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Hot and Cold in Traditional Chinese Medicine

I grew up in Iran in a culture where traditional food and healing systems are still quite dominant in everyday life. My mother, a firm believer of cold and hot properties of food and herbs, is an expert on bringing her body into balance by eating a ratio of cold and hot food. In fact I didn’t know any other belief system until my uncle visited us from America. A research scientist at Harvard university, he laughed when my mom warned him about mixing the wrong foods. To him believing in hot and cold food was a superstition. I was shocked at his reaction and clearly remember him planting the seeds of doubt in my mind. Thirty years later through studying Traditional Chinese Medicine I have learned the energetic properties of food and herbs to such details and have seen the effects of it on myself and others that unlike my uncle hot and cold properties of food leaves no room for doubt in me.

Most people can tell that if they eat too much spicy food their digestion is affected. But they do not recognize subtle nuances. In Traditional Chinese Medicine there are many shades of hot and cold: very cold, cold, cool, neutral, warm, and hot. Each food or herb has an affinity with a specific organ and acupuncture meridian. In this article I want to answer some questions you might have about what hot and cold means. What are some typical hot and cold food we use? What are some of the home remedies we can use to bring ourselves to balance? But first I want to clarify how the organ system in Chinese Medicine relates to temperature and how each organ can be brought to balance.

In general, cold congeals and warmth expands and moves. Cold and wet or dampness go together. Heat brings dryness. There is however a condition we call damp heat, or hot phlegm. That is when the accumulation of dampness is accompanied by heat. In Traditional Chinese Medicine we don’t like cold. When cold enters the acupuncture channels it congeals the movement of qi. This can happen by applying ice on the body, or exposing the body to cold during trauma or surgery. We don’t like to expose our body to cold during menstruation or birth either. We use Moxa to introduce warmth to the body when cold is congealing the qi. However heat is not always good either. When there is excess of heat especially in the heart, stomach, liver, lung and intestines it can lead to problems. One way to prevent excess heat is by watching our emotions. Any intense emotion creates heat. Anger injures the liver, too much excitement affects the heart, holding on to grief binds the intestines and affects the lungs. Another way we introduce heat or cold into our body is by the food we eat. Now I will go through the five elements and their corresponding organs and what temperature they have an affinity with.

The fire element includes the heart and small intestines. These are fire organs and you don’t want to add fire to them! The only time you actually want to add fire to the heart is when someone is unconscious. A spark of electricity can bring their life back. Some people might need a steady dose of spice to keep their heart happy and pumping passionately. The taste that the heart likes is bitter, that’s why dark chocolate and coffee go straight to the heart and are so addictive. Others might be too sensitive and already with enough excitement/anxiety that any additional spice will give them palpitations. When the heart beats fast this is a sign of heat. Now the connection of the heart and the small intestines is hard to understand with our western mindset. The easiest way to know how they are connected is to look at the meridians. The two of them circulate the upper body, where the fire of our soul is sitting in our chest and start and end at the pinky finger.

The fire element engenders earth, think of ashes. The earth is our digestive system. The earth element is a big part of how we keep ourselves balanced. It provides us with mental clarity and a good immune system. It helps us get the most out of our food and to create energy for the rest of our body. The earth likes warmth, the same way fire generates earth. So spices like ginger, cardamom, fennel, peppers, garlic, scallions, cloves, cinnamon all aide in digestion. One should avoid eating too much cold and damp food according to Chinese medicine especially in the cold months. Food such as raw veggies, yogurt, cheese, iced drinks, ice cream, smoothies are like putting a damp towel on the coals of the oven. They drain the energy of our digestive system. On the other hand if one eats too much spicy food that can lead to heat in the stomach, ulcers in the mouth or dryness around the lips are also signs of stomach heat.

Metal element is generated by earth, that is the lung and large intestine organs. Metal is cool by nature and lung and large intestines don’t like too much heat. In fact they prefer a cool environment. Lung should be like a damp sponge, not leaky but not too dry. Too much heat in the lung can be due to smoking, pollution, or environmental hazards, radiation or chemotherapy. On the other hand if the lungs are too wet, due to pneumonia or congestive heart failure, breathing gets affected as well. The lungs are also the most important elements in creating qi or energy for the rest of the body along with the digestion. So keeping them in balance and happy with a daily exercise and deep breathing is recommended in Chinese Medicine. The large intestine is also similar to the lungs in the way it does not do well with heat. According to a Chinese expression, we need a nice, lubricated river for getting the boats to float smoothly! Any dryness will interrupt the flow, and if there is too much heat that can even cause bleeding in conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or hemorrhoids. Alcohol is introducing pure heat into the blood stream, and I strongly advice against it if there is any signs of heat in any organs. On the other hand if someone is suffering from cold a medicinal dose of alcohol especially if mixed with soup and stews helps activate the proper functions of the organs.

After metal comes water, which is also the source of life. The kidneys and urinary bladder are associated with water element in the body. Water is cold by nature and these organs cannot tolerate outside heat. In urinary bladder heat can be from an infection, a UTI. In the kidneys however the element of adrenals are considered a fire that is embedded in water. They call this fire Ming Men or the Gate of Life. This is what gives us a boost of energy in the mornings. Our adrenals secrete cortisol however if overused, due to stress, this can lead to a chronic fatigue condition or adrenal fatigue. This fire is very subtle and the best way to test it is to touch your skin on your lower back and your navel. If your skin is warm to touch you have enough fire and you haven’t exhausted it yet. As we age our resources diminish and so using moxa to warm up the lower back or navel is a great way to bring energy to our kidneys.

The fifth element is wood, that generates from water. The liver and gallbladder are the wood organs in our body. Our vision, our dreams, constant drive to move, create, grow, that is the wood element at work. The biggest organ of our body, the liver is in charge of moving the energy of the whole body, moving blood during menstruation, generating and moving milk during breastfeeding, storing and detoxing blood at night, and dealing with our general state of stress on a daily bases. When the energy of liver gets stuck, we sigh, we have a hard time taking deep breaths, we hold our chest tight, and we get irritated easily. If this state of stagnation persist it can create heat in the liver, which rises up to the head, leading to conditions such as vertigo, high blood pressure, anger, getting a red face, losing temper, and in severe cases it can lead to stroke or seizures. So we definitely want to keep our liver cool and calm by taking deep breaths, maintaining the flow of energy, move our body, meditate and lower our daily stress level. The liver also likes sour taste, and starting our day by squeezing a lemon in a glass of water is a good way of keeping the liver happy. Be mindful that citruses are cold and if there is a dampness or cold in your system the lemon might be too cold for you. An easy way to tell if you have excess heat or cold in addition to feeling it in your body, is by looking at your tongue. You can check my blog on tongue diagnosis here.

Every element has an affinity to a taste, color, season and emotion in addition to organs. Eating food of the same color nourishes that element in the body. In terms of temperature spicy food is more moving and warming, sour and bitter food are more cooling and cold. Salty and sweet are more neutral. Meats are more warm, especially the darker they are, like lamb and organ meats. Green leafy veggies are related to wood element, are cooling, some of them if they are bitter they can be cold, such as nettle and dandelion. The squashes and root veggies are nourishing to the earth element and really satisfying for digestion, especially if you add a little spice to them. Nuts are mostly warming or neutral. Fruits can be warming if they are in tropical fruits family, or cooling like watermelon and citruses. The Melons, apples, pears and stone fruits are neutral but since most of them are from the summer they have affinity with fire and nourish the heart. Most of the year if we eat the fruits and vegetables of the season we are in good harmony with nature. Including more stews and spices in the winter, and more salad and raw food in the summer.

Lastly I want to mention the role of our personal constitution in this art of balancing temperature. Everyone has a unique constitution according to Chinese Medicine. Similar to many other traditional medicines such as the one in Iran and India, we are not only born with this unique constitution, but also our upbringing, childhood habits, and life patterns later all affect this constitution to some extent. Some people are intolerant towards heat, some towards cold. Some have strong digestion, but weak lungs. Some have strong heart but weak kidneys. We all have our habits that come to us easily and the ones that are harder to cultivate. The art of Chinese Medicine is to find a balance where most of the organs are able to function in harmony, the ones that are stronger taking more of a load perhaps, but the weaker ones also being nourished by eating the food that strengthens them instead of weakening them more. It’s important for each of us to find out what helps us and to avoid the habits that weaken us. I know for me adding ginger to my tea during the winter months is a must. In the summer I always pack watermelon at the beach. I juice celery in the spring, to wake up my liver and shed the winter. I balance root veggies with greens, I need a little rice here and there to bring me back to my earth of childhood familiarity. And I just cannot handle alcohol! At least not for the moment. I like something sweet to keep me happy here and there. I need to move and do some kind of body mind exercise everyday. And I love my sleep!

I hope this can help you start a journey in finding what brings you to your balance of hot and cold!

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