The hot & cold food cure

Do-it-yourself Chinese medicine: the hot & cold food cure

Zhenzhen Zhang

Last winter, a 52-year-old woman saw me with a headache, runny nose, and cough that she’d had for two days. Based on her symptoms, I was able to quickly diagnose her illness. In Chinese medicine, we would say she had a “cold” condition. I told her to rest and eat a soup made with ginger and green scallions. This “warm” remedy was designed to help balance the coldness in her body. In two days, all her symptoms had disappeared. When her husband caught the same cold several days later, she gave him the soup and he was cured in three days.

As simple as this treatment sounds, it goes to the heart of what all Chinese medicine is about — restoring balance to the body. Conditions like this patient’s cold often will fade on their own as the body’s self-healing powers swing into action. However, other times, the illness will drag on, maybe for weeks. Chinese medicine can help you quickly get at the underlying energetic imbalance that is causing the illness.

My patient’s condition, while commonly called a “cold” in the West, is only one type of cold that people can experience. Some colds are “hot” colds, caused by too much heat in the body, and they require a cooling remedy. Doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine give acupuncture treatments and prescribe herbs, exercises, and foods to help restore a balance of hot and cold as well as dampness and dryness and other unbalanced conditions. The simplest and most accessible of these treatments is foods. By including the right foods in your diet for your specific condition, you can help to restore the balance that’s needed to help you overcome a variety of illnesses.

Daily Dietary Balancing

For those who would like to experience the benefits of Chinese medicine, I’ve developed a simple do-it-yourself program that uses foods in this way. With the recommendations that follow, foods are used to re-balance the body’s internal “climate,” as traditional Chinese doctors call it. In illness, this climate has become too hot or cold.

My food-balancing prescriptions are based on the Chinese view that the human body is a microcosm of the universe. just like on the earth where floods and droughts wreak havoc, climate extremes in the body can create problems. When the body is sick, we try to bring warmth to coldness, or cool off too much heat.

As a doctor of Chinese medicine, I know that acupuncture and herbs will help bring about these changes. But I also tell patients which foods will help produce these same effects. Every food has an effect on the body’s metabolic temperature. (This is different, by the way, from your body temperature, which you take with a thermometer. Metabolic temperature is the heat energy generated through all your organ systems from the food — the fuel — that you eat and that your digestive system burns.) Some foods, such as tofu or ice cream, produce a characteristic internal coldness. Others, such as ginger or chicken, generate internal heat. If you eat too many warming foods, you increase the chance that your condition will become too warm. If it does, you might come down with a “hot” illness. Some colds, for example, marked by a dry or sore throat, fever, and sweating, can be caused by too much heat. The way to help correct the underlying imbalance that brought on that condition is to eat more cooling foods.

The first step toward remedying a condition — whether acute or chronic — is to add the proper balancing foods to your daily diet. All foods are divided into three basic categories — cold (yin), hot (yang), and neutral. The antidote will generally be an emphasis upon foods with the opposite “temperature” as the condition. If your symptoms describe a warm or hot condition, then your diet should emphasize cooling, cold, and neutral foods, and fewer warm and hot foods.

If you are not experiencing any symptoms of illness, you still can help to avoid illness by eating a varied diet as much as possible. I recommend that people eat a minimum of seven different fruits and vegetables a day, to avoid a cold or hot imbalance. The accompanying chart, shows the temperature characteristics of common foods. (Vegetarians will want to substitute foods in the same temperature category for crab and rooster.)

In addition to paying attention to overall daily diet, people in China often use specific foods as medicines. Certain food preparations are particularly effective in correcting hot and cold imbalances, like the ginger and scallion soup did for my patient’s illness. Recipes like this have been proven over many years in clinical practice to help cure a vast assortment of illnesses and diseases.

The foods and herbs selected for the medicinal recipes that follow are intended to treat five specific conditions: colds and flus (one category), insomnia, headaches, low back pain, and hay fever. They are combined to make pungent teas, juices, or thick porridges, and are taken in doses, like medicine. Some include sugar or salt. The quantities, however, are so small they are unlikely to have any adverse effects; in fact, they are included as balancing agents for the condition in question.

To treat the conditions that follow, you need to first identify the symptoms you’re experiencing. That’s because there may be different types of colds or different types of headaches, each with a different set of symptoms.

For our purposes, I’ve identified the most common symptoms that occur for two variations of these five common health problems. For each condition I’ve identified symptoms for a cold and hot type of the condition, or sometimes a “weak” type, which requires neutral foods that tonify (strengthen).

When diagnosing your own disorder, make sure to take into consideration every symptom. Look to see which set of symptoms most closely matches yours. In cases where your symptoms do not match or they do not closely match those I’ve detailed here, you’ll need to consult with a Chinese practitioner.

Even if you’re not experiencing any symptoms of illness, you may have an imbalance of hot and cold whose symptoms haven’t manifested yet. If left unaddressed, this can lead to an illness. At first, the imbalance may appear as a slight discomfort; you may feel tired, unable to concentrate, or become easily angered. At such times, you should rest and eat a balanced diet.

Chinese medicine, even in its elementary form described here, can be a powerful first-aid technique. Foods can be potent healers when used the right way. However, these prescriptions should never be attempted as a lone antidote for serious or chronic conditions. The best results are achieved when dealing with temporary illnesses, instead of chronic conditions. The latter are more likely to require a Chinese medical doctor’s attention. If your symptoms are serious, or persistent, consult a doctor.

The Remedies



Symptoms: Severe aversion to cold, low-grade fever, no sweating, headache, muscle aches, stuffy nose, cough with clear white phlegm

Treatment: Too much cold in the body, requires “warming” remedies.

Recommended Foods: Pick mostly from “hot,” “warm,” and “neutral” foods, including garlic, ginger, green chives, pepper, pumpkin, apple, onion, and mutton (lamb).

Medicinal Foods: Prepare a soup from the following ingredients:

2 teaspoons ginger

2 teaspoons scallion stalk

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Recommended Foods: Pick from “cold,” “cool,” and “neutral” foods, including mushroom, white radish, marine algae, green bean (a Chinese bean resembling a soybean), lotus seed, and tofu.

Medicinal Foods: Make a porridge from the following ingredients:

1 small fresh pumpkin

1 cup millet

2 1/2 cups water

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