Featured Article

The Basic Concepts of Yao Shan for Yang Sheng

and Its Functions

© Helen H. Hu. MD, OMD, L.Ac

Yao Shan (Yao – medicinal spices and herbs; Shan – food cooked or prepared as a meal) has a long history in the legendary stories of China, an indication of humans having explored and experienced the various benefits of natural foods and plants (herbs) since ancient times. Until around the period of the Zhou dynasty (1000 BC), Chinese medical doctors who worked inside the palace were divided into one of four specialties, one of the four being a Yao Shan specialist. Yao Shan became one of the sophisticated trends in medicine that integrated medicinal herbs into food, with a specific way of preparing food with a good taste, color, and specific properties to promote the emperor’s well-being, physical performance, longevity, and the prevention of diseases.

The Inner Classic states that herbs and food come from the same source (having the same properties) and the different tastes of foods have different medicinal nutrients that balance different organs. This is why the Chinese call food therapy “Yao Shan” – Yao, medicinal herbs and spices, and Shan, food in general, prepared to best provide nutrients to the body, strengthen energy, nourish organs, improve circulation, detoxify the body, and support immunity. At the same time, not eating the right food according to one’s physical condition might be detrimental to one’s health.

A Chinese medicinal diet is not a simple combination of food and herbs, but a specially prepared dish made from Chinese herbs, certain foods, and condiments according to theoretical guidelines on the properties of the food and the way it should be prepared. Such a diet is in response to the different symptoms of disease and its diagnosis according to TCM, and is used to prevent and treat disease, improve well-being, enhance immunity, and slow down the aging process. At the same time, the body’s physical condition changes according to different life stages, seasonal changes, and health status changes. The diet should be modified accordingly to assist the body in restoring its normal health status and to ensure free-flow of vital Qi (energy).

The Specific Characteristics of Chinese Yao Shan

TCM food therapy is based on the medical theory of TCM, of the balance of yin and yang and the five elements. According to the patient’s constitution and patterns diagnosis, a specific food therapy is formulated by properly utilizing/assessing the different temperatures, colors, flavors, and tonic (or draining) properties of foods. In order to make a TCM diagnosis for an individual, a Chinese medical doctor has to understand the health condition and constitution of the individual in general, the condition and stage of the illness, and the seasonal considerations and changes according to geographic location. The doctor may then formulate the Yao Shan as it applies to that particular individual’s condition. For example, a patient with a chronic, cold type of gastritis should be instructed to eat a certain kind of grain soup with warm herbs, such as dry ginger and cinnamon bark. A patient with menopausal syndrome, a yin deficiency resulting in feeling warm with hot flashes, should avoid hot, spicy food and add more cooling herbs to her diet, such as a tea made with chrysanthemum flowers, and goji berries added to a recipe for black rice soup.

Another common condition that people can self-treat with Yao Shan is digestive system weakness (spleen deficiency). A person manifests with low spirits, limb weakness, loss of appetite, and abdominal distension and cramps. First of all, it is important to avoid cold, raw, and greasy foods that will continue to weaken the energy in the digestive system. Rice soup should be made, with herbs such as Chinese red dates, ginger, Chinese yam, and ginseng, to restore and strengthen spleen function.

The fundamental aspect of TCM food therapy is to nourish Qi, blood, and body essence. Qi and blood are the basic materials for the body and organs to function. Essence is the most refined and fundamental substance for the body. However, the essence that the body acquired since birth, called pre-heaven essence, needs to continue to be replenished and nourished with a proper diet. In particular, those individuals who were born with a weak stomach or weak lungs (such as those with childhood asthma) should integrate Chinese food therapy as a lifestyle in order to continue to nourish and strengthen those organs, to prevent disease in a natural way and to treat the root causes, rather than passively doing nothing, only to have more health problems later in life. There are many natural foods to nourish the blood: dates, longan, lychee, sesame seeds, chicken liver, and chicken blood. Fruits that nourish body fluids include sugar cane, pears, water chestnuts, and watermelon. Deer meat and turtle meat nourish the body essence.

