What do you do when you feel stressed out? What about when you’re sad? Or celebrating something happy?
For a lot of people, the answers to all three will involve some kind of eating. We reach out to food for comfort, and we use it to celebrate as well. Emotional eating gets a bad rap, and for some good reasons. It is often cited as one of the reasons for weight gain, and the health problems that sometimes come with it.
But there’s another story out there about emotional eating. In fact, in Eastern medicine, eating for your emotions might actually be healthy.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), foods and emotions are inherently connected. It’s all about the Qi, or energy. Different emotions draw upon different kinds of Qi, and when intense emotions lead to burn out or illness, we can restore the balance by eating foods to restore those specific forms of Qi.
That’s my little CliffsNotes explanation, but for a little more depth and clarity, I sat down with my good friend and acupuncturist, Jon Cacherat for an interview on the subject.
Here’s what he had to say:
Kathryn Muyskens: Let’s start with something broad. What’s the connection in TCM between emotions, food, and our bodies’ health?
Jon Cacherat: To start, I’ll say the connections are very intimate and implicitly intertwined. The connection between all three is often typically overlooked in current Western medicine. Doctors are trained to diagnose and treat disease, but they often neglect the psychological component, and that can mean missing out on some important clues on how to treat someone’s issues, or how to prevent them in the first place.
Not so in Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine takes the approach that illness can cause certain emotional states and vice versa, that emotional states can cause illnesses. To better understand how all three are connected, we need to discuss one of the foundations of Chinese medical philosophy, Five Element Theory.
The concept of Five Element Theory can be traced back to Daoist philosophy. The Elements are not strictly literal, they’re in fact a way of grouping nearly everything in life into categories. The ancient Chinese noticed correspondences between what people ate, when they ate it, how they felt, and even what season it was when they ate it.
From this lengthy process of observations, they grouped foods, emotions, organs, seasons, etc. together under each of the Elements. Just as the ancient Chinese saw these Elements coming together to make everything in the natural world, each Element/organ system in our body comes together to form our complete body and psyche.
KM: So what are these Five Elements and the organs and emotions that go with them?
JC: The first of the Elements is Fire, which corresponds with the Heart Qi and the emotion of joy. Next is Earth, which is paired with Digestive Qi and an emotion that the Chinese call Yi. Yi is an emotion not recognized in the West, it translates into something we would regard as unemotional, cold, logical, analytical, pensive and studious, like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. It’s the kind of emotion you feel when you’re engaged in deep study, pondering, memorization…digesting information. TCM sees this as a distinctly emotional state, not unemotional at all.
KM: I see, that seems fitting to go with Digestive Qi then. We’re using the same energy that takes in and absorbs food to also take in and absorb information.
JC: Exactly! Food for thought, don’t you think? Now, on to the next Element, Metal. Metal is associated with the body’s Lung Qi, the immune system, and the emotions of grief, loss and sadness.
Water is associated with the Kidney Qi and the dual emotions of courage and fear.
Finally, the Wood Element is tied with the Liver Qi and the emotions of creativity on one hand, and anger or frustration on the other.
KM: I notice some of the Elements seem to have one emotion only and others two. Why is that?
JC: Well, to a certain extent, there is duality in all of them. The Heart Qi’s joy can take a negative turn and become mania, or the “Yi” of Digestive Qi can become unbalanced and express itself as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Even the Lung Qi’s emotion of grief has another side to it, though it is harder to articulate. Perhaps you could call it stoicism, or endurance, the ability to steel yourself against hardship and keep going. It just happens that in the cases of the Kidney and Liver, the duality is more overt.
KM: This is all very fascinating, but where does the connection with food come in?
JC: I’m glad you asked. As we have discussed somewhat in previous interviews, Qi is somewhat analogous to the Western concept of metabolism and “functions of the body.” Thus, we would say Heart Qi when discussing heart functions, like blood pressure and pulse for example.
Think of the five major organ systems described by TCM as each representing a fuel tank of Qi in your body, each of them dispersing Qi for specific functions. This Qi fuel is largely generated in the Digestive tank from what you eat. As the organ systems utilize and burn Qi for their individual tasks, they must replenish the tanks. Emotional states are fueled by their corresponding organ systems. That’s where food comes in. Food is the fuel for your body and becomes your Qi. Food has Qi of its own, and eating specific foods will enrich and nurture specific organ systems and their abilities to perform their functions and express emotions.
