TCM: Nutrition and Herbal Medicine

Continuing our exploration of the branches of Traditional Chinese Medicine, today let’s take a look at nutrition and herbal medicine. These two branches have many things in common, so for the sake of simplicity we’ll discuss them together.


Most Westerners are used to thinking in terms of calories and nutrients. Like the rest of TCM, the approach to nutrition is more holistic than the Western approach. Nutritional guidelines include aesthetics and presentation, references to season and geographic location, and encourage eating foods of a variety of colors because the visual stimulation affects the energy of internal organs. TCM nutrition is not “one size fits all” as many Western nutrition recommendations or research results are presented. Instead, the 5 Elements and the concept of Yin and Yang are used to create personalized recommendations for an individual based on their constitution and current health needs.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is taken internally, and is more potent than food. There are a couple different approaches to integrating herbs into your life. One is to include local or regional herbs in your diet. For example, dandelion can be a salad green or made into a tea. It supports the liver and helps with detoxification. For more specific effects, practitioners will customize a Chinese herbal formula, taking into account your constitution and your signs and symptoms. It’s also important to know the nature of the herb, whether it’s cooling, warming, drying, or moistening (more on this characterization later in this series).

These Branches Work Together

Nutrition and herbal medicine act internally to help balance qi. For example, if you have issues with digestion, there may be an imbalance in your system such as a low level of digestive enzymes. Enzymes can be boosted with both food and nutritional supplements. Chewing your food well also helps, because digestion begins in the mouth. Cravings are a sign of imbalance and could indicate an organ system stress or a lack of an enzyme.

Nutrition and herbal medicine work together: nutrition sets the stage for the body to get the most out of any herbs you take. It's important to note that taking Chinese herbs is different from popping a pill. Herbs help to support the body's natural functions to balance qi and help the body heal itself.

Chinese nutrition and herbal medicine guidelines recognize the uniqueness of each person, so another important thing to realize is that finding out what works for you will probably require experimentation. Remember the tangled knot from the introduction? This is another opportunity for patient and practitioner to work together and figure out what the patient's body, mind, and spirit need to be healthy and vibrant.

If you want to explore the role of nutrition in healing and maintaining your health, let's talk!