Food As Medicine: How to Eat to Feel Better Now

by Ellen Goldsmith MSOM, L.Ac., Dip.C.H. |

Food As Medicine: How to Eat to Feel Better Now

Food can be one of our first forms of medicine to enhance the immune system, prevent infection and in minimizing the effect of the virus in its initial stages. Chinese medicine’s unique approach to food as medicine provides a more specific and individualized approach to health.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at both foods that help keep a healthy body healthy, and foods that can help if you're not feeling well. If you are looking to learn more about the general principles of Chinese nutritional therapy, please refer to How to Eat with the Seasons to Improve Immunity.

  • Vinegar – Vinegar adds dimension to cooked greens and bean soups. Added to meat stews it helps in the digestion of the fat. Vinegar is sour and sweet and is not a beneficial food if you are getting sick.

  • Nutrient dense foods such as animal food in small quantities, trout, salmon or catfish, eggs (nourishes Stomach/Spleen, blood, Qi and Yin), avocado, good quality fats, nuts and seeds, non-gmo tofu and tempeh, beans and legumes.

  • Honey is nourishing and fortifying.

  • Sea Vegetables add minerals and trace minerals to our body that are important and help to moisten dryness and soften hardenings (phlegm accumulation) in the body.

    • Try the spectrum of sea vegetables such as nori (the highest in protein), dulse (can eat uncooked), kombu (used in cooking of beans and soups to add umami and minerals), wakame (rich in calcium and magnesium), hijiiki and arame (can help to soften phlegm accumulations). All coastal cultures have included sea vegetables into their diet.

  • Include Bitter Greens and Vegetables– the bitter flavor is cooling and cold in thermal nature and supports the clearing of heat and fire, dries dampness and phlegm. The bitter flavor is important to include on your plate. Choose from the wide variety of foods such as: dandelion greens, escarole and other chicories, lettuce stems, artichokes and asparagus, all types of rapini or rabe, milder notes of bitter can be found in celery leaves and cardoons, as well as mature turnips and rutabagas. For a strong medicinal dose of bitter, try cooked bitter melon.

    • A note of caution: If you or your patient is Yin deficient and dry be careful with bitter greens, as they dry dampness and are cold. However, with a constitutionally hot natured person bitter greens ought to become a staple.

chinese herbs
The following herbs and medicinal foods have tonic effects supporting the immune system when you are feeling well (not when you are sick):

Astragalus is best when you are healthy and can be added to soups and stews or teas. It is very woody so cannot be eaten.

Mushrooms including button and cremini, shitake, maiitake, oyster, cordyceps and other varieties are well known for their immune boosting properties. Add them into soups, stews, stir-fries or roasted they are delicious and add umami deep flavor into your cooking.

Red dates and goji berries nourish Qi and blood. These can be added to teas, soups and stews.

What to eat when you start to feel sick (always consult your physician if you believe you may be sick):

If your symptoms start with a sore throat, aches and pains, fever or chills:

  • Follow the general guidelines above in foods and cooking styles to avoid.

  • It is crucial to not overeat to take the stress off of your digestive system

  • Cooling and pungent foods such as radish, daikon, broccoli, lightly steamed pungent greens including: arugula and mustard greens.

  • Pungent and cooling herbs can be added to cooked foods or utilized in teas. Include peppermint, spearmint, lonicera buds (Lian Qiao) and honeysuckle buds (Jin Yin Hua) in equal amounts.

  • Hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate by eating steamed foods, soups, soupy dishes and warm teas. Green tea is more cooling than black teas.

  • Gargle with warm salt water 3-4 times per day

sick woman in bed

    If you are feeling sick with mild sore throat and chills:

    • Do not overeat.

    • A combination of warming and cooling pungent foods: as above and also include: scallions, chives, spring onions, shallots, small amounts of garlic (garlic is very warming and easily aggravate a wind condition), ginger fresh or dried.

    • A combination of pungent/aromatic spices and herbs, which warm with added small amounts to cool. Include: nettles (fresh or dried as in a tea), shiso leaf (zi su ye or otherwise known as Japanese basil), basil, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, caraway seeds (disperse cold), sage and thyme.

    • Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.

    • Take hot Epsom salt baths until sweating and then go directly to bed.

    If you have a mild dry cough:

    • Continue to follow general guidelines.

    • Avoid all hot, warming and drying foods including spicy and heating foods, beans and legumes (are drying), baked goods, crackers, chips and popcorn.

    • Hydrate! Water is the best mucolytic agent there is. Make it warm or hot. Drink often.

    • Cooking methods such as steaming, boiling or lightly braising. Eat easy to digest foods.

    • Include foods, which support the lung and lubricate: slippery greens such as spinach or chard. Tofu, sea vegetables, almonds, sesame seeds both black and white, almonds, pine nuts and walnuts. Include pears, watercress, figs, honey (aids in lubrication) and lotus root.

    • Teas, which include lily bulbs, mulberry leaf, chrysanthemum.

    Mild cough with phlegm:

    • Follow general guidelines.

    • Include foods that are neutral in thermal nature and clear phlegm: mustard greens, mushrooms, radishes and daikon, carrots, rice, oats, pine nuts, almonds and small amounts of onion (cooked), sea vegetables, cooked napa cabbage. Utilize fresh ginger root grated into hot water, use zest of citrus.

    • Kumquats can be cooked down with honey to make syrup that can be mixed in hot water to help clear phlegm.

    foods to boost immunity

    In Conclusion

    Feeling overwhelmed already and not sure where to start? Take it slow. It is important to pace ourselves for the long haul. Our mental and emotional health is crucial in maintaining our physical health. By sharing our strengths and asking for help when we feel at sea we can help ourselves and each other maintain our health, vitality and well being

    The list is long and you might be asking how you can implement all of this at once. First, don’t worry. If you can start by eliminating those foods (or just a couple of them) which obstruct healing and diminish the strength of your immune system you are making enormous changes.

    Here are some supportive ideas to help:

    • Ask a friend to join you in making some of these changes. Support during these times is crucial.

    • If you need more specific health and guidance feel free to reach out to your health care provider or me. Each of us is unique and an individualized approach can be most helpful

    • Don’t know how to cook? Go online where resources abound.

      • Check out Catherine Deumling’s wonderful site Cook With What You Have for many recipes and online cooking demonstrations.

      • Lauren Chandler of Lauren Chandler cooks is offering free virtual mini- cooking lessons

    • Check out my book Nutritional Healing with Chinese Medicine: + 175 Seasonal Recipes for Optimal Health for more in depth learning on Chinese medicine and food, over 175 seasonal recipes and resources for food.

    • Reach out to me directly with any questions or for more personalized recommendations!

    Ellen Goldsmith is a nationally board certified, licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist. Her integrative body centered, and intuitive approach is grounded in decades of study and experience working with people to help them reach their goals. Currently she is on faculty with the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine teaching integrative medical fellows on the Energetics of Food and the National University of Natural Medicine’s College of Classical Chinese Medicine and Helfgott School of Graduate Studies in their Master of Science in Nutrition program, where she teaches graduate students in the study of Chinese Dietetics and its application in Western society. She is the author of Nutritional Healing with Chinese Medicine: + 175 Recipes for Optimal Health and lives and works out of Portland, Oregon.

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