KM: Does this mean we can influence our emotions by what we eat?
JC: Yes…and no. We can’t make ourselves happy by eating only “happy foods,” and eating Lung Qi won’t make us sad. The advice from Chinese medicine is aimed at restoring or maintaining balance. Every food has a Qi unique to it. Food can have a beneficial effect or it can cause harm. Some food Qi is pernicious and can harm a specific system just as some food will benefit a specific system. If the correct foods are eaten they can restore us when we are drained, ill, deficient or stagnant. Used with knowledge, foods can provide a route to balance and good healthy Qi as well as improved emotional stability. Poor choices of food can derange the Qi, generating undesirable emotional states and illness.
For example, losing a loved one is a terrible tragic thing. In fact, it is such a powerful emotional experience that it can affect our health. The Lungs, which are the source of the emotion of grief, are also responsible for our immune and respiratory systems. That’s why we often see that people going through a period of grief will be more susceptible to colds or sinus infections. Their Lung Qi is becoming exhausted. By eating foods that help build the Metal Element, we can strengthen and nourish Lung Qi.
In short, the relationship between emotions and food should be all about restoring and maintaining balance of the body and mind, not about achieving any particular emotional state.
KM: So, what kind of events in our emotional lives can cause that kind of imbalance?
JC: Kidney Qi will be drained by fear, even if we don’t give in to the fear we feel. Think of a soldier in battle, or a fire-fighter about to enter a burning building. They will be afraid of the danger, but they overcome that and face it anyway, showing a lot of courage. Both courage and fear are fueled by Kidney Qi, and after a particularly intense experience or prolonged feelings of fear, the Kidney can become exhausted or deficient.
A college student studying for finals or an actor memorizing his role in a Shakespearean play or a mathematician crunching a complex formula, will each be burning fuel from the Digestive Qi’s tank. If they don’t care for themselves properly through the process, they will exhaust the Digestive Qi. Because the Earth element goes with digestion, this type of burn out can leave us with digestive troubles of any and all kinds, for example diarrhea, indigestion or sweet cravings.
With Liver Qi, associated with the Wood Element, the cause of imbalance is usually feeling long periods of stagnation, feeling trapped in unhappy and unhealthy patterns, or feeling deep-seated anger or frustration.
What Western medicine currently regards as depression is absolutely linked with Liver Qi. The Liver and Wood Element rules the joints, and is highly involved in menstrual cycles. In time, pathological Liver Qi can manifest in these areas of the body. When the Liver is especially troubled, it can even lash out to other areas of the body and cause migraines or irritable bowel disease. Stagnant Liver Qi can become severe chronic depression, even to a suicidal degree.
Even joy, the emotion of the Heart, can leave us drained sometimes. Think of planning your own wedding or giving birth to your first child. These are happy events, celebrations, but they can also leave us drained.
KM: So, how do we know which foods might help us through these situations?
JC: Just as Chinese philosophy links each element with an organ, each element is also linked with a color and a flavor and much more, which can make sorting out the helpful and bad foods easy and intuitive.
Fire/Heart Qi is associated with the color red, eating red fruits like apples and cherries are nourish nourishing for Heart Qi.
The Earth/Digestive Qi is balanced by sweet and orange or yellow foods. Yams, carrots, and sweet potatoes are some of the best for Earth/Digestive Qi.
For Metal/Lung Qi, white foods and spicy foods are best, think onions and garlic for a good reference. Interestingly, the rule of thumb with white foods is that it can help or harm the Metal/Lung Qi system—while cauliflower is good, processed sugars and most milk is bad for the metal/Lung Qi system.
For the Water/Kidney Qi, deep blue, purple or black color food and salty are good indicators that they will be beneficial, like blueberries or naturally salty nori.
And last but not least, Wood/Liver Qi is fed by green and sour foods, a dish like broccoli or spinach steamed and drizzled with lemon would be perfect.
KM: Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge with us. I think those are some very useful tips.
Let us know if you found this discussion useful. What more would you like to know?
You can read more about Chinese Medicine and digestion here, and Chinese Medicine’s healthy aging tips here. Jon and I are in the beginning stages of a book on Chinese Medicine and health, if you are curious, please comment below with topics you would like us to address.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Author: Kathryn Muyskens
Editor: Travis May