The key to Chinese food therapy is supporting and balancing the organs. The key to wellness and longevity is to balance the organs and the body, the mind, and the spirit. This does not mean that everyone needs to tonify, or that everyone needs to detoxify, without regard to individual body and organ conditions. If there is excess, there is no need to continue to tonify. If the body is accumulating toxins because it is too weak to expel them, one should strengthen the body with gentle, natural means in order to empower or restore the body’s own Qi to detoxify itself, rather than utilizing harsh detoxifying methods—colonics or purging methods—which sometimes just do the opposite.

The basic principle is this: TCM food therapy is formulated according to the different patterns of each individual in order to facilitate and support the body’s natural capacity. There is no one universal form or method for everything and everyone.

Believe that our body has its own capacity to heal itself. Whatever we do, we have to work with our body to facilitate it by following its natural path for healing. Even the greatest healer on the planet cannot revive the health of someone who has no desire or capacity to heal; trying to force the body against its own biological rhythm will not succeed.

TCM food therapy is a form of art. Prepared dishes should have attractive colors, smells, tastes, and designs. The formulation of a food therapy diet follows the same principle as when a TCM doctor writes a prescription for herbs, which is also an art form (there is the chief herb, the deputy herb, assistant herbs, and convoy herbs that work together like a battalion on the battle field). This means that the TCM doctor prepares the TCM food therapy not only for its therapeutic effect, but also considers the way to prepare, considering color, taste, body condition, the seasons—just like an art form. There are thousands of dishes, soups, congees, desserts, and herbal wines, and hundreds of books through the different dynasties, up until today. TCM food therapy is a specialty within the whole of TCM.

In general, foods that help promote well-being and increase body immunity are considered to be anti-aging foods, such as black sesame seeds, mulberries, wolfberries (goji berries), longan fruit, black walnuts, Chinese yams, Chinese red dates, grapes, lily bulbs, ginger, and pearl barley.

The Functions of TCM Food Therapy

1) Strengthening and Nourishing the Body Constitution

Food provides fundamental nutrition to all living things through the Three Treasures, Jing (essence), Qi (energy), and Shen (spirit). According to the different flavors of food, the nutrients of each flavor will nourish different organs. As mentioned previously, there are five flavors of food that enter five different organs accordingly Sour food enters the liver first; sweet food enters the spleen; pungent food the lungs; and salty food the kidneys. Different colors of foods have a tendency to enter certain meridians and their related organs. For example, tea (green color) tends to go to the liver meridian, pear (white color) to the lungs, rice (brown color) to the spleen and stomach, and black beans to the kidneys.

2) Nourishing the Body Essence, Nourishing Qi, and Supporting Shen

The design of TCM food therapy is based upon the classification of each kind of food’s properties of nourishing, sedating, and balancing the condition of the body. Therefore, TCM food therapy can be used for the following:

Nourishing the Body Essence: Some of us were born with certain organ deficiencies or different body constitutions; that is why one person may have had childhood asthma (kidney deficiency that is not in harmony with the lungs), while another may have been a child with many gastrointestinal complaints and hyperactivity due to spleen deficiency that does not properly nourish the heart. Food therapy to strengthen the organs, beginning in childhood, is one of most common prevention treatments for childhood problems in TCM. It not only treats the childhood disease, but more importantly, it prevents health problems in adulthood that are related to the weak organ later in life. (The spleen-deficient child tends to gain weight in adulthood; the asthmatic child, if the asthma is related to the kidneys, tends to have fear, back problems, allergies, and low sexual drive later in life). When the TCM doctor asks a patient for their medical history, including childhood health problems, it will lead to the exploration of the adult disorder in order to develop the appropriate herbal and food therapy. For example, a patient who has complained of asthma since childhood may now be an adult with kidney deficiency problems, low back pain, and/or prematurely grey hair and low sex drive.

