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Functions of the 5 Flavors

by Dr. Amber Hincks LAc

Food should tasteFunctions of the 5 Flavors, Amber Hincks Acupuncture in Beaverton, OR good, right? So why are so many medicines bitter? There are bitter flavor receptors throughout the whole body, and just like the other flavors, the bitter flavor has specific biochemical actions that we can benefit from. The 5 flavors are one of the most important concepts of Chinese Herbalism and food therapy. Here is a rundown of how each of the 5 flavors - spicy, sweet, bitter, sour, and salty - functions in your body.

Spicy (or Acrid): Metal Element, Lung and Large Intestine

The spicy flavor generally indicates that a substance contains more essential oils. These substances are aromatic and dispersing in nature. Essential oils tend to dilate surface blood vessels, causing sweating and changes to circulation in the skin and joints. Spicy substances also stimulate mucous secretion, so while a moderate amount is good for the Lungs and Large Intestine, too much spicy can contribute to pathology in these organs.

Examples: cinnamon, ginger, clove, cardamom, mint

Uses: stimulate circulation to treat pain, promote sweating to fight cold virus

Sweet: Earth Element, Spleen and Stomach

In nature, the sweet flavor comes primarily from carbohydrate constituents (sugars, starches, pectins) and proteins. The sweet taste is pleasing. These are nutrients we need for survival, and so it makes sense for us to desire the sweet flavor. But historically the sweet flavor was often more subtle, as with root vegetables. In Chinese medicine, sweet is generally considered to have a tonic quality, building Qi and Blood. Sweet is also calming, soothing (reduces irritation), and generates fluids.

Examples: sweet potato, astragalus, goji berries, walnuts, dates

Uses: Boost Qi and blood, build tissues, calming

Bitter: Fire Element, Heart and Small Intestine

The bitter flavor drains heat and cleanses in Chinese Medicine, this means it is used for treating inflammation. We don’t want to ingest too much bitter food for long period of time because it can leave us depleted. But the judicious use of bitter substances is important medicine. There are several golden yellow herbs in both Eastern and Western herbalism that contain the alkaloid Berberine, known for its bitterness - goldenseal, coptis, oregon grape, phellodendron to name a few. The bitter taste is associated with the heart in Chinese Medicine. The alkaloids and glycosides commonly found in bitter plants help explain this relationship, as the Chinese heart system corresponds mainly to the nervous system and circulatory system, the two systems mainly impacted by these constituents. Bitter herbs are also often antimicrobial so they are good for fighting infections and reducing mucus secretion.

Examples: dandelion, echinacea, nettle

Uses: detox, infection, inflammation, agitation

Sour: Wood Element, Liver and Gall Bladder

Sour is a flavor found primarily in fruits, though some minerals and roots, such as Peony root, are considered sour. Wine and vinegar both also have some sour property. Sour herbs are moistening and soothing, helping to relax contracted muscles and tendons. They may also have an astringent effect, preventing leakage of sweat or other body fluids. Overly flexible people may find that sour foods make the condition worse.

Examples: schisandra, hawthorn, rose, quince

Uses: relax muscles, stop spasm, stop sweating and discharge

Salty: Water Element, Kidney and Bladder

In herbal medicine any animal products are considered salty. Often these substances are deeply nourishing, such as horns, or bones, which are cooked down. Shells, seaweeds and some minerals are salty as well. Here the salty flavor helps soften areas of hardness, such as masses and swellings. In these cases, the salty flavor does not come from adding sodium chloride to foods. Indeed we know that too much of this salt can damage the kidneys and elevate blood pressure. But small amounts of salt are good for the kidneys.

Examples: kelp, oyster shell, deer antler

Uses: masses, tonics, not as often used therapeutically

Consider your body’s needs and whether you might need a bit more of a particular flavor. What flavors do you crave and what does that tell you?