Have you ever had a craving for something and stopped to think about why you might be craving it? In holistic medicine, our cravings are viewed as signals for a deeper need that our body has; nourishment, energy, grounding, etc. Many herbal traditions (Western, Ayurveda, and Chinese Medicine) recognize the five primary elements; ether, air, fire, water, and earth, and how these elements are at work in our body. The Five Element theory establishes relationships between the organs, flavors, and other factors such as seasons, emotions, and colors. Each has a therapeutic action, function, and an affinity to a particular organ system within the body.
These elements are the foundation of life and are the building blocks from which everything in the universe is constructed.
One area of focus within elemental herbalism is taste. Consistent with the five-element concept in its understanding of the body, there are six nameable tastes that help us recognize our foods and herbal medicines' healing properties.
The six tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, astringent, salty, and pungent
The flavor associated with pleasure, calmness, contentment, and nourishment. The sweet taste of herbs and food is traditionally associated with a tonic effect that builds and nourishes the nervous system. Many of us crave sweets and often turn to a nutritionally empty sugary treat to satisfy that craving. But in nature, sweetness comes from starchy and heavier plants with natural sugars and carbohydrates: grains, sweet vegetables like sweet potato and squash, and certain herbs like licorice or milky oats. These plants are naturally grounding and calming. You can find milky oats in our Simmer Down Tonic, a deeply nourishing nervous system adaptogen tonic, and licorice in our Immune Tonic made for daily immune support and balance.*
The sour taste is associated with the liver. It has a moistening, cleansing, and detoxifying effect. The acidity often found in sour flavors brings brightness to a dish and also our palate, waking it up. In nature, this flavor is found in acidic fruits like lemons, grapefruits, and limes, or fermented foods like pickles, yogurts, apple cider vinegar, and herbs like rose hips or berries. You can find the sour flavors in our Cider Vinegar Bitters, a favorite for liver and digestive support and gentle detox.*
The bitter flavor is essential to great health. As human beings, we evolved consuming a vast amount of wild plants rich in this flavor. With the birth of industrial agriculture, the bitter taste was stripped away in exchange for mostly pleasant flavors: sweet, salty, and processed food. But our bodies are built for bitters! They can have an unpleasant taste that can make you scrunch up your face (the bitter face!), but this is where the magic happens; this taste engages and excites the digestive system keeping it healthy and strong. Ask any herbalists, and they will tell you that the root of good health is great digestion.
Bitter fruits, vegetables, and herbs stimulate digestion.* Bitter flavors can be found in plants like arugula, radicchio, kale, chicory, and herbs like dandelion, burdock, artichoke, hops, and chamomile.
Once this flavor becomes a regular part of your routine it isn't so unpleasant anymore, and you begin to notice how our bodies were built to utilize this flavor. You can easily bring the bitter flavor back into your daily routine with our entire line of digestive bitters--there's one for everyone.
Pungent foods are stimulating to the body. They contain warmth and can make you sweat and tear up. They can ignite the palate as they stimulate digestion and support circulation.* The spicy, pungent taste is often immune-boosting, and spicy foods and herbs are used in Chinese Medicine (TCM) to support immunity. Spice's most profound action is bringing warmth to any formula, dish, or beverage. It provides initial spice that lingers on the lips but then spreads heat throughout our body. In TCM, it is believed that our vital Qi or life force determines our overall health. This energy flows in our blood, and so we need the circulatory system to be alive and well to provide warmth and nourishment to the rest of our body.* These allies come in handy for weaker constitutions or during times that we feel chilled and need supportive therapies that drive out the chill. In nature, heat and spice can be found in hot peppers, ginger, garlic, horseradish, chili, radish, and wasabi. A favorite traditional blend of warm and pungent herbs is ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne. They complement each other equally in a way that brightens and warms a dish or herbal formula. Ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne can be found in our Immune Zoom formula.
Associated with the water element, salt is essential to life. In TCM, salty flavors dissolve stagnation in the body, relax and calm the nerves and tissues, and encourage the elimination of waste from the body. Salt is used by the kidneys first. The kidneys are considered one of the essential organs in TCM. They store the body's vital essence (Qi), and determine our unique constitution. The salty taste is pleasant on the palate and brings out the flavors of all foods. Saltiness in nature is found in mineral-rich plants like spinach and nettles, meats and sea vegetables, or brined foods.
Astringents are cooling and drying and often difficult to get used to upon first taste. Correlated with the presence of tannins, astringent flavor support tone and dryness within the body tissues. If you feel slow and sluggish, or a body system feels stagnant, astringents can be helpful. This flavor is found in fruits like cranberry, apples, pomegranates, and herbs like rose petals, raspberry leaf, and black tea. You can find rose petals in our Joy Tonic formula which supports a release from occasional stress.*
If this area of taste and elemental herbalism is of interest to you, we encourage you to take a deeper dive. Take note of your cravings and play around with how to engage your pallet to balance all the healing flavors. This balance supports optimal health and can be an integral part of your wellness routine.
On a deeper level, our unique constitution responds well to certain elemental therapies. We encourage you to learn about your constitution and which herbs and foods might be best for you. The ladies at the Kosmic Kitchen are a great resource and go into this at length in their new cookbook.
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