: Your digestive “fire” is strongest when the sun’s fire burns the brightest in the sky. Eat your largest meal between 2-4pm!

Yang energy, which creates ‘excess’ or ‘heat,’ is strongest during the day, when the sun is out. Yin energy, which creates ‘deficiency’ or ‘cold,’ is strongest at night. The energy and motivation of our body mirrors the  yang energy that the sun is providing us with. Similarly, our digestive energy or digestive fire (think of logs of food going into a fervent fire) is strongest when the sun’s energy is strongest. By listening to nature and the cycle of the sun, we know to eat our largest meal around 3pm. You should try not to eat after the sun goes down, because your body gets colder and your digestive fire dies out in order to save energy for organ restoration during sleep.
Makes sense, right? Let’s move on to lesson number two.

Lesson #2: Eating in season is excellent advice. “Cooling” foods and “warming” foods naturally grow in a cycle to compensate for what the temperature does to our yin/yang balance.

Thanks to Whole Foods, I can buy organic strawberries whenever I want, even when it’s -7 degrees in NYC. Although it tastes so right – somehow it feels a bit wrong. Is there a reason health gurus tell us to eat “seasonal, local” produce? Absolutely! It all goes back to the balance of yin and yang.

In our Western diet, foods are evaluated for protein, calories, carbs, vitamins, and other generic values. But in the Chinese diet (including herbs), we evaluate not only vitamins and minerals but also the energetic properties of food. We look at what each food does to our warm/cool balance and to our specific organs. We must look at the color, energy, and flavor of the food (such as sour, pungent, bitter, etc.).

Just like the weather, the seasons and even the time of day influence what happens in our bodies. So does the energy of the food we eat. Some foods have cooling energy (raw vegetables like lettuce for example, mango, avocado) and some foods have a warming energy (cooked sweet potatoes, soup, onions, dates, etc). Cooking a raw food will often change its energy and cause it to have a warming effect on the body. You can take a peach, which is usually cooling, and bake it with cinnamon (a warming herb) and this will warm the peach’s energetic effect.

Nature knows everything. When the weather outside is hot, we tend to accumulate heat in the body. For this reason, tropical cooling fruits like mangoes and bananas grow only in warm climates to cool us. You’re not supposed to eat these fruits unless your climate suits them. Otherwise, you’ll create an imbalance (too much ‘yin’ or cooling energy in the body). When it’s winter, warming foods such as pumpkins start to bloom only in cold climates to nourish and warm us in times of frigid weather.

You can also eat to treat conditions that get worse seasonally. If a person suffers from cold rheumatism (arthritis) and the pain gets worse on cold winter days, eating foods with a warm or hot energy soothe pain away! If you suffer from skin eruptions (cysts, acne, eczema) that get worse when exposed to heat, you can choose to eat cold or cool energy foods to relieve symptoms.

List of seasons and corresponding foods:

Spring is the season of growth and action. This is a good time to eat sour foods to cleanse and stimulate the system – (ex: lemons, tomatoes, pineapple and apples)
Summer is the time to eat energetically cooling fruits and vegetables (ex: peaches, bananas, kiwi, avocado, watermelon and lettuce)
By late summer, you have to build up the digestive strength for the cold months ahead. Start eating foods that support digestion, such as all yellow and orange food. (ex: corn, chickpeas, apricots and cantaloupes)
In fall, you should eat pungent foods and herbs to stimulate and clear the Lung. (ex: garlic, horseradish, peppermint, pears and millet)
Winter should be full of root vegetables, slow-cooked casseroles, warming herbs like cinnamon, ginger and rosemary. (Other good foods to eat include kidney or adzuki beans, pumpkin, sweet potato, oatmeal, plums and rhubarb. Eat these early in the day too!)

General rules for the energy of foods:

If it grows in the air and sunshine, it is most likely yang;
If it grows in the earth and darkness, it is probably yin;
If it is soft, wet and cool, it is more yin;
if it is hard, dry and spicy, it is more yang.

Lesson #3: Foods have FLAVOR for a reason. Once in the body, the five flavors – sweet, sour, salty, pungent and bitter, each have an affinity with a particular organ system.

As you’ve seen above with the seasonal food list, the cooling fruits you should eat in the summer are generally very sweet. On the other hand, the warming foods you should eat in the fall are pungent and spicy. Foods have flavor for a reason!

Pungent (spicy) foods are tied to the lung and large intestine. This is why onion clears mucus from your lungs (sometimes it even makes your nose run – it’s pushing the mucus out!) This is also why they say spicy “Taco Tuesday” will send you to the bathroom! That’s the large intestine moving thanks to the energy of spices such as cayenne. Pungent foods promote distribution of stagnant energy and blood circulation while stimulating appetite. They have a warming action, promoting energy to move upwards and outwards to the body’s surface.

