food is medicine
Health & Wellness

Food as Medicine

Yesterday I listened to a webinar by Andrew Sterman about using food as medicine to support the immune system. Using foods for health and healing is a full branch of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Ideally you would consult with your Doctor of TCM to determine if there were any patterns of disharmony in your body and adjust your diet according to those findings. With the current health crisis all non-emergency health professionals have been forced to close their clinics so getting a full understanding of your body’s patterns of disharmony is difficult at this time.

A little about COVID-19

The current COVID-19 virus tends to cause a wide variety of patterns when infecting people. Some people end up being symptom-free carriers, while others end up in hospital on respirators. In some people it has caused digestive symptoms. The most common symptoms are related to the Lungs. In TCM terms the corona virus is considered “sticky” and targets the Lungs.

It has also been found that many of the people with severe reactions to COVID-19 have underlying health conditions. With this in mind it makes sense to try to maintain your health as best you can to keep your immune system functioning well.

Working from the premise that COVID-19 is a “sticky” pathogen, it would make sense to ensure that your body is not already “sticky”. The first line of defense is to examine our diets and make sure we aren’t eating foods that create a sticky condition in the body.

Foods to Avoid:

  • sugar
  • dairy (especially cheese)
  • gluten
  • ice and cold foods
  • excess alcohol
  • excess hot spices

Unfortunately, when we look at the list it is all our favourite comfort foods. Who doesn’t love some chocolate, or ice cream or pizza or a glass of wine when stressed? In small amounts when we are healthy these foods are fine. But, they are hard to digest and create a condition of dampness & phlegm in the body (that “stickiness” mentioned above).

What to eat

Mr. Sterman’s strongest piece of advice was to eat foods that are easily digested. When the body can digest foods quickly and efficiently we are able to make use of the nutrients and not deal with food stagnation. So, how to determine if the foods are easily digested? If you eat your morning meal and still feel full mid-afternoon then the meal is too complicated. Or, if you eat dinner at 7pm and don’t wake up with an empty belly and feelings of hunger then the meal was too difficult to digest.

Foods that are easily digested include soups and stews and simple cooked meals. Vegetables should be steamed or cooked not raw.

  • green vegetables (cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, kale, green beans, zucchini, celery, etc.)
  • root vegetables (radish, daikon, sweet potato)
  • moderate spicing (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, etc.)
  • grains (millet, rice, barley, etc.)

Using food as medicine can continue beyond just the prevention stage. If you do find yourself coming down with something, such as a cold or flu, eat foods that will support the body’s natural defense mechanisms.

Stage 1: Sweat it out

When the body is attacked by an external pathogen (such as a virus), the first line of defense is to try to sweat it out. Often the body does this without us even noticing any symptoms. If you are feeling those first indications of a cold or flu (neck ache, headache, chills or mild fever, sneezing….) then eat foods that support the body’s function of “sweating it out”.

  • drink water
  • eat a “wet” breakfast – porridge or congee (recipe here)
  • eat soups such as chicken & rice, miso, beef & barley, vegetable & barley, mushroom or corn chowder
  • avoid dehydrating foods like coffee/tea, garlic, hot peppers, carbonated beverages, alcohol
  • infusion: fresh ginger slices, lemon peel & cinnamon in hot water
Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Stage 2: Descend & eliminate

When sweating it out doesn’t work the body turns to other methods of elimination. It tries to descend and expel via the bladder and intestines. At this time it is important that there are no obstructions to getting rid of waste. It is also important not to be constipated. Foods need to be simple and moistening.

  • drink plain water first thing in morning to irrigate the intestines
  • oats & grains (barley, rye, buckwheat) – back to the porridge
  • green & root vegetables
  • mushrooms, seaweeds
  • fruits with peel (apples & Asian pears are best)
  • nuts and seeds (almonds, pine nuts, chia seeds, flax seeds)
  • continue to avoid sugar, dairy & gluten

Stage 3: Aromatics to move

Sometimes elimination of the pathogen is unsuccessful. Then it gets into the tissues and lingers. Think of that nagging cough that lasts long after the cold is gone. When the pathogen is stuck the TCM principle of using aromatic foods/herbs to get things moving can help the body shake things off.

  • aromatic herbs: chives, mint, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, citrus peel
  • bitter foods: endive, radicchio, olives, watercress, broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, bean sprouts
  • infusion: cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorn & lemon in hot water

I hope you’ve found this brief overview of using food as medicine helpful. If you have any questions about how to use this information please drop me an email: or give me a call.


Andrew Sterman:

Healing with Whole Foods” by Paul Pitchford

Chinese Medicine Living: