Traditional Chinese medicine meridians and flavours

By Sallyanne Pisk

Traditional Chinese medicine recognises an additional dimension to health, which involves the meridian system and Qi. Qi is transported along meridians (channels) and blood through the circulatory system. The Qi and blood channels connect all of the parts of the body. Qi is extracted from the food we eat and its nature is influenced by the flavours: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent and salty.

In this article I am focusing on ten of the twelve major meridians that are directly influenced by the flavours from food. I will address the physical, rather than energetic roles of the organ systems from a traditional Chinese medical perspective. A flavour is believed to enter the meridian pathway of the organ system that shares the same energetic element:

  • Sour (wood) enters the liver and gall bladder meridians to support the livers role in filtering and nourishing the blood, and assisting the gall bladder in digesting fats and oils.
  • Bitter (fire) enters the heart and small intestine meridians. In traditional Chinese medicine the heart is referred to as the king of all organs as it distributes blood to all parts of the body. It is also viewed as the controller of emotions. Sour flavours supports the small intestines in separating nutrients and waste materials.
  • Sweet (earth) enters the spleen-pancreas and stomach meridians supporting the extraction and assimilation of nutrients from food.
  • Pungent (metal) enters the lungs and large intestines meridians to support the lungs in controlling breath, extracting Qi from air and helping the circulation of blood (with the heart). The lungs also support the large intestines in eliminating wastes. Proper breathing is believed to aid the contractions in the intestines.
  • Salty (water) enters the kidneys and bladder meridians to support the kidneys in extracting wastes from the blood, producing urine and maintaining the body’s fluid balance. The bladder stores and expels urine.

The remaining two meridians are not related to organs that are recognised by Western science:

  • The triple burner is responsible for controlling the intake of Qi, the transformation processes and the elimination of wastes.
  • The pericardium is a sack surrounding the heart that has a role in protecting the heart from physical and emotional disruption. It assists in the regulation of blood flow into and out of the heart.

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that when we are in tune with our body our choice of food promotes good health. If we are driven to eat a ‘salty’ food it may mean that our kidneys need additional support, but excess added salt would harm the kidneys. Adding a small pinch of salt to a meal rather than have a highly salted snack food gives you more control over the amount of salt. A desire for ‘sweet’ food may mean that the Qi of our digestive system is low. But we have to take care not to misinterpret as a this signal to eat highly processed sugary foods, as they would further weaken the spleen-pancreas system. A better option would be to eat additional cooked vegetables and whole grains.

The link between the flavours and organ systems are used in the diagnosis and treatment of dietary imbalances. A common imbalance caused by the Western diet and lifestyle is spleen-pancreas deficiency. This is believed to occur due to a combination of being born with this constitution, a highly processed diet and a mind that thinks too much. Overthinking is believed to move Qi away from the digestive system to the head.

Traditional Chinese medicine promotes a diet based on cooked vegetables and legumes, followed in decreasing amounts of whole grain cereals, fruit, animal products, nuts, seeds and oils and spices such as ginger to support digestion. We will explore this approach further in future posts. Next week we will bring together the key principles of Western, Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine.

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