Examples: Fresh ginger, onion, leeks, green onion, Sichuan peppercorn, garlic, celery, coriander, Chinese chives, fennel, spearmint, Chinese radish, radish leaf, chili pepper, sweet peppers, turnips, taro, leaf mustard, Shanghai cabbage, cinnamon, tangerine peel, kumquat, mustard seed and wine.

Sweet foods affect the stomach and spleen (not the actual spleen but TCM’s “spleen” organ system and energy channel which actually means the stomach.) Sweet foods lubricate and nourish the body and intestines. They strengthen the spleen energy, nourish the body’s fluids, and relieve inner tension. Excess sweet foods weaken the kidneys (aka the reproductive system in TCM). Weakened kidneys due to excess sweets can also cause bone and teeth disorders, obesity, and weakness of connective tissue. There are two categories of sweets: empty and full. Empty sweets are simple sugars and have no nutritional value. They cause blood sugar to rise rapidly and then drop, which can lead to fatigue. Full sweets consist of complex carbohydrates that have a strengthening and nourishing action.

Examples: honey, dates, shiitake mushroom, taro, sweet potato, potato, pumpkin, carrot, glutinous rice, peas, soybean, rice, wheat, corn, sugar cane, peanut, milk, apple, pears, cherry, chestnut, grapes, lotus seed, longan aril, carps and abalone.

Sour foods affect the liver and gall bladder. They are also called “astringent” in taste, and arrest abnormal discharge of fluids and other substances from the body, such as diarrhea, vomiting, emission and heavy sweating. In small amounts they aid digestion (aka, eat lemon on your difficult-to-digest items!)

Examples: Lemon, tomatoes, pineapple, apple, strawberry, papaya, pears, loquat fruit, oranges, tangerines, peaches, hawthorn fruit, olives, pomegranate, plums, pomelo, mango, grapes, vinegar and royal jelly. 

Bitter foods relate to the heart and small intestine. They clear heat (which means infection or inflammation). They also dry dampness (infection, mucus, sickness), stimulate appetite, and promote lowering effects like urination and bowel movements. Bitter foods supplement heart cooling (the opposite of heat and anger) and have a calming effect, especially following stress and mental strain. Too many bitter flavor foods cause diarrhea, dehydration, bone damage, and false heat in the heart.

Examples: wine, vinegar, tea leaf, turnips, apricot seed, lily bulb, gingko, peach kernel, seaweed, bergamot, arrowhead, asparagus, wild cucumber and coffee.

Salty foods affect the kidney and bladder. In TCM the kidney exercises control over the reproductive, endocrine and nervous systems. Salty foods dissipate accumulations (think cysts, clots, blood stagnation), nourish blood, and lubricate intestines to induce bowel movements. Too much salt injures the blood.

Examples: Amaranth, millet, barley, preserved jellyfish, seaweed, kelp, sea clams, shrimp, oyster, crabs.

Leave a Comment


  • Line says:

    Hi Olivia,
    This is such a great article and introduction to TCM.
    I’m based in Shanghai and currently studying the TCM system and incorporating everything into my daily life. I want to share everything I learn at some point but it’s such a big topic and not an easy one to share as it is so different from a lot of the beliefs we have about especially food in the western world (raw food diet anyone?).
    Good job, I’ll probably be linking a lot to your blog and instagram now, super happy I found it.
    Have a beautiful day!

  • saapphire says:

    Searching for info/web site to find a Chinese doctor in my area.
    Las Vegas NV

  • Limet says:

    What if you live in a place where it’s always hot? like, Florida or the Caribbean islands? Do you still go by seasonal foods? or can you eat pineapples & watermelons every day?

    • Organic Olivia says:

      In a hot/tropical climate, you should still eat whatever is growing seasonally – but for you, that would actually be cooling fruit all year round 🙂 So yes to both questions! xx

  • Jas says:

    Olivia, this is one of the best (maybe the best) guides to TCM for laypeople I have ever read! Clear, engaging, practical, and somehow you manage to fit in key-but-usually-overlooked info like the fact that “spleen” actually means the spleen system, aka, the stomach). WOW. I will be reading the rest of your site right away! One Q: If noon is the time of Utmost Yang, then would that really be the most ideal time to eat the day’s largest meal, rather than 2-4 pm? I’m guessing that maybe the 2-4 pm idea is based on a sense that it would be hard for many people to move the largest meal of the day any earlier than that. But I’ve lived for many years in countries where lunch is the largest meal and I could fairly easily bring that meal closer to noon or 1 pm if it’s better for my health. Thanks for any insight you can share on this!

  • Jay says:

    Hi Olivia.. love your blog! I was curious if there is a certain/ best way to cook sweet potato. I usually cook them with light coconut oil and pan, is it that much more beneficial to bake or steam them?
    Thanks 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *