The Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine) is an ancient treatise on health and disease said to have been written by the famous Chinese emperor Huangdi around 2600 BC. However, Huangdi is a semi-mythical figure, and the book probably dates from later, around 300 BC. This ancient treatise demonstrates a fully developed philosophy of diet that centers around seasonal eating and prescriptive diet for the treatment of various imbalances in the human body. As early as 700 BC, the ancient Greeks and Romans had already developed full dietetic approaches that recognized the influence of food and exercise on health. In fact, we derive our word ‘diet’ from the Greek ‘diatia,’ which referred to a whole way of living focused on self-control and abstemiousness. With Christian asceticism, this moderation was translated into self-denial, whereby the body was seen as an obstacle to the elevation of the soul. Gluttony continues to haunt the Christian world today as one of the seven deadly sins. In Dante's Purgatory, the penitents of Mount Purgatory are grouped and penanced according to their worst sin. While few people today believe that over-eating will condemn them to an afterlife of eternal damnation, we do find ourselves confronted with the worst obesity rates in history. It’s clear that humans have a complex relationship to food and nourishment.
As we can see, various approaches to diet emerged long before the modern scientific approach to nutrition. This modern approach, which arose with attention to agricultural chemistry, concentrates on the study of metabolic pathways, physiological responses to diet, along with the biochemical processes through which food substances change during metabolism. Scientific advances in the 1800’s, notably in medicine, led to the discovery of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. These discoveries altered our perception not only of the human body but also of what we eat. Despite our greater understanding of the influences that certain foods have on physiology, there remain as many beliefs about the ideal human diet as there are seeds in a raspberry.
Modern historians refer to the period around 70,000 years ago as the Cognitive Revolution, which is marked by the development of fictive language. The development of language allowed homo-sapiens to develop more complex social structures, to organize and cooperate more effectively, and to jump to the top of the food chain. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution around 12,000 years ago, humans lived as hunter-gatherers. They travelled in bands from place to place in search of food, following animal migration paths, the growth cycles of plants and the changing seasons. Fossilized bones indicate that foragers from this time period were less likely to die from malnutrition or starvation than farmers from later periods. This strange fact is due to their complex, varied diet. In premodern times, most calories from the agricultural population came from only a handful of crops- wheat, potatoes, or rice- whereas, ancient foragers consumed a dazzling array of different foodstuffs including berries, seeds, mushroom, fruits, snails, insects, wild roots and tubers, small and large animals. Further, they were less affected if a particular food source failed. Starting with the Agricultural Revolution around 12,000 years ago, most humans lived as farmers and herders, which was a vast change from our common existence prior to this. We harnessed the capacity to domesticate plants and animals (along with ourselves), through the development of permanent settlements. Then, starting with the Scientific Revolution around 500 years ago, we laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. Currently, most people consume their food by purchasing it from a grocery store with the money they’ve earned as urban labourers, factory or office workers. One might say we find ourselves in the Processed Food Revolution. The state and market have replaced family and community as the primary structures within society, and we see the second mass extinction of plants and animals on earth. All of these massive historical shifts have molded the modern social, economic, political, ecological and technological realities of our current society. This long history has contributed, step-by-step, to the way that the modern human relates to food. Most contemporary humans are unaware of their deep relationship to their local ecology. The loss of this felt depth, along with a simultaneous murky awareness that we are utterly enmeshed in the natural world, marks the metamodern social undercurrent of vacillating alienation and engagement that so many experience. We suffer an identity crisis because our fundamental orientation to reality has placed humans at the center, rather than as an integral aspect of the Whole.
Modern society is structured as if nature, society and economy are siloed or somehow separate, when in fact society is nested within Nature, and economy within society. We’re not separate from nature, and we’re beginning to learn this lesson the hard way through epidemics, raging wild fires, climate change and preventable modern chronic diseases. What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. We believe that Nature simply contains resources that we can exploit to make life faster, more efficient, more convenient, more profitable, rather than a sacred, living force of medicine and wisdom. Further, we’ve lost touch with the fundamental reality that humans are Nature. Reverently observing the natural rhythms, relationships and patterns of nature unlocks infinite mysteries that can teach man how to live with greater skill, wisdom and compassion. This essay will conclude with simple ways to align with the seasons and begin one’s journey into the heart of nature.
