An introduction to the 5 Flavours of Chinese medicine

In Chinese medicine the way to describe mans’ place in nature and to understand disease or health is through the number 5. This may seem confusing at first but it gives one a framework from which to understand the circular cycle of the seasons or for practitioners to be able to diagnose disease and foresee its progression. In Ancient China they divided the seasons into five and hence the directions, flavours and treatment modalities. The flavours are important in that they are the foundation from which a disease is understood and a diagnosis and treatment protocol is administered. It even helps us choose which treatment method would be appropriate, be it Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Massage etc. In Chinese medicine the five flavours are Bitter, Sour, Sweet, Pungent & Salty. There are of course varying degrees of each flavour but they will always fall under this umbrella. Unlike the West, in the East there are five seasons, and each of the flavours pertains to a season. Now each flavour carries with it an energetic direction and it is this understanding, that is crucial to understanding the effects of what we eat and how herbal medicine is effective. This opens up the possibility of then understanding the difference between food and medicine and how to turn food into medicine and visa versa. Here is a brief overview I will start with Bitter, the flavour of Winter, as that is the season we are currently in.

Bitter -. In the depth of winter there is stillness, unlike found in any of the other seasons. This is because the energy is deep within the earth or deep within ourselves. It is the energy associated with the Kidneys and the bones.(In Chinese medicine this is the Left Kidney). Bitterness is the coldest of the flavours. The bitter flavour or energetic is that which hardens and is deeply accumulating within the body, a sinking of the energy due to a lack of heat. The fluids and the energy sink and accumulate in the deepest part of the body, namely the kidney and the bones. “Bitterness is representative of total lack of heat and total darkness and inwardness”. It is all about the water storage, an inward holding of energy in the body.

Pungency – The energy or flavour of Spring is pungency and its energetic direction is to expand and push outwards. This is also the function of the liver (In Chinese Medicine) when in movement. The role of the liver is ensuring the distribution and expansion of its store of blood outwards towards the limbs in activity. The flavour of pungency and spice activates this in the body and brings about more movement of the energy from the inside-outwards. If one thinks of Spring and the new shoots growing out of the ground with real energy and purpose then this is pungency in nature

Salty – The energy associated with the peak of summer, when it is the hottest time of the year is saltiness. The energetic direction is upwards and outwards and it speeds up the processes of the body, especially the Heart. It “lowers the boiling point of the body fluids” and causes a stronger heart contraction, hence why this is avoided in all heart conditions. Whilst a small amount of salt seems to moisten, large amounts actually reduce the fluids in the body and sending them outwards to the surface as sweat. If you have ever tasted a Summer sweat, it is salty as this is leached out of the body in order to cool off.

Sweet – Sweetness is the flavour, in Chinese medicine that is associated with late Summer. This is the 5th season in Oriental medicine that is not considered in the West. In relation to the other flavours it is the mid-point between the coolness of the autumn and the heat of summer. In other words it contains both heating or energy and cooling fluids (Yin & Yang). The energetic direction or action of sweetness is to moisten and warm gently from within. It is the flavour associated with all types of food. “All food has a form of sweetness involved in its flavour or it would not be food”. This is fundamental in determining the difference between food and medicine.

Sour – The energy associated with Autumn is the sour flavour and is a contractive energy. It is “the sighing and letting go of the days of summer and a moving into the calm coolness of autumn”. It is the time of the year when the trees drop their leaves and fruit and when the energy starts to move inwards and in the direction of the roots. The energy is an accumulative effect on the fluids as they move inwards away from the surface. Just like a sponge drawing in fluid, the sour flavour has this direction within the body allowing us to hold onto fluids and accumulate more. It is therefore cooling in nature and energetic.