Grabbing an apple for a snack on the go seems like the ultimate choice for a healthy snack, right? From cold pressed juices to the beautifully coordinated salad bars that are present in nearly every grocery store, our ability to consume all things raw, healthy and convenient are more than an “optional way of life” trend that seems well entrenched in our society. This food movement is essentially fresh and for the most part healthy in calories and nutrients, seemingly to be the opposite from a bakery style donut. So, what do apples and donuts have in common? According to Chinese medicine, both of these foods hold properties of "cold."
In the east, women (and men!) have carefully avoided “cold” foods to optimize their health for centuries. They’ve seen the positive impact eating warming foods can have not just menstrual health, but also energy, sleep, digestive health and more. In China, it’s just not part of the heritage to binge on cold beverages or vegetables, both from a cultural standpoint and for our purposes, a health and medical perspective as well.
For centuries, women have shied away from a diet that is “cold”, instead focusing on foods that keep their bodies balanced warm, particularly at certain times in the menstrual cycle. The impact: a cycle that is more harmonious and balanced - and it’s not that difficult for those in the west to easily embrace as well, and it starts with putting down that salad and cold pressed juice.
An Anecdote from a Western Acupuncturist
Minneapolis-based acupuncturist Charlotte Alvarez is an accomplished Chinese medicine practitioner, herbalist, acupuncturist, storyteller and healer. Trained in both the U.S. and in China, she recently captured the following observation on Instagram that she posted during a trip to New York for continuing education:
"I travel a lot, and in order to do so, yet still buy my children birthday presents, I often stay in hostels. I had one roommate last weekend in New York, a solo female traveller from Beijing. Even though I was sleepy and had class early the next day, we stayed up half the night talking about Chinese culture, traditions, and philosophies. She was so proud when I told her I practice Chinese medicine. ‘You do the needles?!’ And then upon confirmation, ‘It is the BEST medicine. Always work for me. Every time.’
She asked me many questions about...whether or not I drink cold water and eat cold food? What are my thoughts on cold showers? Do Americans have a lot of period pain? Do I drink ginger and brown sugar soup every day? Do I think cheese tastes like cooked egg whites? Do I like tofu?
She shared her thoughts by saying things like: ‘If someone gave me cold water in China, I'd be pissed off,’ then shows me the bottle she's drinking out of and says, ‘But in America, I drink these smoothies and I like them! I even tried a salad.’
She drinks ginger tea with brown sugar every day to keep her uterus warm and ward off period pain.
Before her moon cycle, she makes soup with:
During her lady's days, she has:
I adore that Chinese artist girl with blue hair on a mission to visit all of the museums in NYC and then head to the west coast. May she have wonderful adventures in the US and be blessed with a life free from period pain.”
So, why is it ingrained in Chinese women from an early age that cold is bad and warmth is good? Why would the thought of drinking cold water “piss her off”? To fully understand, we need to break down the concept of “cold” from a Chinese medicine perspective and how it relates to a woman’s cycle.
“Cold” in Chinese Medicine and its Impact the Menstrual Cycle
The concept of “cold” is an important topic in the world of Chinese medicine and of all the concepts, is not too difficult to understand and embrace: Simplistically, anything that is physically cold or has the property of “coldness” is thought to “constrict, tighten, and obstruct”. Examples of foods that are cold include sugar (there’s your chocolate), dairy, most raw vegetables and fruits, and foods that are physically cold. Conversely, foods that are warming includes animal proteins, some nuts, most spices, and most foods that are physically warm.
According to Chinese medicine theory, there can be many reasons for menstrual pain, with one contributing factor the “symptoms” surrounding that which is “cold.” For the purposes of this article, the key to a happy and manageable menstrual cycle is maintaining the proper flow and discharge of menstrual blood (the quantity should be neither too much or too little, the color neither too dark or too bright. Clotting should be minimal or nonexistent). It is believed within China and practiced globally throughout Chinese medicine that cold foods or exposure to “physical cold” in our surroundings (winter months, extremely air-conditioned buildings, swimming in frigidly cold water, etc.), particularly at the time of one’s menstrual cycle, can cause painful menstrual cramps and in certain situations lead to ongoing gynecological issues.