Until the Industrial Revolution, which began in the second half of the 18th century, the entire history of humankind was fueled by one source: plants. Our only conversion tool was the natural process of metabolism in both humans and animals. Around 1700, the British steam engine used in mineshafts was gradually repurposed and connected to looms and gins. This revolutionized textile production, making Britain the workshop of the world. As humans realized that they could convert one form of energy to another, a profound transformation occurred that would irrevocably change society. Before long, hand production methods were replaced with machines, new chemical manufacturing processes emerged, steam and water-power were revolutionized, and we saw the birth of the mechanized factory system. Population growth exploded, global trading empires became technologically refined and grew exponentially, and industrial production methods became the mainstay of agriculture. With so many people released from agricultural work, factories and offices filled with workers who produced an unbelievable array of products, built more structures in big cities and created an economy where supply outstripped demand. This societal change fueled a capitalist economy where the new ethic of consumerism was and still is conditioned into us from a young age. Industrialists, investors, ad agencies, marketers, social media, and technology in general insist that the real value we hold, our true identity, is defined by how much and how well we consume. We’ve come to identify even our most fundamental nourishment, our food, as a commodity to be consumed. Often, we fail to really notice how it tastes, or makes us feel or even if we’re satiated. Often, we’re too busy answering emails, passively consuming the newest Netflix show, or responding to the perfectly targeted ad for the dress that the algorithm somehow knows we “need.” In fact, we ourselves have become commodities to be consumed, mined for our attention and credit card numbers.
The replacement of the rhythms of traditional agriculture with the uniform and precise schedule of industry has changed even the way we relate to time. We live on a mechanized schedule, waking up with the alarm, brushing our teeth for three minutes until the toothbrush beeps, rushing out to get to work on time, working out for forty-five minutes then rushing home to catch the 7 P.M. show. This way of living would have been unimaginable to humans before the modern age. We don’t pay attention to the seasons much beyond fashionable changes in the clothes we wear. We can eat Brazilian mangos while watching television in our New York apartment during a December snowstorm. Concrete and plastic shopping centers have destroyed habitats while species go extinct. Where will medicines come from when the flowers, trees, vines, grasses, bushes and wild creatures are gone? Even plants and animals have been mechanized. Nowadays, animals are mostly mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs. Factory farms yield an unimaginable level of suffering to the animals that we cultivate for our consumption. They pollute the environment and our drinking water, ravage rural communities, harm our health and harm the welfare of animals, all while increasing corporate control over our food. While we face a complex world that’s rapidly changing due to the influence of technology, we have not lost our ability to remember who and what we are. The process of intentionally choosing local, seasonal foods, for example, connects us to the region and climate that we live in, as well as the farmers who live so close to the land. By drinking teas seasonally and following the wisdom of our ancestors, we might realign with the steady rhythms of nature that are far older and wiser than our relatively young species.
We develop deeper reverence for where things come from and for the lives that exist outside our ordinary purview by connecting with local food and ecology. By observing the climactic, environmental and natural changes around us, we recognize the impermanence of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and beliefs. We rest in change and find beauty in the ephemeral. These qualities inform the aesthetic of the tea ceremony, wherein we bring elements of nature to the tea space. By observing and celebrating changes in the natural world, we come into contact with the changes in ourselves during different times of the year. By doing so, we recognize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. This recognition can help to free us from our pathological egoic belief that our individual life is somehow separate from the rest of Life, and that our species is somehow independent of all life on earth. Does Nature observe borders, boundary lines and ideological differences? How so? We sip the leaves of trees and if we’re listening carefully, we just might hear them whisper, “we’re happy to help you breathe, to shelter you, to provide you medicine, food and fruits.” When we actively listen, we step out of our continuously lost-in-thought daydream. We arrive in the reality of the moment, where are lives are actually taking place, here and now. Seasonally appropriate teas and foods are powerful conduits to connecting with the many facets of seasonal awareness.
