In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), each food has certain flavors corresponding to the Five Elements model. The five flavors are sour pertaining to wood, bitter to fire, sweet to earth, pungent to metal and salty to water. The five flavors have a crucial influence on people’s health. With different flavors, each food has its specific nutritional and therapeutic functions. If people deploy the flavors properly in daily diet, they may improve their health and increase their life expectancy. However, imbalance of the five flavors may cause harm to one’s health.
Among the five flavors, pungent and sweet are pertaining to Yang while sour, bitter and salty are pertaining to Yin. Each of the flavors has a certain characteristic as briefly described below.
The sour flavor goes to the Liver. It is astringent and can control perspiration and diarrhea. It is helpful on conditions such as profuse sweating, diarrhea, frequent urination, and seminal emission, etc. Using sour and sweet flavors together can nourish Yin and moisten dryness. Sour flavor can also promote appetite, enhance liver functions and improve the absorptions of calcium and phosphate.
Being astringent, sour flavor is not suitable for exuberant conditions of pathogenic factors. People with Spleen and Stomach conditions should avoid taking sour flavor as it is pertaining to Wood. Because too much sour flavor may cause muscle and sinew contractures, it should be used sparingly if a person suffers from a chronic pain。
The bitter flavor goes to the Heart. It drains, dries and hardens. Its draining function includes freeing bowels, subduing rebellious Qi and clearing Heat. Its drying function refers to drying Dampness. Its hardening function is to nourish Yin and clear Empty Fire.
When a person has conditions with Heat or Fire, bitter flavor is good to nourish Yin. When there is no Heat or Fire, bitter flavor would injure Yin due to its drying property. Excess bitter flavor may damage Qi of Spleen and Stomach and cause conditions such as diarrhea and indigestion.
The sweet flavor goes to Spleen. The sweet flavor tonifies, balances and moderates. It is used to tonify deficiency, harmonize Spleen and Stomach, relax tension, alleviate muscle fatigue, and to stop pain.
Too much sweet will block Qi flow and make people feel abdominal fullness and oppression. Because sweet flavor is prone to induce Dampness and interfere Spleen’s transforming function, people with conditions of Spleen deficiency should not take much of it. Too much sweet in diet will lead to elevated blood sugar and cholesterol, deficiency of calcium and vitamin B1, obesity, chronic inflammations, and even cardiovascular diseases.
The pungent flavor goes to Lungs. It effuses the exterior, scatters and moves Qi, and invigorates Blood. It is good for exterior conditions, and the patterns of Qi stagnation or Blood stasis. The pungent flavor can expel external pathogenic factors such as Wind and Cold, so it is good for aversion to cold, fever, nasal congestion and cough during a common cold. It promotes the movement of the gastrointestinal tract and secretion of digestive fluids, so it is good for low appetite from Liver and Stomach Qi stagnation. By moving Qi and invigorating Blood, the pungent flavor is good for pain from Qi stagnation or Blood stasis.
An excessive consumption of foods with a pungent flavor may disperse Qi, deplete Fluid and injure Yin. People with Qi deficiency, Fluid deficiency, external deficiency or copious sweating should limit taking it.
The salty flavor goes to Kidneys. It transforms Phlegm, softens hardness and dissipates nodules. It is used for the condition of Phlegm-Dampness obstructions, such as glomus, cervical lymph nodes tuberculosis, and goiter. It flows downward and softens hardness to help constipations due to Yin deficiency. It also helps maintain plasma osmolality and balance sodium potassium metabolism.
Excess salty flavor may cause Qi stagnation and Blood stasis, which results in injured muscles, and dark and rough skin. The salty taste can dry the Blood, and should be avoided in Blood deficiency.A superfluous consumption of salty flavor may harm Kidneys, cause dizziness, tinnitus, weariness and hypertension, and worsen cardiovascular and renal diseases.
In the chapter three, Treatise on the Communication of the Generative Qi with Heaven, of Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine), it states, “The source and preservation of the Yin come from the five flavors [of food in the diet], but the five organs of the Yin [may also] receive harm from the five flavors. Hence, when the flavors [consumed] are excessively sour, this causes Liver Qi to be excess and overactive and Spleen Qi to be exhausted. When the flavors [consumed] are excessively salty, the Qi of major bones weakens, muscles and the flesh emaciate, and Heart Qi is suppressed. When the flavors [consumed] are excessively sweet, the Heart Qi becomes restless and congested, the face is dark, and the Kidney Qi is unbalanced. When the flavors [consumed] are excessively bitter, the Spleen Qi is not soggy and the Stomach Qi becomes dense. When the flavors [consumed] are excessively pungent, sinews and vessels become slack, and essence and spirit perish. Therefore, when one meticulously harmonizes the five flavors, one’s bones are straight, sinews are soft, Qi and Blood circulate freely, and muscles are firm. As such, one’s bones (Blood) and Qi are full of quintessence. By carefully treading the Way and precisely following the principles, one may live to a ripe old age.”
This statement points out that the Yin essence originates from the five flavors of food and is stored in the five organs. However, fussy and excessive consumption of certain flavors may injure the organs and harm one’s health. The five flavors harms different organs and areas of the body depending on their characteristics.
Too much sour taste leads to excess and hyperactive Liver Qi. Through the sequence of wood controlling earth, this deplete Spleen Qi. In other words, overacting Liver would interfere with and impair the Stomach and Spleen functions.
Too much salty taste makes the bone weary as the marrow damaged. Through the sequence of water insulting earth, Spleen suffers from Dampness and results in contracture and atrophy of muscles. Through the sequence of water controlling fire, the excess Kidney water over-controls Hear fire and makes the Heart Qi repressed.
Too much sweet taste impairs the transformation function of Spleen. This blocks the flow of fire (Heart) generating earth (Spleen) and leads to congested Heart Qi. Because of earth (Spleen) over-controlling water (Kidney), there is imbalance of Kidney Qi that leads to a dark complexion.
Too much bitter taste will dry and harden the earth (Spleen). This disrupts Spleen’s ability to transform and transport food, and impairs Stomach’s function of digestion and leads to abdominal distention.
Too much pungent taste, through the sequence of metal controlling wood, upsets Liver Qi’s function of nourishing sinews. This results in worn and slack sinews. It also disturbs Heart Qi and Shen (spirit) through the sequence of metal insulting fire.
Therefore, we must avoid picky eating and have a balanced diet based on the needs and harmony among the five flavors. As a result, bones are strong and sturdy, sinews are flexible yet tenacious, Qi and Blood flow smoothly, and muscles are firm and toned. When bones, sinews, muscles, Qi, Blood and organs function properly, one maintain an optimal health. If one values the principles of five flavors and practice them accordingly, one may be vigorous and enjoy great longevity.