The best foods to boost your digestive fire, ramp up immunity and keep you warm when it’s cold
You might know all about healthy eating, but did you know what’s deemed as ‘healthy’ changes from season to season according to Chinese medicine? And that eating what would be considered good for your constitution in summer might actually be thought of as the opposite in winter? When the weather is cold, like during a British winter, we need to be eating thermogenic foods to keep our systems running properly. “All bodily processes are warm, so most of us need warming foods in winter to maintain healthy organ function and overall wellbeing,” says Emilia Herting, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner and co-founder of Escapada Retreats (escapadaretreat. com). “In TCM, the spleen and stomach are seen as the central organs of digestion. They control the break down of food and assist the absorption of elements that nourish organs and tissues to increase energy (qi) and blood in the body. The spleen and stomach also belong to the earth element, the mother element of all organs. The earth element needs to feed all other elements (wood, fire, metal and water) in your body and their organs pairs which means a strong, healthy digestion leads to a healthy body.”
The concept of digestive fire in Chinese medicine is central to good health, and it’s important to keep the fire ‘stoked’ and not do anything which depletes it. When we don’t eat warm food and consistently eat cold or raw foods it can deplete this system. Our stomach works best at approximately 37˚C, so if we consistently put cold foods and fluids in, our digestion is working hard all the time. “That might be OK for some time if an individual has an excess of heat, or a stronger digestion,” says Emilia. “But if your body constitution has an excess of cold, the spleen won’t be able to do its job, your energy and blood production will be compromised and this will result in a lack of energy, tiredness and blood deficiency symptoms such as insomnia, loss of appetite, irregular periods, fatigue, anxiety and more.”
This winter, keep your digestive fire stoked with these thermogenic foods:
“In TCM ginger is the number one food used to help with stomach discomfort and food allergies,” says Maeve O’Sullivan, the other co-founder of Escapada Retreats. “This is because fresh ginger warms your stomach energy, while rebalancing lung and immune function. Its yellow colour corresponds to the earth element (stomach and spleen) in TCM, and its sharp taste to the metal element (lung and large intestine). Ginger’s warm and activating essence can also help lessen arthritis pains, reduce inflammation, and get stagnated energy flowing again.
Try Emilia’s immuneboosting ginger tea:
Make yourself a balancing blend by adding three or four slices of fresh ginger, a squeeze of lemon, two or three leaves of fresh mint or a peppermint tea bag (optional) and some raw honey, to taste, to hot water and allow to steep for five minutes. The sour lemon and refreshing mint boosts your liver function, while raw honey soothes and benefits the lung and large intestine.
Please note, if you suffer with heat, anxiety or insomnia, the warming properties of ginger can potentially overstimulate body and mind, therefore we recommend you avoid consuming it in the evening.
“Similar to ginger, onions are warming in nature and are used in TCM as a qi tonic to counterbalance illnesses brought on by cold weather,” says Emilia. “The white color of the onion corresponds to the metal element, and it boosts the lung and large intestine. Studies show that the sharp tasting onions, garlic, shallots and leeks are rich in sulphur, giving them their classic smell but also helping to absorb viruses, bacteria and detox the body. Onions also have the natural ability to induce urination and perspiration to help remove toxins.”
Try Emilia’s simple winter broth:
Make yourself an easy hot broth by adding one spring onion, a slice of fresh ginger and a few black peppercorns to hot water. Wrap up warm and allow your body to open its pores and expel the cold whilst drinking.
“Turmeric is related to ginger and has been prescribed as a food and herbal medicine for thousands of years,” says Emilia. “This orange root is packed with pungent flavours of earth, pepper and bitterness, and supports the function of your stomach and spleen. In TCM, turmeric enters the heart, lung, liver and gallbladder meridians and is used to invigorate blood, remove stagnation from the body and reduce inflammation. “It is used for menstrual pain (often from qi and blood stagnation) and traumatic injuries and can be used topically for a variety of skin disorders including skin inflammation, bruising, insect bites and ringworm. Turmeric is also a great source of fibre, vitamin B6, magnesium, vitamin C and potassium.”
Always mix turmeric with fat. This spice is fat soluble, which means that it can only be absorbed properly by the body when in combination with fats. This is why you will often find turmeric mixed with ghee (clarified butter), a delicious and healthy substitution for butter. Use a pestle and mortar to mash fresh turmeric root into a paste, mix with ghee and you can use it in a multitude of savoury dishes.
Cooked food in winter is always better than raw, according to Chinese medicine. “Cooking warms the energetics of food so focusing on soups, stews, and casseroles is great,” says Emilia. “These nourish the yin aspect of the body, build immunity and boost energy during the cold season. Fruit should be poached or stewed and spiced with anise, cinnamon, and clove so its nature becomes warming and moistening. “All vegetables should also be steamed, cooked or roasted to aid digestion and increase the natural sweetness from the vegetable. Combing small amounts of warm food with the cold can balance the yin yang too, so if you really crave sushi for lunch, have it, but add the warmth of wasabi and a hot miso broth to start, and ignite your digestive fire.
• Herbs: basil, chives, coriander, dill, fennel, parsley and rosemary
• Spices: anise, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper
• Vegetables: onion, leeks, parsnips, spring onion and garlic – all are white in colour, have a sharp taste and strengthen immunity via the lungs
• Pumpkin, squash, carrots, potatoes, yellow courgettes, butternut and sweet potatoes are all yellow or orange earthy foods which are naturally warming and sweet in taste and great energy boosting foods
• Others include nuts, honey, oats, quinoa, seeds and wild rice
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