Modern life is complex and the aim of these food and tea suggestions is not to further complicate. Rather, by becoming more intimately connected to the source of our food, the preparation of our food, and the seasons, we connect with a deeper slower rhythm. This connection nourishes something primordial within us, supporting our ability to transcend momentary impulses, addiction and the fast-paced culture of rampant consumerism. The overwhelming number of modern dietary fads makes it difficult to determine how best to feed ourselves. Perhaps Michael Pollen put it best in saying, “Eat food, not to much, mostly plants.” Shop around the outside of the grocery store where you know what the ingredients are. Better yet, buy food at the farmer’s market and get to know your farmers. Even better still, grow your own food. Eat fresh food that grows in the ground, not out of a box or plastic wrapper. Eat and sip tea mindfully and with reverence for the sacrifice and labor that went into growing, harvesting, driving, preparing and serving. It’s really hard work and by living with care and attention we just might recognize, as Wordsworth did, that “Nature never did betray, the heart that loved her.”
Diet and Tea in Winter
“In nature we have the four seasons and the five energetic transformations of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Their changes and transformations produce cold, summer heat, dampness, dryness and wind. The weather, in turn, affects every living creature in the natural world and forms the foundation for birth, growth, maturation, and death. By respecting this natural law it is possible to be free from illness. The sages have followed this, and the foolish people have not.” - The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter represents the time of pure yin, which is the water element. The organs that correspond to this element are the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder. Thus, it is important to support and nourish these organs during their season. This can be achieved by avoiding taxation of the kidneys through over-eating, alcohol, excessive sexual activity, excess physical activity and stress, ice cold drinks, and uncooked foods. Rather, winter is the ideal season of the year to nourish the kidneys by getting plenty of rest, meditating, slower forms of exercise like yoga, tai qi and qi gong, eating appropriate foods and medicinal herbs, and getting bodywork or acupuncture.
Appropriate foods include those that keep the body warm and also nourish the kidneys. Root vegetables, hearty stews and foods that grow in winter are ideal – squash, sweet potato, angelica root, carrots, cabbage, shitake mushrooms, apples, pears, black beans, kidney beans, walnuts, chestnuts, onion, ginger, black sesame, dark leafy greens, and small amounts of unrefined sea salt. Also, cooking for longer periods on low heat with less water infuses food with heat that will help maintain warmth during the cold months. Because we are all different, it is beneficial to see a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine so that they can make a custom herbal tisane, specific dietary recommendations and acupuncture treatments.
We recommend drinking teas that are warming, nourishing, calming, centering, and tonifying. During the winter we tend to drink aged shou and sheng puerh, dark red teas, strong yencha rock oolong, heavily oxidized and dark, aged oolong. These teas are rich, full-bodied, flavorful, grounding, earthy, vegetal and deep. Aged teas are warming in the body, which is helpful during the colder months. Aged shou and sheng puerh support digestion, which is helpful as we eat heartier meals during the winter. Further, we often drink tea later in the day during the colder months because we spend more time indoors. Shou Puerh and aged sheng facilitate quietude, reflection, and relaxation, which are ideal states during the slower winter months. Aged Oolongs and Yenchas are grounding, yet also tend to open the heart and senses through their sweet, uplifting, floral qualities, brightening the mood during cloudy, snowy days. Malty Dien Hong Red teas tend to be more enlivening while maintaining the depth of winter teas, so we drink them on cold mornings when we feel sluggish.
Diet and Tea in Spring
The element of Wood includes the twigs and branches that quiver in the wind and the leaves that taste of the color green. It is the energy of spring, of new beginnings, progressive movement and reaching towards the future as well as the qualities of fiber and suppleness that give an organism the ability to maintain integrity through the storm winds of growth and transformation.” – Five Spirits, Lorie Eve Dechar
Spring marks the early rising Yang and solar part of the year, where we begin to enjoy the increasing sunlight hours, with earlier dawns and later sunsets. The weather warms the earth as plants begin to sprout and put forth green leaves. During spring the subtlety and vastness of the universe, the intelligence and intuition of the human being, the ability of the earth to produce, the natural movement of the wind, and the upward motion of all plants, collectively produce the movement of the tendons, the metaphorical opening of the eyes and the ability to envision, and the emotion of anger when movement is suppressed. Most fruits and trees are immature and unripe at this time, thus the taste associated with Spring is sour. This flavor, in moderation, strengthens the liver, the organ associated with Spring, allowing the blood to nourish the tendons and tendomuscular channels in the body. These are all associated with the liver because the liver is responsible for maintaining the patency of the flow of energy in the body, and its nature is movement and expansion.
