The taste of food is an important aspect of eating. The Chinese categorise the taste of food into five flavours: sweet, bitter, sour, spicy and salty. Chinese medicine regards that eating certain flavours can help the function of the five organs to balance your health, as well as treat disease and recover from illness.
1. The characteristics of the five flavours
Ancient Chinese medicine practitioners found that the five flavours of foods each have their own characteristics and functions for health.
Sour flavour can calm the body.
Bitter flavour can clear heat.
Sweet flavour can tonify the body.
Spicy flavour can expel wind and cold from the body.
Salty flavour can help the body to dissolve stagnation.
These flavours not only taste different, they can act on certain organ imbalances. Chinese medicine theory therefore uses the different flavours of foods and herbs to balance the body.
2. Relationship between the five flavours and the five organs
The five elements theory establishes the relationships between the five flavours and the five organs. The five organs important to Chinese medicine are: heart, liver, lung, kidney and spleen. Each organ is paired with its own corresponding flavour which can help the organ to function when in disorder.
Heart – Bitter
Liver – Sour
Spleen – Sweet
Lung – Spicy
Kidney – Salty
This means when you eat foods, certain flavours act on one organ more than others.
The famous ancient traditional Chinese medical text, Huangdi Neiing, records that after eating, sour flavoured foods goes to the liver first, bitter flavour goes to the heart first, sweet flavour go to the spleen first, spicy flavour goes to the lung first, and salty flavour goes to the kidney first.
The organs try to balance themselves through your diet. When an organ is sick, the body can tell you what organ may be impaired through cravings for a particular taste.
In the clinic, we consider the flavours as part of the traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis, to discover what organs may be in disorder. For example, my clients often complain of cravings for sweets, which usually indicates spleen deficiency, because the spleen organ likes sweets.
How does the body use the five flavours to balance the body?
i) Liver and sour
Chinese medicine considers the liver to be an important organ dominating the emotions. When the liver is disordered, especially with the pattern of liver qi stagnation or heat, the body will experience a lot of emotional symptoms. For example, being easily angered, irritated and emotional. Since liver qi can cause blood to rise to the head, it can cause headache, dizziness, high blood pressure, red face and eyes. The body can also experience insomnia, bloating and constipation.
Many of these symptoms above can accompany menopause, premenstrual tension, hyperthyroidism and depression. For these cases, Chinese medicine suggests you can eat more sour foods because sour can calm the body. During treatment you can eat some sour foods such as tomato, orange, kiwifruit and vinegar. In Chinese culture, dark vinegar can unblock liver qi and help circulation. You can add a little dark vinegar to your dishes when cooking to benefit from these effects.
ii) Spleen and sweet
Chinese medicine considers that the spleen is an important organ that dominates digestion, including functions of transformation, transportation and absorption of nutrients from food. If the spleen is weak or disordered, the body will have the following symptoms: lack of energy, stomach or abdominal bloating especially after eating, irregular bowel movement, weight gain, heavy and puffy arms and legs, poor quality sleep and insomnia. Some cases are accompanied by under-active thyroid, chronic fatigue syndrome and oedema. All these symptoms are associated with spleen qi deficiency or disorder. These people often crave sweets because sweet flavours can help tonify spleen qi and energy.
Why do many children like sweets? This is because Chinese medicine considers children to have developing spleens that are still weak. Eating certain amounts (but not too much) of sweet foods can help children’s growth and development.
In the clinic, after balancing the spleen and the resolution of its associated symptoms, my clients also tell me that they don’t crave sweets anymore.
iii) Kidney and salty
Chinese medicine regards the kidneys as one of the important organs. They store our body’s original essence – inherited from our parents. This is why the kidneys are associated with the body’s constitution, which for some people can be strong or weak.
Salty tastes goes to the kidneys first. Naturally for humans, salt is essential for life. In some traditional Chinese formulas that treat the kidneys, it has been indicated that they should be taken with some salty water so that their effects can reach the kidneys first.
If the kidneys are weak the body will have the following symptoms such as: lack of energy, low back, knee, ankle or heel pain, tired legs, poor memory, frequent urination especially at night time, early greying of hair, early menopause, impotence, developmental problems for children such as delayed walking or speech. In certain cases patients can feel a salty taste in the mouth. This is the body’s sign of a possible kidney deficiency or disorder.
In the clinic, I always suggest clients to eat foods that can tonify the kidneys during treatment such as: prawns, sea cucumber, lamb, oyster, black beans, walnuts, chestnuts and goji berries.
iv) Heart and bitter
Bitter taste in Chinese medicine can clear heat from the body, especially from the heart. When someone has excess heat, the body will show symptoms such as ulcers in the mouth, red face, emotional, heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia and dreaminess. Usually the urine is dark or yellow. The tip of the tongue can be very red or burning, with a bitter taste in the mouth. Sometimes the origin of the heat comes from the liver or gall bladder. Eating some bitter foods can make your treatment more successful such as: bitter gourd, pomelo, mustard leaf and other bitter green vegetables.
v) Lung and spicy
Chinese medicine considers the lung to be the first defence of the body. The lung will fight with external pathogenic factors when they invade the the body. This can impair lung function and cause symptoms such as: sneezing, runny nose, blocked nose, cough, headache, body aches, no sweating, feeling cold or a sore throat.
Spicy taste goes to the lung and can help the lung to expel wind and cold pathogenic factors from the body, especially in winter and in cold seasons. This is why Chinese medicine considers adding a little bit of spicy flavours to your cooking in winter can help your immune system to avoid cold and flu. Food such as: spring onion, ginger, garlic and pepper.
From the explanation above, we know that each of the five flavours are good for the organs and our body. I suggest that you should not overeat any single flavour unless your body needs it, or it could create an imbalance in your body. Each single flavour can help its respective organ but may damage another if eaten in excess. In this article I have only discussed the flavours liked by each organ, I will also write another article about the flavours which can injure certain organs.
If you are interested in using the five flavours to balance your body please discuss this with your experienced traditional Chinese medicine practitioner.