Nourishing Qi: The body’s energy is dramatically depleted after chemotherapy, surgical procedures, childbirth, and chronic disease. Food therapy is commonly used to revive and strengthen the body’s energy, restore the function of the vital organs, and restore the body’s immunity (defensive system). Food therapy is most beneficial for recovering Qi in chronic conditions, alone or when combined with other treatments.

Supporting Shen: The spirits and emotions reflect each organ’s energy. When the body and organs are harmonized, Shen (spirits and emotions) will be balanced and within normal boundaries. Healthy Shen reflects the organ’s well-being. If an organ is in disharmony, the emotion related to that organ will be imbalanced. (The emotion related to the liver is anger; spleen is worry; heart is joy; kidney is fear; and lungs are sadness.) At the same time, obsession with or overindulgence in an emotion can have an impact on the related organ. TCM food therapy can play a part in overall well-being and treatment for emotional support. Sometimes we crave certain foods because of certain organ deficiencies; in another words, we will crave the taste that is related to the deficient organ. For example, when an elderly person has a kidney deficiency, osteoporosis, and back and knee weakness, they will tend to crave salty foods and have an element of fear in their emotional makeup, as these are the tastes and emotions related to the kidneys.

3) Treating and Preventing Diseases

TCM food therapy can help strengthen the deficient organ and balance the body’s energy, nourish the blood, and normalize metabolism. Historically, TCM used fresh vegetables to treat scurvy, animal liver to treat night blindness, and kelp to treat thyroid problems. At the same time, the same food was used to prevent those diseases. There are many foods we eat every day that have therapeutic effects; we just need to know when to eat them more in order to prevent disease. For example, traditionally, mung bean was used as a soup for the prevention of summer heat stroke, and for cleansing the toxins in the body.

Garlic should be eaten when the common cold is going around, as well as diarrhea. Green onions (the white part), ginger, and garlic soup should be eaten for the prevention and treatment of the early stages of a cold.

4) Promoting Anti-Aging and Well-Being (Longevity)

We should understand the word “longevity.” It means that we can do whatever we can to delay the process of aging, but no one can stop the aging process, because aging is one of the laws of nature. But what we can do is to live healthier lives and enjoy life more, not suffering much disease or pain or becoming dependent as we age.

TCM food therapy is not the only answer to delay aging, but we should be aware of which food combinations can benefit us more. In the Qing dynasty, Dr. Chao Tin Dong, a longevity specialist, mentions congee for the promotion of well-being and the delay of aging. He stated, “When the elderly reach the golden age, they should eat congee several times a day or whenever they feel hungry to live a long life.” There are hundreds of recipes for congee available in his book.

Throughout the long history of observation and practice, TCM has taught that certain foods have the property to promote well-being and should be considered to be anti-aging, or to delay aging. Some examples of these foods are sesame seeds, mulberries, longan, goji berries, black walnuts, royal jelly, Chinese wild yams, human milk, ginger, mushrooms, black/white fungus, tea, seaweed and kelp, and certain meats.


Copyright © 2011 by Helen H. Hu  All rights reserved.

Dr. Helen Hu, originally from Beijing China, has studied Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) since the age of 12. A Cardiologist and practitioner of integrated medicine for nine years before immigrating to the United States, Dr. Hu passed the “U.S. Licensing Medical Exam” (USLME) in 1997 while simultaneously obtaining her Oriental Medical Degree (OMD) in the US.   Dr. Hu currently directs and manages a successful TCM practice in San Diego. She lectures locally on Acupuncture and the benefits of combining Eastern / Western styles of Medicine.  Dr. Hu has been practicing Tai Ji and Qi Gong over 25 years, and she teaches these ancient Chinese arts Saturday mornings on Shelter Island in San Diego as a gift to the community and to help promote well being and longevity. www.bodywithoutmystique.com or  www.OMDweb.net
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