Spring is the time to eat warm, ascending mildly sweet foods such as young, green, sprouting above-ground vegetables, as well as leafy greens that support gentle detoxification. In early spring, try cabbage, sweet potato, carrot and beetroot. As the weather changes, move to mint, sweet rice, shitake mushrooms, peas, sunflower seeds, pine nuts and in late spring, cherries. Gently warming pungent foods are also particularly good for spring. These include fennel, oregano, rosemary, caraway, dill, bay leaf, grains, legumes and seeds. Pungent flavored foods stimulate circulation of Qi and blood, moving energy up and out. Further, Spring wind can affect the liver, causing dizziness, cramps, itching, headaches, ringing in the ears and dryness. There are several foods that reduce the effects of wind, including oats, pine nuts, ginger, fennel and basil, celery, mulberry, strawberry, black soybeans, sage and chamomile. Try making a list of foods to incorporate during this time, and leaving it on the fridge.
Herbs that cleanse and tonify are potent ways to support us in the Spring. Some of these herbs include: Milk thistle for detox, peppermint for mood-elevation, invigoration when we feel stuck, and digestive support, dandelion for liver cleansing and PMS symptoms accompanied with digestive discomfort, and chelidonium as a liver tonic for appetite disturbance, clarity of vision and ease of emotional strain.
For a tea person, this time of the year marks a shift in lifestyle, activity, and orientation. We transition from dark, earthy, grounding brews into lighter, floral, uplifting teas. Green and white teas, aged red teas, and young to mid sheng Puerhs are ideal for early Spring, while Qimen red teas, high-mountain, Baozhong and Dan Cong oolongs come out later in Spring. We generally explore more gongfu cha, brewing these delicate teas in small zisha pots with small porcelain cups, honing the craft of the perfect brew. We also enjoy early morning bowl tea sessions with large-leaf loose sheng puerh. This important time of the year is about growth, expansion, and creativity. Having conserved and cultivated our inner reserves during the winter, we welcome the lush growth of spring through sweet, opening, ethereal teas.
Diet and Tea in Summer
The hot weather of the summer season, the metaphorical fire, the blood vessels, and the color red are all related to the heart. The heart, or fire element, manifests emotionally as laughter and joy, but excessive, “scattering” joy can cause a depletion of the heart energy. Cooling and bitter herbs and food can be used to counteract too much heat in the body. The bitter taste is associated with the summer because the hot weather produces the metaphorical fire, which can burn and char, producing the bitter taste. Thus, bitter-tasting substance can clear the heart and emotions of stagnation.
With the introduction of more movement and heat, we no longer need heavy dishes, sauces, pastas, slow-cooked stews or root vegetables, but naturally crave fresh fruits, vegetables and grains. To eat fresh, simple and light food is to avoid adding to the sluggishness of the summer heat. Here are some simple food ideas to keep your digestion strong and energy levels high. Quinoa or rice with kale, spinach, rocket, beets and beet greens, blood-nourishing avocado, cooling mung-beans, light vegetables and berries, all help to keep the body cool and light in summer. If you generally have digestive issues, lightly steam all veggies and eat at room temperature. Add a little grated ginger if you spend most of the year feeling cold. Avoid eating really cold food and drinks, even on a super hot day. Icy drinks and cold food only cool you down for a moment. However, on the inside, cold is constricting the flow of Qi adding to pain in the body. Especially avoid cold substances if you suffer from muscular pain, stomach pains or period pains. Take it easy on the icecream. Cold and dairy are a nightmare for our digestive organs! While it’s still the social season, be mindful that alcohol has a warming and drying effect on the body, adding to the summer heat. Lastly, hydration is paramount during summer, so heating substances like alcohol, coffee, red meat and salty foods create excess heat and dehydration. Incorporate at least 2 liters of water per day, ideally at the beginning of the day, as well as hydrating foods like watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber and pear. Other hydrating vegetables include: iceberg lettuce, celery, radish, peppers, cauliflower, and carrots. Mint and chrysanthemum are ideal cooling, hydrating herbal tisanes.
During the summer, we recommend drinking teas that are mildly bitter to clear heat, uplifting to support greater activity, sweet to harmonize digestion, and aromatic to open the senses. We also suggest limiting one’s intake of coffee, which is addictive, and heating in the body, dehydrating our vital systems. Coffee stimulates the adrenal glands, the regulators of stress hormones, androgens and mineral corticoids, which maintain fluids in the body. All this has a physiological relationship to the hypothalamus, which is the time-keeper of the brain and the pituitary, which is the master hormone regulator- the HPA access. When you speed up the activity of the cells, you also speed up metabolic waste production, which puts strain on the liver and detox systems, causes toxicity, shuts down the thyroid, and dries you out. All this speeds up the aging process.