“The chocolate that we crave is the opposite of what we need - ultimately throwing off our balance during the period, exacerbating cramping, pain and lack of energy.”
It is believed that “warm energy” during the second phase of the menstrual cycle improves blood circulation around the uterine lining. From a Chinese Medicine perspective, cold causes deficiency and blood stasis. Often in Chinese Medicine, what we crave is actually the opposite of what we need. Foods like chocolate, loaded with sugar and therefore ultimately cold, further throw off balance during this phase in the period, causing cramping, pain, or low energy. For many women, focusing on warm and warming foods can help to balance the cold, and in doing so, work with the body for a better period.
How Proper Diet and Food Temperature Can Make All the Difference
In Chinese medicine theory, diet patterns play an important role in maintaining a balance of yin and yang energy in the body. The “Middle Burner” (stomach and spleen) breaks down the food and stimulates the absorption of essential nutrients to nourish organs and tissues. Eventually, it increases the Qi (energy) and blood circulation in your body. Keeping the “middle burner” at 100 degrees is crucial to optimal overall health, including menstrual health and balance throughout the month.
However, according to Chinese medicine theory, consuming too many cold foods can slow down your metabolic action while decreasing the warm energy that warm food, as well as fluids, provides to your body. Furthermore, it may lead to bloating, spleen deficiency, and poor appetite.
Acupuncturists and doctors of Chinese medicine practitioners believe that over-consumption of cold food can promote mucus, congestion, depletion, fatigue, abdominal pain, and chilliness. Reducing the intake of raw fruits and vegetables, and dairy products can improve these symptoms and strengthen the uterus for a better, less painful menstrual cycle.
In addition, following a warm food diet also improves blood circulation and warms up your uterus to enhance fertility.
Four Simple Dietary Adjustments for a More Natural and Comfortable Cycle
To help accomplish this, there are several recommendations within the middle burner concept that would be recommended by doctors of Chinese medicine, and likely Charlottes’ friend from China:
- Skip the raw and consider cooking your vegetables: Cooked food absorbs the heat while cooking, which on consumption can generate yang and stimulate blood circulation in your body. Prepare your food by stewing, baking, or steaming. Recommendation: Rather than rushing right to the salad bar, prep veggies on Sundays to consume throughout the week. Cooking lettuce is not that hard and it actually tastes really great.
- Avoid Cold Water or Chilled Fluids: Drinking chilled fluids or cold water can throw off your yin-yang balance. Recommendation: Cold pressed juices with this diet need to go away (as do carbonated beverages and most cold drinks). Focus on warm fluids, like simple tea. Drink room temperature or even hot water during the day in lieu of ice cold water.
- Eat Adequate Amounts of Protein: Protein is a main source of “heat and energy” which are helpful at keeping your body warm. Don’t over do it, but make certain to have the appropriate balance in your diet (and it doesn’t have to be entirely meat-based). Recommendation: incorporate nuts, seeds, healthy meat, and seafood in appropriate moderation to help with menstrual harmony and where appropriate, to boost fertility.
- Incorporate Foods that have “Warming Energy”: From the Chinese Medicine perspective, many foods and seasonings have “warming energy”. These include ginger, green onions, black and white pepper, cayenne, chili peppers, and walnuts (think foods hat are spicier in nature). Recommendation: Pair colder foods with warming foods to achieve balance. Lightly cook vegetables and add complementary spices to increase the warming properties of a dish.
The Middle Burner Diet by DAO Labs offers a comprehensive four day meal plan, with delicious east-meets-west recipes that offer a reset for your gut. Designed by Co-Founder and Chief Culinary Officer Travis Metzger, it features ingredients that can be purchased at your local grocery shop or coop but paired in a way that will give your meals balance and keep the spleen and stomach at 100 degrees. Sign up now for your complimentary copy, and join us in our Facebook Group for more tips and tricks.