Tea is much gentler on the vital systems. Strong green tea or cooling peppermint on particularly hot days will help clear heat. During the summer, the sweet, lighter teas are often appreciated for their aroma, reminding us of the burgeoning floral life and ripening fruit we witness in summer. We tend towards Liu Bao black teas, which have a cooling effect on the body, as well young sheng puerh, which also clears damp heat through slight bitter flavors. We also enjoy more delicate sencha, white, yellow, and lighter red teas, as well as matcha for more active days.
Diet and Tea in Autumn
During the summer, our energy moves to the surface of our bodies and disperses as the heat opens the pores of the skin, whereas during the fall, our energy begins to coalesce and sink inward. Between the four seasons is the intermediary Earth season, which requires strengthening the digestion and balancing the elements. The Earth organs (stomach, spleen, pancreas) are injured by inappropriate eating habits: eating too many rich and sweet foods, skipping meals, and eating in a rush. People who need to heal their digestion can observe the simple process of eating at regular consistent times and slowing down enough to chew their food. Neutral to warming and slightly sweet foods are ideal at this time of the year, including: winter squash, pumpkin, acorn squash, lentils and legumes, whole grains like buckwheat, quinoa and millet, root vegetables, whole fruits (in moderation), nuts and seeds, some leafy greens (move away from bitter as the weather turns colder), and slightly pungent herbs like oregano, basil, savory, tarragon, rosemary, sage and juniper. Moderate amounts of pungent foods like garlic, onions, ginger, horseradish, and mustard are beneficial to the lungs as we prepare for Fall.
As we move later into the fall, we seek recipes that help generate body fluids to counteract seasonal dryness, and strengthen our immunity. It is advisable to eat more food with sour flavors and reduce pungent flavors like onion, ginger and peppers, which induce perspiration and lead to the loss of body fluids. Sour foods like pineapple, apple, grapefruit and lemon have astringent properties, which helps prevent the loss of body fluids during the dry months. One old tradition suggests we eat hydrating porridge for breakfast and soup for dinner. Eat foods that lubricate the body, combat autumn dryness and moisten the lungs like: grass-fed ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, sesame oil, moistening foods such as mushrooms, cooked cabbage, pumpkin, squash, seaweed, radish, asparagus, pears, and lemon; herbal teas such as burdock, comfrey, ginger, and licorice root. Eat warming, tonifying foods like broth, stews, soups, hot gluten-free cereals, lentils, kidney beans, adzuki beans, as well as herbs and spices that are good for the lungs: bay leaves, caraway seeds, cardamom, chives, cinnamon, cloves, dill, fennel, leek, oregano, nutmeg, rosemary, thyme, and turmeric.
In general, during the fall we tend to drink teas that are rich, nourishing, grounding, roasted and mildly sweet. There is less activity during colder months, so we tend towards less stimulating teas. Instead, we emphasize teas to support and tonify the organs, fluids and blood. Late summer and early autumn are times to clear excess summer heat from the body, and to support the digestive system. For this purpose, we drink teas that combine bitter heat-clearing qualities, pungent or “spicy” teas to promote circulation, and mildly sweet teas that support digestion. Mid to late autumn is a time to protect the body from cold, wind and dryness. We then tend towards teas that are mildly sweet to support digestion of heavier foods, slightly sour to prevent the loss of body fluids and counteract the dry environment, or aged teas to generate warmth, especially as we get later in autumn. To simplify, early autumn is a good time for slightly bittersweet young to mid-aged sheng Puerh, and bittersweet roasted Oolongs. Mid to late autumn is an ideal time for slightly sour Hunan Black Tea, sweet “yellow leaf” Huang Pian Sheng Puerh, warming aged Oolong, rich earthy Yencha or Cliff tea, and mellow red tea.
- Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens, Homo Deus, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
- Lorie Eve Dechar: The Five Spirits
- Eliot Cohen: Plant Spirit Medicine
- Agustin Fuentes: What Makes Us Human
- Jo Robinson: Eating on the Wildside
- David Crow: In Search of the Medicine Buddha